When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked why people who don’t know the answer to a question still claim they know the answer, he responded, “…It’s called ‘The Argument from Ignorance”…It’s a remarkable thing going on in the human brain. It’s, you don’t know what something is, therefore it’s something that you know it is.”
So one must ask if this is why Sam Harris insists on using the powerful and loaded word ‘spiritual’ to describe his personal experiences while practicing “mindful” meditation or consuming psychedelic drugs. Harris says, “I’m almost as embarrassed by the word “spirituality” as every other atheist. I’m not comfortable with my use of it. The problem is, and this is a problem you almost never encounter in English-we just don’t have a good word for this domain.” Harris is evidently not embarrassed enough to use it accurately.
Let me begin by stating that I’m a big fan of Sam Harris. I’ve read his books and listened to his podcasts. And I have learned a lot.
I know that others have taken on Harris and his insistence of this very subjective word choice, especially after the 2014 publication of his bestselling book, Waking Up, with the in-your-face subtitle, A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. While Harris’ ill-advised definition provides plenty of ammunition to believers in the overall debate on belief vs. non-belief I am writing here because as someone active in the secular recovery movement I have seen this type of mistaken talk do unique and devastating damage.
We in secular recovery are trying to demonstrate that sobriety is possible without any religious encumbrances. We encourage all participants to speak their minds, whether religiously or otherwise. We merely strive to provide an environment where religious beliefs of any sort are purely a personal matter, and not a requirement for sobriety.
An addict will use any excuse rather than face his or her addiction. Reflexive denial is usually the first reaction to any contention that they “may have a problem.” Next on their list of excuses is usually any reference to God or religion. So what do you think happens when a reluctant alcoholic (or any other addict) first enters an AA meeting and sees the “12 Suggested Steps” on the wall with their many references to a “Power greater than ourselves,” “God, as we understood him,” or “His will?” They’re gone, that’s what happens, and often for good.
Say what you will about Alcoholics Anonymous (and as a long-standing member I have found much fault), but it is by far the biggest and best known and most successful of all recovery programs. In addition, Alcohol Use Disorder, the current term for alcoholism, has now been joined by the alarmingly fatal opioid crisis, raising the number of sufferers to previously unimagined heights. Begun in the 1930’s AA grew out of the then-fading Oxford movement, a white, Christian-oriented organization. But AA has always claimed that it is “not religious but spiritual,” an assertion interpreted by many as a distinction without a difference. In spite of this claim some courts have ruled AA is indeed a religious institution. This strong religious association is one of the reasons that AA and many other 12 Step programs are now starting to see their overall membership numbers decline.
But first things first: What does “spiritual” really mean? “Spiritual” is commonly defined as “…ecclesiastical rather than lay or temporal…concerned with religious values…of or relating to supernatural beings or phenomena.” When people say, “I’m not ‘religious’ but I am “’spiritual,’” “spirituality” is understood as not evidenced-based or fact-based, but rather, a state reached exclusively by intuitive means. In other words, they are acknowledging the ineffable, but rejecting organized religion. Others define “spiritual” as a catchall, generic term when referring to personal experiences of the beauty of nature, the love for another person, or any of the New Age beliefs, all “spiritual,” and all very personal. There are some who even claim that improving one’s personal diet and/or sleep patterns are somehow “spiritual.” However, your spirituality may not be my spirituality. In fact, spirituality is many things to many people. Ask a thousand people and you’ll get a thousand definitions, thus rendering the word for all intents and purposes meaningless.
I am well aware of the audacity of my challenging Harris, especially in one of his chosen fields. And I approach this critique with the utmost respect. However, even Harris’ prestigious academic pedigree and verbal eloquence should not crowd out or obfuscate logic or reasoning. Harris’ assertions are so high-handed that I feel I must attempt to rebut as best I can. And the best way to do so is to quote Harris himself. Harris and I do agree that “spirit” has other proper, narrower definitions: i.e. the use of “spirit” to mean the essence (or core) of something as in “not the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.” Harris, “…we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle…” And of course, ironically for me, a sober alcoholic, alcohol is sometimes referred to as “spirits.” Harris, “… of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits.”
Harris, however, borrows his larger definition of “spirit” from the legendary scientist Carl Sagan who wrote, “’Spirit’ comes from the Latin word ’to breathe.’” Harris then enhanced this definition, “The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Harris goes on to say that, “Around the thirteenth century the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth.” Which is how the word is understood today. Harris persists, “Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition. Well yes, its meaning has been thus poisoned. That’s why most people regard spirituality as identical to religion, both man-made constructs.
In addition to Sagan, Harris also cites the esteemed Christopher Hitchens as support for using “spiritual.” Harris, “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.” Harris continues, “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…” So much for “breath.” This fudge only adds to the conflation and confusion perpetrated by Harris.
As the originator of the “spirit = breath” definition Sagan had an additional clarification as well. “What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science.” I’m afraid Sagan’s “air = matter = brain matter” equation is just too thin to make much sense. But then Sagan continues, “…When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual… The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” So we’ve completely left the realm of “breath,” and again we’re back to beauty.
Harris, “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 and Sagan’s general use of the word 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 personally transformative sense.” Harris wants it both ways: as an explanation of a profound experience (as understood by many), and as an arcane, restricted definition of “breath,” a definition that no one accepts or uses. Harris, “…So for better or worse I’m trying to rehabilitate the word “spirituality.” The presumption of this well-regarded intellectual in attempting to use his cultural capital to impose a definition last used during the Middle Ages appears aberrant on its face and borders on verbal bullying. In the years since Waking Up was published have you ever heard someone use the word, “spirit” in the sense of “breath?” Me neither.
Harris, “People have self-transcending experiences…” “Clearly people have extraordinary experiences.” Then why not just describe those experiences as self-transcending or extraordinary. And I don’t think it’s too fussy, or too exacting to point out that Harris not only foists the word “spiritual” upon us, but also insists on adding the words “sacred” and “mystical” to the conversation thus creating a new “holy trifecta” of sorts. He says, “I think there is a place for the sacred in our lives. And I think there’s a usefulness to seeking profundity as a matter of our attention. And I still use words like spiritual and mystical.” Just to be clear, “sacred” is defined as “…dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity…” “worthy of religious veneration…” And “mystical” as “…involving or having the nature of an individual’s direct subjective communion with God or ultimate reality.” This from someone who declares, “I strive for precision in my use of language…”
Naturally, we all are from time to time struck and even overwhelmed by transcendent experiences of the beauty of nature, or a piece of music, or the love of another person. Many of us, like Harris are at a loss to find the correct word to best describe those intense experiences and consequently fall back on “spiritual.” However, when pressed many non-believers would admit to this cognitive dissonance and retract this assertion. Not so Harris. I have no doubt that he has indeed had profound experiences when he meditates or ingests psychedelics. But are we going to call everything we can’t quite describe spiritual? Perhaps Harris in his quest for articulation of those profound experiences would be better off using “feelings” and/or “emotions” instead.
Lest you think I am just an atheist scold, let me assure you that this is not nitpicking or PC policing. We live in a culture profoundly influenced by religion. But there is nothing religious in it when someone says, “God bless you” after a sneeze; or “Oh, my god!” when someone is shocked; or even, “It’s a miracle!” when the Mets win a game. I know many committed, atheist Jews who host a Seder every Passover. Even Harris has admitted to putting up a Christmas tree for his family over the holidays. I don’t for a moment think he is in any way a closeted Christian. These and many other expressions and practices have become mere traditions with little or no reference to their religious/spiritual antecedents. Ask a Christian what’s the first thought that pops into his or her head when they hear the word “Christmas,” and 9 times out of 10 it’s “shopping, or presents, or family,” not “the baby Jesus,”- which is probably way down on the list.
What’s going on here: all this hazarai from the author of The Moral Landscape, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The End of Faith? Why has Harris dug up some out-of-use meaning for “spiritual” and flung it at us? Perhaps we should look no further than Harris’ introductory statement to his book, Waking Up as explained on his podcast: “A rational approach to spirituality seems to be what is missing from secularism and from the lives of most of the people I meet. At first reading, “a rational approach to spirituality” seems sensible. Of course, we should always strive to be rational when discussing any subject. But Harris is talking about something clearly understood as not rational, not evidence-based. Trying to be rational and reason with someone who holds a conclusion arrived at irrationally is usually a fool’s errand.
While I find Harris’ particular word choice and his defense of it interesting in the broader discussion of belief or non-belief I proceed with this exercise solely because of the damage he continues to do to a specific demographic: substance abusers. Their number is big, very big. In addition to all the active alcoholics out there, “Americans are more likely to die from opioid overdoses than in a car accident.” Among the substance abusers, non-believing or not, who, however grudgingly, do manage to attend a meeting seeking help, there is a significant number who hear the word “spiritual” turn on their heel and walk away, having been told that they must accept God as a means of getting clean and sober. By doing so they are often denying themselves their only real chance of dealing with their problem.
Even in secular recovery there are those who reject religiosity and yet continue to cling to spirituality. They describe themselves as “spiritual atheists” (an oxymoronic term, if I ever heard one), and claim that you better get good with God or you’ll never make it. Harris has unwittingly provided cover for these religionists, for they were by no means channeling “breath” in any sense of the word, when, at recent secular recovery convention they proclaimed, “Well, Sam Harris is “spiritual!”
Why does he choose to put himself through these linguistic contortions? Perhaps it’s Harris’ life-long practice of “mindful” meditation, a tradition that relies on awareness of one’s breath as a critical part of the exercise. Or is it pride, or arrogance, or hubris writ large? It is, after all, insulting for someone no matter how articulate to attempt to impose such a preposterous definition because it serves his own narrow purpose. Would Harris ever reconsider? His is a big “brand” with many platforms from which to expound. He not only subtitled a book with an assertion of spirituality, he then went on to vociferously defend that position. It would take a truly humble person to re-examine his or her thoughts and writings, and perhaps attempt to rectify a mistake with all the vigor it was first made. Either that, or present a truly coherent and convincing argument that proves otherwise. It’s never too late…
Which brings us back to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who notes that 85% of the universe is still unknown to scientists, and is, nevertheless commonly called “dark matter.” However, Tyson reasons that, as a scientist it is misleading to give it a name, and that, ”…Actually we shouldn’t call it anything. We should call it ‘Fred.’”
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Silence grants Harris a “secular pass.”