Can a hard-charging atheist become a spiritual figure?
That question may be imminent in the case of celeb-author Sam Harris, whose recent books attacking religion became bestsellers and fueled a deeper new look at secular ethics. The post-Sept. 11 revival has been dubbed the “New Atheism.”
But a decade after his best-known book – “The End of Faith” – the uber-skeptic this month comes out with a new one that is rocking his many fans and his many critics. “Waking Up,” whose cover is emblazoned with a dreamy-looking (heavenly?) sky of puffy clouds, makes Harris’ case for a secular “spirituality” built around meditative practices he believes makes people happier and more ethical.
Seeing their atheist leader crank out a whole book about his “spirituality” has set off some non-theistic allies who feel such language is a slippery slope to the supernatural while some say he’s selling religion short by stealing its ideas. But some non-theists are loving the new side of Harris, even seeing something of a spiritual guide in a writer usually known as a professional contrarian.
I interviewed Harris this week before 700 people at an event sponsored by the secular advocacy group Center for Inquiry, and a good number of hands shot up when he asked who in the crowd had meditated. They happily complied as he instructed them to close their eyes, and then led them in a brief meditation. Multiple audience questions were posed as if to a spiritual mentor, including one about anger: “I am hoping your book will teach me patience,” read one. Another asked how to plan a spiritual expedition to the East: “Where should I go and with whom? What age would be best?”
I asked Harris at the event how he feels about the concept that some might see him as a spiritual figure.
“I hadn’t really thought about that. I guess I’ve sort of stumbled into that possibility. I don’t think of myself as a figure at all. Occasionally I come out on stage but I don’t think of myself as an atheist figure. I’m writing books, I’m having conversations in a more or less public context. But I’m certainly not inclined to set myself up as a classic spiritual teacher. I am teaching meditation to some degree by the act of discussing it. But..I’m not operating in that mode.”
While a tiny percentage of Americans pick for themselves the label of atheist, doubt and religion-shopping are more prevalent perhaps than ever. The question is: Can this Ben Stiller-lookalike with degrees in philosophy and neuroscience be a successful salesman for secular spirituality? Seven percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious” – a much bigger group than Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians and other faiths. Will atheists be open to such language? Will religious people embrace someone who calls religion a “dunghill”? Influential blogger and Catholic Andrew Sullivan Thursday named “Waking Up” his book of the month, saying it is “a place where the atheist, the spiritual and the religious can meet and argue.”
And is it inherently challenging to focus on spiritual guidance from someone who writes as much political policy as on human consciousness? Harris marked the anniversary of Sept. 11 Thursday with a post arguing that overcoming ISIL means a confrontation with Islam. “A hatred of infidels is arguably the central message of the Koran,” he wrote.
One aspect of the book likely to prompt discussion is Harris’ comparison between meditation and drugs. Since the book focuses on non-religious ways to transform consciousness, it leads inevitably to psychedelics. Harris opens with an anecdote about how experimenting as a young man with the drug ecstasy allowed him to see himself in a different perspective and says later that “some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence.” He closes the book by urging meditation as a much safer route, but noted the new research being done with psychedelics.
I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists — and many of those who buy his books — are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative.
It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.
“I think it may have to do with my person slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people..People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree instrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this – it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”