Eyes to See: Sam Harris’ Godless Spirituality

Sam Harris is a well known atheist author who is professionally trained as a neuroscientist. His first book The End of Faith (2005) was published in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and marks the beginning of the New Atheist campaign which paved the road for a series of other godless diatribes by authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Harris’ most serious work to date is The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values that claimed to solve the pesky problem of explaining morality from a naturalistic perspective. His next couple of books were really just essays, one on free will in which he contends we do what our brains tell us to do and we cannot control our brains. In other words, free will is an illusion. His next published essay was on lying which commended always telling the truth and avoiding what is often called “white lies.” If you think these three publications demonstrate an incoherent worldview then you should try reading his most recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014).

To give some summary of his aforementioned works: in The Moral Landscape (2011) Harris claims to provide a scientific foundation for morality, which in the end is more of a philosophical argument rather than an empirical one. In Free Will (2012) he makes it clear that we don’t ultimately make real decisions, which makes me wonder why an elusive scientific foundation for moral distinctions would matter much since we can’t really make moral choices. Then in Lying (2013) he commends an honest approach to life, but again, I thought we don’t have the ability to choose.

If you are following the logic, or seeming lack thereof, you might not be surprised to know that his most recent book Waking Up promotes thinkers to use eastern practices to transcend thought. 

The main thought Harris wants his readers to move beyond is the notion that we are true selves. As he states, “My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion — and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.” The processes for achieving this feat are to be found mainly in Buddhist methods of solitude and meditation.

As James Sire points out in his classic worldview text The Universe Next Door, many Americans are attracted to eastern religions in an attempt to transcend a nihilistic conclusion to a world devoid of deity. That’s why it’s not surprising that Harris is drawn to Buddhism, a worldview free of the concept of  a personal God. And he encourages readers to use eastern meditation as a means of transcending the idea that we are truly personal, “Once one recognizes the selflessness of consciousness, the practice of meditation becomes just a means of getting more familiar with it.”

Like his earlier works, he takes a fair share of pot shots at religion in general, monotheism in particular. What you will find in this new book is yet another example of Harris attempting to make sense of these fragmented ideas of morality, personhood, and free will from a framework that is simply incapable of offering a coherent explanation. In the end nihilism seems inescapable, and what is lost, if atheism is true, is the very foundation of what it means to be human. The death of God leads to the inevitable death of man.

For the Christian, however, realities like morality and free will, personhood and significance, fit hand in glove with the understanding that we are created in the Image of God. But for a book like the one offered by Sam Harris claiming to help us wake up to spirituality, it seems to be sleeping on the job. The human experience is pointing the opposite direction. Spiritual fulfillment will not be found in losing ourselves in meditation — but in awaking to the reality that there is an immaterial part of the human personality created to know the Creator.

Harris, Sam (2014-09-09). Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. (First quote from Kindle location 1122-1124 and second quote from Kindle location 2692).