A friend of mine from MIT tells a great story about confiding his religious leanings to a colleague, after which that colleague stopped returning his calls. It’s another example of the truism. Many academics suspect believers are dimwits, brainwashed, or lobotomized.
If you’re a believer yourself, get ready to feel dimwitted this week as Sam Harris’ new book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion,” hits bookstores Tuesday and buzz about it begins.
Harris is probably the best-known proponent of the New Atheist movement. He – along with Daniel Dennett, (“Breaking the Spell”), Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”) and Christopher Hitchens (“God is not Great”) – became known as the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse” for writings that, basically, trash religion. Harris’ 10-year-old “The End of Faith” made bestseller lists for almost a year.
Now comes “Waking Up,” which at first seems an about-face for him. He’s arguing less about religion’s horrors and more about enjoying some of its benefits – feelings of oneness, transcendence, and bliss – without buying into religion at all.
“Spirituality must be distinguished from religion because people of every faith, and of none, have had the same sorts of spiritual experiences” he writes. Include in that number Harris himself, who details a blissed-out moment by the Sea of Galilee. But it’s a mistake to interpret such moments “through the lens of one or another religious doctrine,” he writes. Instead, we should see them as profound experiences that can enrich and transform anyone’s life, believer or not. And maybe we can have more of them through meditation or mindfulness, which he practices himself, no higher power involved.
The cynic in me says Harris is brilliantly taking advantage of the growing number of Americans – nearly 20 percent on one 2012 Pew poll – who describe themselves as disillusioned with religion. Then they add that annoying phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Plus, Harris is doing “events” this fall, at $219 a ticket, to elaborate on his rational, secular approach to spirituality.
But Harris is a compelling, provocative thinker and speaker. He’s right when he says too many Americans deplore atheists. Could one be elected to even minor political office, never mind president?
But I’ll end where I began: just because atheists are sneered at doesn’t excuse their sneering back. And there is both a sneering undertone to Harris, and a tendency to lump too many believers together as intolerant, rigid, and, yes, dimwitted dopes.
I’m always suspicious of those who think their big brains and many degrees have given them all, most, or even many of the answers on the God front.
In the spiritual realm, it seems to me, we’re all flying blind.