Trading Faith for Spirituality: The Mystifications of Sam Harris
By Meera Nanda
Spirituality at Faith’s Funeral
There is something decidedly weird about this business of spirituality. Just say the word “spiritual,” or, if you prefer more gravitas, “mystical,” and you will witness a strange phenomenon. You will find many tough-talking, God-is-dead rationalists morph into Mahesh Yogi lites, peddling sweet-nothings about merging the “self” into the universe, and promoting world peace and reason while they are at it.
In his much acclaimed The End of Faith, Sam Harris declares the death of faith, only to celebrate the birth of spirituality. He wants to convince us of the proposition that “Mysticism is rational…religion is not” (p. 221). Traditional Judeo-Christian and Islamic conception of God who heeds your prayers is a mere leap of faith, “an epistemological black hole, draining the light out of our world”(p. 35). Faith in a personal God is “intellectually defunct and politically ruinous” (p. 221). It is time to grow up, Harris tells us, and trade faith for spirituality or mysticism, which is “deeply rational, even as it elucidates the limits of reason” (p. 43). Unlike religion, mysticism is only a “natural propensity of the human mind, and we need not believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it” (p. 221).
To my skeptical ears, though, this sounds like a clarion-call to leave the frying-pan and to step bravely into the fire. It is easy to debunk faith. Faith, by definition, is a “leap of faith,” a relationship of trust regardless of evidence. In contrast, spiritualism has learned to dress up its metaphysical abstractions in the clothes of empiricism and neuro-physiology. But the empiricist pretensions of mysticism do not make the experience itself any more reasonable and empirically justified than the faith of those who believe in God. Consistent empiricists can hardly afford to take the scientistic rhetoric of mystics at face value, as Harris, a practicing spiritualist himself, ends up doing.
But in order to understand Harris’s celebration of spiritualism, it is important to understand what he is pitting it against.
A Rationalist Jihad against Jihad
The End of Faith is a response to religious extremism from a rationalist extremist perspective. Disturbed by the rise of religious violence around the world, especially the 9-11 attacks on America, Harris has taken on the traditional theological beliefs about God and afterlife that motivate some to kill innocents. Brushing aside all political and historical factors that have contributed to religious extremism in the contemporary world, Harris singles out theological beliefs as the primary and pretty much the sole cause of religious violence. He indulgently turns a blind eye on the “spiritual” teachings of Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which have a proven track-record of justifying nationalistic wars and ethnic cleansings. Instead, he saves all his venom against the Koran, condemning it as if it were a manual of war. His analysis of religious extremism goes on these lines:
Question: Why do Islamic terrorists do what they do? Why has Osama bin Laden chosen the path of violence against the West, especially against America?
Answer: Because men like bin Laden actually believe in the literal truth of the Koran. And because the literal truth of Koran is “intrinsically” violent and intolerant, they have no choice but to commit acts of violence.
In short, it is the theology stupid!
In his rationalist Jihad on Jihadi theology, Harris’s motto seems to be (with due apologies to Barry Goldwater): “Extremism in the defense of reason is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of secularism is no virtue.” Harris can barely curb his enthusiasm for George Bush’s disastrous wars, announcing gleefully that “we are at war against Islam” – not at war against violent extremists, mind you, but against the very “vision of life prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran” (p. 109). He finds tortured justifications for torturing suspected terrorists in America’s Gulag. He goes even further:
some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them….Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” (p. 53, emphasis added.)
The villains who are beyond the pale of reason and who deserve to die are all Muslims. While he has some harsh things to say about Christians and Jews as well, he spares them the wars and the torture, for unlike the Muslim barbarians, they have had their reformations and their enlightenments.
This bilious attack on faith only sets the stage for what seems to be his real goal: a defense – nay, a celebration of – Harris’s own Buddhist/Hindu spirituality. (He has been influenced by the esoteric teachings of Dzogchen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta and has spent many years practicing various techniques of meditation, Harris informs his readers). Spirituality is the answer to Islam’s and Christianity’s superstitions and wars, Harris wants to convince us. While he is quick to pour scorn on such childish ideas as the virgin birth, heaven and hell, the great rationalist has only winks and nods to offer when it comes to such “higher” truths as near-death experiences, ESP and the existence of disembodied souls, all of which he finds plausible. Our fearless crusader against faith puts his reason to sleep when it comes to the soul-stuff of the Eastern faith traditions that he himself subscribes to.
Harris has made a name for himself as an uncompromising and fearless champion of reason. His The End of Faith has made it to the New York Times best-seller list, and he is being feted by secularist organizations and thinkers in America and around the world. I am sure that Hindu nationalists in India, who have long condemned “Semitic monotheisms” (their preferred label for Islam and Christianity) as irrational and superstitions as compared to Hinduism’s rational mysticism, will find much to celebrate in Harris as well. Be that as it may, if being a rationalist has come down to declaring a war against those who we deem beyond the pale of reason in the name of “higher” truths of mystics, then at least this rationalist wants no part of it.
One disclaimer before we go any further. I grew up as an observant Hindu in my native India. My critical engagement with Hindu spirit-centered metaphysics and Hindu nationalist politics is often painted by my Indian critics as an act of disloyalty to Mother India and, even more weirdly, as a sign of my hidden sympathies for Christianity and Islam! Not unlike Harris, these critics can not imagine that one can be a consistent, equal-opportunity skeptic and materialist, rejecting faith in both, a creator God and the subtle spiritual “energy” that is supposed to animate the entire world. Unlike Harris, who seems to have found a shelter in spirituality after the found faith wanting, I insist upon subjecting both to an equally rigorous test of reason and evidence, and I find them both equally wanting. I have no axe to grind, for or against, any particular religious tradition. If I have any axe to grind at all, it is for a naturalistic worldview which denies all forms of supernaturalism, regardless of whether they are located in God in heaven or spread out in all of cosmos.
What I find particularly galling about spirituality is its pretensions of “higher” rationality, its false and dangerous claims of being “empirical” and “scientific” in the sense of being testable by “experience” (which invariably means non-sensory experience). Western converts to Eastern spirituality, along with Eastern apologists themselves, end up presenting an air-brushed, sanitized picture of the real thing. That is the reason why I felt that Harris’s brand of rational mysticism had to be examined carefully and challenged.
New Age Mystifications
Spiritualism is not just good for your soul, Harris wants to convince us, it is good for your mind as well: it can make you “happy, peaceful and even wise …by searching for truth” (p. 215). Results of spiritual practices are “genuinely desirable [for they are] not just emotional but cognitive and conceptual as well,” and Harris wants us to actively seek them out (p. 40).
In the rest of this essay, I want to examine these cognitive and social virtues that are supposed to follow from spiritualism or mysticism. (Harris uses the two interchangeably. I will follow the practice as well.) I will use Harris’s own criteria of rationality of beliefs to ask if the existence-claims routinely made by mystics can stand up to the demands of empirical evidence. Likewise, I will use Harris’s own diagnosis of dualism between subject and object as the source of all the evils of faith to ask if ending dualism is really the path to peace.
But let us first look at what Harris means by spirituality.
Harris offers a standard characterization of the mystical/spiritual experience. He describes it as tuning, or focusing, the mind through meditation, fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation or using psychotropic drugs, that enables it to overcome, or dissolve, the sense of the self that stands separate from the objects of its consciousness. The goal of spiritual experience is to “experience the world perfectly shorn of self… to lose the subject/object perception …to continue to experience the world, but without the felling that there is a knower standing apart form the known. Thoughts may arise, but the feeling that one is a thinker of these thoughts vanish.” (p. 212-213) The goal is to dissolve the ego-bound, individuated subject by ending its separation from the object itself. Harris is describing the classic all-is-one and one-is-all experience that mystics and spiritual adepts tend to report.
For Hindus, this attempt to divest the ego by consciously realizing its identity with the ground of the entire macrocosm – what the Hindus call the Brahman – is the very essence of what the Vedas and Upanishads teach: “Thou art That,” “all this Brahman” and the atman (self) in you is the Brahman. Brahman, the Vedas teach, is the sole, truly existing, non-material, eternal reality which is beyond space, time and causation. Once you experience the sense of being beyond space, time and causation through yoga, breath control and meditation, you will realize the truth of the Vedas, namely, the self in you (atman) is identical with Brahman, your consciousness encompasses the entire macrocosm, and that you are, in fact, God. Once you reach this state of mind, you are not held back by fears or tempted by desires: the here and now of the material world become illusionary and lose their grip on one’s mind. Thus, the achievement of the sense of one-ness with the universe is a central commandment of Hindu and Buddhist teachings. While Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions have their mystics, only the Eastern traditions provide a doctrine that can make sense of the mystical experience of unity or one-ness.
I would have no argument with Harris if he were only recommending spiritualism as means for mindful relaxation, and the delight and even ecstasy that sometimes accompany the sensation of losing one’s sense of space, time and self. Indeed “wise mystics” have long realized that the mystical experience does not confer existential status on its content. Rather than construct metaphysical systems, wise mystics have learned to simply enjoy and value the experience itself. There is enough data to believe that meditation, if done consistently and over many years, does bring about a deep state of relaxation, with dramatically lowered heart rate and brain activity. If the goal is to reduce stress, even the most militant rationalist will have to admit that meditation does provide some benefits. (It does not follow, however, that all the claims of yoga and pranayam, must be accepted. There is very little rigorous controlled testing of the more extravagant claims of those who believe in the power of the mind to cure everything from blindness to cancers).
Unfortunately, Harris is not one of the wise mystics. He loads spiritual practices with metaphysical baggage, all the while claiming to stand up for reason and evidence. By the end of the book, I could not help thinking of him as a Trojan horse for the New Age. While Harris tries to distance himself from the more extravagant Whole Life Expo type fads (crystals, colonic irrigation and the like), he ends up endorsing fundamental New Age assumptions as rational alternatives to traditional religiosity. Here are three of his assumptions, in an increasing order of obfuscation:
To begin with, there is this nugget, tucked away in the end notes, which celebrates the prospect of revival of occult: “ Indeed, the future looks like the past… We may live to see the technological perfection of all the visionary strands of traditional mysticism: shamanism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Hermetism and its magical Renaissance spawn (Hermeticism) and all the other Byzantine paths whereby man has sought the Other in every guise of its conception. But all these approaches to spirituality are born of a longing for esoteric knowledge and a desire to excavate …the mind –in dreams, in trance, in psychedelic swoon – in search for the sacred” (end note 23, p. 290).
It is hard to believe that the author of this stuff is the most celebrated rationalist of our troubled times.
Secondly, Harris rejects a naturalistic understanding of nature and the human mind. He sets consciousness free from such mortal things as brains and bodies, allowing the possibility of pan-psychism, the doctrine of immanence of awareness or consciousness throughout the universe. For someone studying to be a neuroscientist, Harris holds rather unconventional views. He scoffs at the physicalism of the mainstream of scientists who believe that our mental and spiritual lives are wholly dependent upon the workings of the brain, treating it as an irrational “article of faith” which methods of science can neither prove nor disprove. He gives full credence to reports of near death experience and leaves open the possibility that disembodied soul can survive the death of the body, claiming that we don’t know what happens after death. After denying that consciousness is a product of our physiology, he presents it as a fundamental ingredient of nature, “a far more rudimentary phenomenon than living creatures and their brains” (p. 209). This is nothing but the good old mind-matter holism, the first principle of all New Age beliefs.
Again, the problem is not that Harris holds these beliefs. The problem is that Harris wants to convince us that it is the very height of rationality to hold these beliefs.
Thirdly, and I examine this more closely in the next section, Harris believes that spiritual experiences are knowledge experiences, or as he puts it, altered mental states induced by spiritual practices can “uncover genuine facts about the world” (p. 40). Investigation of our own subjectivity, Harris believes, is a “proper and essential sphere of investigation into the nature of the universe, as some facts will be discovered only in consciousness.” (p. 209). Again, as before, he tries to distance himself from the more extravagant metaphysical schemes. But he buys into the basic idea that what mystics see in their minds actually has an ontological referent in the world outside their minds. Or to put it in the vocabulary he prefers, when the gap between the subject and object vanishes, “pure” awareness of one’s subjectivity can tell us something about the objective reality.
Here, Sam Harris is not all that far apart from Mahesh Yogi, Deepak Chopra and others who claim that spiritual practitioners have the most objective view of the world because they can see it “directly,” just the way it is, completely “shorn of the self,” and the many biases and dogmas that “I-ness” brings.
How Rational is Mysticism?
In loading spirituality with ontological baggage, Harris is making, let us say, a leap of faith. He is falling in the noetic, or intellectualist, trap that William James identified in The Varieties of Religious Experience when he noticed how mystical experience has the quality of a profound knowing: “although similar to the states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance… and as a rule, they carry with them a curious sense of authority” (emphasis added).
At their peak, meditative experiences invariably bring about a feeling of having touched something far deeper and far more real than what is normally experienced by the five senses in our ordinary lives. And this conviction itself becomes a source of validation of the of the objective reality of what they have seen: what they see in their minds, they assume, must exist outside. Vision gets fixed into metaphysical systems built on super-sensory entities and processes. The experience of losing the boundaries of one’s ego, the feeling of having transcended time and space, gives the feeling of becoming one with the universe, of “seeing” the entire macrocosm in one’s own mind. It is not a coincidence that the teaching of Vedanta – “Thou art That” – has been interpreted by so many as implying that I (the enlightened one) am Brahman, that I am the universe, that my mind is the mind of the entire cosmos and by controlling my mind, I can control the cosmos. Contrary to Harris’s attempt to rationalize it, the mind-matter unity has been the metaphysics underlying the search for paranormal powers and extra-sensory perceptions. It is not a coincidence that rational mystics like Harris who subscribe to the thesis of mind being an element of matter end up making excuses for paranormal phenomena such as ESP, near death experiences (see p. 41).
This noetic propensity to make existence claims with absolute certainty is not a metaphysical excess or a delusion: It is part and parcel of the mystical experience. Neurosciences are revealing the biological grounds for why mystical experiences feel as if they are actually uncovering genuine facts about the world. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, in their well-known Why God will Not Go Away, offer a clue. They believe that the ontological fallacy stems from the process of reification – “the ability of the brain to convert a concept into a concrete thing, or more succinctly, to bestow upon something the quality of being real or true. Reification refers to the power of the mind to grant meaning and substance to its own perceptions.” On this account, meditative practices slow down the transmission of neural information to the posterior superior parietal lobes of the brain, which controls spatial orientation, resulting in the sensation of pure awareness which is incapable of drawing boundaries between the limited personal self and the external material world. This sensation gets reified into the image of “reality of as a formless unified whole, with no limits, no substance, no beginning and no end.”
What neurosciences seem to be telling us is that while the neurological processes that give rise to mystical experiences are real, they prove nothing about the ultimate nature of reality or God. Just because we can study the neuro-physiology of mysticism in a scientific manner, does not make the experience scientific or rational in any way. (We can study schizophrenia in a scientific manner, but that does not mean that schizophrenics are rational). Harris has a tendency to confuse the fact that spirituality can be taught and studied in a rational manner, with the rationality of the beliefs about the world that such experiences engender.
Harris, a doctoral student in neuroscience, hardly needs a primer on these matters. He realizes, of course, that reification works on all experiences, sensory as well as non-sensory. The sights and sounds we hear, Harris tells us, are not raw data from the world outside, but are processed by the higher centers of the brain. The brain is not a mirror to the world outside, but more like a radio or TV receiver that is “tuned to deliver a particular vision of the world” (p. 42). Harris wants us to believe that mysticism is only a matter of tuning your brain differently so that it receives signal from an altered, boundary-less relationship between you and the world (p. 41-42). The information that this altered state of mind is “tuned” to receive is nevertheless rational because it “uncover[s] genuine facts about the world” (p.40) and discloses closer interconnections in the universe than are apparent to us in our ordinary sates of consciousness. (One cannot help wondering, why faith in God is not just such a method of “tuning the brain differently” for those who believe in the personal God of the Bible and the Koran? Neurologically speaking, why is God a “delusion,” if mysticism is “astute”?)
But Harris can defend the rationality of mysticism only by completely contradicting himself, by forgetting the criteria of rationality which he applies so energetically when he is eviscerating faith in God. If he were to apply these same criteria to spirituality as rigorously as he applies them to faith, he will have no choice but to admit that mysticism is as much of an “imposter” as faith. He will have to admit that mysticism, like faith, is an “act of knowledge that has a low grade of evidence” (p. 65). He will have to admit that mystics, like believers in a personal God, “seize upon extraordinary phenomena” and extraordinary experiences, as confirmation of the beliefs which have gripped their imagination and filled them with a sense of awe (pp. 65-66). Mysticism fares no better, and no worse, than “mere” faith, when judged against the demands of evidence. Here is why:
What do people mean, Harris asks, when they say that they believe a certain proposition about the world? What they mean is that the proposition “faithfully represents some state of the world (51).” When someone says he believes that God exists, he means that God’s existence is the cause of his belief. Likewise, when someone says he believes in consciousness suffusing the whole world, he means that the consciousness suffusing the world is the cause of his belief.
The obvious next question is: how do we know if our beliefs, however real they feel to us, are in fact faithfully representing the world? For beliefs to faithfully represent some state of the world, they must have some kind of a hook into the world: there must be “some mechanism that guarantees that the regularities in our nervous system consistently mirror regularities in the environment…something in our experience must provide a causal link to the actual state of the world (p. 58, emphasis added).
Harris rejects God because none of the traditional justifications for belief in God – spiritual experiences, the authority of the Bible and/or the church— have an adequate hook into reality: none of them can assure that God exists, or that “belief in god is a consequence of the way the world is” (63). God has to go, because the experience of God cannot be shown to be caused by anything that actually exists.
But by this standard, spirituality is no less irrational, for it is no less lacking in a hook into the reality. Harris has to tell us what “casual links” does spiritual experience offer into “the actual state of the world”? What assurance there is that the “deeper connections” mystics see in their mind, actually “mirror the regularities in the environment”? All we have is the mystic’s word that he has been able to vanquish the constraints of his “self,” and has come to see world “directly” by becoming one with it. There is no independently testable reason for non-mystics – for the vast majority of people who find their non-altered states of consciousness to be perfectly adequate and satisfying – to accept the mystics’ word as evidence. I don’t find the usual analogies with consensus in natural sciences very persuasive at all (p. 220). In science (Thomas Kuhn notwithstanding) anyone with functioning senses, adequate training and right apparatus can see the same star, the same DNA molecule, the same electron. But not everyone with adequate training in meditation techniques, and the right atmosphere, sees the same mystical reality: some see God, some see nothing at all and some, without any meditation at all, see what the mystics see. I believe that William James had it right:
mystical states… are absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come. But mystics have no right to claim that we ought to accept the deliverance of their peculiar experiences…. Non-mystics are under no obligation to acknowledge in mystical states a superior authority (p. 460, 645).
In sum, Sam Harris is right in that “mysticism is a natural propensity of the human mind.” But he is dead wrong when he claims that mysticism does not demand that we “believe anything on insufficient evidence to actualize it” (p. 221).
Why does it matter?
The attitude of many moderate rationalists on matters of spiritualism has been of benign neglect or even indulgence. It all appears so harmless and it might even have some positive contributions to make to one’s health and tranquility of mind. What is more, the attacks by feminists and environmentalists on the sins of “reductionist Western science” have created a positive aura around “holistic science” which overcomes the gap between the subject and the object. The notion that the reality and our knowledge of it depends upon how we see it has gained many adherents in the postmodern academe.
But what kind of claims is made by spiritualists and how they justify these claims matters a great deal. It matters because, beliefs matter. What we believe in is of utmost importance, as Harris himself so correctly emphasizes, because “beliefs are actions in potentia, as a man believes, so he will act” (p. 44). I am in full agreement with Harris when he says that “Even apparently innocuous beliefs, when unjustified can lead to intolerable consequences” (p. 46).
Mysticism matters because beliefs matter. And for this reason, metaphysical claims that follow from mystical experiences cannot be given the appearance of rationality, as books like The End of Faith are wont to do. As Harris himself admits, while mystical experiences can are rational, they can become “irrational when people begin making claims about the world which cannot be supported by empirical evidence” (p. 210)
I have indicated, above, the neurological and philosophical reasons why mystical experiences show a pronounced tendency to erect metaphysical systems. I have also indicated why these metaphysical systems lack a causal link, a hook, into reality and therefore escape the reach of empirical testing.
These issues are not of theoretical interest alone. In countries like my native India where yoga and spiritualism enjoy the blessings of the highest religious authorities, metaphysical beliefs that follow from mystical experiences exert a great deal of social influence. (While India has a fairly large and advanced scientific workforce, science has not succeeded in displacing the authority of metaphysical truths from the cultural sphere. If anything, science has been largely co-opted into Hindu spiritualism.) These beliefs do not only structure the worldview of ordinary people, they also serve as their paradigm of knowledge and truth.
As a Western follower of Buddhism and Hinduism, living and working in the USA, Harris can afford to pick and choose what he likes and downplay what he doesn’t. But the fact is that, in situ, Eastern religious traditions have encouraged beliefs about nature which, if accepted, would completely contradict just about every known scientific theory about life on earth. I am referring to the family of metaphysical tenets of Hinduism which support a vitalistic, pan-psychical conception of life and biological evolution, including such familiar ideas as rebirth and karma, the belief in a subtle (i.e., inaccessible to all human senses) life-force, or prana, which is supposed to animate all that exists and the belief in innate moral qualities in nature. Add to that the doctrines of spiritual evolution – call them Vedic theories of “intelligent guidance,” if you will – that see spiritualization of all life until the emergence of “supermind” that merges with the Brahman.
Now we come to the crux of why mysticism matters and why the kind of scientist gloss Harris offers is not helpful. Each and every element of Hindu worldview described above makes an existence claim about the workings of nature, especially living beings, their birth, death and destiny. And each and every element of this worldview is defended as an actual “fact” that the authors of the Vedas, the rishis, actually “saw” in their minds in a state of Samadhi, the state of mystical one-ness. The defense of mystical seeing as experience-based and therefore scientific serves to present poetic, existential and philosophical speculations as if they are actual facts of nature, empirically accessible to minds tuned to a different frequency by yoga and intense meditation.
Take for example, the concepts of kundalini and chakras, popular among the yoga-Ayurveda crowd. Kundalini is often taught by modern gurus and yogis as if it were a real biological entity, a “coil of power” that lies at the bottom of a hollow canal called “sushumna” that is supposed to run through the spinal column. An explicitly realist description of kundalini first appeared in Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on Raj Yoga which introduced the ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to the West sometime in the waning years of the 19th century. Vivekananda describes kundalini as if it were a real physical force that “forces a passage through this hollow canal [the non-existent Sushumna, that is], and as it rises step by step, layer after layer of the mind becomes open and all the different visions and wonderful powers come to the yogi. When it reaches the brain, the yogi is perfectly detached from the body and the mind…” According to those who have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in the original, kundalini and chakras were never intended to be referential: they were meant to be imaginary aids to help in yogic meditations. The “subtle body” of the yogis was never meant to be some kind of a “quantum mechanical body,” made up of morphic fields or unified fields. It was a body image, an abstract image that a yogi could focus his mind upon. Likewise, chakras, which are often presented as actual nerve centers, were “rungs on an imagined ladder for the yogi to check his progress.” Clearly, Vivekananda and his countless neo-Hindu gurus, were reifying imaginary concepts into actual physical entities.
How is this feat accomplished? Vivekananda’s writings set the tone and every modern guru advertising the “scientific” nature of Hinduism has followed Vivekananda’s lead. Vivekananda essentially presented mysticism as scientific in spirit and content: whereas scientists see “merely” with their senses, yogis were seeing the universe in a “supersensory” state of consciousness. Thus the existence of kundalini gets translated into an objective fact of human anatomy on the testimony of the mystics. Just like science, mystics’ vision was also based upon “experience” and was therefore scientific and commanded rational consent (as compared to the faith-based consent of Christians and Muslims). One finds exactly similar arguments, dressed up in quantum mechanical terms in the writings of modern gurus like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Deepak Chopra.
When I picked up The End of Faith, I did not expect to find a very similar defense of mysticism coming from such a militant rationalist as Harris. Harris concedes the basic point that the Hindu gurus cited above are making, that mystical experience is a knowledge experience, and that mystical seeing tells you something about the objective world.
I believe that Harris is making the same two mistakes that neo-Hindus routinely make: They confuse the method and rigor of meditation with the rigor of its conclusions, and they confuse the mystical “seeing” with ordinary seeing that takes place in science. They forget that empiricism in science is class apart from the spiritual empiricism of the mystics. Not all experiences qualify as scientific: to forget that is to open the door to all kinds of pseudo-sciences.
Will spirituality end all wars?
At the root of all wars, Harris tells us, lies the separateness, or the dualism, between human beings, between the “I” and the non “I”: “Every problem we have can be ascribed to the fact that human beings are utterly beguiled by their feeling of separetness” (p. 214). He ascribes this separateness – as have so many theosophists and mystics, many of whom held deeply anti-Semitic views, before him – to the Abrahamic tradition itself which has demanded faith in a God who is Himself separate from his creation.
Recall that for Harris, it is the content of religious ideas that alone motivates religious violence. His working principle is “as a man believes, so shall he act.” Those whose faith tradition teaches them separateness will be intolerant, aggressive and always fighting wars.
If it is all about theology, stupid!, it follows that the solution to wars will also be theological. Harris’s solution is simple: shed the “I.” The more ordinary people can divest themselves of the feeling they call “I”, Harris tells us, the more they will divest the feeling that they are separate from the rest of the universe (p. 40). And the more they feel themselves connected to the universe, the less they will have the feelings of fear and anger. Love and compassion will follow (p. 219-220). Mahesh Yogi could not have said it any better!
But even if one played along with Harris’s badly flawed, theology-centered diagnosis of religious extremism, it is simply not true that spiritual, non-dualistic Eastern religions are free from violence. And is simply not true that shedding the “I” makes for a free and peaceable society. Streaks of violence and authoritarianism run deep in societies which worship at the altar of “one-ness.” Harris, who is so alert to the “inherent” violence of the Koran, is completely blind to the religious sources of violence in the “spiritual East.” (Having said that, I don’t want to turn around and start pinning the social problems of the East on to Eastern religions alone. I reject the very premise that any religion is inherently violent or inherently peaceful. One simply cannot brush away the social and political context in which religious ideas express themselves for the good and for the bad.)
The Jains of India may not be committing acts of suicide bombings, as Harris reminds us repeatedly. But can one honestly say that Jains and pious Hindus, many of strict vegetarians, have shown any compassion and “one-ness” for the Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities in India? Has their Hinduism prevented Tamil Tigers from conducting suicide bombings against the equally “spiritual” Buddhists of Sri Lanka? (And conversely, has the Buddhism of the Sri Lankan majority prevented their vicious discrimination against the Tamils? ). Didn’t Zen Buddhists actively and enthusiastically support the violent ultra-nationalism of the Japanese people in Japan’s brutal imperialist wars against China and Korea? Were the Japanese kamikazes not motivated by the teachings of Buddhism? Don’t some Hindus interpret the Bhagvat Gita to support violence in defense of their dharma? There is a complex history of nationalism, religion and racism behind each one of these historical episodes. Critical scholars have begun to question the image of peace and harmony that is supposed to be the hallmark of the non-dualist Eastern religions. Harris would do well to study this emerging literature to bring some balance to his faith-bad/spiritualism-good fairy tale.
Moreover, Harris is completely oblivious to the authoritarian implications of the one-ness he worships. Shedding one’s “I-ness” is a recipe for group-think and authoritarianism. The individual in her everyday life, with her everyday sensory knowledge of here-and-now is treated as an illusion of no consequence when seen from the mystical high of one-ness. The Gnostic vision of one-ness, mind you, is not supposed to be available to the hoi polloi, who are supposed to be weighted down by the “gross matter” of their bodies and fooled by their senses. The enlightened have always constituted a spiritual aristocracy in Eastern societies. The holism of caste society is what you get when one-ness is made into the highest religious ideal.
To conclude this review: Mysticism is not a rational alternative to faith. Dissolving our sense of individual self in a larger spiritual one-ness will not end wars and oppression. Those who cannot accept a personal God on faith alone can’t hide behind mysticism or spiritualism either. Reason bars them both, and human good transcends them both.
Meera Nanda is a biologist and philosopher of science; she has written many articles for Butterflies and Wheels. She is the author of Prophets Facing Backward
1. This distinction between wise and unwise mystics comes from a very wise mystic, Agehananda Bharati, a Viennese who became a Hindu monk. See his The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, 1976. I count Susan Blackmore, the ex-ESP researcher and now a major exponent of naturalistic view of consciousness and a serious practitioner of Zen meditation among wise mystics. John Horgan’s exploration of rational mysticism is far wiser than Harris’s. See John Horgan, Rational Mysticism: Dispatches between the Border between Science and Mysticism, New York: Hougton Mifflin, 2003.
2. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern Library Paperback Edition, 2002, p. 414-415.
3. Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili and Vince Rause, Why God won’t go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, New York: Ballentine Books, 2001.pp 149-152.
4. I look at the co-option of science into religion in India and America in a comparative perspective in a recent essay, “Godless States in God Lands: Dilemmas of Secularism in America and India,” in Axess, 2005, no. 8. See also, Is India a Science Superpower? Frontline, Sept. 10-23, 2005.
5. Swami Vivekananda, Raj Yoga, in The Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Vol. 1 (Kolkatta: Advaita Center), p. 160.
6. See Agehananda Bharati, note 1, p. 164-165.
7. Established in the sixth century BCE by Mahavira, Jainism is one of the oldest religious traditions of India and shares Hindu beliefs in reincarnation and karma. Jains reject belief in a creator god and seek release from endless reincarnation through a life of strict self-denial. In addition, Jainism places a special emphasis on ahimsa ("non-injury") to all living beings. Monks and nuns are sometimes seen with muslin cloths over their mouths to keep out flying insects, and they are enjoined to use small brooms to gently sweep away living creatures from their path, so as to not accidentally crush them. See beliefnet.com for more details.
8. Some important writings include: Brian Victoria, Zen at War, New York: Weatherhill, 1997. Robert Sharf, “The Zen of Japanese Nationalism,” in Donald S. Lopez, Jr. ed, Curators of the Buddha, Chicago University Press, 1995. Denis Vidal, Gilles Tarabout and Eric Meyer (eds.) Violence/Non-Violence : Some Hindu Perspectives, New Delhi, Manohar, 2003.
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