Why Atheists Need Sprituality

September 10, 2014

“If you’re like me, most of your thoughts are unhappy thoughts,” says Sam Harris. “For most of us, thinking is like being kidnapped by the most boring person on earth and being told the same story over and over again.”

His remedy? A serious dose of spirituality through meditation.

Harris is a skeptic who helped launch the “new atheist” movement with his 2005 book, The End of Faith. He’s also a neuroscientist and philosopher. He says he started a contemplative practice after taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs got him curious about consciousness. That led Harris to silent retreats with noted Buddhist and Hindu teachers—sometimes meditating 12 or even 18 hours a day.

“The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of self,” he says. In his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris makes a case for why atheists should bother with “spirituality,” that squishy concept that many of them loathe.

Listen below for the unedited interview with Sam Harris, on the transformative power of mindfulness, the mystery of consciousness, the controversy over near-death experiences, and why atheists need to redefine spirituality in rational terms.

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Sam Harris On…

Atheists and “spirituality”

Atheists have an association with this term that deems it more or less synonymous with a belief in a soul that can survive brain death or a belief in other magical things. Ironically, some prominent atheists have used the term “spirituality” without much apology—people like Christopher Hitchens and Carl Sagan. They didn’t use it in my sense, but they both used it to describe experiences of meaning or beauty that they found too potent for ordinary terms.

The human mind can have extraordinary experiences. At the core of these experiences is self-transcendence. The fact that this self that we all think we have - the sense of “I,” the sense of “me” behind my eyes - that is something that can be cut through. That really lies at the core of many religious traditions and spiritual concerns. That is the center of the bulls-eye for spirituality.

This comes down to the question of what will replace religion. I think we have to replace religion because we have to get out of our tribal affiliations. We have to make the basis for religious conflict unthinkable. The way to do that is to capture everything people think they need out of religion in some other form.

Psychedelics and consciousness

[Psychedelics] advertised to me in a startling and unequivocal way that it was possible to have a very different experience of life. I was a sufficiently lumpen character that I needed that kind of sledge-hammer blow to convince me that there was something worth paying attention to in my mind….The unique power of psychedelics is that something is guaranteed to happen. Boredom is simply not on the table.

[Consciousness is] still a stark mystery. No one has explained how consciousness emerges based on information processing in the brain. I am skeptical that we will ever understand it in that way. The first-person conceptual side is probably irreducible. It’s quite possible that it will turn out to be a brute fact that certain things are conscious and we will never understand why that is so.

Consciousness as a fundamental property of nature

The name for this thesis in philosophy is “panpsychism.” Let’s just say every electron has the buzz of pure being-ness. It’s obviously not thinking, not having conversations with itself, but there’s an interior dimension of subjectivity in everything, including sub-atomic particles. If that were true, how would you expect the universe to look?

Near-death experience

The evidence that [Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who claims to have had a near death experience] presented that his brain was offline is obviously spurious. How can you trust someone’s judgment of time who’s coming out of a coma? There’s no evidence that his brain ever totally shut down. Even people in comas have 50–70% of the kind of neural activity that you expect in a normal person, so brains don’t completely shut down.




I really liked this interview with Sam Harris. He is one of my favorite atheists. And TTBOOK is one of my favorite shows/podcasts.
I've been practicing meditation for years now and I'd like to mention something about this idea of peak experience. What has happened with me is that what were once peak experiences, a feeling of oneness with all that is and a feeling of speechless awe at the sheer beauty all around me, an experience that would happen only very occasionally, has become a normative reality. And when extraordinarily elegant things become second nature they aren't considered peak anymore. If you drink some of the world's finest wines as routine, your not necessarily going to get overly excited about your regular wine drinking. What I'm trying to say is, a person's "spiritual" progress, in this case the cessation of a rambling, incessant inner dialogue, pops in and out more frequently as a person continues further down the path of practice. As they progress the wakefulness periods in which inner dialogue has ceased become longer and longer. There is a point in which it becomes very noticeable and the vividness of life as it is, fills the void where the inner dialogue once was. What was once peak just becomes everyday experience.

Listening to Sam Harris talk about the profound and the mundane and put them all in the same tent is incredible!
One of the best interviews I've heard on TTBOOK, and that says a lot!