Sam Harris on Atheist Spirituality

Brian Wilson posted this compilation of Sam Harris discussing “atheist spirituality“:

(via AscendingParadigm)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Travelingstu

    Very excited for Sam Harris’s next book on spirituality. 

  • Octoberfurst

    Beautiful video. And I know it is quite true that atheists can have transcendent experiences.  When I am out hiking and seeing some breathtakingly beautiful scenery I often get a sense of awe and wonder. And I remember being in Colorada recently  sitting on a park bench in Red Rock and just gazing at the gorgeous rock formations and feeling a sense of oneness with the universe. I felt like I could have sat there for hours.  Did I feel as if God were present? No. I just was enthralled with the beauty and awesomeness of nature.  It is very similar to the religious experiences I used to have. So “spiritual” experiences do not have to be supernatural ones & yes we can have them.  

    • brianmacker

      You’ve used the phrase “oneness with the universe”In the contest of awe of nature. Others describe it this way, and I think I know the feeling you describe. However others use the same phrase to describe a delusional state achieved through years of meditation in which the self completely dissolves. Are you distinguish the two or do you get this second state merely by looking at some rocks.

  • A3Kr0n

    Personally, I don’t like using the word “spiritual” when describing how I feel. I know a lot of atheists do, but I don’t care for it. 

    • Bob Becker

      Nor do I.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      Agreed.  You know the way some people will go on about “I’m not religious, I’m just spiritual”?  Well I’m not “spiritual” either. 

       I’m not sure I’ve even heard a good definition of that word.  I want a new word, one that includes a lot of what Sam Harris is talking about, but that does not have any of the religious overtones associated with it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/randy.burbach Randy Burbach

        I think being spiritual is just being open to an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder

        • brianmacker

          Well then how about using the word aweful? Oops, not a good idea.

    • brianmacker

      I understand where you are coming from it used to bother me a lot more than it does now. It’s a source of equivocation to confuse the definition used in phrases like team “spirit” and we are being visited by a “spirit” that bothers me. There is an implicit mind body duality associated with the term and it’s derivatives.

    • Xeon2000

      Pretty much. It’s just an incorrect way to describe interesting neurological patterns in the brain. That doesn’t detract from the experience for me.

  • Alexandra

    I spent some time bickering on Catholic blogs on Patheos and found out why it is they keep Capitalizing things Inappropriately.   The words they capitalize are synonymous with God, and the three that they seem to like the most are Love, Beauty, and Truth.  I always assumed that when they say God is Love they’re being metaphorical, cos you know, Love can’t be born of a virgin and die on a cross, but they mean it literally. 

    Experiencing love, beauty, and truth is experiencing God.  It blew my mind when I figured that out.  It was like oh, well then we believe in the same thing, and I’ve totally experienced “God.”  We all know what kind of awe and wonder comes from love, beauty, and truth, just we don’t all think that it’s supernatural or that it wants us to keep the gays from getting married.

    I’m very excited for Harris’s book.  He always explains everything that’s bouncing around in my head so much better than I ever could.

    • machintelligence

      I always assumed that when they say God is Love they’re being metaphorical, cos you know, Love can’t be born of a virgin and die on a cross, but they mean it literally. 
      Experiencing love, beauty, and truth is experiencing God.

      It sounds like a deepity to me.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rg-4fmbpZ-M 

      • Alexandra

         Love it!  I had not seen that before, thanks for sharing.

      • brianmacker

        A deepity requires two meanings one of which is trivial and true. “God is Love” seems like a simple falsehood.

    • DeviousSoybeans

      We all know what kind of awe and wonder comes from love, beauty, and truth, just we don’t all think that it’s supernatural or that it wants us to keep the gays from getting married. 

       Exactly this.

  • Bob Becker

    Bought Mr. Harris’s first book. Found it plodding, more than a little preachy (not a good thing for an atheist tract)… so much so in fact that I didn’t finish it. Dipped into some of his latter writings and again, failed to understand the great attraction for them among atheist posters. His embracing both the term and the concept of “atheist spirituality” pretty much illustrates what I found unattractive, and uncompelling, in his writing.

    • brianmacker

      I did find much of his mysticism unattractive also. He never fully explained why he thought any of the Eastern mysticism was important in any compelling way. In this video he even mentions atheist praying. Why on earth, or anywhere else would an atheist pray? Pray to what? He needs to support this contention. Which atheists are practicing prayer? I’ve never heard of this.

      • Watoosh

        In mystic circles prayer is often understood not as a cry for help for the great space-daddy (although for the vast majority of people it undoubtedly is just that), but as a deep form of concentration, or meditation. The object of the prayer can be anything, but the act of concentration is more important than the (non-)transmission of willpower.

        I also think you need some help with your listening comprehension. Harris never endorses prayer, he says it can (not “will”) have a profound effect on the human mind. He doesn’t say it cures cancer or that there’s anyone listening to those prayers.

        What would it take for Sam Harris to convince you of the benefits of meditation, anyway? What the hell is more central and crucial in your life than your own mind? To have a truly balanced life, you need to learn how to navigate your mind, because that’s where the show happens. Proper meditation will teach you more about yourself and help you concentrate better. You will be able to manage the barrage of thoughts you are constantly bombarded with. You can even half-ass it and treat it just as a moment to relax and stretch your back, like most New-ageists probably do, and it still won’t be a waste of time.

        But if you get really good at it, you will find out just how deep your mind really is.

        • brianmacker

          I never claimed that Harris endorsed prayer. So it can’t be evidence of problems with my listening comprehension.

          I trusted the editor of this video to stick to the subject and not to make deceptive cuts. Harris never mentioned theists and then proceeded to discuss the profound effects of prayer on the mind. Presumably the minds of atheists since theist were neveR mentioned and unless a deceptive edit was made.

          In the english language there is always an implicit subject of prayer. The being or thing to which you are directing a confession, plea, adoration, thank you, or supplication. There is no definition of prayer which is synonymous with either concentration or meditation. Someone concentrating or meditating is not praying unless they are taking on the addition activity of prayer.

          Now it is possible for the atheist to thank one’s car for getting one to work, or dog for fetching the newspaper but we don’t consider that prayer either. I’m not saying an atheist couldn’t irrationally request help form the university on his physics homework. I’m just not seeing any atheists doing it, nor any claims that physics homework was getting done because of it.

          You write, “To have a truly balanced life, you need to learn how to navigate your mind, because that’s where the show happens”

          Unfortunately the people who seem the most into meditation are exactly those who I know are very poor at navigating the mind, and are often unbalanced in life. They tend to be very undisciplined in identifying and correcting for common intellectually dishonest ways of thinking for example. Living as a monk is hardly an example of a balanced life. I see value in feelings like unease, fear, anxiety, etc. when appropriate. You should be anxious when waking down a dark alley in the bad part of town.

          I am certainly impressed that somebody can get themselves in such a delusional state that they be pounded with nails to a cross but I don’t see the desirability of it. Nor the desirability of flying planes into buildings. How is erasing the self any different?

          One can cause optical illusions and they do expose flaws in the models the visual system uses to represent the world, however most people (except classical philosophical skeptics) don’t think that proves the world is a delusion. The brains model of the self accurately models some very Important facts about the world. Becoming convinced these facts are delusions is not a good thing. They evolved for good reasons. How can you act self interested without the self?

          I’ve seen no good studies that show any benefit I would desire from meditation that I can’t get from relaxing. I’ve got no problem with people doing it for recreational reasons, entertainment, or to scientifically explore the brain. I just don’t see the unique claimed benefits to be anything I value. I’d rather recreate in other ways, and when I have me time to just relax I’m not interested in chanting some TM mantra.

  • Dean

    Meditation, contemplation, spiritual practices like yoga — all can have profound effect upon the human mind without a belief in a god. We vastly underestimate ourselves and our brain’s capacity to transcend reality. I have experienced a sense of becoming one with the universe, losing myself and transcending my consciousnesses as I floated through the cosmos of my mind, I have been moved by spectacular sunsets, sublime sonnets, and experienced self-transcending love.  It saddens me that religion has hijacked this innate sense of spirituality to perpetuate its own agenda. 

    • brianmacker

      Why is having a sense of becoming one with the universe something to be desired? Being high on drugs also gives one altered experiences of the world. The resulting behavioral changes may not be desirable.

      • Watoosh

         Being “one with the universe” is really the only way people can live – you can’t extract anyone or anything from the fabric of the cosmos into some external blank void. “Spiritual” experiences are really about realizing and internalizing this fact on the most fundamental level, and they will help you live much less anxiously and treat yourself and other people as if they were a part of something great, and not just some disposable egos in bags of skin.

        Yes, spirituality is kind of a wooey-sounding concept that can’t be expressed in rigorous terms like a good skeptic would expect it to be. But it can and should be experienced, and should be included in a balanced life, just like exercise, pursuit of knowledge and healthy nutrition. Carl Sagan understood the “one with the universe” concept as well as anyone, and it didn’t compromise his skeptic credentials one bit.

        As for drugs, it can be very beneficial for many people to experience altered states of mind (even so called “bad trips”) to rid them of delusions about what they really are. As long as you’re responsible, know what you’re doing, accept the trip, and don’t think “drugs” are a single, monolithic category of “pleasant, wacky and dangerous substances” (you’re not going to become Buddha by injecting speedballs), for most people the behavioral changes aren’t likely to be undesirable.

        • brianmacker

          I don’t think you understand the concept of being one with the universe. I and everyone like me understands that we are part of the universe (and cannot therefore be extracted from it). It’s kind of hard for my quantum being to exist outside a quantum universe. In fact, one would need to be a dualist to believe otherwise, and I doubt they actually experience the world as if they are not in it. Being one with the universe in terms of meditation is a state of delusion where the self dissolves and the subject believes that the are no longer a subset of the universe, but are instead “everywhere”.

          I used to live near the Transcendental Meditation Center in the Catskills as a kid and they used to make all sorts of false claims about the benefits of the practice, including the ability to levitate ( they were bouncing cross legged on a bed). Pardon me if I don’t trust untested claims of benefits to the practice.

          Strange of you to think that a functioning brain is delusional and to be corrected as to the nature of reality by using drugs which in fact cause actual delusions and hallucinations.

          I’m not sure the ability to calmly set myself on fire or stab needles through my cheeks is a desirable change in behavior. I understand the claim is that with meditation this is a possibility.

          • Kitty

            The concept we are debating is FEELING one with the universe, not BEING. Regardless of if you understand that you are part of the universe, the moments when you FEEL it are special to some people. They may not be special to you, but that doesn’t mean they are a delusion. The concept you are talking about, where people lose themselves, is quite opposite the one I am talking about (and what I am assuming others are referring to). When I feel one with the universe, I don’t feel like I’m everywhere, I am not delusional, and I am very self-aware. But I realize that my self is one small part of an unimaginably large universe and perhaps multiple universes and that all things are connected. It comforts me. It’s okay if it doesn’t comfort you.

    • Guest.

       So long as you don’t think there is any reality beside the one you’re sitting in.  The rest of it is between your ears.

  • 606

    Spiritual or supernatural. ,I wonder.

  • 606

    Spiritual or supernatural. ,I wonder.

  • Guest.

    I’m a less reactive person when I keep up with my mediation practice.  I don’t view it as supernatural in any way to tweak how my brain is responding.  If you practice relaxing, it becomes easier to do.  I would love it if everyone else had the same skill as I rather deal with relaxed folks than stressed out ragers.

    • brianmacker

      That’s an anecdote. How do you know that merely being told that relaxing (or some other activity) wouldn’t have the same effect when practiced, and especially if you are told it will have beneficial effects? Doing that other thing might wouldn’t also reduce your “reactivity”, and it might merely be do to the fact it reminds you not to behave a certain way. How do you truly know the self till you try these other options. How have you ruled out the placebo effect for example? Maybe being given sugar pills to take every day will have the same effect.


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