How does a Christian respond to Sam Harris?

Sam Harris, one of the 'Four Horsemen' of New Atheism

I have been reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up, published by Transworld Publishers, and according to the cover, “The New York Times bestseller”. This does not surprise me, given that the subtitle is “Searching for spirituality without God.” Why anyone would want to undertake such a search always slightly surprises me; but then I reason that some atheist philosophers do recognise that a merely mechanistic or materialistic explanation for human experience is not satisfactory – so they go in search of a secular form of spirituality: what I would describe as a way of not having the cake but wanting to eat it all the same.

Harris is an engaging writer, without the obvious contempt for religion that other intellectuals of his kind demonstrate. Yet every so often he reveals his hand, as when he lumps together the Bible and the Koran as a collection of ancient myths, superstitions and taboos, or when he writes, “Consider the idea that human beings, alone among Nature’s animals, have been installed with immortal souls… This dogma came under pressure the moment Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but it is now truly dead.” Oh yes?

Harris’s quest has been to find a way to deal with the inevitable stresses and sorrows of daily life without in any way succumbing to the lure of religion. When he was 20 he experimented with the drug ecstasy and experienced an intense sensation of love for the world which seemed to place him beyond his own ego.

What he doesn’t seem to realise that this is simply a drug-induced feeling of wellbeing (and a few glasses of good wine can produce it just as well); it is not the same as “love” as Christians know and understand the word. Nonetheless, curious about the effect of the drug and being too intellectually restless to settle for a cheap thrill, Harris began many years of investigating eastern (Tibetan and Buddhist mainly) meditation techniques which he shares with the readers of this book.

In a way this makes it a dull read. Techniques of meditation, as with the technique of mindfulness, which Harris also writes about, are simply that: psychological ways of detaching oneself from the necessary pressures and problems of ordinary life. Why would one want to do that? Because, in the author’s view, self-transcendence is the way “to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering – fear, anger, shame – in an instant.”

Leaving aside morbid or obsessive states of mind, which do require medical or spiritual help, a Christian would respond to Harris that fear, anger and shame might be important ways of learning about oneself – and in particular, the ways in which one has failed in charity towards others. No amount of meditation or ecstasy pills can release one from the obligation to be honest about one’s moral lapses (Harris doesn’t ever mention the word “sin”).

Harris is certain that human minds are the product of human brains. He does have a problem with consciousness which he admits – but he is certain that when we know more about brain function, the difficulties raised by consciousness will be solved. His book does recognise that there are any number of fake gurus around (I was glad to see he includes the still fashionable Gurdjieff in this list), but he says he has also encountered true transcendental technicians with minds “impressively free of shame. This can be a good thing, provided that one also happens to be committed to the well-being of others.” A “commitment to the well-being of others” is so far from the Christian definition of loving your neighbour that the gulf seems unbridgeable.

As I was wrestling with the unsatisfactory sensations produced by Harris’s well-meaning attempt to offer practical consolation in the face of a Godless world, a friend who works in a charity shop fished out a book he thought I would like: Easter Vigil and Other Poems by one Karol Wojtyla. Written under a pseudonym between the years 1950 and 1966 before he became pope, the poems are dense, difficult and philosophical rather than lyrical. But behind them one hears a powerful voice, certain it is not alone in an empty universe; indeed, that “He” is always waiting for an encounter with man. In “The Samaritan woman meditates”, the priest-poet who became John Paul II, tries to capture the moment when she laid down her defences and truly encountered Jesus at the well – and became “conscious then of my awakening”.

At the conclusion to his book, Harris exhorts his readers to “Open your eyes and see”. The Samaritan woman did just that – and what she discovered, beyond her fear and her shame, was a Person.