The Problem with AtheismAlong with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris is considered one of the “Four Horseman” of New Age Atheism. He has a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

He is also a practicing Buddhist.

While avoiding the direct criticisms of atheism that I’ve laid out in my last post, namely that atheists continually confuse knowledge with belief, and belief with knowledge, in a way that renders their position completely untenable, Sam Harris has a very good article that defends religious and mystical experience and promotes intellectual honesty among atheists.

An atheist who criticizes atheism. Imagine that.

In his article, he says:

…”And yet, for thousands of years, [religious and spiritual] contemplatives have claimed to find extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while spending vast stretches of time in total isolation. It seems to me that, as rational people, whether we call ourselves “atheists” or not, we have a choice to make in how we view this whole enterprise. Either the contemplative literature is a mere catalogue of religious delusion, deliberate fraud, and psychopathology, or people have been having interesting and even normative experiences under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.

“Now let me just assert, on the basis of my own study and experience, that there is no question in my mind that people have improved their emotional lives, and their self-understanding, and their ethical intuitions, and have even had important insights about the nature of subjectivity itself through a variety of traditional practices like meditation.

“Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

“Most us think that if a person is walking down the street talking to himself—that is, not able to censor himself in front of other people—he’s probably mentally ill. But if we talk to ourselves all day long silently—thinking, thinking, thinking, rehearsing prior conversations, thinking about what we said, what we didn’t say, what we should have said, jabbering on to ourselves about what we hope is going to happen, what just happened, what almost happened, what should have happened, what may yet happen—but we just know enough to just keep this conversation private, this is perfectly normal. This is perfectly compatible with sanity. Well, this is not what the experience of millions of contemplatives suggests.

“Of course, I am by no means denying the importance of thinking. There is no question that linguistic thought is indispensable for us. It is, in large part, what makes us human. It is the fabric of almost all culture and every social relationship. Needless to say, it is the basis of all science. And it is surely responsible for much rudimentary cognition—for integrating beliefs, planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other mental capacities. Even talking to oneself out loud may occasionally serve a useful function.

“From the point of view of our contemplative traditions, however—to boil them all down to a cartoon version, that ignores the rather esoteric disputes among them—our habitual identification with discursive thought, our failure moment to moment to recognize thoughts as thoughts, is a primary source of human suffering. And when a person breaks this spell, an extraordinary kind of relief is available.

“But the problem with a contemplative claim of this sort is that you can’t borrow someone else’s contemplative tools to test it. The problem is that to test such a claim—indeed, to even appreciate how distracted we tend to be in the first place, we have to build our own contemplative tools. Imagine where astronomy would be if everyone had to build his own telescope before he could even begin to see if astronomy was a legitimate enterprise. It wouldn’t make the sky any less worthy of investigation, but it would make it immensely more difficult for us to establish astronomy as a science.

“To judge the empirical claims of contemplatives, you have to build your own telescope. Judging their metaphysical claims is another matter: many of these can be dismissed as bad science or bad philosophy by merely thinking about them. But to judge whether certain experiences are possible—and if possible, desirable—we have to be able to use our attention in the requisite ways. We have to be able to break our identification with discursive thought, if only for a few moments. This can take a tremendous amount of work. And it is not work that our culture knows much about.

“One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc.

“As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness.

“So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.”…

Yes, Sam, it can. And it does.

In my experience, most atheists that I know, or with whose ideas I am familiar, tend to use their position as atheists as something Hubbard called a “service facsimile” – a way to make themselves right and others’ wrong, and a way to dominate others and to escape domination. Most atheists that I know are extremely ignorant of the varied and different religions around the world, and usually become an atheist out of an adolescent rebellion to protest the abuses of the early Catholic Church, or some other religious or spiritual abuse that they have suffered, or seen others suffer.

Atheism can be a seductive worldview to adopt after Scientology, believing that after you’ve experienced Scientology, you’ve experienced all religions. And they’re all just as bad and abusive as you have re-interpreted Scientology to be as an Ex/Anti Scientologist. (Not the view you had of Scn while you were a Scientologist, however. You’ve completely forgotten or dismissed all the good you had in those experiences of Scientology since leaving.)

I find that most atheism is more of an unthinking reaction than it is a thoughtful philosophical position. And when Atheism’s love of reason and science finally does influence an atheist to critically examine his underlying rationale for being one, the atheist is faced with the same cognitive dissonance that a Scientologist is faced with when the “wins” don’t hold up any more.

Then the atheist is left with a choice: keep holding on to a philosophically contradictory position, or grow up and put the religious and spiritual suffering and injustices that you used to rail against into a wider perspective. Keep walling off the important existential questions that religions ask and answer for people, or begin to come down off your scientific high horse and realize that science and religion have never been in competition.

And that no human being fully understands the truth of his own existence.

In this way, the religious and philosophical position of “I don’t know” finally becomes tolerable. And you finally realize that the hard won philosophical wisdom of “I don’t know” is the most sophisticated religion Mankind has ever created.

If we all had a little more “I Don’t Know” in the world, things would be much better.

Don’t you think?


Sam Harris has a great podcast. And he also has a great list of books to read at his website.