Sam Harris Believes in God

By Miller, Lisa | Newsweek, October 25, 2010 | Go to article overview

Sam Harris Believes in God


Miller, Lisa, Newsweek


Byline: Lisa Miller

The neuroscientist and rationalist has made his name attacking religious faith. Who knew he was so spiritual?

Sam Harris, a member of the tribe known as "the new atheists," wishes the headline to this story said something else. How about "Sam Harris Believes in Spirituality," he suggests over lunch. Or "Sam Harris Believes in 'God,' " with scare quotes?

In any case, Sam Harris--a hero to the growing numbers of Americans who check the atheist box on opinion polls--concedes he believes in something certain people would call "God." In a related thought, he raises the topic of his next project: a spirituality guide tentatively titled The Illusion of the Self. Based on Harris's own "spiritual journey," it will "[celebrate] the spiritual aspect of human existence [and explain] how we can live moral and spiritual lives without religion," according to a statement from his publisher, Free Press. It's surprising. One hardly expects Harris, a hyperrational polemicist, to veer into the realm of spiritual self-help.

Spirituality is not a new interest of Harris's, however. A careful reader will have noticed that though he's often been lumped together with the rabble-rousers Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (all are advisers to his nonprofit group Project Reason), and though he continues to insist that religious faith is possibly the most destructive force in the world, he shuns the label "atheist." Harris places reason at the apex of human abilities and achievement, but he concedes that there's much that humans may never empirically know--like what happens after death. "Mystery," he wrote in the concluding chapter of The End of Faith, published in 2004, "is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely on to explain everything else." For his praise of the contemplative experience in The End of Faith, Harris has received criticism from atheists.

Harris is in town promoting The Moral Landscape, his new book. Even here, he briefly explores the connections between spiritual experience--especially an experience of selflessness--and human happiness. "I see nothing irrational about seeking the states of mind that lie at the core of many religions. Compassion, awe, devotion and feelings of oneness are surely among the most valuable experiences a person can have," he writes. Over lunch, he says with a smile how much he looks forward to working on the next project, which will allow him to pull back, after six long years, and focus on things that support human flourishing. "Ecstasy, rapture, bliss, concentration, a sense of the sacred--I'm comfortable with all of that," says Harris later. "I think all of that is indispensable and I think it's frankly lost on much of the atheist community."

The answer to the question "Do you believe in God?" comes down to this: It depends on what you mean by "God." The God Harris doesn't believe in is, as he puts it, a "supernatural power" and "a personal deity who hears prayers and takes an interest in how people live." This God and its subscribers he finds unreasonable. But he understands that many people--especially in progressive corners of organized religion and among the "spiritual but not religious"--often mean something else. …

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