The Latest Harris Book/The Latest Harris Controversy

September 18, 2014

As you may have heard, Sam Harris has a new book out, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Based on what I've heard about it so far, and what I've managed to read (to date, just the first chapter), it raises some interesting questions.

In a nutshell, Harris argues that there is an altered state of consciousness that one might achieve through meditation (or drugs). I say "might" because Harris admits meditation doesn’t seem to work for everyone. In this altered state of consciousness, one realizes that there is no self, that is, there is no persisting entity—a soul, a Cartesian immaterial mind, an ego—that is the subject of one’s experiences and that exists somehow inside of but apart from one's body. There are thoughts only, a continuous stream of them. Through meditation, we can transcend this illusion of a self, somehow getting beyond this stream of thinking into a state of insightful awareness.

Harris hypothesizes that this altered state is similar to what some religious people have experienced when they claim to be in touch with God. However, Harris is quick to point out that although the experience of an altered state of consciousness is a fact, a fact grounded in neurology, it has no metaphysical implications. A transformative experience through which one loses one's sense of self does not imply that one is being visited by the Holy Spirit. It's just a different brain state, albeit one that for Harris is important to achieve and worthwhile striving for.

Here's where my skepticism kicks in: I don't have any problem with Harris' s claim that there is no self. I've been convinced of that ever since I read Hume in graduate school, and my convictions in that regard were fortified by Derek Parfit's masterful treatment of the topic in Reasons and Persons. (Another worthwhile treatment of the topic is Julian Baggini’s The Ego Trick.) But my recognition that the self is a construct is at an intellectual level. Although it's changed my outlook on various things, it hasn't given me any sense of boundless love or of being one with the cosmos. Meditation, presumably, is supposed to give me that experience. But does this experience—which is just another brain state, although one with a radically different content than our every-day thoughts—warrant the effort required to achieve it? Harris states that he has spent a cumulative total of  two years in silent retreat, meditating 12 to18 hours a day. That's a significant investment of time. Is it worth it? As indicated, I'm skeptical, but I don't want to rush to judgment. I like books that challenge my preconceptions so I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

Speaking of a rush to judgment ... (segue alert!) I'd be remiss if I didn't address a controversy that has arisen surrounding the Harris book event that took place recently in Washington, DC. This event, a conversation on Harris's book between Harris and Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post, was sponsored by CFI, so although CFI in no way controlled the content of the interview, I feel some sense of ownership regarding the event.

Here's a concise summary of the controversy: During the interview Boorstein asked Harris why it is that atheists in general and most of his readership are males. As I recall (I was in the audience), Harris initially addressed only the second part of the question (perhaps recognizing the first part may rest on a questionable factual predicate). He responded at first with a joke, remarking that it might have something to do with "my overwhelming lack of sex appeal," and then indulged in some speculation mixed with pop psychology, suggesting that his writing could be considered confrontational and he thought, as a general matter, that women might be less comfortable with his confrontational, sharply critical approach than men. Boorstein then interjected that she didn't think it was necessarily just Harris who had a disproportionate number of male followers, but atheist authors in general. Harris responded that he thought that the atheist stance is perceived by some as overly critical, adding, what I regarded as a half-facetious observation, that atheism doesn't have the "nurturing coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that might attract more women." (The complete quote can be found in Boorstein's article reviewing the event; based on my memory I believe the quote is accurate as far as it goes, although Boorstein omits her interjection and some of Harris's answer in which he discussed his Twitter following. I don’t think the omission is material.)

Boorstein reviewed the event in an article that appeared in the Post a couple of days later, and the last couple of paragraphs of that article included the exchange on the "why more males" question. Thereafter, Harris was subjected to a hailstorm of criticism for his comments, with many characterizing them as sexist or misogynist. Harris, obviously annoyed by this criticism, put up a blog post in which he attributed some of the criticism to how Boorstein's article made him appear. In particular, he accused Boorstein of intentionally trying to make him look sexist.

Thereafter, Boorstein has been subject to a hailstorm of vicious, vituperative criticism, some with anti-Semitic slurs, others with sexual slurs.

This series of events is highly regrettable.

As indicated, I was in attendance at the book talk. I also read the Boorstein article when it appeared. I did not have the impression that either by her questioning at the event or by her later article that Boorstein was trying to make Harris appear sexist. Her question was a legitimate one, and I don’t detect any nefarious purpose by her inclusion of the exchange in an article that covered a lot of other ground. In addition, by personal communication to CFI, Boorstein has expressly denied that she had any such intention, adding that she herself did not interpret Harris’s answer as sexist. I think Harris was mistaken in accusing Boorstein of malicious intent. The evidence does not warrant such an accusation.

I also believe the criticism leveled against Harris for his comments is unwarranted. To begin, some of the criticism has, intentionally or unintentionally, distorted what Harris said. He never indicated that women were less capable of critical thinking, and he said nothing to suggest he thought women were biologically inferior. He did speculate that women may not like confrontational writing as much as men. Whether there’s any empirical data to support that assertion, I don’t know. Surveys indicate women, in general, do have different reading preferences than men, in general, but it’s not clear how this might affect their interest in books that criticize religion. Anyway, in his blog post, Harris expands upon and explains his comments, so there’s no need for me to analyze them here. I’ll just add that a statement that contains the word “vibe” should, at least presumptively, not be regarded as setting forth a serious considered judgment.

Here’s the sad reality: there’s a toxic atmosphere in what passes for the atheist “community” that makes any reference, however brief, however off-the-cuff, to issues relating to sex/gender the subject of intense scrutiny and often the most uncharitable interpretation possible. Moreover, as Michelle Boorstein has learned, both those accused of sexism and those who are perceived—even incorrectly— as accusing others of sexism are too often the targets of the most vile, despicable comments.

As indicated by my scare quotes, I’m not sure there’s an atheist “community” or “movement,” as opposed to there simply being atheists, some of whom have aligned themselves with one group or another, and some of whom—a distinct minority I believe—seem to relish making hateful, contemptible comments, most of which are directed against women. I can speak only for CFI, but this last group of individuals is not welcome in our organization, and, as we have done in the past, CFI unqualifiedly condemns their conduct.

Speaking of comments, I am closing this post to comments. That’s not CFI’s usual practice, but in this case I’m doing it for a very practical reason: as just indicated, blog posts on issues relating to sex/gender issues tend to bring out the worst in some people. Although I’m sure most comments would be phrased in acceptable language, our experience has been that blog posts that touch on these topics require close moderation and neither Paul Fidalgo, who serves as our moderator, nor I will be available to moderate over the next few days.


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