Sam Harris Is Not Religious, But He's Spiritual -- and He's Putting His Faith in the Power of Conversation

Harris's next book will be, perhaps, his most controversial -- which is a rather impressive claim for the author of books that claim to disprove the notion of free will and call for the end of faith in America.
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If one were to describe what, exactly, Sam Harris does, I think one would be hard-pressed to capture all of it with a single label. He's a neuroscientist, for one, which is certainly a tangible career title; he has studied the way belief activates certain parts of the brain. He's an author, of course, of books of a wide and bizarre range of subjects. He's a social critic, definitely. But he's also a philosopher, and a provocateur, though the latter seems to be incidental - he starts many of his public talks with a disclaimer that his goal is not to be deliberately provocative. He's also a "public intellectual," whatever that really means. He has said that he is merely "interested in the mind and consciousness," and in beliefs and their consequences in particular, and this seems to be the hub through which all the strands of his work - religious/social criticism, neuroscience, moral philosophy, political criticism, political philosophy, spirituality - connect. He has also said that he represents, very generally, the values of intellectual honesty and scientific rationality. He's spoken at venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, to Harvard University, to comedian Joe Rogan's podcast. One wonders what such a person would say on career day. One wonders what he must have been like as a college student.

When reading Harris' books, one finds that his eclectic web of interests become intertwined, if not tangled, and the lines that separate them become blurred. His last book, Waking Up, is on its face a book about spirituality, but it is also an argument about the role religion plays in hijacking the deepest human experiences in support of specific religions, which he views as a misunderstanding of what the experiences actually mean. It moves from this to what then seems like a self-help book, a guide to secular meditation and how it can be done without assuming anything supernatural. Then it moves, without missing a beat, to a neuroscientific explanation of this spiritual experience. From there, it dabbles in a bit of autobiography, and then seems to cycle through all of these again. Pity the librarian who is forced to categorize Harris' work by genre - I myself would be at a loss.

Harris's next book will be, perhaps, his most controversial - which is a rather impressive claim for the author of books that claim to disprove the notion of free will and call for the end of faith in America. Harris's and co-author Maajid Nawaz's upcoming Islam and the Future of Tolerance seeks to publish, at long last, a peaceful, rational, and productive dialogue about the place and future of Islam, in all its forms, in a multicultural, pluralistic world.

Harris's partner in this dialogue seems exceptionally qualified to tackle these issues. Nawaz's life story sounds almost like the tagline of Gladiator: from radical, to prisoner, to politician. Nawaz has a unique insight, because he has inhabited the spectrum at almost every point, from Islamist extremist to liberal politician and everything in between. The man has, quite literally, seen it all.

While Harris and Nawaz disagree about many things, and admit to changing their minds throughout their dialogue, they share a common goal: to begin a conversation that encourages the creation of a neutral, decidedly secular political space in which people, including conservative Muslims, can share and criticize ideas without persecution, from within or without. Their wish, it seems, is to begin this old conversation anew with optimism and, hopefully, without the vitriol and knee-jerk emotion that the mere mention of this topic usually inspires. Early reviews seem to confirm that they may have made some headway on this front, despite vigorous dissent from determined critics who have yet to actually read the book.

Knowing Harris, this conversation will inevitably stretch across the divides of genre, and one can only guess what sort of territory this unlikely meeting of minds will traverse.

NS: Can you tell me about your co-author, Maajid Nawaz? From even a cursory glance at his bio, he seems to have lived a few lifetimes in one. What is his background, what happened to him, and why did you decide to collaborate with him, specifically, on this project?

SH: Maajid is a remarkable person. He was a recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist organization that was trying to spread a global caliphate. He was in Egypt when he finally got arrested. He was trying to recruit senior military leaders and engineer coups in places like Pakistan. He spent four years in prison amid a rogue's gallery of jihadists and Islamists. He actually got deprogrammed by living in proximity with these guys and hearing how horrible many of their aspirations were. Amnesty International was instrumental in getting him out, and this compassionate intervention from an "infidel" humanitarian organization also worked on his mind. So, unlike many others in his situation, he just reasoned his way out of his extremism. He finished his education and started a think-tank, the Quilliam foundation, the purpose of which is to create a counter narrative against political Islam and to spread reform throughout the Muslim world. He's really a wonderful spokesman for pluralism. And because of his background, he is perfectly placed to cut through all of the lies and the half-truths spouted by those who deny any connection between belief and behavior - between ideology and all the mayhem we see on the news - like the Danish cartoon controversy or the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. The starting point for any conversation on this topic has to be an admission that this lunacy and intolerance emerges out of specific doctrines that are cherished by many millions of people.

NS: I've noticed that there are people on twitter who, having not even read your book, have already decried your project with Maajid as somehow illegitimate, or criticized him specifically as being your "errand boy" - and used stronger language than that.

SH: Anyone who reads our book, or watches the discussion we had at Harvard's Kennedy Forum, and comes away thinking that Maajid isn't his own man has a screw loose. As I've said, I think my views were more altered by our exchange than his were.
In our book, we debate how plausible it is for Muslims to draw a more secular and tolerant message from their scripture. Because there is no true ecclesiastical hierarchy in Sunni Islam, there will inevitably be a plurality of views. And there is simply no place to stand within the tradition where you can say that one view trumps another. Maajid has convinced me that the only way forward is to push hard on this particular door, leading into secularism. Secularism is simply a willingness to keep religion out of politics and public policy, whatever one's views happen to be. Even very conservative (and otherwise intolerant) people can be led to accept secularism, because it protects them from everyone else's view about how they should live. Secularism is just a neutral space in which a plurality of views can be safely maintained.

NS: You've spoken frequently about how rare it is to see someone change their mind in real time. I, personally, did it watching your talk on Free Will, and reading the book. When have you done it yourself?

SH: An insight into the illusoriness of free will is the gift that keeps on giving. It's changed my mind on many topics, intellectually but also emotionally. I've changed my mind about capital punishment, for instance. I used to be for it - I thought certain evil people deserved to die for their crimes, and I thought that the fact that we keep them warehoused and fed three meals a day was an obscenity.

NS: Yes, especially in America, that meme, the rhetoric of "three meals a day" gets repeated about prisons - "how dare we keep terrible people alive," et cetera, that point of view.

SH: I shared it, at one point. I just felt that, for certain truly evil people, those for whom rehabilitation is more or less unthinkable, an ultimate act of retribution made moral sense. But thinking more clearly about the roots of human behavior changed my view. No one has made himself. Our genes and our environment are completely outside of our control. People become whoever they become based on forces they are ultimately not responsible for. This has many consequences, but one is that you have to believe that even the worst person on earth is at some level a victim of circumstance - of bad genes, bad parents, bad ideas, or some constellation of forces that made him the way he is. You have to admit that if you had his brain and body, and had passed through the precise circumstances of his life, you would be him. And you're merely lucky that you're not. We recognize this immediately when we hear about a killer like Charles Whitman, who had a brain tumor pressing on his amygdala, thus deranging his personality. But most people don't recognize that all of the influences on a person's mind - from genes to ideas - are as impersonal and ineluctable as brain tumors. Recognizing the moral significance of luck led me to change my views about capital punishment.

But seeing through the illusion of free will can also change my emotional reaction to unpleasant people, directly in the moment. As you know, I'm constantly confronted by people who maliciously misrepresent my work or who attack me on spurious points, purely for the purpose of defamation. My first reaction is often to treat them as the real authors of their actions, and to react with anger. But when I can step back and actually reflect on the causes of their actions, my attitude shifts. I suddenly feel like I'm in the presence of a wild animal or a malfunctioning robot. I still have to respond to lies and bad behavior, but anger no longer makes much sense. There's no longer a place to lay emotional blame. It would be like blaming a hurricane for its bad behavior.
People are walking around with the sense that if they could rewind the movie of their lives, they could behave differently. But if you could return the universe to the exact state it was yesterday, you would do the same things, speak the same words, and think the same thoughts - and so would your enemies, for precisely the same reasons. Realizing this can keep you from taking everything so personally. If you found yourself in the presence of a grizzly bear, you would fear it, of course, and you might even kill it if there were nothing else you could do to protect yourself, but you wouldn't hate it in the way you might hate a bad person. That extra level of entanglement - hatred - is born of a philosophical error.

NS: If readers find themselves unconvinced, I can only direct their attention to the book, Free Will, and the talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney - I would urge everyone to watch that video. It is very difficult not to change your mind at least a little bit while watching it.

You've said you get some pretty amazing emails, especially in your time having debates about religion and the existence of the supernatural. Do any stick out in your mind? I heard you mention you once met someone in the afternoon who had changed their mind about their religion that morning.

SH: Yes. I once found myself at a dinner with a formerly devout Catholic who had spent years putting a crucifix, or a rosary, under her husband's side of the mattress, hoping to save his soul. She had read my book Letter to a Christian Nation that day and came away a nonbeliever. As chance would have it, she found herself at a dinner with me that night. It was pretty amazing to be with someone who had just reasoned her way beyond the grip of her faith - and beyond her fears of hell, especially. It was like being present at the birth of a new mind. Her main cause for astonishment and regret was over how much time and attention she had squandered on things that she now believed were wholly imaginary.

This is really the ultimate instance of the "sunk cost fallacy." People have so much invested in their religious identities. They've raised their children this way. They've tamped down their doubts year after year. They've built this whole edifice around specific propositions being true, and suddenly they begin to suspect that they're not true - perhaps the Bible wasn't inspired by an omniscient being - and most of the time they just can't bear to go there. The fear that they've wasted so much time is often what prevents people from admitting their doubts. To see someone who had just been ripped out of that bubble a few hours before was very interesting.

Honestly, I think it's not necessary to view one's religious past, however blinkered, as a pure waste of time. For instance, I had a fascinating conversation with Meghan Phelps-Roper [granddaughter of Fred Phelps] on my podcast. She was raised in a Christian cult - the Westboro Baptist church - but finally came out of it. Of course, there were a few things to regret about her upbringing, but she could also see the ways in which this experience made her stronger and equipped her to help people in ways that many others can't. There can be a silver lining to things that, on their face, seem like a total waste of time.

NS: I want to talk a little bit about Waking Up, to give people an idea of the breadth of topics you cover. You talk about a deeper reality to all types of spiritual experience that can be accessed without believing anything supernatural. Can you explain?

SH: Well, people clearly have extraordinary experiences that they want to call "spiritual," and they tend to interpret these experiences by the light of their religious beliefs. People can experience boundless love for all sentient beings, or lose their sense of self entirely--whether through contemplative practices, like meditation or prayer, or spontaneously, or by taking certain drugs. However, one thing we can know for certain is that, while people interpret them as evidence in favor of specific religious beliefs, these experiences can't be evidence of anything so parochial - because people in every possible religious context, and none, have these experiences. Needless to say, most specific religious doctrines are logically incompatible with all others. Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism cannot all be true. So the fact that a person can experience ecstasy or bliss, or love his neighbor as himself--this can never prove, or even suggest, that Buddha was the only enlightened person in history, or that Jesus was the Son of God, because Hindus, Muslims, and atheists have these experiences too.

We know there must be a deeper principle at work. There are facts about human consciousness that we want to explore. There are experiences that can genuinely transform us. But we have to understand these phenomena in the context of twenty-first century rationality. We have to rise above the accidents of geography and culture. We can't have our view of the human mind and of the cosmos defined by the place we happened to be born. Why do you think most people adopt the religion of their parents? Why are most of the world's Hindus in India - is it because they happen to have been lucky enough to be born where the one, true religion prevailed? It's a completely crazy idea. When you see a map of how religions are partitioned over the earth's surface, often following national boundaries, you should understand one thing with absolute certainty - none of these belief systems arise out of an honest inquiry into the nature of reality. Whatever is true about the human mind must be as true in Bombay as it is in London or Sydney.

NS: And - to be a bit tongue-in-cheek - why should we listen to you about the meaning of life? What's your qualification?

SH: It has nothing to do with my qualifications. The case I'm making stands on its own merits: it's either well-reasoned, or it isn't. It's certainly not based on my authority, whatever my experiences as a scientist or meditator happen to be. If a Muslim, a Christian, and a Buddhist each have an experience of losing his sense of separateness from the rest of the universe, and each is led by his tradition to interpret this experience in radically incompatible ways... well, then you know that, at a minimum, two of the three interpretations are wrong. I'm arguing that we know that we need a culturally universal, intellectually honest, and ultimately scientific approach to understanding the full range of human experience.

NS: With this upcoming book, what is your end goal?

SH: I view this book as a new starting point for the conversation we've all been having - or doing our best not to have - about Islam and its place in the world. My coauthor, Maajid Nawaz, is that rare, liberal Muslim voice who will honestly discuss the link between specific doctrines and the forms of violence and intolerance we see in Muslim communities, East and West. It is so rare to find candor like his, and it's so necessary to spread this attitude as widely as possible. We were not at all focused on the legitimacy of believing in God - I certainly wasn't trying to win an argument for atheism. Our common goal was to find a way forward for reform. But you'll see that there were a fair number of wrinkles to smooth out along the way. The point, however, is that we did it: An atheist who has been criticizing Islam for over a decade sat down with a former Muslim extremist and had a perfectly civil and productive dialogue. So I'm hoping our short book becomes the basis of many such conversations in the future.

Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue will be published by Harvard University Press on October 6th, and is now available for preorder on

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