Sam Harris’s Religion

In 2006, Sam Harris wrote an article for a Buddhist magazine entitled, Killing the Buddha.

The article is summarized as follows:

“Kill the Buddha,” says the old koan. “Kill Buddhism,” says Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, who argues that Buddhism’s philosophy, insight, and practices would benefit more people if they were not presented as a religion.

So Harris’s philosophy is Buddhism’s Trojan Horse? Interesting. Instead of presenting Buddhism as a religion, we’re supposed to present it as science – a “contemplative science.” Harris writes:

What the world most needs at this moment is a means of convincing human beings to embrace the whole of the species as their moral community. For this we need to develop an utterly nonsectarian way of talking about the full spectrum of human experience and human aspiration. We need a discourse on ethics and spirituality that is every bit as unconstrained by dogma and cultural prejudice as the discourse of science is. What we need, in fact, is a contemplative science, a modern approach to exploring the furthest reaches of psychological well-being. It should go without saying that we will not develop such a science by attempting to spread “American Buddhism,” or “Western Buddhism,” or “Engaged Buddhism.”

First, given his sectarianism, it is ironic to see Harris advocate for “an utterly nonsectarian way of talking.” After all, it was Harris’s sectarian thinking that led him to embrace the crackpot position that Francis Collins was not qualified to head the NIH.

Second, notice the points of emphasis I placed. Harris is clearly trying to make his Buddhism look like science. In fact, earlier in his essay, he makes this point explicitly:

In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science. One starts with the hypothesis that using attention in the prescribed way (meditation), and engaging in or avoiding certain behaviors (ethics), will bear the promised result (wisdom and psychological well-being).

Now we can understand why Harris wrote a book that tried to argue science could determine what is right and what is wrong. Now we can understand why he wants to dumb down the definition of science. It was/is all part of his effort to create a new strain of cargo cult science by merging Buddhism with science and selling it, first, to the atheist community.

Harris writes:

If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.” No doubt, most serious practitioners of meditation realize this, but most Buddhists do not. Consequently, even if a person is aware of the timeless and noncontingent nature of the meditative insights described in the Buddhist literature, his identity as a Buddhist will tend to confuse the matter for others.

Wow. So the science of Buddhism is supposed to uncover genuine truths. What truths? Truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence. How are we supposed to know these are true? Because they were discovered by ethical precepts and meditation and ethical precepts and meditation are like science. Woo.

Of course, “contemplative science” can’t resist flexing its sectarian muscles:

We do not yet have anything like a final understanding of such processes, but we know enough to rule out many false understandings. Indeed, we know enough at this moment to say that the God of Abraham is not only unworthy of the immensity of creation; he is unworthy even of man.

So what kind of gnutopia does this “contemplative science” promise to deliver? Harris teases:

There is much more to be discovered about the nature of the human mind. In particular, there is much more for us to understand about how the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion. Students of the Buddha are very well placed to further our understanding on this front, but the religion of Buddhism currently stands in their way.

If you ask me, the evidence would indicate Harris’s mind is more likely to be “a reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion” than “an instrument of wisdom and compassion,” despite decades of meditating. But I’ll resist that low-hanging fruit.

Instead, focus on the sectarian nature of this utopia. On one hand, we have those who meditate – those poised to be an instrument of wisdom and compassion. These are the “Awakened.” Then there are those who do not meditate – those who have not been transformed from their reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion. Despite all his rationalizations for calling his religion a science, Harris is unable to escape the inherently religious nature of his worldview.

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9 Responses to Sam Harris’s Religion

  1. Dhay says:

    From the same Sam Harris article:

    If you really believe that calling God by the right name can spell the difference between eternal happiness and eternal suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat heretics and unbelievers rather badly.

    It is generally interesting to substitute a word or two and see what results:

    If you really believe that meditating can spell the difference between lifelong happiness and lifelong suffering, then it becomes quite reasonable to treat Eckhart Tolle and non-meditators rather badly.

    I see that Harris regards the mind of non-meditators as ”a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion; if Harris regards the minds of non-meditators – Christians and atheists alike – as mere cesspits full of greed, hatred and delusion, and nothing else, it becomes quite reasonable to him to treat non-meditators rather badly.

    The fuller quote is, “the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion.” This is something that Harris’ de-Buddhism’d meditation will allegedly achieve, but not Christianity, which Harris here and elsewhere shows great antipathy towards.

    Harris continually stresses anything and everything he can find wrong with (the Abrahamic religions including) Christianity, while oblivious to the very popular ‘Prayer of St Francis’:

    Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

    Not evil, evil, evil Christians, then, but loving, caring Christians; Christians who are role-models in seeking how “the mind can transform itself from a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion into an instrument of wisdom and compassion.”

  2. Michael says:

    I see that Harris regards the mind of non-meditators as ”a mere reservoir of greed, hatred, and delusion”; if Harris regards the minds of non-meditators – Christians and atheists alike – as mere cesspits full of greed, hatred and delusion, and nothing else, it becomes quite reasonable to him to treat non-meditators rather badly.

    I’ll give Harris credit for recognizing the essence of human nature. His fatal and fundamental error is the common error – he thinks he has devised a way of saving himself and others.

  3. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris > If the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers genuine truths about the mind and the phenomenal world—truths like emptiness, selflessness, and impermanence—these truths are not in the least “Buddhist.”

    A comparison with Hinduism is instructive: whereas the methodology of Buddhism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers the “truth” of selflessness, the methodology of Hinduism (ethical precepts and meditation) uncovers the “truth” of union with the “Self” – not to be confused with the egoistical “self” – which appears to be the same as union with Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna says, in the Bhagavad Gita:

    “With the mind harmonised by Yoga [union] he sees the Self, abiding in all beings, and all beings in the Self, he sees the same everywhere. He who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, he never becomes separated from Me, nor do I become separated from him”
    http://www.dlshq.org/download/gita_busy.htm#_VPID_7

    (Or as the Beatles memorably put it, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together… goo goo goo joob.”)

    What we see is that the two meditative practices – the two “contemplative sciences” – of Buddhism and Hinduism uncover quite different, conflicting, “genuine truths”. The “genuine truth” of selflessness as expounded by Harris (ie without “Self”, and without union with Krishna) appears most definitely to be Buddhist; Hinduism also differs by lacking Buddhism’s and Harris’ emphasis on the concept of emptiness, so emptiness is not a “genuine truth” for Hinduism, and appears most definitely to be Buddhist. Looks like two of your three ‘not in the least “Buddhist”’ “truths“ are definitely Buddhist, Sam.

    Which “contemplative science” should we follow, then; whose “genuine truths” should we hold to, and whose discard; and why does Harris never mention the “truth” which both of the “contemplative sciences” agree they have uncovered – so it must be a “genuine truth”, mustn’t it – namely reincarnation.

  4. TFBW says:

    Which “contemplative science” should we follow, then…

    Harris knew a priori which doctrines were true: the ones that followed from philosophical materialism. He just used Buddhist meditative techniques to confirm the viewpoints he already knew to be true. If Hindu “contemplative science” reaches incompatible conclusions, then so much the worse for Hinduism.

  5. Dhay says:

    In his “Selling Out Science” blog attack on Francis Collins – a real scientist, not a “contemplative science”-ist like Sam Harris, Harris says, “There is a conflict between science and religion, and it is zero-sum.” (See http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/op-ed-selling-out-science-nov-29-2005) Anyone who has read Context Group articles, eg by Jerome H Neyrey or Bruce J Malina, will immediately recognise this zero-sum notion as very very characteristic of the Ancient Near East honour-shame society in which Jesus moved.

    It is also a notion very very characteristic of the honour-shame society in modern Pakistan, where in Lahore a woman was recently publicly stoned to death by her family for disobeying (hence “dishonouring”) them.

    Harris hates Islam and its honour-shame fundamentalism, but in the blog entry is displaying the same honour-shame mentality.

    I wouldn’t have mentioned this now, except Richard Dawkins has just tweeted – and Harris has re-tweeted – ‘“Atheist mob stones woman to death for marrying a theist.” Funny how we all just KNOW that couldn’t be true.

    And it occurs to me that if enough atheists shared with Harris the honour-shame attitude which Harris shares with tribalistic Islam, then “Atheist mob stones woman to death for marrying a theist” might conceivably happen.

  6. Crude says:

    I wouldn’t have mentioned this now, except Richard Dawkins has just tweeted – and Harris has re-tweeted – ‘“Atheist mob stones woman to death for marrying a theist.” Funny how we all just KNOW that couldn’t be true.‘

    We know it couldn’t be true only insofar as we know that, were it to happen, that mob would probably be wiped out and killed in retaliation. They don’t have the numbers or the power.

    Take a look at the places where that’s not the case, and ‘atheist mob rounds up, kills Christians for being Christian’ has played out time and again.

  7. Dhay says:

    Richard Dawkins has tweeted – and Harris has re-tweeted – ‘“Atheist mob stones woman to death for marrying a theist.” Funny how we all just KNOW that couldn’t be true.‘

    My previous response focussed on Harris’ use of honour-shame imagery and language, but the tweet itself is worth looking at for its hopeless (and I’m sure, deliberate) inaccuracy. Dawkins’ tweet links to news source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/27/pregnant-pakistani-woman-stoned-to-death, so he cannot have been unaware of the relevant facts. But:

    “Atheist mob” snidely insinuates that a “theistic mob” murdered her, whereas it was her family; “for marrying a theist” insinuates she was murdered for marrying an atheist, whereas she was murdered for not marrying a man without her family’s permission: “I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it,” Mujahid, the police investigator, quoted the father as saying.

    Firstly, Dawkins is telling deliberate untruths; Harris, who claims he (almost) never lies, has re-tweeted Dawkins’ lies; Harris has deliberately spread lies.

    Secondly, the tweet/re-tweet isn’t up to even the low level of rationality — read “science”, for some prominent atheists — that plumbers use in their leak-tracing. Neither Dawkins nor Harris, both of whom trumpet the value of science and rationality, and who publicly deplore irrationality, have hesitated to promote irrationality.

  8. Michael says:

    I would say that an atheist mob stoning someone for marrying a theist is about as likely as a Christian mob stoning someone for marrying a non-Christian. Since Christians are theists, this tells me the stoning has nothing to do with atheism vs. theism. Instead of mindlessly tweeting, why doesn’t Dawkins have a blog? Is it too hard for him to write more than 140 characters without the help of an editor?

  9. Dhay says:

    On Sarah Morehead’s twitter feed there’s a 06 June 2016 link to an article, “8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated”.

    Morehead doesn’t jump either way herself, but asks for “Thoughts?”

    Cultural appropriation is a process that takes a traditional practice from a marginalized group and turns it into something that benefits the dominant group – ultimately erasing its origins and meaning.

    And that’s exactly what’s happening with [Buddhism] in Western spaces. Though the practices are based primarily on traditions that go back thousands of years in South Asia and other places around the world, including [Tibetan Buddhism]. But this context and much of the essence of [Buddhism]’s meaning has been stripped away.
    [Amended to refer to Buddhism instead of Yoga.]

    http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/05/yoga-cultural-appropriation/

    ‘Cultural appropriation’ is a relatively new term to me — evidently I don’t get out enough — but I’ve suddenly started coming across it more. Apparently, it refers not to just borrowing from another culture eg eating curries or spaghetti bolognese, but to causing actual harm or distress to the original culture — a concrete example would be those fads for some wonder-grain which drive the price up hence price the grain growers out of being able to afford to eat their own crop.

    As to whether Westernised Yoga is culturally appropriated or not is as questionable to me, after reading the article, as it seems to be to Morehead; but one thought did occur to me immediately: if stripped-down Westernised Yoga is culturally appropriated, the stripped down Westernised Buddhism promoted by Sam Harris must also be.

    Heck, there must be thousands of former Tibetan monks and nuns for whom Harris’ much-used term, Dzogchen, brings back traumatised memories of being torn away from their families at an early age, to then spend the rest of their lives imprisoned — yes, let’s not pussyfoot — imprisoned in a monastery while training for Dzogchen. That’s child abuse, isn’t it, at the very least.

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