Leading atheist says don’t throw out mysticism when dumping religion

Leading atheist writer and speaker Sam Harris tells a gathering of atheists that the cause of ridding the world of religion will be better served if they understand the importance of spirituality and mysticism, separating it from supernatural mythology.

In these two clips I think he makes a very good case for the contemplative tradition. He seems quite concerned that his fellow atheists will appear dull-headed and superficial if they poo-poo mystical traditions and spiritual techniques that actually work. People won’t accept atheism if they do that, and the spread of atheism will be unecessarily obstructed. He does spend considerable time on the subject, and in this regard seems to be slightly at odds with Dawkins.

He makes a well-reasoned argument for removing oneself – if only temporarily – from the absorption in repetitive neurotic thoughts and sensual and emotional gratifications. And he all but advocates his listeners to at least try some form of meditative technique. And he says that what contemplatives experience may be very real.

However, like a runner who falls before the finishing line he stumbles when it comes to some essential links of logic. In Sanskrit parlance he reveals himself as a mayayapahrita-jnana, an intelligent person who does not carry the chain of logical thought far enough, and whose intellect is then ‘stolen by illusion.’

All he really needed to do was to ask himself why, in the history of the entire world, have the most adept mystics and contemplatives also been largely theistic? If he regards it as an act of superior personal discpline – and perhaps exercise of the intellect – to adopt some form of meditation, then why would so many of those who have perfected the art of meditation claimed to have experienced a personal deity?

It seems that the so called atheists really owe it to themselves to read Bhagavad-gita for a while, and leave off denying the three Abrahamic religions so that they can meditate for a while. The God they don’t believe in will come to them in no time.

These two clips are around 7 mins each



Filed under Journal, Religion

11 responses to “Leading atheist says don’t throw out mysticism when dumping religion

  1. Beechbum

    Wrong answer!

    The affective meditative effects are clarity of thought, a connectedness to and continuity of thought thereby relieving stress, increasing happiness and awareness through mental wellness and balance. Sam Harris realizes that it is the search that is life; it is a journey that only ends when the last memory leaves those who knew, or knew of, each of us. I am not one of the “plain brained” atheists Sam referred to; I am, in fact, very contemplative. While removing the metaphysical (superstition, supernatural, religion) as non-evidentiary, mystery nor the unknown will ever be understood, especially by those who discount them without a modicum of contemplation upon why certain characters would account for natural circumstances, without understanding why those characters, or those people that created those mythical characters, would postulate such solutions to the preponderance of questions. Or, should I write that it would be important to remember to whom it was conferred. As I tell my students, think and when you think you have the answer, think again. Consider all the options, alternatives, contradictions, natural explanations and superfluous ad hominem correctives then take your opinion out and you may have an answer that will stand up to peer review. This is what Sam is talking about. Just because we have eliminated the supernatural as an explanation doesn’t mean we’ve found the answer; it means we need to think much harder than our antecedents. Our mind does not tell us the truth; it tells us what our genes want us to know for better reproductive viability.

  2. Excellent, spirituality is not supernatural, but the richness of being. As open systems, love and curiousity are the holy grail, but it takes some effort.

  3. Spiritual atheists……. what are these boys on! Sounds like an oxymoron to me.
    “Seek and you will find”
    Best wishes to all seekers,

    Hare Krishna


  4. Dankesh

    Hare krishna,
    Very intriguing videos. on a funny note he looks very honest atheist. Most of people who attempt to understand life, undetstand the ephemeral nature of the material pleasure. Sam made a very interesting point of how the atheist present the universe to the world as if they are on the verge of something big (big discovery about universe).
    thank you for the vidoe prabhu hare krishna

  5. i really like this post.
    i was recently talking to someone about how “science” , which is the fall-back of most atheists, is not exactly opposite to relegion.
    It was the Church and Science which clashed in interests.
    But, modern science actually verifies a lot of things said in our Puranas.
    As a biology student, i found a few correlations, and given my poor, or rather non-existent knowledge of our ancient scriptures, i can safely bet there are lot more.
    //Darwin was an atheist who was a great cynic of spritual beliefs.
    But, his “survival of the fittest” also put forward something else: that man came from other primates and especially next in line to chimpanzees.
    Recent chromosomal findings came well after Darwin. (the study of chromosomes and genes is well after Darwin, Mendel, who did some mind-blowing work at Darwin’s time, was largely ignored, but his work was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century by Johannsen and others).
    Chromosomal findings have found some striking, undeniable evidences in favour of atleast that postualte of Darwin.
    But, by his so-propogated-there-is-no-God theory, Darwin merely reconfirmed what had been said in our scriptures for ages.
    i remember reading the Srimad Bhagavatam, where it is mentioned that the “vanaras” were the ancestors of men. i found a whole lot of Slokas describing how man originated from monkeys!//

    //Another point are the modernevolution theories.
    Most modern biologists and other researchers would agree that life originated from the water. The theory goes something like a cell being formed close to the surface of sea water, where it recieved optimum exposure to air as well.
    Anyways, there is no debate that water-dependent animals came first, then the amphibious, and finally the terrestrial forms from reptiles to mammals and man, all beginning from the first terrestrial adaptation: amniota (covering of egg layers). ditto for plants as well.
    But, if one sees the Dasavatharam, it starts from Macham (fish), Koormam (amphibious), Varaham (terrestrial, still attached to marshes), Narasimha and so on, till Rama (human being), and finally coming down to Earth as God Himself (Krishna, in His original form)//

  6. Similarly, another popular evolutionary law, which scientists still debate upon, as they have neither been able to disprove/prove it, is the one which says that a mere want or longing can lead to development.
    For example, the giraffe was a stunted animal with short neck. But, forced by competition, it used to “stretch it’s neck”, and generations of this longing, or “mere need” made the giraffe grow longer neck muscles (the number was the same).
    It is stated in the BG, that an individual’s thoughts determine what happens to him after death. There is the story of a sage turning into a deer, as he was obsessed with one.
    The concept of “mere need” as the cause of evolution was stated in the BG long back.

  7. Bhakta Delroy

    Kripamoya dasa prabhu,
    this is a very delicate and subtle subject that requires much thought and consideration. My initial reaction – as opposed to a measured response – is that this man, though he may not admit it himself, is coming from the same place as the agnostics on this one, and as such is not a true atheist. I consider the atheists, and even more the agnostics, as copping out on the question of the existence of God in order to justify and fuel an over inflated ego, which is prone to give itself autonomy. Rather than reposing autonomy in its rightful place at the lotus feet of Vishnu Shri Krishna.
    What this man doesn’t realise is that in his quest to somehow incorporate the very evident existence of spiritual, mystical things which are, quite clearly, easy to prove, (as opposed to proof of a living, eternal personal God) he is embracing, just like the western Buddhist, the existence of Paramatma, one aspect of the supreme personality of godhead Bhagavan. This man, for all his ulterior motives of trying to justify the non existence of God, is actually saying that God does exist but he will only accept him to the point where he does not have to pay obeisances to Him much less serve Him and obey Him within the context of religion or scripture. My reasoning may appear a little sketchy in this particular post, but this is the sum and substance of where my over inflated ego is coming from on this one. And it is my intention in a future post to substantiate my argument more thoroughly making reference to greater souls than myself who have gone before with a similar view point to mine regarding the existence of God. Namaste.

  8. Veg or Non Veg

    “All he really needed to do was to ask himself why, in the history of the entire world, have the most adept mystics and contemplatives also been largely theistic? ”

    His practice is a Buddhist one and the adepts in Buddhist mysticism are not theists in the sense that they believe in an eternal Deity whom they will meet someday. Some sects of Buddhism can even be termed downright atheistic.

    I highly doubt Harris would advise people to meditate on an eternal Deity with the hopes of meeting him or her someday.

  9. Prabhu, can you please tell me whether this line of thought is more like “Advaita”?
    Wherein, the person acknowledges that there is God, but thinks that He can be elevated to that status by undergoing various penances?
    Where He sees no reason for “serving” or “saluting” God?

    These thoughts came to me after i saw a movie recently based on Advaita principles. The line that got to me was “By giving up all desires, one becomes God”… “All of us are God, you are, i am, it’s just about realising it”.
    What we (me and my mom) were discussing afterward was that even wanting to be “like God” is desire. It is also a kind of “kama”. So, when your very pursuit of being freed from “desire” is a “desire” by itself to elevate one from manliness to godliness, how can one possibly reason that way?

    So, as i have been thinking about this lately, my question is this: Do Advaita principles border parallel to atheism?
    Or, as put here, spiritual atheists?

    • I wanted to share this with my readers because many may suppose that atheists wish for no higher reality, other than what can be perceived by the senses. In contrast to atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, Sam Harris is saying that there is validity in a contemplative path that can lead to inner peace. And inner peace is a good thing – even for an atheist.

      Of course, as our other contributors have pointed out, the word ‘spirituality’ or ‘meditative experiences’ can cover a wide variety of ultimately impersonal or nihilistic states.

      So unfortunately this declaration of the usefulness of meditation brings the audience no closer to theism.

  10. Anonymous

    Sam Harris commented about London Harinam on twitter:

    “Hare Krishnas (read, “converts to extremist Hinduism”) being “political” in London: http://bit.ly/13OOGc8 … Who will they decapitate? ”


    “You have to read my other tweets to understand my point about Hare Krishnas. I was praising them (by comparison). ”

    Govinda dasa

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