Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation,The Moral Landscape, Free Will, and Lying. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. He is also a cofounder and the CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He was kind enough to join us for an interview.
RDF: You were raised in a secular home, so unlike many famous atheists, you
didn’t convert. But everyone grows up with strange beliefs, such as “I’m
totally pulling off this beret” or “pizza is diet food, right?”. Do you have
a story about a belief you abandoned but which now helps you empathize
with religious people and their fear of change?
Sam: No so much. But I fully empathize with their fear of losing an intellectual framework for their moral intuitions and peak experiences. This is one of the reasons I’ve been writing about moral truth (The Moral Landscape) and “spirituality” (Waking Up). It turns out that one can escape moral relativism, and even experience classically spiritual states of mind like unconditional love and self-transcendence, without harboring any silly beliefs.
RDF: What do you say to people who feel that without God, they would literally
not be able to live, that it would destroy them completely?
Sam: Well, I’m tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they won’t give it to themselves. I think most believers can be led to see that many of the good things they get from their faith—hope, community, moral conviction, and even spirituality—are actually deeper than any of the religious doctrines they’re attached to. For instance, it is absolutely clear that a Christian’s feelings of ecstasy, devotion, or awe are not best explained by the divinity of Jesus—because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and even atheists experience the same states of consciousness. There must be a deeper principle at work. Many of these experiences are valuable and worth having—but they must be understood as properties of the human mind, not as data in support of Iron Age metaphysics. This is the topic of my new book Waking Up and of the public lectures I will be giving in September [https://www.samharris.org/store/event_series/waking-up-with-sam-harris].
RDF: What strategy do you recommend to atheists: is it better to be brazen and
shocking, like Seth MacFarlane and Ricky Gervais? Or will tough love,
delivered patiently, change more minds in the end?
Sam: We need both approaches. There’s no substitute for a good laugh, and there’s no substitute for a good argument.
RDF: It took a decade for two United Nations panels to recently call for the
Vatican to allow independent authorities to investigate priest abuse. Many
Catholics have found a way to forgive or to look past it. Bill Maher
says he “loves” the new Pope, even though church doctrine has remained the
same. What’s the psychology behind forgiving churches so easily?
Sam: I doubt that Maher’s comment about the Pope was meant to suggest that his view of the Church had shifted. But you are right to say that the Church is given an unconscionable degree of ethical latitude by many secularists. Just imagine what the response would have been if a secular institution—Stanford University, say—had sheltered an army of pedophile rapists for decades and allowed them to victimize tens of thousands of children. The institution would be destroyed and everyone responsible for these crimes would be in prison. Compare that to how the Vatican has been treated. The disparity is shocking, and it’s just another manifestation of the taboo against holding religion accountable for all the ways it undermines basic human sanity.
RDF: Many of us hesitate when someone recommends meditation as you do in Waking Up, your forthcoming book.. It sounds New Age and boring, something that is less interesting than watching reality t.v. Is meditation just a hobby or can it really be transformative? What else can readers expect to learn in the book?
Sam: Meditation can be genuinely transformative. It can also be a means of directly perceiving truths about the human mind that are not at all obvious—but which we know to be true scientifically. For instance, we know that there is no separate self or ego living inside our heads. And yet most people feel that there is one and that its name is “I.” They may know conceptually that they are identical to their whole body, including the brain, but they feel that they are an inner subject—a thinker of the their thoughts, an experiencer of their experience—riding around inside a body as though it were a kind of vehicle.
Meditation can free you from this illusion. The psychological benefits are immense—and increasingly well-documented scientifically. The intellectual benefits are also enormous, because cutting through the illusion of the self brings your experience into closer alignment with how things really are. Many philosophical pseudo-problems—for instance, the entire topic of free will—result from a failure to notice what human consciousness is actually like. So, in Waking Up, I do my best to inspire skeptical readers to take a closer look at the nature of their own minds.
R Is it possible for someone to have the experience you are talking about simply by reading a book?
Sam: It’s surely possible, but in most cases it will require a little more work than that. My hope is that Waking Up will give readers the tools to get started. Nothing I say in the book needs to be taken on faith. I’m simply describing an experiment that can be performed in the laboratory of your own life. Run the experiment, and decide for yourself.
Sam’s new book may be pre-ordered from Amazon.