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. They equate God with “love” or “justice” or “singing in church” or “that feeling I get on a walk in the woods,” or even “the awesome aspects of existence I’ll never understand.”
According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a quarter of Americans believe that God is “an impersonal force.” Among Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the unaffiliated, the number rises to a third. Among Jews, it’s half. In a Gallup study done in May, 9 percent of respondents said they believe in a God who doesn’t answer prayers.
When polled about God, “people substitute in their own ideas,” says John Green, senior research adviser at Pew. “People have a vague, fuzzy notion of transcendence, and they substitute God for it...When you try to make the definition more specific, fewer people answer in the affirmative.” Or put another way, “If you let the concept of God float a little bit, almost everybody is a theist,” says Stephen Prothero, author of God Is Not One. What Sam Harris believes in—rationality, morality, transcendence, humility, awe, community, selflessness, and love—meets a fairly common definition of God.
Harris says he became interested in spiritual and philosophical questions while an undergraduate at Stanford University. At 18, he experimented with the drug ecstasy and was struck by the possibility that the human mind—his own mind—might be able to achieve a state of loving unselfishness without the help of drugs. So he left college and traveled to India and Nepal, where he studied with Hindu and Buddhist teachers who could help him attain a kind of peace and selflessness through meditation. Over the next 10 years, he read religion and philosophy on his own and spent weeks and months—adding up to two years—in silent retreat.
He finally returned to Stanford to complete a philosophy degree. Though he prefers the Eastern mystics, he sees some wisdom in the Western mystical tradition as well. “If I open a page of [the 13th-century Christian mystic] Meister Eckhart, I often know what he’s talking about.” Harris pursued a doctorate in neuroscience because he hoped science would give him the tools to rationally explore human experience.
Harris’s true obsession, then, is not God but consciousness, the idea that the human mind can be taught—trained, rationally—to be more loving, more generous, less egocentric than it is in its natural state. And though he knows that he can sound like a person who believes in God, he thinks that God is the wrong word to describe his beliefs. “There’s a real problem with the word,” he says, “because it shields the genuinely divisive doctrines and believers from criticism. If the God of the 25 percent is incredibly valuable, which it is; and it’s actually worth realizing, which it is; and it’s something we can talk about rationally, which it is; then calling it ‘God’ prevents you from criticizing all the divisive nonsense that comes with religion.” Believing in transcendence is not the same thing as believing that you’ll get virgins in paradise if you blow yourself up—and Sam Harris wants to be clear about that.
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook