Sam Harris is a noted philosopher, author, and neuroscientist. He is known for often speaking quite negatively about religion, and has been called one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism, which also includes Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Harris has often spoken very harshly of modern Christianity, among other religions, particularly in his books The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. What I find fascinating is where he has spoken positively about it, and Jesus in particular. This is may be a key where I think the discussion should take place for there to be a constructive dialogue between science and religion.
In one of his latest books, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, while being mostly about how one can engage with spirituality in one’s life without activity in any particular religion, he did mention something interesting about his views of Jesus and other ancients. In chapter one, which is available online, he related an experience he had of unconditional love, which changed his perspective on religion:
It [became] simply obvious that love, compassion, and joy in the joy of others extended without limit. The experience was not of love growing but of its being no longer obscured. Love was—as advertised by mystics and crackpots through the ages—a state of being. How had we not seen this before? And how could we overlook it ever again?
It would take me many years to put this experience into context. Until that moment, I had viewed organized religion as merely a monument to the ignorance and superstition of our ancestors. But I now knew that Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and the other saints and sages of history had not all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds. I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.
This is very intriguing, because Harris admits that the ancient mystics, prophets, saints, and others, including Jesus, were likely experiencing something similar that he himself experienced firsthand. He did not come to this conclusion through intellectual arguments, logical proofs, or reasoned debate that this was so, but through experiencing a state of being that he thought must have been also experienced by the ancients, and had led them to teach many of the things that they had originally taught.
Many atheists seem to believe as Harris did prior to this experience, that organized religion was merely superstition, an explanation for things to fill the gap of ignorance by our ancestors, and is therefore complete nonsense and should be completely abandoned with haste. But through this direct primary experience, Harris came to understand that the ancients were on to something, something much deeper about the human condition, and the human psyche, that had reason and meaning to human lives.
Harris believes that modern organized religions around the world are often now only “intellectual ruins” of what the ancients taught. But if one can dig down in the rubble, there are “important psychological truths” that can be uncovered and realized. So it’s not that Jesus was a complete madman, but rather, that humanity has corrupted his teachings down through the centuries. This probably rings true for many LDS people, who also believe that there has been a great universal apostasy from the truth as it was originally taught, and that our goal today is in restoring that original ancient wisdom which has deep value to human life.
Most cultures have produced men and women who have found that certain deliberate uses of attention—meditation, yoga, prayer—can transform their perception of the world. Their efforts generally begin with the realization that even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive…
Ceaseless change is an unreliable basis for lasting fulfillment. Realizing this, many people begin to wonder whether a deeper source of well-being exists. Is there a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain?…
(If you enjoy this writing and content, please consider giving a Gift. If every reader gave just $1, it would be sufficient for my family's needs. I am deeply grateful to you for your kindness and generosity. 🙏 —Bryce)
Certain people… come to suspect that human existence might encompass more than [seeking pleasure and avoiding pain]. Many of them are led to suspect this by religion—by the claims of the Buddha or Jesus or some other celebrated figure. And such people often begin to practice various disciplines of attention as a means of examining their experience closely enough to see whether a deeper source of well-being exists. They may even sequester themselves in caves or monasteries for months or years at a time to facilitate this process…
…contemplatives in many traditions claim to experience extraordinary depths of psychological well-being while living in isolation for vast stretches of time. How should we interpret this? Either the contemplative literature is a catalogue of religious delusion, psychopathology, and deliberate fraud, or people have been having liberating insights under the name of “spirituality” and “mysticism” for millennia.
Unlike many atheists, I have spent much of my life seeking experiences of the kind that gave rise to the world’s religions…
I can attest that when one goes into silence and meditates for weeks or months at a time, doing nothing else—not speaking, reading, or writing, just making a moment-to-moment effort to observe the contents of consciousness—one has experiences that are generally unavailable to people who have not undertaken a similar practice. I believe that such states of mind have a lot to say about the nature of consciousness and the possibilities of human well-being. Leaving aside the metaphysics, mythology, and sectarian dogma, what contemplatives throughout history have discovered is that there is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves; there is an alternative to simply identifying with the next thought that pops into consciousness. And glimpsing this alternative dispels the conventional illusion of the self.
In another place Harris discusses how this might be done, discussing what many ancient mystics and contemplatives, including Jesus, engaged in to shift their state of being, even consciousness itself. In a Big Think video, Harris talks about this “illusion of self,” and how the direct experience of this reality may have been the fundamental and transformative experience for many of the major world religions’ founders that led to their insights and teachings.
I agree. I’ve noted previously that in Christianity this may be the symbol of baptism, of transfiguration, of Gethsemane, of suffering, of atoning sacrifice, of the crucifixion and the cross. It is the fana or annihilation in Sufi Islam. It is the anatta or no-self experience in Buddhism. It is the moksha or liberation in Hinduism. This is the korban or sacrificial offerings in Judaism and among the ancient Israelites. I think these are all pointing to essentially the same subjective experience in human consciousness where one realizes that they are not their ego, this “self” personality, and they experience that self dissolve in a revelation or apperception of greater truth.
This is how Sam Harris describes it: (transcription below video)
Transcript of Sam Harris:
I’m not arguing that consciousness is a reality beyond science or beyond the brain or that it floats free of the brain at death. I’m not making any spooky claims about its metaphysics. What I am saying, however, is that the self is an illusion. The sense of being an ego, an “I,” a thinker of thoughts in addition to the thoughts, an experiencer in addition to the experience, the sense that we all have of riding around inside our heads as a kind of a passenger in the vehicle of the body. That’s where most people start when they think about any of these questions. Most people don’t feel identical to their bodies, they feel like they have bodies, they feel like they’re inside the body, and most people feel like they’re inside their heads.
Now that sense of being a subject, a locus of consciousness inside the head, is an illusion. It makes no neuroanatomical sense. There’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. We know that everything you experience, your conscious emotions and thoughts and moods and the impulses that initiate behavior, all of these things are delivered by a myriad of different processes in the brain that are spread out over the whole of the brain that can be independently erupted. We have a changing system. We are a process, and there’s not one unitary self that’s carried through from one moment to the next, unchanging. And yet we feel that we have this “self” that’s just the center of experience.
Now it’s possible, I claim, and people have claimed for thousands of years, to lose this feeling, to actually have the center drop out of experience. Rather than feeling like you are on this side of things, looking in, as though you’re almost looking over your own shoulder, appropriating experience in each moment, you can just be identical to this sphere of experience. That is, all of the color and life and feeling and energy of consciousness, but there’s no sense of center.
So this is classically described as self-transcendence or ego transcendence in spiritual, mystical, new-age religious literature. It is in large measure the baby in the bathwater that religious people are afraid to throw out. If you want to take seriously the project of being like Jesus or Buddha or whatever your favorite contemplative is, self-transcendence really is at the core of the phenomenology that is described there. And what I’m saying is that it’s a real experience, it’s clearly an experience that people can have. And while it tells you nothing about the cosmos, it tells you nothing about what happened before the Big Bang, it tells you nothing about the divine origin of certain books, it doesn’t make religious dogmas any more plausible, it does tell you something about the nature of human consciousness. It tells you something about the possibilities of experience, but then again, any experience does.
People have extraordinary experiences. And the problem with religion is that people extrapolate from those experiences and make grandiose claims about the nature of the universe, but these experiences do entitle you to talk about the nature of human consciousness. And it just so happens that this experience of self-transcendence does link up with what we know about the mind through neuroscience to form a plausible connection between science and classic mysticism, classic spirituality. Because if you lose your sense of a unitary self, if you lose your sense that there’s a permanent unchanging center to consciousness, your experience of the world actually becomes more faithful to the facts. It’s not a distortion of the way we think things are at the level of the brain. It brings your experience into closer register with how we think things are.
Back to Bryce, here. So, self-transcendence is a real thing, and it is likely what many of the ancients experienced, which contributed to their radical awakenings and enlightenments. Jesus, it seems, had this experience of self-transcendence. I perceive that he described it in terms of “oneness,” what we have also called atonement (at-one-ment), that he felt at-one with God (see John 17). He was one with God, and God was one with him. They were one. And he hoped that all his listeners would also come to perceive this same oneness of the Divine within their own consciousness as well. This was a real conscious experience, a way of perception, a state of being. This seems to be at the core of Jesus’ teachings. All other teachings seem to be appendages to this at-one-ment that Jesus hoped all people would experience directly, in their own consciousness and subjective experience.
Sam Harris spoke more on this subject recently in a podcast with Robert Wright, discussing Wright’s new book Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Harris and Wright discuss, at some length, this idea of “no self.” It has been variously described in different traditions as emptiness, oneness, non-duality, advaita, etc. It seems both Harris and Wright agreed that what is experienced in all of these traditions is essentially the same, but the way people of different traditions and cultured expressed it is what varies. The Hindus called it experiencing the soul or Atman, and that this Atman is Brahman, or the Soul is God. The Buddhists called it experiencing no self, or emptiness, although there are some schools in Buddhism that would call it experiencing the “true Self,” or one’s Buddha-nature, that one is Buddha.
In Christianity, I think this experience is the core of the at-one-ing sacrifice, even the sacrifice of one’s egoic self, the submission of one’s personal psychological will, the surrender of an independent sense of self and identity, so as to perceive a greater truth about being and existence. What is that truth? (Here comes the interpretation/translation, which will always be fallible…) In short, it is that one’s greater truer Self is, in fact, Christ. It is to know that one’s incarnation in this material body is a perfect expression of the source of all creation, the “Father” of the world, even the universe itself. It is to know that all things incarnate or materialized are a perfect expression of this universe. When the perception of one’s localized skin-bounded “self” falls away, one’s consciousness expands to become at-one or in union with all things in the perceivable universe. There are no boundaries anymore to self, to consciousness, and it becomes infinite and inclusive of all things. One senses that God is the very foundation of one’s own being and consciousness, God dwells within this particular material body, and in all material things, and one’s most basic and enduring true nature is God, which is expressed in the scriptures as the “I AM.” It is this sense of awareness, of existence, of being, and all things that exist or have being are in perfect at-one-ment with this awareness itself. This direct perception of one’s Divine nature is found in the deepest Christian doctrines of theosis and divinization or deification.
This is what I think is at the heart of Christianity, in Mystical Christianity, the center of the teachings, the mystical truth that may be found under the rubble of the ruins of modern Christianity, as well as many other major world religions, and even young Mormonism. I think we’ve lost that truth, having settled for many of the interpretations and translations of the experience, which move us further and further away from it over time.
Harris does not seem to have as much a problem with what the persons of Jesus and other ancient saints experienced and taught in their day so much as what their followers and humanity in general have done with their teachings over the many centuries since them. We always “apostatize” from them, and most particularly we “apostatize” from the direct experience of this union, this oneness, this self-transcendence, this realization of no self, or true Self. We come to think that the teachings themselves are sufficient, the interpretations/translations of divine experience, stripped of all direct personal experience. This is precisely where we get it all wrong. The interpretation/translation of experience of God will never ever take the place of direct experience of God. It cannot. Such is impossible. As an interpretation, it is not the thing in itself. So when the experience is lost, so is much of the truth. The scriptures have expressed this in many different ways, such as: “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
Now, Harris and others seem to like to take this to extremes, often with full frontal attacks on modern organized religion which they say only teaches relics of truth, and often with great errors. At times, this may be warranted. Religions often seem to want to exalt and immortalize the ego, when in reality it seems the ancients who founded those very same religions were speaking of the exact opposite of that, of a complete and wholesale destruction of ego, that the ego is illusory and should be “crucified.” When the ego rises up in religion, exalting and immortalizing the ego of persons, with sanctimoniousness and self-righteousness, and using religion to sustain and promote the egoic urges of humanity such as greed, selfishness, tribalism, pride, possessiveness, hate, violence, class warfare, in-groups and out-groups, the righteous versus the wicked, we’re going to heaven and you’re going to hell, etc., then this can be very problematic and harmful to society. But full frontal attacks on such ego-infused religion may be counterproductive to the goals of these people.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and Christian mystic, once wrote:
You fight things only when you are directly and equipped to do so. We all become a well-disguised mirror image of anything that we fight too long or too directly… most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in yourself, along with a very inflated self-image to boot, and incites a lot of push-back from those you have attacked.
(Richard Rohr, Falling Upward)
Directly attacking organized religion, while sometimes justified (even Jesus attacked the establishment of Judaism in his day), can many times backfire, causing a protective knee-jerk reaction by the devout and religious, and they can dig in ever deeper to their established teachings. It is often far too much for Christians, or devout believers in any religion, to make a fundamental change in understanding from their established worldview to one seemingly so far different from it. So trying to rid ourselves of Christianity, or other religions, I think is the wrong approach.
Rohr also has said:
The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.
(Richard Rohr, Falling Upward)
I think this is why Harris, among many others, are now encouraging and teaching meditation and other similar contemplative practices. This is the “practice of the better,” which often can produce much better results than direct criticism. In returning to the personal experience of such divine spiritual realities, the delusion and error of ego-infused religion is revealed for what it is directly to the person. But one has to want to practice first.
This is where a return to the original teachings of these saints may be helpful and effective. If we can show that the original teachings of Jesus were centered around mindful communion with God, in shifting consciousness away from the egoic self towards oneness in God, then Christians may be much more open to practicing Christian forms of meditation and contemplation, such as centering prayer, silent prayer, or hesychasm. And if they can experience, directly, that oneness in God, then the deeper truths of many of the other teachings of the Christian gospel may also be realized. Then there comes a much deeper understanding of the origins of much of their religion, and religion in general. Then one understands at a deep intuitive level how Christian teachings may have evolved from out of this direct contemplative communion.
As Harris noted, the “psychological truths” that may be found in the rubble of the ruins of modern organized religion, are important. It is in the restoration of the original truths at the origin of those religions, in their founding mythologies, that we may be able to convince many of those who today devoutly subscribe to their modern distorted counterparts, to change their ways, and to realize that what they are believing and practicing today is not what the founders of their own religion originally taught, and it may have little to do with the divine realizations that these founders originally had. It is coming to restore the classic mysticism of the ancients, classic spirituality itself, an inner awakening to truth within our own consciousness, that seems to be a beneficial route to take in this modern-day reformation, and the reconciliation of science and religion. Fortunately, restoration is a fundamental idea in religions like Mormonism. Joseph Smith was attempting to restore the original ancient perspectives too. That restoration continues.
Instead of the complete eradication of modern religions such as Christianity, which I’m not sure is what Harris particularly has in mind, I think it may be far more effective to return to their source, their founding and founder, and restore what was once known by these founding saints, prophets, mystics, and sages, showing how it has many correlations with modern scientific discovery. We need to move away from superstitious, supernatural, magical thinking in dogmatic religion, to religions that can grasp, accept, and fully embrace the truths that are now being discovered by science and reason, showing how these can find harmony with the experiences and intuitions of the ancients, and with our own direct spiritual experience. And science needs to move away from the dogmatism often present in scientism to realize that there is value in subjective consciousness and spiritual experience that adds significant meaning to our lives. It won’t be acceptable to either side of the aisle to do away with religion or science, but we must find a reconciliation between both, between the subjective and objective, between the spiritual and secular, between the internal and external. There must be a meeting of minds, where the truths of both sides come to be considered, valued, appreciated, and we come to discover that the truth is in the center.
This is what Sam Harris seems to do on occasion, and what I hope he, and others like him, will do more of in the future. It is what I hope to do.