“Spirituality,” Consciousness-Science, & New Atheism (Sam Harris)


Sam Harris, one of the leading new atheists must have hit his head on something at his blog. Or to shift metaphor only slightly, Harris has gone out on a big limb here. His protestations notwithstanding, all this talk about the spiritual, the numinous, meditation and psychedelics is but one half-step away from, if not “religion,” than negative theology. Nothing in the blog, which I cite below and in full, could not have been said by either Martin Buber or Abraham Joshua Heschel.


Harris looks to me like a kind of inner-worldly ascetic described by Weber in his Sociology of Religion? “the person who lives as a worldly ascetic is a rationalist, not only in the sense that he rationally systematizes his own personal patterning of life, but also in his rejection of everything that is ethically irrational, esthetic, or dependent upon his own emotional reactions to the world and its institutions” (p.168).  Perhaps the new atheists might have saved us all a lot of time and trouble had they done a little more reading in the history, phenomenology, and sociology of religions


I find this extremely confusing. Is religion really so hard to shake? Check it out for yourself. I’ll make some more remarks below, but here’s Harris:


In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.” Whenever I use the word—as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice”—I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.


The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn descends from the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition.


I strive for precision in my use of language, but I do not share these semantic concerns. And I would point out that my late friend Christopher Hitchens—no enemy of the lexicographer—didn’t share them either. Hitch believed that “spiritual” was a term we could not do without, and he repeatedly plucked it from the mire of supernaturalism in which it has languished for nearly a thousand years.


It is true that Hitch didn’t think about spirituality in precisely the way I do. He spoke instead of the spiritual pleasures afforded by certain works of poetry, music, and art. The symmetry and beauty of the Parthenon embodied this happy extreme for him—without any requirement that we admit the existence of the goddess Athena, much less devote ourselves to her worship. Hitch also used the terms “numinous” and “transcendent” to mark occasions of great beauty or significance—and for him the Hubble Deep Field was an example of both. I’m sure he was aware that pedantic excursions into the OED would produce etymological embarrassments regarding these words as well.


We must reclaim good words and put them to good use—and this is what I intend to do with “spiritual.” I have no quarrel with Hitch’s general use of it to mean something like “beauty or significance that provokes awe,” but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more transcendent sense.


Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.


What it looks like to me is that Harris takes a concatenation of religio-spiritual values and abstracts them from any religious-spiritual figure like God or institution like a church. But this too has been recognized a long time ago in academic Religion Studies.


So what’s going on here?


My guess here is that what seems to be an odd foray for a new atheist into the spiritual has something to do with his conception of consciousness. In his blog, Harris once referred to the emergence of consciousness in terms of “miracle” and “mystery.” That is, how do you scale up from neurological firings to the types of lived, phenomenal consciousness that we experience subjectively. It is not at all clear how this happens, about which different philosophers have taken different  positions. Harris seems to think that consciousness is an “emergent” quality that emerges out of brain function.  


Of course Harris he was being tongue in cheek when he used terms like “mystery and “miracle.” But we’ve know for a long time, certainly since Freud, to take jokes at least semi-seriously. For Harris, and not just for Harris, it would seem that the mystery of consciousness is, perhaps, a mystery of the spirit. There are plenty of science folk out there who believe that consciousness is a mere illusion and that what we call consciousness can be reduced to a bundle of neurological bites and functions. But it’s my suspicion that once you take consciousness seriously, as does Harris, that you are practically one step from all kinds of assertions regarding Mind and spirituality, a leap which Harris may or may not come to regret considering.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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