New Article by Sam Harris - Spiritualism Does Not Equate to Religious Experiences

In a new article by one of the Four Horseman, Sam Harris gives us his brief but very clear view of the misconception that arises between using the term spiritualism and equating it with religion. The nuts and bolts of the article are summarized here:

 

And I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that terms like "spiritual" and "mystical" are often used to make claims, not merely about the quality of certain experiences, but about the nature of the cosmos. The fact that one can lose one's sense of self in an ocean of tranquility does not mean that one's consciousness is immaterial or that it presided over the birth of the universe.

 

There are a lot of discussions here about these terms and I thought sharing this excellent article would be a good way to add to the discussion. The full article is as follows.

 

 

On Spiritual Truths

by Sam Harris.

One day, you will find yourself outside this world which is like a mother's womb. You will leave this earth to enter, while you are yet in the body, a vast expanse, and know that the words, "God's earth is vast," name this region from which the saints have come.

--Jalal-ud-Din Rumi


Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of "spirituality" or "mysticism" to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem -- because millions of people have had experiences for which "spiritual" and "mystical" seem the only terms available.

Of course, many of the beliefs people form on the basis of these experiences are false. But the fact that most atheists will view a statement like Rumi's, above, as a sign of the man's gullibility or derangement, places a kernel of truth amid the rantings of even our most gullible and deranged opponents.

Consider Sayed Qutb, Osama bin Laden's favorite philosopher. Qutb spent most of 1949 in Greeley, Colorado, and found, to his horror and satisfaction, that his American hosts were squandering their lives on gossip, trivial entertainments, and lawn maintenance. From this Dark Night of Suburbia, he concluded that western civilization was so spiritually barren that it must be destroyed.

As is often the case with religious conservatives, whatever ignorance and "death denial" didn't explain about Qutb, sexual frustration did:

    The American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs--and she shows all this and does not hide it.


    (Sayyid Qutb, The America I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values, 1951)


These are not words of a man who has discerned the limits of romantic attachment. Being terrified of women, and yet as concupiscent as bonobo, Qutb is widely believed to have died a virgin. We can feel his pain. Needless to say, his puritanical attachment to Islam allowed him to make a virtue of necessity: What a relief it must have been to know that the Creator of the universe intended these terrifying creatures to live as slaves to men.

But Qutb was not wrong about everything. There is something degraded and degrading about many of our habits of attention. Perhaps I should just speak for myself on this point: It seems to me that I spend much of my waking life in a neurotic trance. My experiences in meditation suggest that there is an alternative to this, however. It is possible to stand free of the juggernaut of self, if only for a moment.

But the fact that human consciousness allows for remarkable experiences does not make the worldview of Sayed Qutb, or of Islam, or of revealed religion generally, any less divisive or ridiculous. The intellectual and moral stains of the world's religions -- the misogyny, otherworldliness, narcissism, and illogic -- are so ugly and indelible as to render all religious language suspect. And I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that terms like "spiritual" and "mystical" are often used to make claims, not merely about the quality of certain experiences, but about the nature of the cosmos. The fact that one can lose one's sense of self in an ocean of tranquility does not mean that one's consciousness is immaterial or that it presided over the birth of the universe. This is the spurious linkage between contemplative experience and metaphysics that pseudo-scientists like Deepak Chopra find irresistible.

But, as I argue in The Moral Landscape, a maturing science of the mind should help us to understand and access the heights of human well-being. To do this, however, we must first acknowledge that these heights exist.

 

 

 

 

Views: 50

Comment by Apple on June 17, 2011 at 9:18am

This is exactly why Sam Harris is my favorite philosopher / scientist.  He speaks honestly about these topics that atheists tend to shy away from.  Even so-called "free thinkers" are still subject to herd mentality in the knee jerk rejection of all things "spiritual" simply because the word so often (but not necessarily) implies baseless claims about gods and / or the nature of the universe. 

 

Sam Harris once said that we need to find a way to experience happiness without it constantly revolving around getting to the "next good thing."  (Waiting for the weekend, a vacation, the arrival of a new PC / toy, etc)

Comment by Robert Karp on June 17, 2011 at 9:33am
He also speaks/writes in a way that is easy to follow which us lower life forms really appreciate.
Comment by Bob Zane on June 17, 2011 at 1:37pm
I enjoyed the post. I'm big fan of Mr Harris
Comment by Philip Jarrett on June 17, 2011 at 9:40pm

"Many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of "spirituality" or "mysticism" to be synonymous with mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception. I have argued elsewhere that this is a problem -- because millions of people have had experiences for which "spiritual" and "mystical" seem the only terms available"

The problem is we don't have terms other than those weighted with emotional import.  We need new terms for these experiences that are objective rather than subjective. Once we have objective terms with distinct meanings and gradation of meaning as appropriate, then we can study and talk about these events without sounding like a bunch of fools.

I've made this proposal before, but I don't know if it was on this site or not. My source is:

Title  Life after death : a history of the afterlife in the religions of the West
Author  Segal, Alan F., 1945-

Publisher:  Doubleday,

Pub date: 2004.

ISBN: 0385422997

Segal had the same problem with refering to visionary experiences.  He wanted to get away from all terminology such as vision, spiritual...even dream.  He used two terms:

Religiously Attributed Altered States of Consciouness for those events that happen in our life and come to have religious/spiritual meaning upon reflection...and, of course, the influence of your culture and the expectations of your tribe.

Religious Inspired Altered States of Consciousness for those experiences we actively seek though various means.  Fasting, meditating, whirling around and around, using natural hallucinogens and, my personal favorite, sitting with your head between your knees..or up your ass, if you prefer.

An Altered State of Consciouness is just that.  We are no longer receiving accurate input from our senses and our minds have been placed in such a state that we accept inaccurate information of our surroundings as if it were real.

This break from reality is found naturally in schizophrenia so that would be a logical place to study these phenomena. What we have in the more common meaning of spirituality is  a healthy, undiseased mind that choses to accept inaccurate information of their surroundings as not only real but a 'higher state of consciousness' rather than simply an altered state.  Being born schizophrenic is a horrible thing.  My son is in his early thirties now and has struggled against schizophrenia and substance abuse problems all his life.

The only possible thing worse than the tragedy of schizophrenia is when a health mind chooses to become schizophrenic.

I spent the worst years of my life as a Charismatic Christian.  The abuse I suffered and the things I did to those I love still cause me to wake up screaming in anger at night.  How it started was simple enough...and this goes to the other part of Harris' argument "because millions of people have had experiences for which "spiritual" and "mystical" seem the only terms available"

Millions of people once died from smallpox.  The size of the population with the condition does not argue for or against whether the condition is beneficial or harmful.  Not to mention Harris' is engaging in anectdotal evidence and should no better.

There is a reason Charismatic Experience always starts with Speaking In Tongues.  It's a learned ability that can be taught to anyone in less than an hour without relating it to God or any form of spirituality. I was taught that I should open my mouth and talk baby talk at first then the Holy Spirit, once I got my mouth moving, would take over.  What they don't tell you is that if you are an honest man and pray and sit and wait for the Holy Spirit to start things off like they all claim happens you will never, absolutely never Speak In Tongues.  You have to really, really want to be a chicken to start gobbling.

What people who haven't been through the experience don't understand is that everyone is faking it.  There are millions of Charismatics in this world and every single one of them is faking it. How do I know?  I've been there, I've done it.  I can still do it, but it triggers my PTSD so I don't do it often. 

What's my point?  Obviously, Harris isn't talking about glossolalia, he's just talking about 'spirituality' and 'mysticism'. 

The people who come to a Pentecostal/Charismatic meeting for the first time are already Christians.  They have a deep commitment to their faith and they are search for a way to make that commitment even deeper.  They believe intensely.  They try their best and nothing happens.  Then they're given an out...talk like a baby.  So they do, and they keep doing it, but part of their mind still knows they are faking it.  The stress created by this division in their minds is enormous.  So they build a Wall between their rational mind that has it's doubts and the Holy Spirit who has, even though they are faking speaking in tongues, has taken up resident in their mind like God was some petty demon who had to possess people.

So they take Speaking In Tongues and throw it over the wall where thier rational mind can't be bothered by it.

They impose schizophrenia consciously on their own minds.  I know, there's a better word for it.  Schizophrenia is illustrative of the condition, not descriptive.  But it's a very real condition.

After speaking in tongues the rest is easy.  Prophecy?  Over the wall.  Healing?  Over the wall.  Demonic Possession?  Over the wall.

Outsiders don't know how they can believe all the outlandish things they do.  I know how and it really is easy.  All you have to do is make that first, tiny innocent little break with reality and the rest is downhill.

"mental illness, conscious fraud, or self-deception"?

I've done everything and I've been around people who were doing these things as well. Meditiation, lucid dreaming, OBEs, Glossolalia, Healing by the Laying On of Hands, spellcasting, exorcism.  I'm Sixty years old and I've learned everything I know the hard way.

I have seen nothing that could not be described as either mental illness, conscious fraud or self deception.

We live in a madhouse.  Movies and television abound with instances of the miraculous or the spiritual.  Special effects are so realistic they cannot be distinguished from the live action portions.  This constant barrage of supernatural images has an effect on our minds after a while.  Sooner or later, your ability to distinguish between what is real and possible becomes off kilter.

Spirituality is like methadone treatment for a herion addict.  It might help for a while, but sooner or later you have to go cold turkey.

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