Prayer without belief in a supernatural listener is not the same as meditation, but is it worth the extra effort you'd need to bring to it as a non-believer? Credit: Creative Commons/Sebastien Wiertz
Sam Harris has just published Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Simon & Schuster, 2014), and for those of us who care about such things, a call to spirituality from one of the New Atheism’s four horsemen is a cause for rejoicing. This book, however, does not quite deliver on its promise. In a review I wrote for Skeptic I discuss some problems with Harris’s argument and approach. Here, though, I want to describe the book I wish Harris had written, a book that could really serve as a guide to spirituality without religion for readers skeptical as to why they should be interested in spirituality at all but willing to consider it seriously and maybe even to give it a try.
Spiritual Experience, Spiritual Practice, Spiritual Wisdom, Spiritual Community
A guide to spirituality without religion should give a broad account of what spirituality is and why people do it, without, of course, relying on the metaphysical assumptions of religions. So, sure, you can be spiritual because that’s what God commands or that’s the way to escape suffering in future incarnations; but in terms of this life, referencing nothing beyond the material, psychological and social realities of this world, where does spirituality fit in?
What needs to be resisted here is any single idea of what spirituality is for and how it’s done. We can do it for the earthshaking transcendent experiences we luck into once in a while, we can do it to give our lives a sense of purpose, we can do it to get through a rough patch, we can do it because we need a rest and zoning out with our eyes closed chanting a mantra is probably healthier than zoning out in front of the television, we can do it to explore and strengthen our ethical commitments, and we can do it to deepen our connections with and compassion for other people or other creatures.
And the ways we can do it are legion: we can meditate or engage in less formal types of contemplation or reflection, we can pray, we can sing, we can consult spiritual leaders or any kind of trusted adviser, we can commune with nature, we can intentionally try to infuse everyday activities with serenity or love or awareness, we can light incense or candles, we can read things that might inspire us, we can engage in charity or social justice work, and we can participate in rituals alone or with others.
What a guide to spirituality without religion should offer, though, is not just a broad account of all the various forms of spirituality, but some discussion of the particular challenges involved in practicing these for people who are unwilling to accept the tenets of any particular religion. For instance, can you pray if you don’t believe any otherworldly being is listening to you? You can, but you may have to think about it in a different way than people usually think about prayer. Prayer without belief in a supernatural listener is not the same as meditation, but is it worth the extra effort you’d need to bring to it as a non-believer?