Monday, October 08, 2007

Do Atheists Neglect Transformative Experiences?

"One problem with atheism as a category of thought, is that it seems more or less synonymous with not being interested in what someone like the Buddha or Jesus may have actually experienced. In fact, many atheists reject such experiences out of hand, as either impossible, or if possible, not worth wanting. Another common mistake is to imagine that such experiences are necessarily equivalent to states of mind with which many of us are already familiar—the feeling of scientific awe, or ordinary states of aesthetic appreciation, artistic inspiration, etc."

"As someone who has made his own modest efforts in this area, let me assure you, that when a person goes into solitude and trains himself in meditation for 15 or 18 hours a day, for months or years at a time, in silence, doing nothing else—not talking, not reading, not writing—just making a sustained moment to moment effort to merely observe the contents of consciousness and to not get lost in thought, he experiences things that most scientists and artists are not likely to have experienced, unless they have made precisely the same efforts at introspection. And these experiences have a lot to say about the plasticity of the human mind and about the possibilities of human happiness."

"So, apart from just commending these phenomena to your attention, I’d like to point out that, as atheists, our neglect of this area of human experience puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage. Because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations—and yet these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents."

- Sam Harris


Hume's Ghost said...

Jim Lippard made a comment in passing that relates to this. I had brought up Martin Gardner (author of the book that kicked off the modern skeptical movement) being a fideist. Lippard replied

Yes, Gardner describes himself as a fideist--e.g., p. 213 of _The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener_: "That the leap of faith springs from passionate hope and longing or, to say the same thing, from passionate disrepair and fear, is readily admitted by most fideists, certainly by me and by the fideists I admire. Faith is an expression of feeling, of emotion, not of reason."

This ties into something I've been thinking about writing about on my blog, how intellectual argument from atheists cannot hope to persuade believers who have had religious or mystical experiences--at least, not unless they are given a means of interpreting them *and obtaining them* in ways that are supportive of atheism.

Paul said...

Hi HG! I very much look forward to your post on this.

After someone has a mystical experience, they almost always interpret their experience in terms of their culture. So, for instance, a Christian says her experience was of God or Jesus, but a Taoist, who has a profoundly similar experience, says his experience was of the Tao, rather than of deity.

There seems to be no necessary reason why a mystical experience must invoke a specific metaphysical interpretation. Metaphysical interpretations of what one experiences seem to be culture-bound -- as opposed to universal -- facets of these kinds of experiences.

Having said all that, it is indeed difficult to persuade someone who has latched onto the notion they experienced God that God is merely their interpretation of what they experienced, rather than what they actually experienced.

Hume's Ghost said...

Well, Lippard is the one who plans on posting about this. I'm backed up as it is. (I should be busy transfering my rought draft of my Tragic Legacy review to blogger ... it takes me forever to do that.)

Webs said...

I think Jesus and the prophets of other religions were real people. I tend to think that their messages and claims were blown out of proportions, added to (think school yard story), and/or made up.

Think about a story you tell of a good friend or just a person you admire. It's that one funny story you tell to multiple people because it's just a phenomenal story. Has it changed at all? Did you add any parts in that make the main character sound larger than life? Did you add any visual descriptions to enhance the story?

This is how I treat religion, right or wrong. It's something that started out as a good idea, but changed and morphed into something more. Religion seems less about spreading a message to help people become a better person, and more about spreading the message.

The only use I see for studying theology is so there is a way to connect with those whom are religious or at least understand their talking points. Otherwise I tend to think it's a waste of time. I know how to be a good person and live a good life. I don't really need a God or a follower of God to tell me.

@ Hume's Ghost: Faith is an expression of feeling, of emotion, not of reason."

I agree, but many of those that practice a faith would not (knowingly or unknowingly). They think faith is somehow tied into explaining the how's and why's of the universe. And use it for this purpose.

Paul said...

Hi Webs! I think you might enjoy the book, Urban Legends if you have not already read it. It deals with this topic of how such things as "miracle stories" get started and spread. Fascinating read!

Mystic Wing said...

Harris is a perceptive writer, and you've picked an excellent quote to share with us.

This is my problem with many atheists—that they discount mystical experience out of hand without bothering to properly investigate.

Enlightenment doesn't require theism, and being an atheist doesn't require you to discount mysticism.

Paul said...

Well said, Mystic! A refusal to investigate mysticism makes about as much sense as a refusal to investigate human nature since, as Harris points out, mystical experiences happen to millions of people.

(This is wonderful -- I was just thinking of you this morning!)

enreal said...

Atheism is in part another form of ignorance,a form of fear in shutting out the unknown without a proper means of explanation. This is an excellent excerpt. Sam Harris seems to have had an epiphany. I believe that when dealing with the unkown, there is no wrong or right, You can not force your beliefs and you can not deny someone elses. Excellent post thank you for sharing.

ordinarygirl said...


I disagree. Many atheists have experiences that they might call mystical. I hear many people who don't believe in gods talk in wonder about the natural world or the cosmos. Many atheists wouldn't call it spirituality because they are afraid theists would misinterpret the meaning.

I don't know much about Sam Harris outside of the few books of his I've read and the quote here, but I don't think people have to meditate 15 or 18 hours a day in order to experience a transcendence. It may be that some people find it more meaningful to spend many hours and months meditating because of the time and effort he put into appreciating the moment. But I experience transcendence when I gain understanding of something in the world and I'm often in awe of how the world works. I don't understand why my type of epiphany is any less than his just because I don't call it spirituality or use "spiritual means".

Musafir said...

Not to discount your experiences Ordinary Girl, but I feel that Sam Harris is speaking of a different type of experience.

Mystic transcendence (that experience) tends to deal with the removal of the subject/object divide. That is not say that the whole of mysticism is centered around it, since the definition of the word differs from person to person, but from my readings on the subject, that particular experience seems to be the one the sages point at.

Webs said...

Thanks Paul! I have added the book to my list...

As for studying mysticism...
How does one go about studying mystical experiences? For example, that is one problem many scientists have with religion. It is simply not testable.

Paul said...

Hi Webs! The discipline of Comparative Religious Studies has done a fairly good job studying mysticism. The basic procedure is to compare what mystics from different cultures, times, and traditions have in common and what they don't have in common. For instance, one thing that mystics don't have in common is a belief in deity. One thing that all or almost all mystics do have in common is the notion reality is ultimately non-dual.