Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Waking Up

Reviewed by Paul T.

In his “Conclusion” Sam Harris writes:

Spirituality remains the great hole in secularism, humanism, rationalism, atheism, and all other defensive postures that reasonable men and women strike in the presence of unreasonable faith. People on both sides of this divide imagine that visionary experience has no place within the context of science – apart from the corridors of a mental hospital.  Until we can talk about spirituality in rational terms – acknowledging the validity of self-transcendence – our world will remain shattered by dogmatism.

Waking Up is his “attempt to begin such a conversation.”

If you are looking for or expecting a book about secular spirituality with definitions and examples, this book is likely to disappoint.  Waking Up is that but will not seem so in the early part nor to the casual reader.

In the very first endnote Harris writes, “I have no quarrel with Hitch [Christopher Hitchens] and [Carl] Sagan’s general use of spiritual to mean something like ‘beauty or significance that provokes awe,’ but I believe that we can also use it in a narrower and, indeed, more personally transformative sense.”  Hence the inclusion of meditation and use of psychedelic drugs as part of Harris’ narrative.

Religion clearly plays no positive role in this book; consider the subtitle, the author, and his fellow atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins; two of whom are referenced in the book.

* * *

Waking Up is an eye opening, mind expanding book – provided the reader is secure enough to work with another’s definition of spirituality (in this case the atheist, Sam Harris) and to see the world through another’s eyes long enough and clearly enough to understand the message being conveyed. You don’t have to agree with that message, but you must understand it before embracing or discarding it. Harris asks for nothing thing more nor less.

We need to set aside the argument of, “Is spirituality religious, theistic, or the like?” for the purposes of understanding and communicating about the experiences we have which many choose to call spiritual and many others cannot find another satisfactory word and use spiritual as a fall back-word. Twenty percent of Americans (United States) describe themselves as “spiritual not religious.” That’s about 49 million people, each old enough to make this distinction. That is a significant number of people who are comfortable with the word spiritual – at lease comfortable enough to use it.  Statistically some of these are agnostics or atheists.

Harris does not share the concern of many about the terms spiritual or spirituality. However, he acknowledges that “millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available.”

A word of caution: The reader would be wise to have an OED (print or electronic) handy. Harris, like Christopher Hitchens, is a master of using exactly the correct word for the meaning he wishes to convey, especially where a more commonly used word might only come close. Sam Harris is not pedantic, he is simply exact.

Waking UpIn only 237 pages, including 31 pages of acknowledgements and endnotes, Harris takes the reader on a truly fascinating and wide ranging adventure of learning, reflection, and mental exercise.  In his own words this book is “… a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call ‘I.’” It will be no surprise that Harris’ distain for religions is evident throughout.

The first chapter, “Spirituality” is 49 pages of background, definition, and preview for the rest of Waking Up. One gets some idea of Harris’ sense of spiritual through his experience on a wilderness program, with MDMA (Ecstasy), a brief comparison of religion East and West, and a brief introduction to meditation (with a simple exercise). Meditation plays an important part of Harris’ message in Waking Up.

A happy little note, buried in chapter 1 is this, “Most of us are far wiser than we appear to be.” I intend to have this ready for the next time I act stupidly. I’ll simply state, “A well-known neuroscientist says that I’m wiser than I appear to be.” You’re free to use it too.

In chapter 2, “The Mystery of Consciousness,” and throughout the rest of Waking Up, Harris explores spirituality becoming a part of science by being integrated with what is known about the world. He states, “It has long been obvious that traditional approaches to spirituality cannot do this – being based, to one or another degree, on religious myths and superstitions.”

In connection with this Harris offers a reminder, “Of course, only 25 percent of Americans believe in evolution (while 68 percent believe in the literal existence of Satan). But we can now say that any conception of our place in the universe that denies we evolved from more primitive life forms is pure delusion.” As with much of Waking Up we have a frightening fact followed by the hopeful truth.

In this chapter Harris’ expertise as a neuroscientist breaks through (one of the many times in the book) to treat us to insights into the geography of the brain and how it affects the mind – as a whole and in its separate parts. Waking Up is worth reading for this alone. I’m still trying to ascertain if I am my right brain, my left brain, or both – and if it makes any difference. (You’ll have to read chapter 2 to understand my quandary. But you may become just as confused.)

“The Riddle of Self” (chapter 3) begins with Harris sharing his reaction while spending an afternoon at the location where it is claimed that Jesus “preached his most famous sermon.” He states that he is “very slow to draw metaphysical conclusions from his experience” which he calls “intrinsic selflessness of consciousness” but reports that he can glimpse these every day. It’s interesting to read an atheist making use of an experience at a historically “holy site” for a secular purpose.

This chapter is given over to convincing us “that the conventional sense of self is an illusion – and that spirituality largely consists of realizing this, moment to moment.” During the bulk of the chapter we are treated to explanations and examples supporting this assertion. Including an exercise in “Breaking the Spell of Negative Emotions” through expressing gratitude. “When compared to merely thinking about significant life events, contemplating daily hassles, or comparing oneself favorable to others, thinking about what one is grateful for increases one’s feelings of well-being, motivation, and positive outlook toward the future.” No surprise to us recovering alcoholics, this gratitude thing. But nice to have an atheist neuroscientist make it scientific, not a myth or tradition.

Much of chapter 4, “Meditation,” is devoted to stories of different forms of meditation which Harris has been exposed to, experienced, and practiced. It does include a bit more about brain physiology and three exercises; one about our visual blind spot (easy and fun), one a “thought experiment” on going beyond duality, and the third titled, “Looking for Your Head” which isn’t a bit like it sounds.

Harris very simply makes the case for meditation here with, “We wouldn’t attempt to meditate, or engage in any other contemplative practice, if we didn’t feel that something about our experience needed to be improved.” And, “In the broadest sense, however, meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. How could that not be a skill worth cultivating?”

One might be tempted to skip chapter 5 simply because of its title, “Gurus, Death, Drugs, and Other Puzzles.” Harris is not an alcoholic nor a drug addict so his apparent endorsement of psychedelic drugs should be read about with care. His coverage of false or dangerous gurus is instructive. It brought a few “leaders” of AA groups to mind and reminded me of an early sponsor’s caution to avoid any meeting known by a person’s name, as in “Toby’s Meeting.”

Harris’ commentary on near-death experience is worth a careful reading. Especially so for his challenge of Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife as having no scientific basis. Harris focuses on that and makes no ad hominem about Alexander being a neurosurgeon and not a neuroscientist.

* * *

In summary, Harris posits that we become more fully “I” when, through awareness and practice (e.g. meditation), we exercise our inner self – our spirit. In The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality Andre Comte-Sponville eloquently describes spirit as “the power to think, insofar as it gives us access to truth, universality or laughter.” I believe that Harris has shown spirituality to be experiencing, moment to moment, life to the fullest. It is fidelity not belief, action not wishing, and love not surrender. As trite as it sounds, spirituality is being oneself to the fullest.

Waking Up is well worth the time and effort of a careful reading and experimentation with at least some of the exercises.

Paul began life in Wisconsin, was married in Ohio, and now resides in New Jersey.  Born into a Roman Catholic family, his formal education was in Catholic institutions over 18 years. His doubt about religion and then about “God” began early, at the time of his first communion. The university years brought him to agnosticism and subsequently to atheism. He is retired from an international professional services firm and has instructed organizational behavior at a New Jersey university.

Paul has over 25 years sobriety and has been a GSR and a DCM.  At the request of an AA Area, Paul recently made a presentation on the lack of Conference-approved literature about successfully sober agnostics and atheists in AA.

Paul is an admitted fan of Sam Harris and (to name a few) Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Victor Stenger, and deGrasse Tyson. 

24 Responses

  1. Dave J says:

    All the best to you too, Adam. I had a Mini Cooper and I loved it. I’m glad you found this website too. If you are not familiar with him and you may be, check out Alan Watts on you tube. I think you will enjoy him. Peace.

  2. Dave J says:

    Jeez Adam with a name like that can’t you be more original? I stand by point, they are both sides of the same coin. The only thing more ridiculous than creationism is the big bang theory. Not the show of course, it’s pretty good.

    • Adam N. says:

      I enjoy that program as well, Dave. I named my car Sheldon because its a Mini Cooper. Get it? Sheldon Cooper? Not very original, is it. Oh well. Originality was never a virtue I cared much about…

      Anyways, I am going to bow out of the conversation because it has the sad qualities which internet dialogue often take on: a combination of ‘sound bite’ assertions with snarky, ad hominim attacks. I sought merely to clarify the waters of discourse. Though the comparison you make is inaccurate, I understand that reasoned discussion on the subject is not a viable option at this time.

      I personally was very excited to find this website because, as an atheist and an alcoholic, I found myself alienated within the 12 step rooms. When I discovered this site, I had the distinct feeling that I was not alone anymore, and that was a very good feeling.

      The issue of recovery without god is very important to me. My ego is not on the line. I do not care what people think of me. I have no ax to grind, no point to prove. I merely want desperately not to die an alcoholic, drug addicts death, and must find a means of survival that does not require religious faith.

      I thank all of those on this site who strive for inclusive, mutually respectful, and sincere dialogue.

      I do not know you personally, Dave. But I genuinely love you, and wish you all manner of goodness in your life.

  3. Laurie A says:

    I’m very proud of my humility; the idea of a dogmatic agnostic is risible.

    (That) inner dimension of the person called by certain traditions ‘the spirit’. This spiritual core is the deepest center of the person…; it is here that the person experiences ultimate reality. (Spirituality and the Secular Quest; ed. Peter H. Van Ness; SCM 1996)

    Love is the product of highly complicated equipment of some sort, nervous equipment or computing equipment of some sort. (Richard Dawkins)

    In other words, we are just desiccated calculating machines; I’m glad I don’t have to live in that valley of dry bones.

  4. Dave J says:

    Atheism and religious fundamentalism are exactly the same thing. Big brains and big egos competing for prime time.

    • Adam N. says:

      Maybe Dave is just trying to be humorous or ironic or something. Forgive me if I missed the joke. But, if it is a genuine position, I would argue it is highly inaccurate…

      The main difference between the two has to do with what a person thinks constitutes viable evidence for holding a belief. Humans are highly prone to believing what comforts, or self-justify’s, or merely what they’ve been taught. Fundamentalism rests entirely on either tradition and habit, or on some form of argument from authority.

      An antidote to this form of “knowledge”, which is as often as not in actuality a form of entrenched, agreed upon ignorance, a reliance upon substantial, replicable evidence with predictive power is highly effective. If one agrees that empirical evidence is a valuable epistemological foundation for belief, and that as much evidence exists to believe in the easter bunny or santa claus as in jahweh or allah, then one might be inclined to atheism.

      They are very distinct forms of belief.

      In one sense, though, I agree: a demographically diverse range of personality types exists in both the fundamentalist camp and the atheist camp. There are egos and brains in both. But that says nothing interesting about either, really, does it?

      • boyd p. says:

        Uncontrolled egos are the problem, apart from cosmologies. Loud voices tend to overwhelm, creating resentments, preventing useful exchange. Humility rocks.

      • Eric K. says:

        Humility precludes the ability to be proud of it. You just proved your lack thereof.

        Atheism, however, is nothing more than a lack of belief in a deity. It requires nothing but that.

    • MarkInTexas says:

      Are you “certain” of this? haha

  5. daniel says:

    Alcohol in Latin is spiritus the same word for a spiritual experience. All spiritual is to me is connecting, to nature, the world and here in AA to people. I used alcohol to connect to people and when it stopped working I came to AA and connected to people by putting spiritual principals in my life. The whole AA deal to me is to awaken my spirit and get out of self and to do that I try to turn outward to others.

  6. boyd p. says:

    The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know. The quality of the journey, moment to moment, matters.

  7. Adam N. says:

    I avoid using the term spiritual or any of its derivations as, in my personal opinion, it does little to clarify anything. The term is like ‘love’ or ‘god’. These are words used to describe a wide range of phenomena, and, as such, there is a debilitating amount of ambiguity in any singular usage. So, when hearing people use it, I find it of inestimable value to ask them precisely what they mean.

    When one speaks of ‘love’ one can be describing how they feel about a sunset, their life partner, or someone they have strong sexual or passionate interest in. People can love their dogs and they can love their inner child. They can be describing anything from a temporary emotional state, how they feel about their ice cream, to a life long commitment or deeply held personal conviction.

    Similarly, variations on the ‘spiritual’get used in such an alarming range of contexts, I find it renders them literally meaningless. They can range from silly coincidences that people imbue with excessive meaning, to life changing, genuinely important epiphanies. It can be a mere fleeting emotion or a deeply meaningful insight.

    One thing that can be said in most cases, though, is that the speaker is, quite literally, at a loss for words. The solution I enjoy is to challenge both others and ourselves to come up with some way to describe the subject under consideration in clear, articulate language which does not employ ambiguous terms like spirit, spiritual, spirituality, or, worst of all, god.

    • John L. says:

      You have expressed my own thoughts eloquently. When you ask someone to define “spirituality”, they typically roll their eyes or give you a little sermon — but not a definition. To me “spirituality” is a form of religiosity — an attempt to smuggle religion in through the back door.

      • MarkInTexas says:

        Yep, essentially meaningless. How many times when someone is talking about “spirituality” they jump into some form of substance dualism. It becomes absurd at best.

      • Adam N. says:

        I like the way you put it, ‘smuggling in religion through the back door.’ That’s how it often seems to me. They are essentially doing the same thing, but because they don’t want the historic associations with traditional churches and their dogma, they give it another word. Still, as Mark in Texas (?) says, Cartesian Dualism. Still make believe. Still Santa and the Easter Bunny…

  8. John M. says:

    Thanks so much, Paul, for bringing Sam Harris’ latest book to our attention. “The Spiritual” will bring us endless debates as it has for eons but the debate, perhaps, is still worth having just to keep each of us on our toes about how each and every one of us reasons about ideas we hold dear as we carry on with our everyday lives.

    Just a point of interest to some, perhaps. I have been reading Middlemarch recently and this passage early in the novel caught my attention.

    [Mr. Bulstrode]: “I am aware,” he said, “that the peculiar bias of medical ability is towards material means. Nevertheless, Mr. Lydgate, I hope we shall not vary in sentiment as to a measure in which you are not likely to be actively concerned, but in which your sympathetic concurrence may be an aid to me. You recognize, I hope; the existence of spiritual interests in your patients?”

    “Certainly I do. But those words are apt to cover different meanings to different minds.”

    Middlemarch, George Eliot, (Mary Anne Evans), 1874

  9. Eric K. says:

    Spiritualism is the belief in, and need for, things beyond the material (or physical) world. There is nothing beyond the physical world outside of simplistic hopes and wishes for a world of magic. Spiritualism is horseshit, plain and simple. Atheists need offer no apologies for rejecting the whole notion of a spiritual life. Rather, the believers owe an apology for their harmful belief in, or proselytizing of, a lie.

    Why can’t someone just admire or gaze in astonishment at something beautiful, without having to ascribe some supernatural element to it? The laws of Physics are universal and immutable, yet mind boggling in their own right. I haven’t the need to embellish it with bullshit?

    • Laurie A says:

      Re Erik K, 9/10 4.24: You’re confusing spiritualism “the belief that the disembodied spirits of the dead, surviving in another world, can communicate with the living in this world”, with spiritual, “relating to the spirit or soul and not to physical nature or matter; intangible”, e.g. compassion, kindliness etc.

      • Eric K. says:

        Laurie A, you just proved my point by referring to “the spirit or soul” to support your definition. There is absolutely zero evidence that either exists.

  10. Joe C says:

    Carl Jung said, “Your vision becomes clear when you look inside your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”

    I haven’t read Harris’ book but I wonder if the title pays homage to this Eastern idea that Jung brought to the West. Curious isn’t it, that AA-speak is of a spiritual “awakening”? Maybe any outside agency of relief – booze, God, love, books – is just part of the endless variety of fool’s gold. Haven’t we all sought a better dream to assuage a nightmare – which may have been a one-time dream gone bad? These are all external agents to solve an inside job.

    When I first got to AA the idea of collective conscious, a higher power or a divine plan for me were attractive ideas. These were the same ideas that my friends and I discussed on acid, so why not explore the possibility in sobriety? I abandoned this as a dead-end for me. What I found instead was what AA literature describes as “an unsuspected inner resource.”

    This idea, call it an inner voice, higher purpose, higher self or whatever, is as atheistic as it is theistic, as material as it is spiritual. The most hardened realist still has gut instincts.

    Paul, I have three opened books on the go right now but you’ve motivated me to add Harris’ book to next month’s reading list.

  11. Eric T says:

    Thanks for this link Laurie – what a great project and helpful resource!

  12. Vic L. says:

    At the risk of being labeled “anti-semantic,” I must take issue with Harris’ very vague definition of “spirituality.” How can you talk about “spirituality” when some people use it for god, fung shui, geodes, Sedona, all sorts of things. When I hear a certain musical passage, or read a wonderfully written sentence, or when I meditate (as I have for almost 50 years) I get unusual, pleasant feelings. (‘beauty or significance that provokes awe,’) Is that “spiritual?” Some say “God is love.” I love people. Does that make me a believer? I am sure Sam Harris, whom I greatly admire, has had certain moments in his life that he can’t quite describe, (“transformative, personal”) perhaps he should just leave at that. Everything does not have an answer.

  13. JHG says:

    It sounds like there is much in this book that is of significant value, but I question what is apparently its central premise on two grounds. First, to say that “the great hole” in godless lives can only be filled by something called spirituality or, for that matter, by any silver bullet, is simplistic and mistaken. There certainly is a hole, but what is missing is not spirituality or any other single thing but instead is a panoply of personal, cultural, and social experiences that just haven’t had a chance to materialize. And second, labeling the various experiences that he describes as “spirituality” is hopelessly confusing and ultimately in violation of his own standard of precision in the choice of words. He rides roughshod over the etymology, historical usage, and common connotations of the word. Besides the excess baggage that comes with the word, its glib overuse, and the fact that there is no real agreement as to what it actually means, the word spirituality is essentially an empty signifier. Its meaning is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Harris is no different from everybody else who has their own idiosyncratic definition of spirituality. As a neurologist, he may have some interesting things to say about how we experience life, but grouping some of those experiences together in a special category called spirituality is inherently arbitrary.

  14. Laurie A says:

    George Fox, founder of Quakerism in the 17th century, said, ‘Your teacher is within – look not forth’ CF an unsuspected inner resource (Big Book, spiritual appendix). In the UK two academics at the University of Chester are also researching 12 Step fellowship members’ understanding of spirituality in The Higher Power Project.

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