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May 23, 2006

Harris the New O'Hair?

samharris.jpgFor many years, Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the person who came to mind for most Americans when they thought of atheism. There are signs that Sam Harris, author of the End of Faith, is settling into that role (until, at least, my book rockets up the best-seller lists).

Murray O'Hair had some limitations as atheism's spokeswoman: One of her sons had the bad grace to get born-again. and as a thinker she wasn't, shall we say, Bertrand Russell. Harris is a strong writer and clear thinker, but he has one apparent limitation of his own: He "practices Zen meditation and believes in the value of mystical experiences." (Here is Harris himself on meditation.) This leaves him open to charges of hypocrisy. Should a spokesman for vegetarianism reveal a weakness for carpaccio that, presumably, would be a negative.

(I, you'll be glad to learn, have no limitations.)

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at May 23, 2006 8:17 PM


I read Harris's post. As far as I can tell, he believes the effect of meditation is neurological and psychological, and explicitly disclaims any supernatural beliefs on the subject. I don't see anything hypocritical about this.

Posted by: ACW at May 24, 2006 3:03 PM

Hard to be human and not have "spiritual" inclinations--or something to that effect. A true athiest accepts this as fact--that he's drawn to believe in false beliefs.

Athiests who cling to the moral system that hates these things are just starting the new monotheism.

Posted by: Noah SD at May 24, 2006 4:35 PM

Harris has a more blatant "limitation": he can defend torture, hence his moral judgment may
be fairly said to be deranged. Now if a believer condoned torture, I would expect tendentious atheists would be quick not just to seize on it as the moral failing it is, but to blame it on his faith. Why then should Harris's moral derangement not be blamed on his atheism?

Posted by: Dabodius at May 24, 2006 5:59 PM

not sure you can't be an unflinching, uncompromising atheist -- who looks to science not an enlightened being, believing in reincarnation and karma, for psychological insight -- without being a monotheistic or fundamentalist atheist. See A. C. Grayling below:
Though this comment is by a fellow who had, once upon a time, a "mantra."

Posted by: mitch at May 24, 2006 10:38 PM

I think Sam Harris point is simply that we cannot debate those experiences, but have to come up with a scientfic explanation. Ok he believes that Zen-Meditation has an effect and that there are mystical experiences, but this is nothing with which you can question his atheism.

At the moment we know quiet alot scientifically about the outside, i.e. the extra-corporal, world, but are only now starting to gain insight into the functions and the functioning of our brains, so it might very well be, and I strongly believe that it will, a scientific explanation for mystical experiences. by the way, how do we define a mystical experience? The sense of wonder when you see a birth or it rains or you see a rainbow and that you can perfectly explain it scientifcally without resorting to an invisible man/woman/whatsoever?

Posted by: Jens at May 25, 2006 4:11 AM

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