Letter to a Reluctant Atheist: What Sam Harris can learn from the mystics

At a recent conference of atheists in Washington, D.C., Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith (a 2004 best-seller) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2006), surprised his audience. He told the crowd of like-minded secularists that he did not speak of himself as an “atheist” and did not think anyone there should do so either. He gave several reasons. One was that self-proclaimed atheists marginalize themselves as a “cranky subculture.” “As a matter of strategy,” he said, “we have walked into a trap.”

Another reason Harris gave in his address to the Atheist Alliance International last October—the reason that interests me here—was that atheism “seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced...yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life.”


What Harris had in mind is deep meditation. Having made his “own modest efforts in this area,” he expressed admiration for the person who meditates “for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else.” Such a person discovers who he really is deep down, below the waterline of his thoughts; he discovers a “universe of mystery,” a place where “selfhood is relaxed” and “negative social emotions such as hatred, envy and spite” are replaced by emotions “such as love and compassion.”

Does this sound like any atheist you ever talked to? Words like these are indistinguishable from those of the most notable spiritual teachers of our time, from Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. What is going on?

Harris went on to say that most atheists pooh-pooh these transformative disciplines “because of their religious associations.” That, he said, is unfortunate; how much better it would be if atheists learned to separate these priceless experiences from the “Iron Age fairy tales” out of which they grow.

What Harris wants to salvage from religion is the timeless mystical spirituality that has had as its home no other place but religion. Can this be done?

It will not be easy for him. In his talk, Harris dismissed most religious claims as “bad science or bad philosophy.” He also claimed that “religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.” Yet look what it has produced. Caught in a love-hate relationship, Harris is like a collector who loves butterflies but has no use for the caterpillars they come from.

Why Not Construct a Better Theology?

There is a way out of this dilemma. Harris does not have to continue his association with atheism’s other bad boys of the moment: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. He does not have to ridicule the traditional theologies with all their ugly potholes. He could decide instead to construct a better theology, one that fits his idea of what God would have to be if Harris were to take the divine seriously.

Harris has kept company with contemplatives, men and women who know how to stop the whir of their own thoughts and tiptoe into an awareness that completely transcends their own puny egos. Paul Tillich called this the ground of being, and contemporary Buddhist writers, with whom Harris is in particular sympathy, use that phrase too. What does this ground of being feel like? Catholic mystics like Father Keating and Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., conceive of it as a joyous, compassionate, loving, powerful, boundless, light-filled reality that can be known intimately in the private sanctuary of their own mind. Leading American Buddhist teachers like Surya Das and Thubten Chodron would not disagree.

Faith of a Skeptic

Would Harris object to such a conception? Given his openness to the life of the deep mind (shall we call it the spirit?), I do not see why he should. It avoids the following pitfalls. It does not define God in a way that invites logical problems when we try to square God’s existence with evil, and it does not place God on the outskirts of Uranus far removed from the human heart. It does not insist on God’s being a person like us, a kind of overgrown superego, but it does not make God into some sort of impersonal energy either. However one defines God in the last analysis, the God we are looking at grows directly out of deep meditative experience. It reserves the first chair for the experiencer, not the system-builder. Harris, I believe, would approve.

So why does Sam Harris conclude in The End of Faith (W. W. Norton & Company) that “a rational approach to our deepest personal concerns...would also be the end of faith”? Why not say that it is the beginning of a better, more coherent faith—one that Harris challenges himself and you and me to construct? He understands and profoundly values the experience of the mystic. Why not embroider a theology around it? Instead of joining rank with secularists who have contempt for the life of spirit, why not become their spiritual teacher and help them develop a new vision? Instead of titling his book The End of Faith, why not The Faith of a Skeptic ?

Sam Harris, like all of us, is a work in progress. If he pays more attention to the hints of a transcendent reality to which deep meditation vibrates, it is possible that his reputation as the country’s most obstreperous debunker of religion will give way to something closer to that of the Hebrew prophets. Like them, he has every right to express outrage over the dangerous absurdities that blotch the world’s religions. We should be grateful to Harris for doing it so well. The danger for him, though, is that he could be blinded by his own contempt. Harris should know that any effort to bury faith-based religion under godless reason is futile.

Men and women, however learned and sophisticated, will insist on their gods. For most people life without them, and without the possibility of salvation that their gods bring, would be simply unbearable. For that reason as much as any other, faith in them will never become obsolete. What the world needs is not less faith, but better gods.

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10 years 11 months ago
What's unfortunate about Sam Harris is that he insists on letting religious fundamentalists define religion for him. He has referred to fundamentalist knowledge of the Bible as "unequaled" while accusing the moderates of "scriptural ignorance."
10 years 11 months ago
My problem is comprehension. Is there no discipline among Christian morals? How can Christian faiths have contradicting views, or lack of views, on the same issue? I.E. Torture deliberate killing and scarring of civilians, etc. I once believed that morals were the foundations of faith. That seems to have been replaced by power and money.
10 years 11 months ago
"Why not say that it is the beginning of a better, more coherent faith..." Because the whole point is that faith is unnecessary. Looking openly into your own mind and into the ground of being requires no faith... in fact, faith gets in the way in a serious way. How can you look openly when you're holding on to and trying to justify faith-claims (about the nature of God and the mind of God and the characteristics of God)?
10 years 11 months ago
The author posed the question, "Why not embroider a theology around it [Harris' experience]? My response is "Why embroider a theology around it? The experience is complete in and of itself and needs no embellishment. Tactics such as embellishment involve ego and ego-grasping, and that's just what Buddhist teaching urge practioners to reduce as much as possible. Another quote, "Men and women, however learned and sophisticated, will always insist upon their gods." what a perfect example of ego-grasping! Gods in our own images. Learning and sophistication and window dressing and not relevant to the mystical experience. Just let things be as they are: As Lama Surya Das often says, 'get out of the construction business, let be!" Thanks for your ear, Annie Baehr
10 years 11 months ago
Hurray for Stafford Betty’s article on Sam Harris. However, my concern is not so much with atheists. My concern is with so many theologians and churches who build huge and complicated theological edifices whose foundation tends to be other dogmatic statements rather than contemplative experience. I believe that the warning a Jesuit gave me years ago about mysticism is still held by too many. He claimed that if you explore mystical experience you will go into a dangerous mist and cut yourself off from true teaching and knowledge. Remember, he told me, that “mysticism” is composed of 2 words: mist and schism. Yes, it is good to encourage “reluctant atheists” to explore contemplative experiences. It is even more important to offer the same encouragement to “enthusiastic theologians” and “zealous protectors of the faith.”
10 years 11 months ago
It is very difficult to conceive of contemplative experience divorced from any theological construct. After all, among other things, human nature is rational. We do strive to find answers to our fundamental questions, to find meaning in and around us. The fact that there are conflicting theologies should not be either reason for distress or for capitulation. By the contrary, such diversity can be approached as a wonderful opportunity to think it through. Indeed, to experience anything at all without finding meaning, without an adequate understanding as to what it is that is experienced amounts to life in the animal kingdom.
10 years 9 months ago
"He also claimed that “religious faith is one of the most perverse misuses of intelligence we have ever devised.” Yet look what it has produced. Caught in a love-hate relationship, Harris is like a collector who loves butterflies but has no use for the caterpillars they come from." Sam Harris' claim was right, and religious faith did not produce deep meditation, as the author says. Religious faith has traditionally been embroiled and associated with deep meditation. They arose separately, and can be had separately. Religious faith is completely superfluous to the "ground of being", and is an obstacle to it (especially when coupled with religious doctrine). Another misconception is that Harris is in a love-hate relationship. He is not. He wants to divorce mysticism from the faith and religion that have smothered and hijacked it. He is highly critical of all religious faith. Also, the last paragraph is very condescending to humanity. People do not need gods or faith in the same way that they do not need to live with a belief in Santa Claus.
10 years 6 months ago
So deep introspecction and meditation is only possible if you are a believer?.Compassion,love,altruislm are all virtues of believers.People that do not believe in God cannot have a deep spiritual journey or they have to hate everyone or love their own ego and do not believe in compassion?.This is a farse and pure lies and manipulation of what Sam Harris said and believe.What a courage to compare Sam with the Hebrew prophets.Let me remind you that "the concept of God was invented as a counter-concept of life- everything harmful,poisonous,slanderous,the whole hostility unto death against life sinthetized in this concept in a gruesome unity!".This are the memorable words of the monumental work of Nietzshe in "ECCE HOMO"by Antonio Cafoncelli MD.


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