Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris by Meera Nanda
I'll be very interested in what forum members here have to say about this one.
Having found TEoF sections on mysticism and spirtuality both disappointing and unfathonable, I congratulate Meera Nanda on cutting through the fog to the heart of the matter.
I have always thought that Sam is way off base by advocating spirituality as an alternative to faith.
IMHO, both are irrational mumbo jumbo.
First, may I say, I too was made uncomfortable by Harris’s comments about consciousness being something independent of the brain, that we ‘don’t know what happens after death’, etc. It seems to me, that while it may technically be true that we do not fully understand the process of consciousness or know with certainty that there is no life-after-death, the concepts of ‘soul’ or ‘afterlife’ should not be on the table until there is evidence for them.
But, that said, I must say that in general I disagree with this author’s review.
On that note, I’d like to make a correction that I think is relevant to the subject. Conservative Atheist’s tagline is “If you are young and not a liberal, you don’t have a heart…….if you are old and not a conservative, you don’t have a brain.” I notice there is no one quoted there, so I assume this is something CA himself has heard and adopted.
But I believe the statement is both a misquote and misguided. The version I heard, and agree with, is “If you are young and not a RADICAL, you don’t have a heart…….if you are old and still a RADICAL, you don’t have a brain.” CA’s quote seems to say that we should naturally ‘mature’ from one dogma to another, when in fact one should approach each issue with an open mind… sometimes the best solution will be conservative, sometimes liberal.
(To quote Chris Rock, “Crime, I’m conservative; prostitution, I’m liberal.”)
Replacing one dogma for another—frying pan to fire—is what the reviewer has accused Harris of. But I think she has missed the entire point. I myself have never tried meditation, and I get the strong impression that she hasn’t either. (I also get the impression that she is bringing a lot more ‘baggage’ to the discussion than Harris is, given her Hindu upbringing.) But whether or not one agrees with Harris on the particulars of mysticism, the overall point in the context of his thesis remains—If I may paraphrase, It is possible to have a spiritual existence without believing in dogma.
Given Harris’s vehement scoff at New Age beliefs, I find it highly unlikely that he is quietly advocating them, as the reviewer suggests. Or that he is subtly advocating Buddhist or Hindu dogma while dissing Judeo-Christian dogma. Or that he thinks that religion is the sole cause of conflict in the world.
Those of us who have heard him speak, know that he has equal disdain for Hindu and Buddhist dogma, and that he is fully aware that there are other sources of violence in the world. (That he does not make this more directly clear in the book for less discerning readers like the reviewer is indeed a sin of omission; but to read an advocation of dogma into what her mind sees as missing pages, in a book dedicated first and foremost to the end of dogma, is just foolish.)
This reviewer lost her credence with me very early on in the review with this supposed summary of Harris’s viewpoint: “The villains who are beyond the pale of reason and who deserve to die are all Muslims.” There is a semantic distinction to be made here—I assume she means that the people Harris wants dead just happen to be Muslim, not that he wants all Muslims dead... though it could be read either way, and if my critique were as sloppy and catty as hers, I might assume the worst.
But as Harris points out (and she omits from the quote), this is exactly what we are doing in Afghanistan right now—attacking people whose beliefs have made them impossible to reason with. As is the case with all the other “What abouts” in her argument—she seems to think she’s disproving Harris’s thesis, when all she does is strengthen it, by demonstrating the violence and divisiveness that results from dogma. (Which makes me wonder just how carefully she read and understood the book.)
Whether or not one agrees with Harris’s take on mysticism, I see none of the ‘system’ agenda that the reviewer seems to panic about, none of the metaphysical Hindu baggage that she has pencilled into the margins. I do not see an advocation of ‘near-death experience’ or ESP, but simply open-mindedness to possibilities about the unknown. Not a demand to believe without evidence. It seems to me, the main point is that we can have the spiritual benefits of religion without the dogma and supernaturalism.
How wrong am I?
Interesting article. I would agree with the premise. EOF did venture into some wishy washy areas. Still, I have to give Sam Harris a lot of credit. His book isn’t perfect but he gets high marks for trying. I haven’t read anything else that explains why we need to stop tolerating religious nonsense and move on to a better understanding of what we are doing on earth (no matter how trivial it might be). I value the points made in many of the critiques of EOF but part of me wants to tell some of Sam’s critics to go out and write the perfect book, then get it published. How many of them would step out onto the limb Mr. Harris has?
Welcome back CA = )
I think Cody got it right in his critique of Meera Nanda’s review of TEoF. Nanda seems to be bringing in all sorts of metaphysical dogma in spirituality that I did not see in Sam Harris’ text. She’s talking about some kind of soul existing after death in the form of an “altered mind experience” that one can achieve through meditation and other Eastern practices. It seems to me that Harris would reject all that as purely speculative at the least, but he certainly not agreee with some kind of weird metaphysical reality that actually exists (beyond the subjective/objective world? - or whatever she is getting at?)
“One cannot help wondering, why faith in God is not just such a method of ?tuning the brain differently? for those who believe in the personal God of the Bible and the Koran? Neurologically speaking, why is God a ?delusion,? if mysticism is ?astute??)” [quote from M.Nanda]
The problem to me came across as Nanda’s very incomplete knowledge of christianity and islam. She implies that the experience of “knowing a personal god” in christian theology can be equated with the “brahman soul” in some sort of direct comparison. I find that these concepts are entirely at odds. It was interesting how Nanda explained that this “desire” to experience the Brahman state (or some sort of universal one-ness) can lead to all sorts of dogmatic craziness like the caste system, social unrest and a misreading of science. I have always wondered why those precepts that I find pleasing and mind-expanding and beautiful in Buddhist thought/practise often lead to social and interpersonal policies that do not compare more favorably with those we have adopted in the West (justice, egalitarianism, freedom) - perhaps Nanda has given us something to think about.
I did appreciate Nanda’s account of how the Hindu cosmology can be the result of something like the spirituality that Sam Harris seems to advocate. But I am willing to give Harris a lot more credit than she does. Her agenda seems clear and she has realigned much of Harris’ thoughts inTEoF to comply with her criticisms. The problem , for me, stems from her very poor understanding of the world as preached in the texts and ideology of judaism/christianity/islam. I think Sam Harris has a much more comprehensive understanding of the madness and the violent direction of the Abrahamic faiths, but I think she has deliberately cornered Harris into a dogmatic evironment that he would fully reject with respect to spiritualism.
I think that ideally Sam Harris should respond to Nanda’s critique, so that the rest of us are not tempted to put “words into his mouth” in order to defend him against the words with which she has painted over his ideas on spirituality and meditation.
It’s easy to ride on the coat-tails of success, just ask Meera Nanda. Her book isn’t on the New York Times’ best-seller list so she’s pouting all the way to stardom with her articles attacking Harris. Divide and conquer, a great tool of the religious right to defeat reasonable people. Harris has a hard time explaining his experiences meditating, he is usually eloquent but he failed at this one point. No one is perfect, sucks to be Harris. Now get over not beating him in sales and join the offensive on the religious right instead of sabotaging the momentum from within.
Would you say what they are? I’m stuck on tracing everything to religion.
It seems to me, the main point is that we can have the spiritual benefits of religion without the dogma and supernaturalism.
Has anyone defined ‘spiritual’ yet to the point that everyone would agree with it? Once defined, what are the ‘spiritual benefits?’
I too believe very strongly that false belief (of which religion is only one permutation) is at the core of most human suffering.
But as Sam himself is the first to say, it is not the only cause. (No sense being dogmatic, even about dogma!) Limited resources, for one. I have a nasty feeling that people are going to be fighting and killing over land, money, oil, etc, for a long time—particularly when so much belongs to so few.
As for the question of spirituality, I think the lack of definition is one of Harris’s main points—we can’t agree, because dogma prevents us from studying the issue objectively.
Spiritual benefits… heavy topic; I won’t pretend to answer it here. But for starters, maybe we can think of it in terms of the “good” aspects of religion. The joy, unity, inner peace, emotional stability, empathy, transcendence, self-worth, redemption, etc (a BIG etc there)... all these are potential benefits of a healthy spiritual life.
But Harris’s point, I think, is that we can have all these without the hocus pocus and dogma. I couldn’t agree more.
Thanks, Cody. IMO, the only way we can have the goodies that you list, and a BIG etc., is to *go through* the poop that life throws at us; not try to escape it. Everything else is a bandaid.
Harris showed so much promise at first. I thought, finally, we have a spokesman willing to speak out openly against religion and in support of rationality. Then he dropped the spirituality bomb and I realized, here is just another weak and fearful person looking for something convenient and comforting to cling to. I don’t think I will ever understand what people are so afraid of…
[quote author=“azrielka”]Harris showed so much promise at first. I thought, finally, we have a spokesman willing to speak out openly against religion and in support of rationality. Then he dropped the spirituality bomb and I realized, here is just another weak and fearful person looking for something convenient and comforting to cling to. I don’t think I will ever understand what people are so afraid of…
Life on its own terms, IMO.
For the record, I think Cody’s pretty much got it nailed (though I think he may be a bit hard on Nanda, and I’m not so sure that what I agree is most likely her failure to read the text “cleanly” is due to a sin of omission on Sam’s part).
I found myself agreeing with Nanda’s comments, just thinking they don’t apply to TEoF. At the same time I can see how, as Cody said in so many words, a less rigorous reading can easily create the impression Nanda got. As a good skeptic, however, I do feel the need to go back over TEoF to double check my take on it (which is also why I posted the link to Nada’s review here).
So, thanks for your comments! Hopefully they’ll keep coming in—I’m still interested in what others have to say on this, particularly those who disagree (and can articulate their position effectively).
Hello X, thanks for the kudos. Yeah, I was pretty hard on the lady, and maybe I threw in the sin-of-omission line for that reason (in a ‘to be fair’ gesture.) Sam could have been more clear on that point; then again, he could’ve written those lines in his own blood to highlight them.
However, I think she had a little harsh response coming. She herself was harsh, for one. But mostly because, it seems to me, she is doing the very thing we here at the forum are trying to stop—using her intelligence to spread ignorance.
We’re seeing the same thing with our new arrival, Thomas. Smart guy. False beliefs. But he uses his intelligence to make his beliefs sound reasonable.
Once in junior high, we had a substitute teacher in algebra, who filled two board with equations that proved, he claimed, that 3=2. Seemed a little odd at first, but then again, he was the teacher, and why would he lie? And look at all those fancy equations! Boy is he smart, he must know what he’s talking about!
Thomas and Nanda are very good at sounding like they know what they’re talking about, when they don’t. Add this ‘fact’, subtract that one, distort this line, to build their ‘arguments’—all working backwards from a conclusion that is untrue to begin with.
Both throw around words like logic, reason, fact, etc, when it seems to me that they are coming from a very emotional (and irrational) place. Nanda seems to really be yelling at her Hindu upbringing (which is often very harsh for women), Thomas at whatever troubled past he has.
It reminds me of Juror #3 in TWELVE ANGRY MEN—the guy who passionately (and selectively) arranges the evidence to argue that the young defendant is guilty, because unconsciously he’s trying to punish his own son. He too claimed to be “just talking about facts.”
The moral of my little rant, my fellow freethinkers: When you see intelligence defending ignorance, get harsh.
I skimmed the article, and have a couple of quick comments.
First, Sam’s discussion of mysticism did make me a little uneasy when I read the book for the first time. Ultimately, though, nothing that he said set off major alarms.
Meera Nanda claims that Harris finds ESP, near death visions and disembodied souls to be plausible. I have no idea how he feels on those points, but based on my memory of his book (and I will read that chapter again, now) I did not get the impression that he was advocating any of those things.
I thought that he was claiming that meditation can result in altered states of mental being, and that those states are replicable according to instruction, and may be of use to people for a variety of reasons. At the end of the day, I can’t find too much fault with that.
Meera goes on to say that Harris focuses on the Koran/Islam. I came away from the book feeling that moderates were the target of his attack. Obviously the fundamentalists are the “bad guys”, but they are, in essence, a lost cause. The people that Sam argues can be reached are the moderates of all religious persuasions who don’t recognize that the various faiths, in extremist form, are all dangerous.
Just my .02.
Something interesting that I found in Nanda’s article is her assertion that Harris essentially romanticizes Eastern belief without criticizing the violence and mistreatment visited upon many people in the East despite the presence and supposed superiority (or less violent nature) of Eastern beliefs.
Harris singles out theological beliefs as the primary and pretty much the sole cause of religious violence. He indulgently turns a blind eye on the “spiritual” teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which have a proven track-record of justifying nationalistic wars and ethnic cleansings.
Are some religions or “spiritual” beliefs better than others as Harris seems to advocate? Do we rank religions and “spiritual” teachings based on their negative impact (or death toll) on a particular culture or society where they are practiced?
Would the world really be a better place without these beliefs? Or would people simply find other (and equally irrational) bases to justify violence throughout the world?