Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.

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