Spirituality without Religion: Hope or Hoax?

Sam Harris has amassed a fortune decrying religion. His latest best-seller, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, describes a journey that I must herald as a step towards personal maturity. I won’t consider the details, because his preface was enough to let me know that he’s got a long, long way to go. Harris asserts that our minds are the only tools that we have to manage life’s challenges. That’s a sort of lobotomy, and the best response I can offer is that of Hume. Following Hobbes’s characterization that the experience of most is of:

continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short

Hume diagnosed that Hobbes had forgotten “the operation of his own heart.”

That may seem a small point, but a compassionate heart is the singular difference between a monstrous ego and a great personality. In its lack, the rational mind tends to the conclusion that everything that violates its logic is error, possesses no value, and thus should be destroyed.

This is the conclusion that the anti-religious have indulged in for far too long.

Now I hope that Harris will eventually confront the errors of the axioms that allow him to conclude that religion has no value. Foremost is the confusion of correlation with causation: the fact that the brain is essential to the physical manifestation of our will does not mean that our will arises from the brain. The soul does exist. When that is recognized, the heart becomes full, and logic leads us to a different set of conclusions.

For example: Harris’s book bears the picture of a face superimposed on the cloudy heavens. What happens when spirits collide in that space? How do we negotiate conflicts? Only by resort to institutional structures staffed by experienced arbiters. That is religion.

The second erroneous axiom is that the mythical aspect of scripture proves the unscientific world view of our intellectual predecessors. Far be that from the truth: those men and women were investigating aspects of reality that Harris has yet to encounter, and doing it using practices that, if one strips away the branding, are scientific in their core. That wisdom was transmitted to us from the past through – you guessed it – religion. The alternative offered us in the modern age – schools – are prey to short-term political fashion, also known as propaganda, and pit students in a competition that places knowledge above compassion.

The alternatives to religion that Harris offers, at least in his preface, are use of psychotropic substances (a.k.a. – illegal drugs) and meditation. The former is pathetic: I raised my sons with the wisdom that love is the anti-drug. Using drugs to temporarily achieve an elevated psychological state is no substitute for submitting to the discipline required to sustain loving relationships. Lacking that discipline, the craving for love, which is built deep into our hearts, leads to abuse of drugs and self-destruction. What institutional structures confront us most meaningfully with the practice of emotional discipline? Well – religions.

Meditation is where I find hope for Harris. Meditation serves to reveal the preconditioning of our minds that prevents us from accurately perceiving experience. Through it, as Deepak Chopra inveighs in The Future of God, the seeker after truth eventually confronts the reality that love exists even when no person is present, even when no drug stimulates our senses and minds, even when we do nothing. That is the nature of God – and for reasons I have outlined elsewhere, that is the only God that could ever exist. Nothing but unconditional love can bind together things that want to be apart: the Greek word religio meaning to bind anew.

When Harris encounters that presence, I am certain that he will want to find a place in which to share his joy. That would be, of course, to find religion.


What do you do about a disease that affects the entire human race? Testosterone is linked to aggression in both men and women.

When I was growing up, aggression was the measure by which girls were considered to be “defective boys”.  Although the tide has shifted in educational circles, I wish that I could report that things have changed, but the focus seems to have shifted from physical aggression to psychological aggression. My son got F’s on his first few science labs in eighth grade because his female lab partners simply froze him out of the discussion.

But to say that aggression is wrong because it hurts people does not do justice to the damage it wreaks. Aggression manifests the attitude that the energy invested in creating something does not confer ownership. Value is determined only by the aggressor’s need: “How can I benefit by consuming this thing?” That the creative community is impoverished or even destroyed by the reallocation is immaterial.

This is the problem of the commons described in Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism. The socialist prescriptions of his later writings are not heralded by the neo-conservatives that subscribe to the magic of “The Invisible Hand”. Smith’s prescriptions includes intervention by government in labor relations to ensure that families are not ruined when, after spending his life tailoring his skills to the specific practices of a corporation, the employee is made redundant by advancing technology or a decline in demand.

Unfortunately, government as a counterbalance simply defers the crisis: There is no institution in existence that can claim to be immune to the defects of aggression in its leadership. By their very nature, institutions concentrate power, making them obvious plums for those that seek power. Worse, institutional infrastructure provides terribly effective tools for propagating rapacity.

Modern libertarianism and nihilism is a manifestation of the inevitability of institutional corruption. The attitude is that large institutions should be avoided, and where they cannot be avoided, they should be made to go away through political practices. Of course, this is delusional: Institutions will come into existence, because they serve a useful purpose in allowing people to coordinate productive activity. By failing to subscribe to the challenges of managing institutional power, the nihilist simply abandons the field to the aggressors.

It is time, then, to consider the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. They held that the only protection against tyranny was in a balance of powers, and they recognized that the only way to maintain stability in the distribution of power (as in engineering) was to establish a triangle.

So what should we hold up, as the third leg of the stool? I would propose that religion is ideally suited to the task.