Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sam Harris is no ordinary atheist. He's a Buddhist Geek

If you think Sam Harris is an ultra-rationalist who reduces consciousness and spirituality to its neurological correlates, or that Harris is evangelizing his own flavor of Buddhist spirituality then you probably didn't take the time to digest the End Notes. Speaking of End Notes, a whopping one fourth of the book consists of end notes and bibliography. A patient reading of the end notes would reveal that Sam Harris is a broadly-read philosopher, a non-conventional scientist when it comes to the ultimate mystery of consciousness, and, for lack of a better secular description, a hard core non-dualist mystic in the Buddhist (specifically Dzogchen) tradition. Here's what he has to say about Buddhism, on Notes to Page 215 (end note 12)...
Word. Sam Harris is no ordinary atheist. He's a Buddhist Geek ;) Anyway....
A lot has been said already about the God/religion vs. science perspective that this book had covered. In fact, during the first year of its publication, Sam Harris had taken heat from different camps--religious camps for his "angry" and non-compromising critique on religion (particularly the Abrahamic religions); liberal camps for his critique on postmodernism and moral relativism; atheist camps for his championing of Buddhist practice and his non-conventional scientific views on consciousness. Harris had addressed most of these criticisms in the Afterword section of the paperback edition of the book. If you're interested in other critical reviews of the book, you can start with the The End of Faith entry on Wikipedia and the customer reviews on Amazon.
My main criticism with this book is that, although Sam Harris had acknowledged the stages of moral development of culture and society (for example, he compared the violence and non-tolerance in contemporary Islam to fourteenth century Christianity), he didn't expound on the moral and psychological development of individuals (i.e. stages of faith) which could've shed more light and supported his argument that blind mythic faith belongs to a lower rung of psychological development than reason. I've pointed this out in my review of his book, Letter to a Christian Nation. So I won't repeat it here...
It's clear that Harris is attempting integration here. The End of Faith is all about the jettisoning of blind religious faith, which is "the belief in historical and metaphysical propositions without sufficient evidence," so that integration of science and spirituality and ethics can begin at the level playing field of reason.
Before I conclude, allow me to speculate on why Harris had chosen to take a hard swing at religion instead of going along the safe and politically-correct route. After all, who in their right minds would willingly anger religious fundamentalists, religious moderates, conservatives, liberals, moral relativists, scientists, and fellow atheists, all at the same time?
Sam Harris strikes me as a very intelligent, reasonable, tolerant, spiritual, and sensitive guy. You can sense this by his tone and his demeanor on debates and lectures. So why did he write the book in a polemical and ultra-critical tone? Being a Dzogchen practitioner, he should be familiar with the concept of "skillful means" and "the middle way", right? So how come his approach is more combative than embracing? Isn't that so non-Buddhist of him?
By his own account, Harris wrote the book immediately after the September 11 attacks, so it's logical to assume that the book was tainted by is own personal anger at religion (especially at Islam). However, it's just hard for me to imagine Sam Harris gritting his teeth while writing pages after pages of End Notes and including a vast literature on philosophy, religion, science and mystical spirituality in the bibliography section at the same time. If Harris truly practices what he preaches (e.g. nondual meditation), then I think it's more logical to speculate that Harris had consciously channeled his passion in service of non-idiot compassion. Only time will tell if his efforts would put a dent on the current religious atmosphere in the U.S. and the rest of the world. I wish him well. I'll be following him deep down the rabbit hole he's digging...
But regardless of the controversy and the non-compromising position of Harris when it comes to religion, The End of Faith is an important contemporary book. This book is not about Atheism. It's a book about exercising one's faculty of critical thinking on religion, science and ethics. It's a rude and crude initial attempt at integrating science and authentic spirituality. Read it. Critique it. Discuss it with your friends. Discuss it your school and universities. Discuss it in your congregation. Discuss it with your priests and pastors. Use it as a tool to separate the wheat of reason from the chaff of mythic hubris and the flatland of postmodernism. Godspeed ;)

1 comment:

  1. Sam's criticisms of American religiosity are spot on.

    But he dose not and cannot provide a workable alternative. Indeed he actively works against such, being in effect an advocate of do it yourself so called "spirituality".

    This reference provieds a suitable antidote to his delusions---he is familiar with it by the way.