How does a Christian respond to Sam Harris?

From the Editor’s Desk (Thursday, February 25, 2016, Gaudium Press) For those who believe that atheists do not believe in God they will
enjoy this article that proves the opposite. It is by Francis Phillips
who does book reviews for the Catholic Herald. Sam Harris.jpg

I
have been reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up, published by Transworld
Publishers, and according to the cover, “The New York Times bestseller”.
This does not surprise me, given that the subtitle is “Searching for
spirituality without God.” Why anyone would want to undertake such a
search always slightly surprises me; but then I reason that some atheist
philosophers do recognise that a merely mechanistic or materialistic
explanation for human experience is not satisfactory – so they go in
search of a secular form of spirituality: what I would describe as a way
of not having the cake but wanting to eat it all the same.

Harris
is an engaging writer, without the obvious contempt for religion that
other intellectuals of his kind demonstrate. Yet every so often he
reveals his hand, as when he lumps together the Bible and the Koran as a
collection of ancient myths, superstitions and taboos, or when he
writes, “Consider the idea that human beings, alone among Nature’s
animals, have been installed with immortal souls… This dogma came
under pressure the moment Darwin published On the Origin of Species in
1859, but it is now truly dead.” Oh yes?

Harris’s
quest has been to find a way to deal with the inevitable stresses and
sorrows of daily life without in any way succumbing to the lure of
religion. When he was 20 he experimented with the drug ecstasy and
experienced an intense sensation of love for the world which seemed to
place him beyond his own ego.

What he
doesn’t seem to realise that this is simply a drug-induced feeling of
wellbeing (and a few glasses of good wine can produce it just as well);
it is not the same as “love” as Christians know and understand the word.
Nonetheless, curious about the effect of the drug and being too
intellectually restless to settle for a cheap thrill, Harris began many
years of investigating eastern (Tibetan and Buddhist mainly) meditation
techniques which he shares with the readers of this book.

In
a way this makes it a dull read. Techniques of meditation, as with the
technique of mindfulness, which Harris also writes about, are simply
that: psychological ways of detaching oneself from the necessary
pressures and problems of ordinary life. Why would one want to do that?
Because, in the author’s view, self-transcendence is the way “to escape
the usual tides of psychological suffering – fear, anger, shame – in an
instant.”

Leaving aside morbid or
obsessive states of mind, which do require medical or spiritual help, a
Christian would respond to Harris that fear, anger and shame might be
important ways of learning about oneself – and in particular, the ways
in which one has failed in charity towards others. No amount of
meditation or ecstasy pills can release one from the obligation to be
honest about one’s moral lapses (Harris doesn’t ever mention the word
“sin”).

Harris is certain that human
minds are the product of human brains. He does have a problem with
consciousness which he admits – but he is certain that when we know more
about brain function, the difficulties raised by consciousness will be
solved. His book does recognise that there are any number of fake gurus
around (I was glad to see he includes the still fashionable Gurdjieff in
this list), but he says he has also encountered true transcendental
technicians with minds “impressively free of shame. This can be a good
thing, provided that one also happens to be committed to the well-being
of others.” A “commitment to the well-being of others” is so far from
the Christian definition of loving your neighbour that the gulf seems
unbridgeable.

As I was wrestling with
the unsatisfactory sensations produced by Harris’s well-meaning attempt
to offer practical consolation in the face of a Godless world, a friend
who works in a charity shop fished out a book he thought I would
like: Easter Vigil and Other Poems by one Karol Wojtyla. Written under a
pseudonym between the years 1950 and 1966 before he became pope, the
poems are dense, difficult and philosophical rather than lyrical.

But
behind them one hears a powerful voice, certain it is not alone in an
empty universe; indeed, that “He” is always waiting for an encounter
with man. In “The Samaritan woman meditates”, the priest-poet who became
John Paul II, tries to capture the moment when she laid down her
defences and truly encountered Jesus at the well – and became “conscious
then of my awakening”.

At the
conclusion to his book, Harris exhorts his readers to “Open your eyes
and see”. The Samaritan woman did just that – and what she discovered,
beyond her fear and her shame, was a Person.

Source Catholic Herald

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