Sam Harris, God Intoxicated Man?

By Razib Khan | February 21, 2007 11:51 am

Sam Harris says:

I do not deny that there is something at the core of the religious experience that is worth understanding. I do not even deny that there is something there worthy of our devotion. But devotion to it does not entail false claims to knowledge, nor does it require that we indulge our cultural/familial/emotional biases in an unscientific way. The glass can get very clean-not sterile perhaps, not entirely without structure, not contingency-free, but cleaner than many people are ready to allow. One need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to experience the “ecstasies of Teresa” (or those of Rumi, for that matter). And those of us with the benefit of a 21st century education can be more parsimonious in drawing conclusions about the cosmos on the basis of such ecstasy. Indeed, I think we must be, lest our attachment to the language of our ancestors keep their ignorance alive in our own time.

Harris has been criticized by some secularists for his less than skeptical and critical attitude toward Eastern mysticism and supernaturalism which does not owe its existence to the followers of the One True God. But the reality is that I do not believe that Harris is an atheist in the way I am. I am a “cold atheist,” dead to the touch of religion or its attractions. I am not engaged in the world of humanity in the same way, and I do not exhibit the passion for my fellow man that Harris does, for if there is one thing that we know of him it is that he cares. And I believe his caring has driven him to a deep detestation of the myth of God, the father who has fled from our universe and gives us no succor but promises which remain unfulfilled. Evangelical Christians often say that their aggression in preaching their “Good News” is from love and altruism intent, would you not give a drowning man a helping hand and pull him up so that he could grasp at the glory of everlasting life? On a deep psychological level Sam Harris is, I believe, no different, he sees humanity drowning in false belief and he must witness. But do not confuse this for a coldness to religion and God, it is hot rage which motivates him, and Harris’ openness to Eastern mysticism suggest that he still seeks a way to save humanity from the drowning oblivion of materialistic naturalism.

  • mel

    Excellent point. Sam is a fundamentalist at heart…a true believer in the human ability to approximate an absolute and objective truth and be the better for it. This is why he is so grating to liberal religionists (and others mesmerized by post-modernism) who recognize him as threat to all religions and a vindicator of fundamentalist sensibility.

  • attotheobscure

    I embrace materialist naturalism and see no reason to feel the need to be saved from it. The material world is reality with all its beauty and cruelty. Accepting the material world and denuding one’s perception of it from delusional and self-serving lenses is hardly a path to oblivion. While my experience with ‘Eastern mysticism’ is limited to a couple of college courses and a summer at a Zen center in New Mexico, if one removes the culturally-propagated attendant mythological apparatus inherent in most Buddhist schools, what remains is a system of thought quite accommodating to materialist naturalism. Additionally, there is an emphasis on mental and physical training found in many Eastern thought systems that is noticeably absent from their Western counterparts (with a few monastic exceptions). I think that this could be the origin of much of Mr. Harris’s interest in some forms of Eastern philosophical and religious traditions. One can completely accept a rational naturalistic world view and still practice and benefit from zazen meditation or hatha yoga. Furthermore, there are schools of Zen that are quite atheistic and actually advocate toward the materialist world view.

  • Christopher

    Interesting take on Harris’s thoughts. I admit that I started “The End of Faith” and am only through the first couple chapters, so my own take on Harris’s thoughts may not be as informed as others who have read his two books. That said, I have closely followed the exchange you quote above (between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris) and I’ve listened to a handful of talks that he has given in recent months – at the Salk Institute and at Caltech,,for example.
    I wonder if this hesitation on Harris’s part to outright deny the worth of understanding religious experience reflects his own stance as a student in neurology (he’s a PhD candidate, right?) Others – from Dennett to Ramachandran – also seem to be very curious about the neurological explanations for religious experience. Reading the above bold sentence (at least the first one), I’m sure that Harris ‘s name is on that list. In one of his earlier letters to Sullivan in the same exchange (the one dated 1/29/07) Harris says that he is very hesitant to draw metaphysical conclusions about the nature of his own spiritual experiences.
    I do agree with your point that he cares a great deal about the dangers poised by modern religious belief (both in its fundamental and moderate forms), but I’m struggling to see how he would make the argument that another mystical/supernatural belief system could act as a surrogate for any of the Western religions.

  • razib

    reflects his own stance as a student in neurology
    he spent 10 years studying eastern philosophy and religion. i think that’s what it reflects. one is less quick to condemn that which one has a personal familiarity with.

  • razib

    one removes the culturally-propagated attendant mythological apparatus inherent in most Buddhist schools
    inherent is key. the de-religionization of buddhism in the west and its repackaging as a rational philosophy is a phenomenon of the last 2 centuries and emerged in reaction and intersection with western ideas by particular elite element in the east.

  • oku

    I think Harris is constantly misunderstood for his idea to scientifically investigate meditation, and there is no conflict at all with materialistic naturalism. I found two articles by him which should make it more clear:
    Killing the Buddha and Rational Mysticism.

  • Pi Guy

    At this point, it is difficult to see how any rational person could have been following this debate and come to the conclusion that Sullivan has even remotely defended faith – his or that of any other believer. Sullivan’s posts are a Who’s Who of the World’s Top 20 Logical Fallacies. But I suspect that Sullivan’s regular readers either are so totally in agreement with him that they don’t see his argument’s weaknesses nor the strength of the arguments posed by Harris or, if they do, they’ve just stopped reading. Proverbial ostrich and all that.
    At this point, it’s simply been a case of “My science and rationality can beat up your god.”
    Disclosure: I read and thoroughly enjoyed End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation.
    Further Disclosure: I learned only moments ago that I am a cold atheist.

  • ken

    There’s always the worry that cold atheism will leave you in a Spock-like state, and the universe will appear without meaning, depth, or mystery. Dabbling with various states of consciousness would seem to offer some solace, then…anyone who has tinkered with hallucinogens can recall some sensation of things seeming more “meaningful” than usual.

  • Karen Lofstrom

    “Ecstasy” isn’t the essence of mysticism; it’s something that can happen on the path. From my Zen POV, it’s the WOW! when something is understood. When the WOW! is over, the understanding remains — and remains to be worked out in daily life. That’s harder, and more rewarding, than the WOWs.

  • razib

    There’s always the worry that cold atheism will leave you in a Spock-like state
    who worries about this? cold atheists don’t, we have meaning in our lives, but it is about the small and beautiful.

  • ken

    Harris is also studying neurophysiology. Perhaps he’s impressed by the ability of certain meditators to make the needles jump, or stop jumping. “Mind control” has a lot of appeal, and western science and religion don’t have much to say about it.

  • John Emerson

    The fear Ken talks about is a hangover of lost belief, I think. Most afterlife religions aggressively devalue this world while promising redemption later. The people who say that there’s no meaning without God are God-salesmen.

  • Ryan

    Spock-like state made me laugh out loud uncontrollably, even though I am a cool atheist (as opposed to just plain cold). I think the phenomenological aspect (even with a functional explanation such as Dennett’s in Consciousness Explained) is something that is never going to be explainable, and here’s why. Having recently delved fairly deeply through the Tractatus (Wittgenstein), the salient element that I came away with is that the explainable world is something apart from the showable world. It seems like the coolest explanation of something like anger from a psychological perspective (or even better, neurological) fails to show what we mean by anger. And I think it will always fail because the experience preceeds the explanation, and that to account for that experience is to include an explanation for some preceeding set of states that could allow for it (because in different circumstances the same types of inputs will yield different results), in which case the boundary we are trying to get at dissolves. If one was able to get at a complete enough explanation of the brain in its neurological layerings, the assumed level would already be above the relevant explanatory level of neurons where the system would look just like experience. At that level, the experience would be shown, as such a broad view of the brain would be fuzzy at best (perhaps like a model with colors changing and stretching around and through). You might say, yes, I see that red tendecy moving in this way, and that really is anger. But upon examination at the neuron level, nothing looks like anger anymore, despite all the connections you know to be its cause occuring or not occuring here and there.

  • razib

    have you read philosophical investigations?

  • Ruchira Paul

    How many of us don’t lose sleep over god / no god / meaning of life etc. once we figure out what works for us in terms of ethics, morality and peace of mind?
    In Texas where I live, at least once a month, there is a knock on our door on Saturday mornings by Baptists, Jehova’s witnesses, Mormons and others who want to spread the “word.” Usually, I answer the door and I have a short and effective response to their aggressive evangelical speech – “No, thank you.”
    A few years ago one morning, my husband answered the door when some religious messengers knocked. A hard headed but polite man, he listened to their spiel (the door knockers are usually women) for a while. Then I heard him say firmly, “Ma’am, whether or not there is a God, does not change how I live my life. You are wasting your time here.”
    Is that “cold” atheism, agnosticism or supreme indifference to the religious question?

  • razib

    Is that “cold” atheism, agnosticism or supreme indifference to the religious question?
    the indifference is deviated from the norm. but that doesn’t mean it is pathological (i doubt it is).
    theists confuse the modal state with the universal state, and assume that deviations from the norm are pathological. this is not so, just because you have a “god shaped hole” in your mind does not mean that everyone else does. i have even known secularists who i do have this “god shaped hole” and eventually they convert to some religion or other at their lives, and that never really surprises me. but, an annoying aspect is then this former secularist assumes that the hole that did exist in their own psychological landscape must exist in your own. but it doesn’t.
    some theists grow old and realize that god is not necessary to their psychological well being. some atheists grow old and realize the reverse. and some theists and atheists grow old an remain as they were. we talk a lot about diversity in our society, but we have a harder time comprehending that other people make choices based on their own preferences, which might vary from person to person.

  • Ryan

    have you read philosophical investigations?
    I must admit, as I failed to include in my previous post, that the only thing I was likely communicating was my inexperience. I am reading the Philosophical Investigations right now. I just felt it was important to understand the themes in the Tractatus before I could get a handle on the style of the Investigations. Perhaps my sophomoric post will only help me to see how far I’ve come when I am finished, but I think its a reasonably advanced view viz. the norm, at any rate.

  • ken

    Assuming belief in God is the default state, it sounds like the cold atheist has an inactive God gene. The warm atheist has an active God gene, but it’s tempered or overpowered by some other gene.
    (no, I’m not attempting to describe biological reality…just trying to hone in a bit on this “cold atheist” notion)

  • razib

    Assuming belief in God is the default state, it sounds like the cold atheist has an inactive God gene. The warm atheist has an active God gene, but it’s tempered or overpowered by some other gene.
    no, more like a quantitative trait. atheism or theism are propensities whose strength is determined by a large number of parameters.

  • ken

    no, more like a quantitative trait. atheism or theism are propensities whose strength is determined by a large number of parameters.
    Sure. But I don’t want to start applying the Kelvin scale to atheism.
    Whether we stick the term “theist” on Eastern religions or not, they differ from Abrahamic religion in significant ways (e.g. the contemplative aspect). I’m not clear that Harris’s respect for some aspects of Buddhism is simply because he’s pissed off at God, and seeks out a new father figure.
    (I guess I’m a warm atheist/agnostic…thus my empathy for Harris).

  • John Emerson

    Cold atheism is a phase in elite Buddhism. Buddhism is packaged these days as a warm fuzzy with kittens and puppies, but that’s an introductory stage customized to the contemporary world. (It’s also packaged as a sexual-freedom fuck-your-brains-out religion). Buddhism is quite explicit about telling people what they want to hear at the beginning and working from there, and Buddhism tends strongly to be a hierarchal religion in which the more enlightened (or the initiated elite) have precedence over the less enlightened.
    Of course, Buddhists have also said that cold atheism is a teaching stage to be surpassed later. More advanced than polytheism or monotheism, but still not quite right. This makes some intuitive sense — someone who talks too much about atheism is probably too obsessed with the God-concept or with other people’s errors.
    A superficial reading of Buddhism gives you a very false understanding. For example, “karma” (~ “fate”) and “atman” (~ “soul” or “spiritual essence”) are fundamental Buddhist concepts, but they’re fundamental as primary errors inherited from Hinduism which must be escaped, and Buddhism was born with their rejection.
    Razib is historically pretty much correct that pop Buddhism is a (poly)theistic otherworldly superstitious religion, but elite science should confront elite Buddhism, not pop Buddhism.

  • ken

    The Buddhist concept is “ma-atman”, not “atman”, which might translate as “no-soul”. However, with the exception of a few elite Westerners (e.g. Stephen Batchelor), almost all Buddhists have work-arounds to get back to something resembling a soul (how are you going to transmigrate without one?)
    Karma, on the other hand, remains mostly untouched from its Hindu origins. It’s not regarded as an error.

  • John Emerson

    Karma is not an error, but it’s not a positive concept (i.e., for Buddhists it’s a problem, not a solution.) Some Chinese and Japanese Buddhist schools minimized or interpreted away both reincarnation and karma. I have granted that I’m talking about elite forms of Buddhism, but I do not think that it is true that the interpretations of Buddhism I have mentioned are limited to Westerners or to ancestral Buddhists who have picked it up from the West. It’s also true that modern Buddhists have actively engaged Western thought and that the form of their religion has been shaped by that, but Buddhism is not intended as an ethnic religion but as a universal religion and is not a closed canon.

  • ken

    Razib’s provocative “Buddhism is really theistic” posts have got me wondering: Does elite religion tell us anything about human minds? For every Stephen Batchelor or Chogyam Trungpa (who are adamant that Buddhism is essentially non-theistic), there are probably 1,000 folks whose Buddhism consists of circumnabulating a stupa, or “making merit” by donating food for monks, looking for a better rebirth.
    To answer the question, I lean toward “yes”. That’s because of the meditative aspect of the religion. A few researchers have investigated “Tummo” (“psychic heat”), and some other meditative practices, but that may be just the tip of the iceberg. I’m rather surprised how willing some scientifically-minded folks are to dismiss these phenomena as a sideshow.

  • razib

    Does elite religion tell us anything about human minds?
    some human minds. the problem is that elites conflate their own verbal games and sensibilities with the normative practice of religion. the problem is that the masses tend to give notional deference to elite verbal games (and kill in the name of those words), all the while continuing their modal theism.

  • len

    There seems to be some confusion ’round here…Zen and Buddhism in general is very clear in stating that the material world is illusory.
    -He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled, immoderate in his food, idle and weak, Mara will certainly overthrow him, as the wind throws down a weak tree.- from the Dhammapada
    The core of buddhist philosophy is based on the elimination of sufferring and the development of compassion for all “sentient beings.”
    The concept of karma is neither positive nor negative. It’s simply cause & effect–like action equals like action.
    -All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
    Buddhism is not concerned with religiosity–it is concerned with taming the mind.

  • razib

    There seems to be some confusion ’round here…Zen and Buddhism in general is very clear in stating that the material world is illusory.
    statements are irrelevant. mainstream xtianity is very clear in stating its adherence to the athanasian formula of the trinity, but mainstream christians really don’t know what that means and basically adhere to a tritheistic conception. in other words, just becaues buddhism has a lot of “clear” metaphysical gibberish doesn’t mean that the vast majority of buddhists, now, or ever, have really taken this to heart and “grokked” it. my contention is that the general western assumption that “buddhism is really not theistic” and “much of asian buddhism is ‘debased’ and ‘cultural'” is premised on the assumption that elite buddhism is normative and that other forms that are practiced at the popular level are “wrong.” as someone who rejects supernaturalism and religion why should i privilege the opinions of clerics and philosophers over those of regular believers?
    please see Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. it contains reporting on field work amongst therevada buddhsits in sri lanka which backs up this point, as well as historical research which suggests that a revision of this form of buddhism by modern bhikkus in the 19th century was in part a reaction to protestant critique’s of buddhist ‘supersition.’ their response was of course that ‘that wasn’t the real buddhism.’ this article in the new york times reports on how buddhist farmers in sri lanka declare that the muslim fishermen died because they didn’t accept the lord buddha as savior. yes, buddhism isn’t a religion virgina….

  • John Landon
  • len

    this conversation is going off the deep end…elite buddhism…eyes rolling…
    Razib said–“As someone who rejects supernaturalism and religion why should I privelege the opinions of clerics & philosophers over those of regular believers?”
    As is the nature of man, he often adapts his beliefs(religious or otherwise) to conform to the culture which he lives. Farmers in Sri Lanka? Undoubted poorly educated. Are you saying that because ‘regular believers’ are somehow wrong headed that that illegitimizes the entire philosophy? Isn’t that like throwing the baby out with the bath water? Dismissing religions in its entirety?
    And yes I’d say that a vast majority of buddhist have taken the ‘metaphysical gibberish’ to heart considering that buddhists are some of the more peaceful peoples inhabiting the planet.
    You think that the general western assumption is that buddhism is “not really theistic”? What is your basis? I doubt that westerners generally opine on buddhism at all. And why is relevancy placed on the uninformed assumptions of westerners?
    It seems that your assumption is that ALL religion(or in this case buddhist philosophy) is worthless simply because it’s not practiced in a way that adheres to your atheist sensibilities?
    I find it amusing that atheists love to hide behind
    science. Religion is based on FAITH–no empirical evidence is necessary–faith is personal. You either have it or you don’t. It’s not something that you can calculate, nor rationalize. Nor disregard, except personally of course.
    check this out
    it examines how meditation can change how the brain functions—ohhhhhh and it’s empirical for all you atheists out there… [url][/url]
    vayas con Dios, or however it’s said 😉

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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