Sam Harris, one of America’s greatest skeptics and critics of religion, has just written a fascinating book – Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Are you one of the growing number of Americans (as I am if I am really honest) who increasingly finds organized religion unsatisfying, yet at the same time, you want to seriously talk about questions of meaning and existential hopes and fears? Are you a person who knows that the transformative experiences of self-transcendence, oneness, surrender, bliss, grace, unconditional love, are not only real but critical for a flourishing life? If this sounds like you, then this book is a must read.
Harris’ secular spirituality built around meditative practices separates spiritual experiences from their religious containers, unscientific metaphysics, and bad, if not pathological, theologies. “My goal,” he writes in the book, “is to pluck the diamond from the esoteric dunghill of religion.”
There is plenty to critique here, however. Harris continues to be needlessly vicious about religion. Yes, yes, we know spiritual experiences are not proof of God but are proof of the power and complexity of the human mind, but his nasty dismissal of religion undermines the way the world ought to nurture genuine transformative spiritual experiences, which after all Harris is guiding us towards. His anger (even if justified) simply insures that many religious people?will not read this book. And these are people who could be moved by this book and even see the common ground of experience they share with millions of secular Americans who are spiritual but not religious.
Harris also fails to sufficiently recognize that the legitimacy of deep spiritual experiences ultimately rests in how they affect the way we live life. If the experience remains just that – an experience – and doesn’t transform the way we live and interact with others, then it is a dead end – spiritual narcissism. It turns out the spiritual and the ethical (being a good and decent person) can as easily be disconnected in religion as in spirituality without religion.
Harris has made a career out of challenging religion, but in Waking Up he addresses the “hole” in secularism: there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit. Harris offers a framework to understand spiritual experiences outside the framework of faith. In an age where our religious and spiritual lives are in transition – where we are mixing, blending, bending and switching – and where neuroscience and psychology are teaching us so much about spiritual experience, happiness, and ethical behavior, this is a very important book. It will help you examine your life and will guide you to an enlightened sense of connectedness.
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.