Atheists are divided against each other. This is not surprising when you consider that a negative principle like “God does not exist” fails to provide a unifying force or center of meaning capable of organizing one’s life.
The hard-science, anti-religious, take-no-prisoners atheists are set against the postmodern atheists, who find themselves committed to an existence of superficially woke, Brooklyn-style meaninglessness. We are menaced more by this shallow nihilism than by the old-school bluster of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.
The “New Atheists” (now a tad antique) once presented a unified front. When they were at high tide a decade ago, Sam Harris appeared to be a relatively low-key member of the group. He was like a bassist wedged between guitar-smashing compatriots.
True, he initiated the atheist publishing surge with “The End of Faith” in 2004, but he did not possess the same kind of Scotch-drenched rhetorical ornamentation that elevated the late Hitchens to celebrity status, nor was he saddled with the perpetually incensed demeanor of Dawkins, which still continually unfolds and sheds its petals of irritation on the soil of Twitter. Nor did he have a big bushy beard like the atheist Santa Claus, Daniel Dennett (who is admittedly lower-key than Harris).
Yet, after more than a decade of New Atheist polemics, it is clear that Harris is the only New Atheist who still matters. He just wrapped up a blockbuster series of debates with Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, the ripped audio of which is now the toast of YouTube. His podcast, “Waking Up,” far out-strips any media venture Dawkins or even Hitchens launched in terms of its audience and impact. Why this ongoing influence? What has made Harris persist?
A Spirituality for Rationalists
By contrast, Dawkins has not endured quite so well. He gets embroiled in Twitter arguments unbefitting the dignity of an Oxford don and emanates contempt towards his opponents in a way that does not seem particularly tutored by exalted Enlightenment standards of reason. More seriously, he acts and speaks as though, in the absence of religion, we can live the good life without thinking too hard about it. He seems to think it’s just all so obvious.
Accordingly, Dawkins once funded bus advertisements that bore the trite slogan, “There’s probably no God, so quit worrying and enjoy your life.” This is a bit thin, even by purely atheistic standards. Life is about infinitely more than enjoyment. It is primarily about the quest for meaning and its attendant responsibilities, territory that the New Atheists by and large take for granted and do not bother discussing with any degree of depth.
They surrender this territory to religion (which would be a wise move if it were not inadvertent). But Harris is unique in that he constantly wrestles with this question. He tries to generate a spirituality for rationalists.
Take, for instance, Harris’ book “Waking Up,” where he concedes that “there is more to the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit.” He confesses that there is a need for numinous and transcendent experiences, but he wants to access those experiences in a manner that is restrained by reason.
For Harris, forms of meditation largely inspired by Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen practice are the key to this deeper experience, although he presents these practices in a secular guise, shorn of their more overtly religious elements. Hitchens never bothered to think of an equally plausible spirituality. His chapter on Eastern religions is probably the least researched chapter in his generally under-researched book, “God Is Not Great.”
Hitchens would gesture vaguely in the direction of literature when asked what could substitute for the meaning religion provides, but he was infinitely more engaged by his attempts to dismantle religious belief than by the much more difficult and likely impossible challenge of replacing it with a viable substitute. Like Dawkins, he thought it was all so obvious.
Hitchens was full of wit, charm, and literary quotation, but lacked a fully articulated system of thought. As his friend Martin Amis observed, his reactions were like a child’s, based more on a visceral objection to injustice than on any rationally developed worldview.
Yet Harris really believes that reason can solve the human dilemma. He is apparently impervious to the influence of art, music, and literature, but demonstrates an ironclad commitment to pure, analytical reason. Given its rarity, this needs to be admired, even if one strenuously disagrees with the bulk of Harris’ arguments. The man is all science.
What Sam Harris Has In Common With Mystics
His position is seriously flawed but understandable. Francisco Goya etched a famous drawing with the title, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” That is Harris’s position. He deeply desires something unshakeable, reliable, and—indeed—eternally valid. He believes that moral values, good and evil, are actually baked into the fabric of reality and into the way our brains are constructed. He thinks that there is a definite right and a definite wrong way to live.
He uses meditation to escape the sense of identifying only with the ego, an experience worlds away from anything Dawkins has ever discussed. Indeed, Harris has more in common with mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Symeon the New Theologian, if only on this one point. This all certainly indicates that Harris shares more ground with a moderate religious person than he does with Vice magazine-style postmodern nihilism, which stretches a thin film of identity politics over its apprehension of a howling, meaningless abyss.
Harris’ major error lies in being pointlessly antagonistic to moderate religious people. His reasons for doing this are again flawed, but can still be understood. Harris disparages moderate religiosity because he believes that any compromise with un-reason is doomed to fail. If you loosen your hold on reason even a little bit, he believes, you will soon find yourself swamped by the monsters from Goya’s drawing.
But there is a way of seeing religion that fully meets Harris’s objection. We can see religion, in its highest and most intelligent expressions, as something that does not contradict reason but rather transcends it while still leaving it intact.
A Religion that Accepts and Transcends Reason
The visionary poet and painter William Blake provides a great counter-argument to Harris’ worldview. In Blake’s view, you cannot choose reason as your sole guide because reason is limited by what we are currently able to perceive. In other words, if you live at the bottom of a well, your use of reason is going to be restricted to what you find there.
If you leave the well and decide to check out the ocean, reason will suddenly find that it has much more information to work with. Blake writes, “Man has closed himself up until he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern.”
The Apostle Paul says basically the same thing, stating that we currently are perceiving a warped and dim version of reality. He writes in 1 Corinthians, “For now, we see through a glass darkly.” Blake and Paul both argue that religious and mystical experience let more light enter the cavern in which we are imprisoned. We can find similar arguments from virtually any major religious tradition.
Harris has not treated this objection with due seriousness. He insists that he has discovered the truth about morality purely through scientific terms. Peterson has dismissed this with, I think, an insurmountable counter-argument, posted here.
We Have a Common Enemy: Nihilism
In our time, the battle against nihilism looms larger than any squabble between rationalists like Harris and the moderately religious. As “deaths of despair” increase throughout the United States, we need to inoculate the population against the poison of meaninglessness and the extremist ideologies that it can breed as a reaction.
Those who genuinely believe in reason and those who believe in a transcendent, spiritual reality need to unite to defeat the raging tide of utter meaninglessness presently threatening to engulf our culture. Consider that Dawkins admits he likes the sound of church bells, even if he feels he has to pair that compliment with an unnecessary diss at another religion.
The true fault-line in our culture runs between those who believe that there is such a thing as truth and those who believe that there are only expedient lies. Defeating these lies requires constant mental exertion, which, paraphrasing John Milton, helps extend the dominion of light into the realm of chaos and non-being.
Even though modern meaninglessness often seems like a massive tsunami headed for shore, our efforts to restore a sense of what is spiritually possible for humanity can cut through it—like Moses creating a path through the Red Sea.