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?
Does spirituality without religion require scrapping all religion and starting over? Some forms of spirituality are perfectly accessible without getting anywhere near a religion. Others, like sermons or mass, are not. A useful guide, in my opinion, would offer a close look at all of these and discuss creative or flexible approaches to making use of whatever might be most helpful in an acceptable way. No religion can dictate or fully control how you choose to participate in it. A spirituality without religion can selectively dispense with certain aspects of religion or modes of participation without rejecting religion in its entirety.
Atheists sometimes draw an ungenerous caricature of spiritual experience as the gullible acceptance of hallucinations or delusions as evidence for spiritual reality. Sam Harris improves on this by showing how hallucinations and altered states can act as catalysts for our development and recommending spiritual practices for producing such states. But spirituality is more than weird experiences and the means of achieving them.
Salvation, Revelation, and Grace
I identify, in religious terms, primarily as an atheist; my native religion is Judaism; I actively practice a kind of secular Buddhism, and I belong to a spiritual fellowship for recovery from addiction. Nevertheless, as examples of powerful spiritual concepts that should be explored in a guide to spirituality, these three from Christianity show in stark contrast the challenges facing the non-religious spiritual practitioner and why it might be worth holding on even to concepts that seem permeated with religion’s least believable claims.
Salvation is more than an act of submission to Christ as your personal savior. Salvation can be understood in a secular context — without doing great violence to its religious origins — as the experience of being saved from despair, guilt, misery, hopelessness, dissatisfaction, cravings, doubt, and strife and being granted (temporarily I believe, but many would differ) a sense that things are okay, life is good, I am a good person or have a new chance to be a good person, and I will not be overwhelmed by the challenges facing me.
This kind of profound transformation probably occurs in everyone’s life once in a while, often with no spiritual coloring at all. I can simulate divine grace at the dinner table and give my anguished three-year-old daughter an experience of salvation by simply dropping my insistence that she eat her green beans and letting her have dessert anyway. What makes a sense of salvation spiritual is that we understand it in spiritual terms: either it arises from a revelation that we interpret in a spiritual way, or we achieve it through some intentional spiritual practice.
The purveyors of particular brands of spirituality may promise a salvation that’s eternal (not just after you die, but even while you’re still alive), but from what I’ve seen, these experiences are infrequent and the sense of well-being they produce fades over time. Still, they are valuable 1) because they don’t depend on getting dessert without eating your vegetables; and 2) even as their initial glow fades, they can instill in you a long-lasting sense that things can’t be that bad because you know that it’s possible to have such a radical change in perspective that isn’t dependent on getting your own way.
One advantage, I would claim, of spirituality without religion as opposed to spirituality with it, is being able to separate the experience of revelation from the content of what’s revealed. Once the content, whatever it is, is revealed, the revelation is over. Realizing for the first time that Jesus is God may be a life-changing event; hearing that good news for the eight thousandth time in church is probably not. As spiritual skeptics we can recognize how powerful a spiritual revelation can be without assuming that if we just stick with the same belief now for the rest of our lives it will retain its power.
The sense of all being essentially well that Christians refer to as God’s grace might be understood in secular terms as “flow” or “being in the zone” or just a feeling of contentment or serenity. But there’s a certain wisdom in thinking of these states as states of grace – or, if you’re a pagan, being inspired by the muses: when the state is seen as an unearned gift then we are likely to greet it with appreciation and gratitude rather than attributing it to our own superior qualities and accomplishments. Gratitude is not just more becoming than taking personal credit for one’s moments of inspiration, it is also conducive to cultivating more of these moments.
Awe Is Awesome, But It’s Not the Whole Story
When atheists like Sam Harris discuss spirituality they often focus on the kind of mystical experience you can have contemplating the beauty of nature, the vast complexity and scale of the universe, or the infinite possibilities of consciousness that can be revealed to us through meditation or hallucinogenic drugs. A guide to spirituality should cover these and it should cover perspective and life-changing experiences like salvation, revelation and grace described above, but it should also cover the less exciting aspects of spiritual practice.
I’ve never personally had a cataclysmic revelation meditating, so why do I keep doing it and why do people recommend it? Meditation can give rise to countless tiny realizations and to shifts in thinking and behavior too subtle to track. Chapters could productively be devoted to exploring this terrain for the initiate.
I’ve also never had anything like a spiritual experience at the Seder table during Passover. So why have Jews persisted in this practice over thousands of years? I can’t give a good answer myself, but other atheist Jews could. Communal and family rituals deserve a place in a guide to spirituality.
When Spirituality Fails
Above all, a guide to spirituality needs a frank discussion of the failures of spiritual efforts. The mainline American churches and synagogues having been losing congregants in droves for decades. One reason has to be boredom. People engage in the same spiritual practice in the same community with the same words and paraphernalia year after year and sooner or later it’s going to feel a bit stale. Or things can go wrong in much more dramatic ways like encounters with sexually exploitive gurus or priests, for instance.
A guide to spirituality should discuss at least the broad classes of what can go wrong and offer ideas for what can be done in these cases. Your meditation practice is going nowhere. Should you give it up? Find a new teacher? Try harder? The spiritual community you used to get valuable support from now strikes you as being full of gossips and hypocrites. Should you leave? Foment a schism and take the good people with you? Try to change things internally? Supplement it with something else? Just take a break? You’ve been struggling with some personal issue, a self-destructive habit or a rocky relationship, and you’re spiritual practices aren’t helping you. Do you need new ones? Psychotherapy? Resignation to your inescapable fate? To talk with someone who shares your practices or beliefs and has dealt successfully with something similar in the past?
In sum, I applaud what Sam Harris has done in bringing discussion of spirituality without religion to wider attention. Now can we go beyond Harris’s own favored types of experience and styles of meditation? Spirituality without religion can be just as rich and varied as spirituality with it.
Sigfried Gold writes and speaks about spirituality, atheism, ethics, recovery, and the spiritual challenges and opportunities faced by religious outsiders and skeptics. Writing by and about him is available at tailoredbeliefs.com. He has Master’s degrees in Creative Writing and Biomedical Informatics and makes a living designing and building interactive information visualization tools that allow researchers to explore and make sense of complex data. He lives with his wife and two kids in Washington, DC and tweets occasionally at @godforatheists.