religion

Judging a book by its cover: a review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up

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Waking Up is a difficult book. You may be tempted to assume, by its conspicuously short page length and tranquil, sky-blue cover, that it will be light reading, but light reading it is not. Sam Harris, author, horseman, skeptic-extraordinaire, has set out to discuss the inherently difficult topic of the nature of consciousness, particularly in its relation to contemplative practice and – for sad lack of a better word – spirituality. For the novice (and that’s me), digesting the non-duality of consciousness and the elimination of self made for a tough, but enjoyable journey. I’ll spend the next few minutes discussing why I felt it worthwhile.

First, a little more on what I mean by difficult. It’s not that there are loads of technical descriptions or assumed knowledge by the author – it’s that the nature of what’s being discussed, subjective experience, is just hard to connect with. Consider this short excerpt: “Subjectively speaking, there is only consciousness and its contents; there is no inner self who is conscious.” It doesn’t matter how deftly or how many ways someone describes something like that to you, to grasp it at all you need to at least glimpse it yourself. Oftentimes throughout the book I felt like Harris was taking great pains to describe a stranger to me in physical detail, and then asking me to go out and find said stranger in a crowded gymnasium. Flatly, it’s hard, both for the teacher and the student. Harris is aware of the difficulty, hence the constant encouragements throughout the book to put into practice what he’s describing – to actually take time out of your day to meditate and practice mindfulness. The second complication is that one needs to have thought somewhat deeply about the nature of consciousness before, otherwise much of the book – particularly chapter 2 – will be difficult to comprehend (for a crash course on the “hard problem” of consciousness, I recommend Steven Pinker’s article in TIME). These two in combination had me on the frustrating edge of comprehension for much of the middle of the book, only to lose it all a moment later. Fittingly, this seems to mirror the experience of beginning contemplatives, who struggle mightily, for hours or even years, to take the first steps toward enlightenment.

But struggles often lead to reward, and while I was initially skeptical of the book, I had that bittersweet feeling of melancholy as I finished its final pages, not wanting it to end. If nothing else, Waking Up has piqued my interest in contemplative thought and meditative practice – concepts I’ve dabbled with but never to any serious degree. Even if one reads the book and never again sits cross-legged on a cushion to meditate, there are useful self-help tips that can be applied almost immediately. For example, the basic act of mindfulness, or being aware of the present moment, can be used to assuage negative emotions and thoughts. The next time you are feeling angry, take a second to just notice that you are feeling angry. Just pay attention to the feeling. The same can go for anxiety, loneliness, etc. You’ll find that the act of awareness will almost immediately relinquish the negative effects of the emotion – it’s quite difficult to stay angry when you are concentrating on how angry you are. (I was happy to see this technique discussed, as I’ve been doing a version of it since I was a kid, without knowing it was connected to anything called mindfulness). Along with tips like these, there are also short descriptions and exercise on how to meditate (you can find Harris’ guided meditations here), backed up by evidence supporting the health benefits, which are primarily cognitive. At its core, that’s what Waking Up is – a self-help book. Harris, who seems to have led an interesting life traveling far and wide in search of transcendent experiences, is here relaying what he’s learned – all within a rational framework – simply because these practices interest him and have helped him personally by reducing, not entirely but in small bits, suffering.

Perhaps most importantly, Harris has staked a very public claim on turf formerly thought to be the exclusive domain of the religious (or at least the wacky). By writing Waking Up, one of the most famous skeptics of our generation has swiftly divorced the meditative and contemplative practices from their traditional, often irrational foundations in Eastern religion and co-opted them into a rational framework aimed at inducing psychological well-being. It’s perhaps not surprising that, old as they are, some religious traditions have managed to make insights into human happiness and suffering, and once we slice away the supernatural baggage, there’s something left that even the fiercest skeptic can find useful. The old idiom, “even a broken clock is right twice a day” passed through my mind more than once as Harris summarized religious traditions dealing with enlightenment and transcendence. In addition to self-help, the overriding theme of the book is that one doesn’t need religion to lead a spiritual life. This, I think, is particularly important today as more and more people question the foundations of their religions but do not leave due to the perception that humanism, skepticism, atheism, etc are devoid of transcendence or spirituality. Harris’ book then, is timely, and I hope an inviting argument for those who feel they have been missing something in their lives since leaving religion, or for those who haven’t yet left.

Of course, some people have never felt a yearning for the spiritual life. And for those folks? Well, Waking Up is still worth the price of admission, if for nothing else than Harris’ 13 page take down of NDE-peddler, Eben Alexander (Dr. Heaven). While it doesn’t fit quite smoothly into the rest of the text (at times the book is clearly a mash-up of previously written material), Harris offers, next to Esquire’s piece, perhaps the most comprehensive criticism of Alexander’s ludicrous claims to have proven that we survive our deaths. If the premise of Waking Up seems too gushy for you, and you miss the good old excoriations of patent nonsense, then fear not: Sam Harris is still your guy.

And with that, I (whatever “I” even means anymore!) end, and encourage you to read other reviews, or check out the first chapter, available for free online. Now, off to meditate. Namaste.

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Finally, an atheist protagonist – Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective

Last week I ventured out to a hole-in-the-wall bar for an acquaintance’s birthday party, and as you do when you’re at these things, began chatting up a couple strangers. The two I spent the most time with happened to be brothers, and we got to talking about our favorite television series’. After going through the usual suspects – The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield (okay, that one was new for me…I’ve never heard anyone rave about The Shield) – the younger brother started in on HBO’s new series, True Detective, which he cautiously described as one of the better series he had ever seen. That praise of course piqued my interest, especially since several of my friends had been raving about it for a few weeks. But what really got me hooked was this stranger’s mention of the series’ overt atheism, which he described something like this:

“It’s clear the writer [Nic Pizzolatto] is a militant atheist or something, and he has McConaughey’s character go on these long diatribes every few episodes about atheism and how religion is irrational. I actually find it kind of annoying – I mean I like it because it fits with my personal beliefs – but I’m not sure how well it fits in with the rest of the action.”

So I took up the suggestion of my new-made bar friends and started binge-watching True Detective. It is very, very good – smart, suspenseful, and addictive. And sure enough, Matthew McConaughey, who stars as one of the show’s two protagonists (the other being the excellent Woody Harrelson) is indeed playing an outright atheist. Check out the clip below, which is pretty typical of his diatribes (they actually come only two or three times in the series, at least through episode five – so I haven’t found it as annoying as the bar guy made it sound):

Now I found this a little surprising for two reasons. First, for the obvious one that atheism isn’t discussed too readily on television these days. And secondly, because I was under the impression McConaughey was a seriously religious man. Where did I get that impression? From this section of Keay Davidson’s biography of Carl Sagan, discussing the film adaption of Sagan’s novel, Contact, in which McConaughey starred:

“A religious man himself, McConaughey refused to utter the one sentence that Ann Druyan had hoped would make the film: ‘My God was too small.’ The line was sacrilegious, McConaughey told her. The more she talked to him about it, the more she realized the depth of his intelligent and sincere faith; in time they became good friends.” (Davidson, Carl Sagan: A Life; page 410)

So how do you go from refusing to say a line because it’s sacrilegious, to playing an outspoken atheist on one of the country’s most watched networks? My theory is that McConaughey has matured a bit, and realized it’s fine to play characters that don’t share his own religious views. I also think the change in national climate toward non-belief has helped – playing an atheist was a pretty strange thing when Contact came out, possibly less so now. Of course, the other possibility is that his friendship with Druyan has led him toward skepticism (The Hollowverse still lists him as “appearing to be Catholic” however)…

[Update 3/3: You can go here for a recent interview with McConaughey, where he confirms he does believe in God, and watch his Oscar acceptance here (congrats!) where he also thanks God.]

How does the atheism impact the character in True Detective? Well, it is actually an isolating factor for him – the show takes place in rural Louisiana – but on the other hand the writers do associate atheism several times with intelligence. More prominently, I think, the atheism helps give his character an unfriendly edge – he’s certainly not a happy guy – bordering on nihilism. I’m a little concerned religious believers watching this will think that’s the type of personality atheism must in all cases lead to – sure you’re smart and can figure things out, but now you’re a brooding, unhappy, dismissive, lonely, and arrogant guy. But maybe I’m projecting a bit. There’s no actual reference to his character’s personality being driven by anything other than a bad, bad past.

But enough of this. You should stop reading and go watch True Detective. I’m firing up episode six now…

Today at 4 EST: 20-year-old Zack Kopplin to Debate Discovery Institute ID Advocates

Evolution Defender, Zack Kopplin

You can catch 20-year-old champion of evolution Zack Kopplin debate two Discovery Institute ID-advocates, Michael Medved and Casey Luskin, today on Medved’s radio show beginning at 4pm EST by clicking here.

If you haven’t been following the story, Kopplin, a current undergraduate at Rice University in Houston, became something of a sensation in helping to lead a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which would allow public school teachers to use “supplementary materials” to criticize “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

The bill recently died in committee for the third year in a row, but these brush fires continue to sprout up, and I’m glad we have individuals like Kopplin standing up for scientific integrity and separation of church and state. Should be a fun interview – I’m not sure exactly of the context, but Medved and Luskin would need to start debating 10-year-old’s to have any shot at winning a debate on ID in public schools.

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.