Another Form of Atheist Spirituality

According to Sam Harris, meditation is not the only route to atheist spirituality. In 2011, he wrote “Drugs and the Meaning of Life“:

I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2] Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.

Whoa! Psilocybin or LSD as one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience? Not just an “important rite of passage.” But “one of the most important” rites of passage?

At first, I was tempted to interpret this as Harris advocating some form of materialistic hedonism – an atheist hasn’t experienced all there is to be experienced if that atheist has not tried a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD. But Harris is clearly talking about more than some mere fun experience – he refers to this experience as a “rite of passage.” According to Wiki, a rite of passage is “is a ritual event that marks a person’s transition from one status to another.” Harris doesn’t seem to have a ritual in mind (yet), but he does seem to think a very important transition occurs from LSD trips. He makes this clear:

there was a period in my early 20’s when I found drugs like psilocybin and LSD to be indispensable tools of insight, and some of the most important hours of my life were spent under their influence.

LSD is a hallucinogen. From a materialistic atheist perspective, the LSD trip is nothing more than one particular brain state that is characterized by various forms of hallucinations. In fact, such drug-induced hallucinations have a long history. As Wiki states, “Psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants have a long history of use within medicinal and religious traditions around the world. They are used in shamanic forms of ritual healing and divination, in initiation rites, and in the religious rituals of syncretistic movements such as União do Vegetal, Santo Daime, and the Native American Church.”

It is most fascinating that Harris’s experience with various types of drug-induced hallucinations, historically associated with various religious rituals, is something the atheist declares as among “the most important hours of my life.” He even considers these hallucinogens to be “indispensable tools of insight.”

So again, Harris is not talking about drug-induced hallucinations as some form of recreational, hedonistic experience – something akin to a carnival in the mind; he instead views them as “tools of insight” and lists such experiences as “some of the most important hours of my life.”

Harris continues:

I think it quite possible that I might never have discovered that there was an inner landscape of mind worth exploring without having first pressed this pharmacological advantage.

Pay close attention to the language. Harris thinks he has “discovered” an “inner landscape of the mind.” Really? In what sense is his drug-induced hallucinatory state a “discovery” of anything? He may feel like he has “discovered” some “inner landscape,” but how does he know that all of this is not just an illusion?

It’s pretty clear that Harris thinks his LSD trips led him to some Truths:

However, there is no question that the mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests. Consequently, it is impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never had such experiences themselves. It is, in fact, difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.

See? “There is no question.” “The mind is vaster.” But what does that mean? When Harris says he can’t communicate the “profundity” of these drug-induced hallucinations, he is admitting his “insights” are beyond the reach of science – they must be shared subjectively.

Harris then begins to reminisce about his acid trips:

I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could have ever imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of Nature herself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it.

Wow. Again, notice the word choice – the drug “disclosed” deep layers of beauty and made possible “communion,” two things both art and science are powerless to provide. I’m not sure why we are supposed to believe this “beauty” and “communion” are anything other than a hallucination.

People generally come away from such experiences with a sense that our conventional states of consciousness obscure and truncate insights and emotions that are sacred.

Ah yes, the “conventional state of consciousness” is inferior to the drug-induced hallucinatory state.

So let me get this straight. Sam Harris, the man who for many years has mocked Christians, is the same man who thinks his acid trips were among “the most important hours” of his life. He thinks a hallucinogen is an “indispensable tools of insight.” He believes the hallucinogen discovers things, reveals thinks, discloses things, and makes “communion” possible. He believes these insights and revelations are obscured by our “conventional state of consciousness.”

Seriously, this is the guy who mocks Christians. This is one of the New Atheist leaders.

Yet this information about Harris could help to clear up one oddity. We just saw that Harris actually opposed the nomination of Francis Collins to head the NIH because of some delusional notions of Collins doing harm to scientific research. Over five years later, Harris still cannot admit getting it so wrong. Perhaps when Harris wrote his article fretting about the dangers of Francis Collins………he wasn’t in a “conventional state of consciousness.”

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20 Responses to Another Form of Atheist Spirituality

  1. TFBW says:

    So, it seems that Sam’s had a “conversion experience” of psychotropic provenance. Well, I say “conversion”, but it’s more like the experience without the conversion, because it affirmed things he already believed on the basis of materialism. Even so, he’s reinforcing standard materialist doctrine with his own brand of special revelation.

  2. Crude says:

    Is he even doing that, TFBW? I know he trumpeted materialism in the past, but it seems like a consistent materialist could not take some of the views Harris is outlining here. Then again, lots of materialists are inconsistent, or aren’t really materialists after all.

  3. The Deuce says:

    What I’m wondering is, just how much of Harris’s thinking is influenced by drug-induced brain damage?

  4. TFBW says:

    When it comes down to it, it’s not clear that materialism is consistent with reason, so I’m not looking for tight consistency. Rather, I’m looking at the things he suggests are revealed by psychotropics. In particular, I see the term “egoless communion” as reinforcing his materialist/Buddhist denial of the self. And when he says, “the mind is vaster and more fluid than our ordinary, waking consciousness suggests,” he is most certainly not suggesting a non-physical basis for that vastness. On the contrary, he says, “the efficacy of psychedelics might seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt.” For Harris, “spiritual” is just an aspect of material existence that he seeks to actively manage through meditation and chemical influences.

    In what ways do you think Harris is departing from materialism?

  5. Crude says:


    Don’t get me wrong – I’m working off hunches and suspicions here, and I recall Harris has put up a materialist front in the past. But let’s remember that full quote you’re dealing with:

    The efficacy of psychedelics might seem to establish the material basis of mental and spiritual life beyond any doubt, for the introduction of these substances into the brain is the obvious cause of any numinous apocalypse that follows. It is possible, however, if not actually plausible, to seize this evidence from the other end and argue, as Aldous Huxley did in his classic The Doors of Perception, that the primary function of the brain may be eliminative: Its purpose may be to prevent a transpersonal dimension of mind from flooding consciousness, thereby allowing apes like ourselves to make their way in the world without being dazzled at every step by visionary phenomena that are irrelevant to their physical survival.

    Now that is some woo, my friend. And Harris is playing with it. He’s not bringing it up to smash it as near as I can see – he’s saying ‘Oh my, this is suggestive. But…’ And the ‘but’ doesn’t signal a followup from Harris where he discards the idea once and for all. He expresses skepticism, but cautious skepticism.

    One thing to keep in mind is this: materialism is not just a commitment to the claim ‘our minds are made of stuff, and that stuff is something we call material’. It’s also a claim about what that ‘stuff’ actually is, what the material is. If material is just mechanical stuff – matter, and there’s nothing to matter other than the objectively measurable and mathematically quantifiable aspects – then it doesn’t make sense for Harris to talk about truths that introspection can yield that go beyond the reach of science and secular reasoning both. The only way to square it would be for him to say ‘beyond the current reach’ or ‘practical reach’, which is bad enough in a way (for his position) but that doesn’t look like the move he’s making. So if Harris says ‘I’m a materialist, I’m a materialist, but the material is very different than what the materialists thought it was’, that’s just another way of saying he’s not a materialist after all.

    I’ll add something else. Harris, to me, is a bullshitter. I think Dawkins and Coyne and Myers really believe a lot of what they say, as stupid as it often is. Harris? I think Harris has enough self awareness (maybe due to meditation) to actively be running a con on atheists in large part, if not totally. So I suspect – call it a long-shot bet – that he’s willing to trade intellectual loyalty to materialism (which most atheists, let’s face it, only embrace as a weapon to fight religion with) in exchange for trying to sell atheists the one thing many of them want but feel like they’re duty-bound to give up: religion. Real religion, complete with talk of the transcendent and a world beyond the physical, even if it’s some kind of neutral monist pantheist mush.

    Maybe I’m wrong, and I don’t write this with certainty that I’m correct. It’s a hunch. But I think Harris is going to try and sell something that is, if it’s materialism at all, is materialism in name only. We’ll see what happens.

  6. Nolan says:

    So a hallucination is now a valid form for gaining true insight about existence?
    Does this mean that those theories that state that the 12 Apostles were halluciating Christ’s resurrection were actually arguments in favor of the veracity of the claims of the 12?

  7. The Deuce says:

    Has everyone forgotten about Harris’ remarks about the “science” of xenoglossy? Try squaring THAT with materialism in any meaningful way.

  8. TFBW says:


    It seems to me that Harris introduces Huxley’s position primarily to distance himself from it. At the outset, he describes it as “possible” but “not actually plausible”. He then goes on to classify the dualist position as “unfalsifiable” — a New Atheist term closely related to Orwell’s “thoughtcrime”. He adds a lengthy footnote in which he defends physicalism as “falsifiable” — and I won’t take the opportunity to critique his argument, but merely note in passing that it relies on dualism (or some other thing like it) being verifiable. From there, he piles up additional reasons to be sceptical of the “mind as filter” model.

    To the extent he’s building it up, which isn’t much, I think he’s doing it just to open up the possibility of discussion on subjects which normally provoke knee-jerk dismissal because they are associated with non-materialist metaphysics. And — let’s be fair to Harris here — he does not advocate drug trips as a path to truth in and of themselves. On the contrary, he says, “we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences—no matter how profound they may seem.” As I say, he seems to prefer these experiences as a means to provide greater insight into that which he already knows to be true on the basis of materialism — a ludicrous case of confirmation bias though that may be.

    I may add more on this at a later time.

  9. Crude says:


    I think Harris talk of ‘we should be slow to draw conclusions’ bit is primarily some sandbagging, since he knows that if ‘inner experience’ is taken as a reliable road to truth full stop, then he’s done. But I’m getting a different sense than you are from Harris. I think he gestures towards materialism, I think he pays lip service, but I do not think he’s beholden – and I think most atheists are beholden only insofar as it’s a bulwark against religion, specifically Christianity.

    We’ll see what happens when his book is out.

  10. jwds says:


    Although my favorite line is the one about “egoless communion.” Like Harris could ever actually be egoless…

  11. Michael says:


  12. Dhay says:

    Note 5. “…Many users of DMT report being thrust under its influence into an adjacent reality where they are met by alien beings who appear intent upon sharing information and demonstrating the use of inscrutable technologies. The convergence of hundreds of such reports, many from first-time users of the drug who have not been told what to expect, is certainly interesting. It is also worth noting these accounts are almost entirely free of religious imagery. One appears far more likely to meet extraterrestrials or elves …”

    Harris tried MDMA (Ectstacy) when young, had a powerful drug-induced experience of universal love, and devoted his life to drugs; then when they turned bad-tripping on him, he turned to preaching Buddhism and its meditation methods; had he tried DMT instead, he would probably have devoted his life to Ufology and now be a conspiracy theorist determined to expose the government’s cover-up of contacts with aliens.

    Or perhaps Harris would have experienced contact with elves, and — to the despair of all New Atheists, especially Richard “ban fairy tales” Dawkins — would now be telling us fairy stories that Harris believes in more genuinely than any child ever did.

    The science of introspection leads us where? If universal love (E), egoless communion (LSD), alien abduction (DMT) and genuine belief in fairies (DMT) are all experiences produced by drugs, which of these drug experiences are we to take seriously, and change the rest of our lives to accord with, and which are we take as mere drug-induced fantasies that we laugh at the gullible for believing in? Probably the answer is to take DMT, and get the aliens and elves to share their knowledge with us.

  13. Dhay says:

    The Deuce > What I’m wondering is, just how much of Harris’s thinking is influenced by drug-induced brain damage?

    Looks like meditating might be sufficient to cause brain damage. I don’t know why anyone (especially Sam Harris’ target New Atheist types, proud of their critical-thinking skills) should want to spend time meditating.

    On Harris’ website — in a review of a book which Harris is promoting and selling through his website, namely, “Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change” — meditation is described as “mind-numbing”.

    ”The authors write about the mind-numbing effects of charismatic Christian prayer meetings, meditation, speaking in tongues, mantras; these activities apparently turn off the critical-thinking areas of the brain like a light switch.”

    It’s just possible Harris simply has a very stupid web-manager, one who has allowed this review in without Harris even being aware of it; or perhaps a spiteful web-manager seeking to hold Harris up to ridicule. It is also just possible that Harris manages the content of his website himself, but was too mind-numbed by meditation to realise how derogatory this page of his own website is to meditation – if Harris manages his own web-content, the existence of this passage on Harris’ website is evidence of the passage’s claim.

    So, Sam Harris – bearing in mind that you have practiced “mind-numbing” meditation for many years, an activity which “apparently turn[s] off the critical-thinking areas of the brain like a light switch” – what exactly led you towards New Atheism, materialist-reductionism and scientifically determinable values?

  14. stcordova says:

    What will Harris have to say about conversion experiences due to LSD. One former atheist said:

    “I used to be president and founder of the Atheist Student group at my university.
    Hardcore atheist.
    Then I discovered LSD, which made me open my mind up a bit.
    After five years or so I do believe in “God”, but only from direct experience, not from philosophical justifications, or from a book, or from church, etc.

    I would never recommend belief in “God” without firsthand experience.
    Thats what it took to convince me.
    . ”



    This collection of essays, written by the poster boy of 1960s counterculture, describes the psychological journey Timothy Leary made in the years following his dismissal from Harvard, as his psychedelic research moved from the scientific to the religious arena. He discusses the nature of religious experience and eight crafts of God, including God as hedonic artist. Leary also examines the Tibetan, Buddhist, and Taoist experiences. In the final chapters, he explores man as god and LSD as sacrament.”

  15. Dhay says:

    Harris says of psychedelics usage: “At both ends of the continuum, time dilates in ways that cannot be described—apart from merely observing that these experiences can seem eternal. I have spent hours, both good and bad, in which any understanding that I had ingested a drug was lost, and all memories of my past along with it. Immersion in the present moment to this degree is synonymous with the feeling that one has always been and will always be in precisely this condition,” and “…if I had fallen into the water, I am pretty sure there would have been no one to swim.”

    “Are we there yet, Mum?” A lack of awareness of time, and likewise a of lack of awareness of oneself as separate self, and likewise helplessness — these are characteristic of babyhood. I suspect that what Sam Harris is promoting as a drug-induced shortcut to glimpse advanced spirituality is in practice a drug-induced re-experiencing of babyhood. “Are we there yet, Mum?”

  16. Dhay says:

    I see that in his July 31 2014 blog entitled, “Legalize it!”, Jerry Coyne says, “…legalizing psychedelic drugs for adults would give them the possibility of wonderful mental experiences now barred to them. (See Sam Harris’s upcoming book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion).”

    “Wonderful mental experiences”? This is powerful testimony, both to Harris’ ability to use advertising writer techniques to pull the wool over his readers’ eyes, and to Coyne’s gullibility. Coyne refers to Waking Up, which is not yet published; but I would be very surprised to find it differs in message from Harris’ 2011 blog entitled, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”, which Harris has very recently amended and added to, and which he has quite obviously done so – judging from the timing – with the aim of harmonising its message with that of the book; so I’ll quote the various descriptive words Harris uses there for psychedelic drug-induced experiences, to clarify what those “wonderful mental experiences” actually are – all of them, not just the ones Harris and Coyne gush over..

    The first thing to clarify is that, because of the many horribly non-wonderful experiences that result from taking psychedelic drugs, Sam Harris doesn’t take psychedelic drugs himselfhe doesn’t take any of them, he’s not just staying away from LSD – and he hasn’t taken any for many years. Bad trips and their horrors set in after (para #28) a little more than ten trips, and recurred every time thereafter, even when a trip was partly a good trip. Read on, and find out why Harris stays well away from the horrors of what Coyne gullibly gushes as being “wonderful mental experiences”.

    Numbers are paragraph numbers from Harris’ updated “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”:

    #2 “extraordinary power and utility”, “no apparent risk of addiction”, “physically well-tolerated”. (Note the weasel word, “physically” – Harris is well aware that psychedelics, with the possible exception of the one which convinces you that you have spoken with aliens or elves, and that although you now cannot remember what they said, they were very wise – psychedelics are very badly tolerated mentally. But this response will become book length if I list and analyse every deception technique that “Honest” Sam Harris deploys, so I will continue by just listing the descriptive words, or short phrases where necessary. (And I will hopefully omit most of Harris’ plentiful not-actually-descriptive empty rhetoric, his background ‘mood music’.))

    #09 “[like] enlightenment”, “clinically insane”;

    #17 “psychosis”, “[seemingly] profound”;

    #18 “seeming profundity” – No claim for anything definitely other than hallucinated profundity, I note.

    #21 “rocket without a guidance system”, “painful”, “confusing”, “indistinguishable from psychosis”, “psychotomimetic”, “psychotogenic”;

    #22 “sublime”;

    #23 “sacred”, “beatific”;

    #24 “harrowing”, “endured”, “hell”, “excruciating”, “suffer”, “mental illness”;

    #25 “eternal”, “salvation”, “damnation”;

    #27 “doors to hell opened”, “permanently ajar”, “excruciating”, “sublimity”, “Have you ever traveled, beyond all mere metaphors, to the Mountain of Shame and stayed for a thousand years?”;
    (Note this paragraph tells us that Harris stays away from psychedelics in general – ,em>all psychedelics, not just LSD; note in particular the easily-overlooked fact that Harris also stays away from psilocybin – the horrors described are those of psychedelics; Harris has never taken DMT; mescaline gets merely named in this blog, and passed over.)

    #30 “perfect instrument of self-torture”, “continuous shattering and terror”;

    #31 “extremely unpleasant”, “destabilizing”, “[my trips, good and bad, affected me] for weeks and months.”;

    #32 “[haphazard]”, “like being strapped to a rocket”, “terrifying [implied from context]”;

    #33 “potentially misleading”, “ecstasies”;

    #35 “awe”, “understanding”;

    #37 “profound”, “risks”.

    Are you now sold on the idea that psychedelic drugs induce “wonderful mental experiences”? Jerry’s not very bright, is he?

    Coyne concludes with a message he has already blogged during this last month, after reading and reviewing Waking Up, I note, namely, “If cats can have their catnip, why can’t we have ours?” Catnip is apparently completely harmless to cats, with no ill effects whatsoever. So not at all like psychedelics. But Coyne’s implicit yet very clear claim is that catnip and psychedelics are equivalent. Perhaps Coyne is just clueless – but he shouldn’t be if he has read and understood Harris’, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life”.

  17. Dhay says:

    Sam Harris:

    …it is impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never had such experiences themselves. …

    No, it is not impossible to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states to those who have never had such experiences themselves. Jerry Coyne, in his blog dated March 10, 2013, entitled “More woo and anti-science rants at TEDx”, manages to communicate the profundity (or seeming profundity) of psychedelic states with consummate ease:

    When I was in college, a friend and I were—as was the custom in the Sixties—spending an evening under the influence of psychedelic substances. Suddenly I had a brilliant insight into the nature of the universe. Knowing I’d forget it, I wrote it down on a scrap of paper. After a while I went to bed, and when I awoke the next day I remembered the paper and reached eagerly into my pocket for it. On it was scrawled my eternal truth, which turned out to be this:

    “The walls are fucking BROWN.”

    Many who grew up in the Sixties have a story like this.

    So much for profundity.

  18. Dhay says:

    Harris continued:

    …It is, in fact, difficult to remind oneself of the power of these states once they have passed.

    Harris has been advocating that, “psychedelics may be indispensable for some people” — “Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back.” — “If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD…,…guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse”.

    But the days pass, and the vision fades: those who “need” the stimulus of psychedelic visions, and their “potentially misleading” “ecstasies” to spur them past slow progress, boredom and a sore back to continue Buddhist meditation, will, if the vision is to be fresh and the spur effective, they will need to repeat the stimulus of psychedelic visions — again — and again — and again.

    They will need to repeat the initial risk and eventual — going by Harris’ personal testimony — gauntlet of bad trips (see Harris’ graphic descriptions above) again — and again — and again.

  19. Dhay says:

    I have referred to Jerry Coyne’s atheist-conversion experience before, but see that the link which Coyne gave (to a newspaper article in the Dawkins website archive) no longer works. Here’s a link to another newspaper article, which is on a different subject but includes the passage with identical wording: It says — and Coyne’s linking to the passage shows he confirms its correctness:

    One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va.

    Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good.

    Coyne might have been suffering from the effects of an excess of banana peel at the time — see his blog dated February 22, 2014 entitled, “Caturday felids: Catnip madness!”.

    Or Coyne might have been experiencing the effects (or after-effects, flashbacks) of LSD — his blog dated August 26, 2013, entitled, “I Want to Tell You”, tells us he was taking LSD in 1966 at age 16, “The song [on “Revolver” (1966)] came out when I was in high school and the psychedelic era was just reaching the East Coast. Imbued with drugs, romanticism, and the sense that I was a more complex person than I really was (psychedelics will do that), I thought the lyrics really spoke to me.”

    Or Coyne might not have been experiencing drug effects at all, but some sort of abnormal but natural temporary imbalance of chemicals in the brain, or (as Michael “The Believing Brain” Shermer would explain it) some sort of brain seizure.

    Whatever: the important point is that the only difference between Coyne’s drug-perceived “brilliant insight into the nature of the universe”, namely, “The walls are fucking BROWN”, and his surely equally hallucinated, “it dawned on [me] there was no God”, is that in the first the strong sense of profundity evaporated, whereas in the second that strong sense of profundity and certainty persisted, and became a lifetime anti-religious obsession.

    Presumably Coyne’s cat-obsession conversion experience will be equally revealing of the universe’s profundity, likewise his boot-conversion and sunset-conversion stories.

  20. UpstateIslandersFan says:

    Doc Ellis, a pitcher in the 1970s claimed to have thrown a no-hitter on acid. I had a friend who once told me a spirit was going to eat my soul while not long after he dropped some paper. Another friend once started throwing furniture at people during a bad trip. Although neither of these guys achieved the psychadelic success of Doc Ellis, both achieved more on LSD than pseudo-intellectual Harris.

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