Ever since Harris received his PhD in neuroscience, he has become very busy setting up his own think tank and publishing popular books. Now, I have not read his books, but from what I can tell, the first one adopts a crank position and argues science can determine what is right and wrong. Aha. Now, you might think that his second book would give us the results of him actually using science to tell us what is right and wrong, but it doesn’t. Instead, the second book is an argument against free will. Now, Harris has decided to use his training as a scientist to write a third book.
In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.” Whenever I use the word—as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice”—I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
So Harris is going to write a book about atheist spirituality!
Of course, “spiritual” and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology—and I will do my best to cut those ties as well. But there seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic “mystical” or the more restrictive “contemplative”) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness—through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: “Spiritual” it is.
Ain’t scholariness wonderful? Now that Harris has his PhD, he is returning to his original “research”:
What he’ll say is this: At age 19, he and a college friend tried MDMA, better known as ecstasy, and the experience altered his view of the role that love could play in the world. (“I realized that it was possible to be a human being who wished others well all the time, reflexively.”) He dropped out of Stanford, where he was an English major, in his sophomore year and started to study Buddhism and meditation. He flew around the country and around the world, to places such as India and Nepal, often for silent retreats that went on for months. One of his teachers was Sharon Salzberg, a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass.
Of course, I am not surprised by any of this. Given the inherent nihilism that comes with atheism, it would make sense that atheist spirituality would amount to getting high or drunk to escape from it all.