Sam Harris: Seeking Transcendence Without Religion

September 02, 2014

It’s been ten years since the publication of Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith kicked off the cultural phenomenon of “new atheism,” bringing frank criticism of religion into mainstream conversation. In the decade since, Harris has emerged as something of a maverick among nonbelievers and progressives, frequently at the center of controversy with his opinions on Islam and extremism, science’s role in morality, and his embrace of a kind of “spiritualism” grounded in science.

It is this last item that is the subject of his latest book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he seeks a rational approach to transcendence; one that puts the supernatural aside in favor of an honest, scientific exploration of the mind, altered states of consciousness, and other (as he puts it) “spooky phenomena.”

On this special episode of Point of Inquiry, Harris talks to host Josh Zepps about his foray into the mystical. In this fascinating interview, Harris asserts that experiences such as bliss and transcendence must be removed from the realm of sectarianism, but that “one of the great holes in secularism” is that “we don’t have a ready answer for someone who wakes up tomorrow morning with an extraordinary change in their conscious life which they deem positive.”

Harris talks about the search for this answer, as well as the illusion of the self, expanding our moral circle to include other creatures, and an evaluation of the progress secularism has made since the time “new atheism” was still new.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. This week’s guest needs no introduction. Sam Harris’s first book, The End of Faith, sent shockwaves across the post 9/11 world. It spent 33 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Since then, he’s been best known as one of the most prominent atheist writers and speakers. His latest book is a little bit of a departure, though. Waking Up is a rumination on the nature of consciousness. It’s a defensive meditation. It’s an attempt to unpack what it means when people say that they’re spiritual but not religious. Sam Harris, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. 

Thank you. Josh is a pleasure. 

So within the first few pages of this book, you ruffle a few feathers. You write, Few scientists and philosophers have developed strong skills of introspection. And you say our conventional sense of self is an illusion. I feel like you spent the past decade pissing off religious people. Is there is this going to piss off atheists? Is that part of the intention? 

Well, if that’s not the intention, but I think it will have that effect. There’s there’s certainly there’s an inconvenient fact of demographics here, really, is that what happens is people who have never had the kinds of experiences I discuss in this book altered states of consciousness and intuitions of self transcendence and any of the seemingly spooky phenomenon of subjective changes that that religious people report. 

They will just by by dint of this kind of filtering Phet fact of experience, they will they will tend to be atheists in more often than not, because this is just data. They don’t have about the nature of experience. 

And people who are religious will tend to interpret these experiences as evidence confirming the religious doctrines. They got hammered into them as children for the most part. So these kinds of experiences acted as a kind of filter. So they did confirm their absence, confirms for atheists that there’s really nothing of interest there, that many people look inside and find nothing of interest to see through any technique of introspection. And so and religious people have these experiences of whether it’s unconditional love or a feeling of bliss while praying in church or just some peak experience that they had that the secular community has not done much to explain. And the only mode of talking about that, it seems to value it appropriately and give it into some conceptual context, is one or another Iron Age religion or New Age faith. So these experiences are acting as a kind of filter. And yes, it’s just it’s inconvenient for me that that my core audience, the skeptical scientific audience, will tend to be people who haven’t had their minds blown by these kinds of experiences. But obviously, there’s that there’s a subset there that that have. And so there are people who have taken drugs in their in their reckless use. 

And there are people who’ve had you know, they went to Burning Man or they do they had some experience that that pushed the edges of what they took to be their conventional sense of self and revealed that it is something that is malleable, that it can be extended in ways, they can be perturbed in ways. And in fact, it can it can be extinguished, if only for a moment, to the time. And there is a genuine phenomenon that we can call self transcendence, for lack of a better word, where the sense of being a self, the sense of being located in your head, behind your eyes, riding around in your body as though it were a kind of vehicle that can be undone. And it’s one of the more interesting and and positive experiences people can have. 

Does that have metaphysical implications if we’re not a little pilot inside our head? 

No, I don’t draw a metaphysical implications from it. And this is something I, I criticize in the book. What would people then want to do when they have this experience is, say, usually inspired by one religious doctrine or another, that this proves that, you know, we survive our deaths? That that consciousness is not the result of anything the brain is doing that we are we’re really identical to the one mind that gave birth to the cosmos, etc. And there’s here people like Deepak Chopra who obviously do this kind of thing all the time. And they they bridge these that they connect these experiences to be the spooky physics and things we don’t totally understand about the nature of the universe. And that’s something that that I think is intellectually legitimate. There’s nothing you can experience in the darkness of your closed eyes while meditating that says anything about the Big Bang or what preceded it. It has no relevance to cosmology. You’re not you’re not you’re not intuiting that, you know, they did. The experience of unconditional love does not prove to you that the energy of love pervades the cosmos. I mean, these are the kinds of moves that New Age people make and religious people make. 

And they are virtually always specious and unwarranted. What these experiences do tell you and where they do connect to legitimate science, they tell you that certain experiences are possible. They tell you something about human psychology and of necessity, the human brain. And so the connection between spirituality and science is not at quantum mechanics and cosmology, where people like Deepak Chopra put it. 

It’s that psychology and neuroscience and the related sciences and the mind, when I talk to religious people, when I try to talk about big metaphysical issues with them. There seems to always be an impulse is like an experience, all impulse that I guess you and I and the other people listening to this don’t share with religious people that they they tend to fall back on personal experiences or emotional experiences that they’ve had from which they derive their worldview. And we can’t kind of cross that chasm to actually be inside their heads and to have those experiences or understand what is driving them to believe the things that they believe because they don’t seem to have reason to themselves into this into the positions that they hold. Is there a risk when talking about this stuff and you acknowledge this in the book, that it’s it’s tricky to use words to describe to people a subjective almost. Well, transcendence. I’m looking to use the word spiritual. But you do experience. Is there a problem there where if you haven’t had it, then no amount of talking about it is going to convince you of it? 

Well, there is a problem. But again, this comes back to your last question about whether I’m positing anything metaphysical. There are two different ways we can use experience to justify truth claims of the sort. That spiritual people, quote, spiritual people tend to make. And the first is clearly illegitimate, that they claim that the bliss the Christian is experiencing while praying proves that the doctrine of Christianity is somehow true. So this is this is obviously the interpretation that virtually every Christian would make of that kind of experience. They’re praying to Jesus. 

They feel they suddenly go better than they ever have in their lives. They feel forgiven. They forgive themselves. The tears are flowing down their cheeks. 

And they use this as proof that what some first century carpenter survived his death and is now now existing in some ethereal place as an ammunition peeping Tom, who cares about them and is is in contact with them. Now, of course, a Hindu praying to Shiva is going to have a totally different story to tell. And yet that Hindus have these same experiences as Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and even atheists. So we know that the sheer incompatibility of these religious contexts and doctrines in which people have these experiences proves that none of those stories can be the real explanation, because they’re they’re they’re completely incompatible with one another because there’s no way to reconcile the claims of Hinduism and Islam, for instance. So there’s a deeper principle at work. And the principle is just that the human mind and human consciousness is susceptible to various changes. And that is indisputable. And that that is just, you know, all you have to do is drop acid to note to have that confirmed to you well beyond any question for the rest of your life. Now, whether you have a good experience or bad experience, that has a lot to do with who you are. And there’s a fair bit of luck there. But there’s just no question that human consciousness can be radically different than it tends to be in the case of any one person. And certain of these changes are clearly pathological. And we we have names for the kinds of mental illness that result. But certain a certain of these changes are normative and which is to say desirable and allow us to function better than we tend to. And so, yeah, so that that part is indisputable, that the claim that experience can change based on a variety of factors. But one of those factors is how we pay attention to our experience in the present moment, how whether we’re focused or distracted. And another claim that I make in the book, which which is that comes to this issue of of transcendent self transcendence, is that we know that the ego, the sense of being in an unchanging self and unchanging thinker of thoughts and experience or of experience is an elaborate construct and ultimately an illusion. And we know neurologically it doesn’t make any sense. There’s no place in the brain where your ego or your soul can be hiding. There’s no there’s no one spot in the brain where all of the processing that creates our mental lives in our experience comes together. There’s no Cartesian theater, as Dan Dennett once called it. So that therefore, everything that you take yourself to be subjectively, all of your powers of cognition, your emotion, your autobiographical memory, your your conscious experience in this moment, the fact that you can see that the play of color and light in front of you visually and you can hear the sound of my voice and they feel that you can perceive your body in space. All of these processes are disparate processes spread out over the whole of the brain more or less, and all can be independently perturb and interrupted. And they break apart in ways at the level of the brain that are that are highly counterintuitive. You can lose a capacity to recognize manmade objects, but be able to recognize animals. I mean, it’s it’s highly counterintuitive how things break apart when they when they are no longer magically unified as they are in the case of most of us most of the time. And so we know that the self, the sense that we all have of being an ego that is carried from one moment to the next, more or less the same. It’s it’s just it’s the things it’s associated with change. But there’s this to this point behind the eyes that we are as as locus of consciousness. We know that is it doesn’t make much sense neurologically and what I’m claiming, and this is an experience that is testified to by for thousands of years and in the contemplative world in which just which any of our listeners can confirm for themselves. I’m claiming that if you look for this, I this this feeling that you’re calling I. The sense of being a thinker of your thoughts and a subject inside your head. 

If you look closely enough and this is where the discipline techniques of introspection like meditation come in, you will find that that feeling is absent, that it actually disappears upon sufficient inquiry. And and this is the experience of self transcendence that is at the core of of spirituality that in the sense that I talk about it going to those two. 

I’m glad that you made the distinction earlier between the subjective experience, the the ways that we can play around with how our consciousness sort of interfaces with the world versus, on the other hand, any metaphysical claims about the nature of the cosmos that we might derive from that subjective experience. I just want to still harp on that, though, because I do think you’re opening the door to something there, which which is that you’re walking this this tricky line when you talk about there’s no way that we can, for example, arrive at conclusions about what happened in the Middle East thousands of years ago, simply on the basis of having a spiritual experience in the in the here and now. I’ve spoken to pastors who became pastors because they dropped acid when they were in their teens and had a transcendent experience. You know, there are there are millions of religious people around the world who would say, well, OK, maybe the Bible’s a metaphor. Maybe I’m a Christian. In fact, my in laws that say this, that they were Christians because culturally we’re Christians, we have to grow up as Christians. I know what happened. But I do know that I tune into something. And when I tune into that, it proves to me that there is an old, loving, creative spirit that transcends what I can see and touch and hear and feel. And that that’s my defense for God. Does this make us more amenable towards those people? Because you’ve had a long, troubled history of being accused of alienating moderate religious people? 

Yeah, well, this is really one of the most insidious and subtle consequences of moderate religion. 

You know, moderates slash liberal religion, which is that it suggests that that you when you take these kinds of these peace, intrinsically positive experiences and religion at its most benign, where you just have people gathering in beautiful buildings to contemplate the mystery of existence and their and their ethical commitments to one another. It suggests there is no truly rational way to do those things, that we must still pay lip service to revelation, i.e. the idea that that an ammunition deity may have inspired one of our books. And this is just false. And it’s just it’s not only it’s not only intrinsically divisive, because obviously they’re incompatible revelations and we still have people aligning themselves with their coreligionists reflexively, even when they’re coreligionists or behaving like psychopaths. But it’s just it is simply false. 

It’s a you can have obviously build community and enjoy beautiful buildings and artwork and music and even have the the full blown self transcending experiences of a genuine mystic without believing any bullshit and and certainly without lending credence to the claims of of first century people who knew absolutely nothing about science or anything else that that should be framing our worldview at this moment, the 21st century. So this is one of the great holes in secularism that we don’t have a a ready answer for someone who wakes up tomorrow morning with an extraordinary change in their conscious life, which they deem positive. You know, you wake up tomorrow morning feeling like St. Francis of Assisi. You know, you wake up and you love humanity unconditionally and you feel completely free of personal neurosis. 

I mean, this is an experience people have now, you know, that they’re obviously pathological forms of this. You know, you can have bipolar disorder and be in some kind of manic state. But there are there are normative forms of this kind of experience. They may be transitory or they may be permanent. Some cases I don’t know. But there’s there’s certainly experiences people have that fit this description. The problem is that you have this experience. There is no one to take you seriously and give it and have a have a serious conversation about its implications, ethical, ethically and psychologically. But the representatives of mainstream religion or some new age cult, and that is a problem for secularism. If you go to somebody at an atheist conference and talk about this experience. They have no idea what to say. And and by just. By dint of the kinds of ways in which people self selected these groups, you’re going to tend in the atheist community, in the secular community, to find people who are the least who resonate the least with this kind of experience, because if they if they were having experiences like this, they probably would have become religious. As you say, this is religion is the only way we have talked about these experiences for thousands of years. And that’s that’s something I’m trying to change with this book. 

It strikes me that I am only just thinking this aloud, as you sort of say it, that what you’re trying to do in a lot of your writing and a lot of your work is reclaim the conversation from the extremes. Right. I mean, what you just said is reminiscent of what I’ve heard you say a bunch of times about the conversation around Islamophobia and which you keep getting taken out of context when people you know, you’ve you’ve basically said unless liberal progressives can have an honest conversation about the problems of extremism in Islam, then we’re yielding the ground on that conversation to fascists and rednecks and pastors in the south. They want to burn the Koran. We need to carve out a space in the middle where we’re able to have these conversations rather than yielding them to the extremes. And is that kind of what you’re trying to do here in terms of spirituality, for want of a better word that, you know, Westboro Baptist Church is as far from the kinds of spiritual experiences that you’re talking about as the most militant atheist, is is is the object to sort of carve out a middle ground in which we’re able to have these conversations and take back control over the conversation, around spirituality from the extremes at both ends. 

Yeah. I don’t really think of it so much in terms of extremes. It’s it’s hard to place the middle in that spectrum. But yes, it is sort of analogous to what I attempted with the moral landscape where I was addressing the fact that many, many people think that there is no basis to talk about ethics and the good life and find some intellectual foundation for resisting evil without believing something in supportable scientifically. So you’ve lost your religious you can’t really think about good and evil clearly. And there are many people on the rational side of moral relativists who agree with that. 

That doesn’t really there is no such thing as evil. Once you once you get rid of religion and talk about the nature of human psychology at the level of the brain and evolution, etc.. And so the more landscape was my attempt to reclaim ethics and the concept of moral truth in the context of science and reason generally. 

And that’s why I’m doing that for spiritual experience. And the phenomenon of self transcendence in this book. And I think. Yeah. Yeah. And you say we have to recognize that people have these experiences or glimmers of these experiences in many different contexts. And and sometimes they have them in context that are quite pathological. 

And they and they use these experiences, therefore, to ramify their belief in incredible ideas that are divisive and lead to immense harm in society. So, yes, you know that the jihadist who is a willing suicide bomber or is willingly putting his life on the line for law, very likely is having extraordinarily positive experiences. And in many cases, I mean, this is something that’s something ethically neutral about an experience like ecstasy. You know, you can be you can be incredibly happy and free of any kind of anxiety and any sort of interpersonal, obvious interpersonal neurosis, having a truly peak experience. And that can be pointed toward just having a ton of fun at a at a rave. Or it can be pointed toward Jesus on your, you know, fifth year in a as a monkey in a, you know, Cistercian monastery. Or you can be a jihadist just getting ready to strap on his suicide vest. And so there’s the context in which we frame and understand these these peak states of human consciousness is is hugely important. It’s all important. And I mean, ecstasy is a terrible moral failing and societal problem if it is fueling jihad. It’s one of the best things that can ever happen to you if it’s pointed in the direction of feeling more love than you’ve ever felt in your life for your wife or husband or your children. And so and again, it’s one’s beliefs about what ecstasy means are the difference in these cases. And that’s and that is something that the secular community has given it. They have we have we have no conversation about these experiences. We haven’t been able to influence the conversation about them. 

You talk about your first experience of sort, a transcendent love early on in the book. And speaking of ecstasy, quite literally say it’s an experience on MDMA. What role to do can and should drugs play in all this? I’ve I’ve recently been looking with interest at the fact that the rise of I don’t know if you know the drug ayahuasca, which is that there are increasingly these these not even parties, but kind of cultural shamanistic experiences in Brooklyn and in Los Angeles and other parts of the country where people are taking this South American hallucinogen, which gives them a whole night long trip and chemists apparently reevaluate that encourages you to reevaluate everything about your life, gives you incredible spiritual insights, certainly dissolves the sense of self that you’re talking about in the book. 

Is it also it also gives you the happy experience of vomit in your family? 

Yeah, I did a segment on that on how first live and I was asking them about that. And they were like, you know, the vomiting really isn’t a big deal. It’s more about purging of the bad stuff that’s inside you. I had to point out that the bad stuff that’s inside you is the ayahuasca, which is why you’re holding it up. You are going to vomit. I think without the Ayahuasca. But let’s put that to the side, obviously gives people some kind of some kind of extraordinarily transcendent experience. Is this something that you would encourage? I mean, not that drug specifically, but the experimentation, the use of pharmaceuticals to experiment with the nature of consciousness? 

Yeah. You know, that’s a hard one because it’s you know, obviously I have to honestly acknowledge the role they played in my evolution here. The illusion, my thinking here, which is that the role in hindsight seems to have been indispensable, but one has to be mindful of the very real risks that people run when taking drugs event of any kind. And this is psychedelics of any kinds. And so it’s it is something I’ve tried to you know, it’s a kind of fine line to walk. And I’ve spelled it out on my blog and a a article entitled Drugs and the Meaning of Life, which actually became a section of the book. So, you know, I can’t really do all of a justice here in a few minutes. But the short answer is your drugs are really the only method that absolutely guarantee and effect. You know, if you teach someone to meditate or petition to do yoga or you tell them to go in to solitude for a day or a week, you’re not guaranteed that they are going to experience some profound change in their consciousness. I mean, they they may just get incredibly bored. They may get lonely. They may know her, injure themselves doing yoga and come away feeling well. There’s just nothing to it. You know, that’s just I don’t know what people are talking about. But, you know, it doesn’t work for me now that you don’t get that kind of report after someone drops 100 micrograms of LSD or takes a sufficient dose of magic mushrooms, the relevant ingredient of which is psilocybin or or does ayahuasca or any of these other hallucinogens. And you don’t tend to get that effect on MDMA, which is probably not best class hallucinogen, but, you know, pathogen or an intact ajin, which works more just on on changes in emotion. OPL many, many, many millions people have taken MDMA and not seen any great significance do it. They just had fun that at a rave or or at a party. And so the context in which you take these drugs is relevant. But people have extraordinarily bad experiences on these drugs as well. And I and I have had those experiences. And it’s why I don’t you know, I haven’t taken any drugs for for a very, very long time. And it’s it’s been decades since I’ve taken any psychedelic not because I’m afraid that, you know, to to get arrested and, you know, wind up on 60 Minutes talking about how I don’t want to go to jail. But because that is again, that is one feature here. I mean, the movie movies, these drugs are illegal. 

And and so there’s a certain degree of paranoia and hassle that everyone incurs trying to to experiment with pharmacology. 

But there’s just the sheer fact that you can have a truly terrifying experience that for all intents and purposes, renders you a clinically insane for a time, especially on a drug like LSD, LSD or haven’t taken ayahuasca. But I would imagine ayahuasca has similar liabilities. So, yeah, it’s you can’t I can’t recommend them without significant caveats. But it is true that if you are as lump in a character as I was in my 20s, who was just fundamentally skeptical that there was anything of interest here, you know, if you if you taught me to meditate, I think I would have just I would have found nothing of interest in my own consciousness to see. I was just that was not that way. There was nothing for me to see. And so, you know, I would have I would have argued with you all day about how this has got to be bullshit and these people are just emotionally unstable. And, you know, there’s just all the claims of religion. 

Ah ah ah ah. Clearly false. And so this is just this is a wing of human endeavor that, you know, that I can close the door on. And, you know, curiosity is not even appropriate. That attitude gets radically, can’t cancel them, cut through by a drug experience in a way that, you know, I don’t know any other surrogate for. 

And so that’s just a fact. And that’s, you know, but that’s not where everyone is. There a lot of people who’s who take up a practice like meditation and have their their lives and their outlooks totally transformed in an hour. And they because they have had some talent for it, they’re they’re in their mind is naturally more concentrated than than most people’s is permitted to do. I know I’m going on at great length there, but the crucial variable here is from from a matter from a from a contemplative or meditational point of view is the fact that we’re all lost in thought. 

He was. Every waking moment distracted by our thinking minds. We’re having a conversation with ourselves continuously. And we it’s such an automaticity that we don’t recognize it. So which we most of us do not know, an alternative to thinking every waking moment of our lives. And meditation is a technique to break the spell of thoughts, actually pay attention to the present moment without being lost in one’s conversation. Inner, inner, inner monologue about the present moment. And it’s the ability to do that. The ability to notice the difference between pain. Clear attention to anything. Whether it’s the breath or just what you happen to be seeing or hearing or smelling pink. Absolutely clear. Non consent, conceptual, nonjudgmental attention to some feature of your experience in the present moment. The ability to do that is what one is training in in meditation. And an inability to do that is what keeps one from noticing that there’s anything profound to notice about consciousness in the present moment. You just most people who you teach them to meditate are just thinking with their legs crossed and their eyes closed. And they’re not aware that they’re thinking, even though you’ve told them you don’t want to be lost in thought. And every time your loss and thought come back to the present moment, come back to your breath, come back to the sound of a mantra, whatever the technique is there, they’re thinking interminably and unable to to break that spell. And that’s that’s something that psychedelics just ram through. It’s not that you don’t want to be thinking on psychedelics and your thoughts have huge consequences, but you you have a discursive mind is is overridden for a time in a way that accounts for the power of these experiences, but also accounts for for how haphazard they can be. Because you’re not you’re not actually under your own control. You’re not a skill, but you’ve built up over many, many hours of practice. What you hey, what you what has happened as you basically been flung over the landscape of the mind in a way that can lead to some very pleasant experiences, but can lead to some very unpleasant experiences. 

Geneva’s a rise in awareness of this kind of attempt to be present in recent decades. I’m sort of slightly optimistic as I listen to you because I don’t have damning with faint praise. 

But it reminds me a little bit of watching Oprah interview Eckhart Tolle a or like read write about, you know, the landmark forum, more like astore. These kinds of things that spring up with a philosophy is basically a kind of secular Buddhist philosophy. We spend all of our lives living, regretting the past and worrying about the future. And the secret to happiness is just to find a space that clearing to be present in the now. Do you think that’s on the rise? And is there anything that the that some guys like Deepak Chopra should be proud of in having having alerted people to this possibility, even if it’s in the midst of a lot of other mumbo jumbo? 

Yeah, well, it’s been on the rise for for many decades. And it really since the 1960s, it’s it’s been current in the culture. 

Unfortunately, it has been almost everywhere, conflated with, if not religion itself, some version of mumbo jumbo that has been exported from religion. So and and the and the truly secular strands of it that you get now with like with mindfulness being being so current and in vogue, tend to water down the profundities so much that it just begins to look like Levie, the equivalent of an executive stress ball. 

Whereas just this is just a tool. Know meditation now becomes a tool for self-improvement that you can use, like go into the gym, getting enough sleep or doing anything else that you’re smart to do. And yet it’s not it doesn’t radically it doesn’t promise any radical insight or radical transformation of how you view yourself in your life and in the world. Yeah, they all all of this has been percolating for quite some time. 

It’s just, you know, I’m not aware of anyone who has made the case that techniques like meditation hold immense promise, not just for personal insight and transformation, but that they provide a necessary peace for understanding the mind scientifically. There’s certain things we’re gonna discover directly in a first person way in consciousness or not discover at all. I mean, this is just this just this is a fact about the nature of subjectivity. We can’t it is we can’t conceptually reduce it to neurotransmitters in the way that many people seem to, to hope that there’s always going to be a first person side of this conversation. There’s a conversation about what it’s like to be us subjectively, no matter how much we correlate these subjective. 

Changes with neuro imaging data or anything else, we can we can find out about the brain. And there’s just the fact that these experiences go much deeper and are much more rarified, potentially, than the stress reduction emphasized suggests. So, as you know. And so that’s so the fine line to walk here, which I try to walk in the book, is that the some of the critics are apparently crazier claims about you, about, you know, that there’s no such thing as the ego. And you could recognize your your. The fact that you’re identical to the rest of the universe. Those those crazy claims actually do more or less accurately describe certain experiences. 

People have certain experiences that I would argue we should want to have so that there is a there is a lot of truth in what people like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, they say, except the moment they start talking about how to understand this all in the context of science, they it’s it’s just yet full of a deluge of bullshit and that that’s the problem. 

So and in the rare case that you get a someone who is a has sophisticated experience in meditation and or with psychedelics who can really do justice to the depths of these experience and their significance and who doesn’t make the scientific errors. 

Because you have this person has a sophisticated understanding of science, which you rarely get in that case is someone who is aware of the problem of religion and who will make the appropriate skeptical noises about religious doctrine. So there are many people that many scientists who are quite enamored with meditation at this moment who are studying it in the lab, who are meeting with the Dalai Lama to discuss these things. But these scientists tend to more or less just shill for American Buddhism at this moment. It’s some kind of Western version of Buddhism that is scientifically informed and doesn’t pay a lot of attention to all the crazy claims that come out of Christianity and Islam and doesn’t want to get into the culture war at all. And that. And so what I’ve argued in other books, not so much in this one, but it’s implicit in everything I say in this book is that being a a Western Buddhist is part of the problem. I mean, you are complicit in the problem of this religious balkanization of our world. If you’re running around calling yourself a Buddhist and, you know, it’s just clear to me that we have to get out of the religion business to get out of religion business. We have to talk about these experiences just out fundamentally outside the context of of any sectarian claims. 

One of the things that this is a bit of an aside, but one of the things that you just reminded me of, which is underpinning this whole conversation, which underpins your book, which underpins a lot of religion, is is the fact of consciousness, the fact of self-awareness. You write in the book, you know, that we’re built out of the same atoms as a ham sandwich. Right. So the birth of consciousness has got to be the result of some kind of organization, just arranging atoms in ways that seem to bring about an experience of being those atoms. And you talk about Nagel’s. You know what it’s like to be about his famous essay in terms of eating meat, that a ham sandwich obviously used to be sentiment in some capacity, at least the ham bit of it did. Does this make you reflect when you think about the fact of our own consciousness now and sentiments about the ethics of of using other sentient creatures for food? 

Yeah, I guess it is something that probably was even more relevant to my last book, The Moral Landscape. But yeah, I am I’m well aware that the industry that gives us most of the meat we eat is just a horror show. In that it creates unnecessary suffering for billions of standing creatures, which are almost certainly conscious and capable of suffering. 

So it’s I just think our our ethical responsibilities and our ethical concern should scale with to the degree to which any given animal is conscious. So, yeah, if you’re if you’re driving home today and you. You know, CAA insect splatter on your windshield. Well, that’s one sort of problem to have. If you run over a squirrel, that’s another. If you run over a dog, that’s another. If you happen to run over a chimpanzee. That’s another. And if you run over somebody’s child, that’s another. These are either. This is a hierarchy of creatures and their possible conscious states and the kinds of lives that her can be improved or harmed based on how we we interact with them. And so where you draw where you put the cut for the emergence of consciousness, I don’t know. I don’t know if insects are conscious. Nobody does. You and your intuitions could be plausibly tipped one way or the other, depending on on how you want to think about it. But whether or not a cricket is conscious. You know, I don’t think it’s especially rational to lose much sleep over the suffering of crickets, as some people are wont to do. And, you know, the whole religion, Jainism, which is is fundamentally based on non harming. And they don’t want to you know, they won’t even harm insects. And some people worry about harming bacteria. 

You know, they don’t want to take antibiotics because they don’t want to impose so much death and suffering on shelves. 

There will be no point in building a strawman, would you? You know what I’m talking about. 

So I’m saying there’s a continuum here. So once you get up in two farm animals, then I think there’s a real conversation to have about what can suffer and how much. 

And I think there may be maybe counterintuitive truths there to discover. I mean, it may just be a fact that Tiggs can suffer much more than cows can. And therefore we should be much more concerned about Tig. Now I don’t, I don’t know in fact that that’s true. But, but it’s it’s totally possible that we could discover that that’s true. And where to fish rank in this taxonomy of suffering. I don’t know. I would, I would, I would guess that they’re far lower than the kinds of animals we we’ve farm on land. But, yeah, just to go directly to your question. Yeah, I think it is an issue. And how an animal the kind of a. the kind of life an animal has before we kill it is very relevant and in fact, maybe the most relevant thing. So, you know, if you’re if you’re gonna go out and hunt a wild boar that has lived its life in blissful ignorance of the prospect of of being killed and then you kill it and eat it. That strikes me as as significantly different than having a industry where we raise hogs in in the most painful, seemingly the most painful circumstance we can impose on them for their entirety if they’re alive. So, you know, I think if you want to be a vegetarian and you want an ethical argument to support your your choice, I think it’s a very easy case to make. I mean, is the conscience of a vegetarian, I think should be much cleaner than the conscience of someone who is is eating meat, because there’s a whole area of the unnecessary suffering imposed on other conscious creatures that you can you can claim to be not complicit in it. And so I think I was a vegetarian for six years. I became anemic. And, you know, it just it was not really working for me. And then I ceased to be a vegetarian. 

But, you know, I’ve gotten sufficient amount of pressure from readers on this subject that I’m I’m thinking of of experimenting with it again, because it’s you know, it was it was certainly I was not the smartest vegetarian in the world and how I went about it. But, yeah, I think, you know, it is an ethical issue. And, you know, someone like Peter Singer, I think it has a lot of wisdom in his in his discussion of how unconscionable it is that we treat animals the way that we do that. 

But the crucial thing I want to just reiterate is that there is a hierarchy here. I think it is it is totally appropriate to be a species is to so-called speciesist in savoring the lives of humans over the lives of. 

Mice and rats and a etc.. I mean, it’s you know, it’s not the kind of I chose to do during doing my neuroscience aphc not to experiment on animals because I didn’t want to live that way. 

I did not. I didn’t want to get up every morning and have to go saw that the scalp off of a rat. But I think it’s absolutely clear that there’s certain kinds of medical research that is is indispensable and ethical to do. 

And this entails the killing of animals and animals that who cannot suffer as much as human beings and whose suffering will lead to the massive mitigation of human suffering. And I think that is I think the ethical case for that is quite strong. And so people who are who drink the animal rights kool aid and equate basically all conscious creatures with with humanity in terms of ethical stature. I think that’s a huge mistake. So. 

Yeah, yeah. 

I mean, I think Singer, though, just in his defense, would would agree with you there that there’s there’s less moral culpability in killing an oyster than there is in killing a chimpanzee. I don’t think that’s what he means by speciesism. He may. He means having no particularly good reason for distinguishing between the sentiments and consciousness of different species and favoring one species simply because it happens to be homosapien. I think I think that’s that’s interesting. But yet, let’s not get bogged down in that. Let’s wrap it up here. But I’m interested in when you were after 9/11, when you were sitting down to write The End of Faith. What did you think that would have the cultural impact that it did? And if you could have projected forward and looked at where the atheist sort of movement for one of the better would is now? Do you think it’s in a better place, a worse place than you might have hoped? We’ve we losing a winning this fight? 

Well, on the first question, I had no expectation of anything. I don’t know that I expected it to fail as a book, but I had no rational basis to expect that it would it would initiate this this phenomenon in publishing that we’ve now come to call the new atheists. And there would be any kind of cultural conversation that I would wind up near the center of. 

Yeah, I just had no no reason to think that. I mean, most books are better published, simply don’t get read. And the whole, you know, the war. What the author experiences, it’s just it’s just an ocean of apathy. And then him he or she moves on to the next project. But, you know, I think it’s something like 300000 or more books published in English every year now. I mean, so it’s it’s just the only rational expectation for a new author is his silence in the moment, that book that emerges from the British press. But yeah, so the fact that it became as visible as it did and then it was quickly followed by these other bestselling books. Obviously, people know the Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Dan Dennett very quickly published their own books on a similar topic. And then we were treated like a, you know, four headed atheist for for some years. I think that was all. I think that’s the net result of that has been quite helpful. I think the I don’t know how to judge whether we’re winning in any important sense. I think some of the poll results suggest that that things have the dial has moved a little bit in terms of the numbers of people who will claim to be spiritual but not religious or to claim have claim no affiliation with religion or who will even check the box atheist when when asked when given that option, that those numbers have all moved, however slightly in the right direction in the last decade. But yeah, on the other side, you also see the massive empowering of religious tribalism, globally speaking, especially in the case of Islam. So it’s, you know, what is it what what 10 percent of Americans are doing and the kinds of noises they make when when answering a telephone survey doesn’t matter all that much. I don’t think in the scheme of clashing civilizations, where you have on one side speak of the Muslim world, you have surely hundreds of millions of people who have never for a moment questioned whether the Koran is the perfect word or the creator of the universe. It simply is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. And if begins to say otherwise, we’ve got a problem. Or you know what? Now, what percentage of the Muslim world answers to that conviction? I don’t know. But it’s it’s far more than. 10 percent. And and it’s it’s really worth worrying about. And on our side, we have an incredible degree of of Christian literalism and religious tribalism, which, you know, given the right stimulus, can just be, I think, activated to horrible effect at some point. Maybe I just say, if you imagine what would happen to you in the West if we had another September 11th style event, but larger, which is which is it would be a miracle if we don’t have something as big as September 11th. At some point the next 20 years, we would have to we would have gotten very, very lucky. We don’t have something like that. And if we don’t have something by you, it’s larger by a factor of 10. I would consider ourselves very, very lucky. So what’s going to happen in the West when when something like that happens? Imagine the level of Christian demagogery that would be possible. We we almost we had the spectacle of almost having Sarah Palin as vice president. I mean, not happily. That possibility diminished quickly. And then it became a punch line very shortly thereafter. But there was a moment there where it where it where no serious person could say it’s this is impossible. When she adrenaline, especially that moment after she addressed the Republican National Convention, I mean, that had to. That was incredibly sobering for me and everyone else who is worried about the possible influence of Christian demagogery in in our political process. And yet who knows what could happen given the right chain of events that now or 10 years from now. So I’m not at all saying, Glenn, that we have won the war of ideas. And I really think we we meaning secular, rational defenders of science and reason. We really do need to win it. 

Sam, it’s great to talk to you. I I’m I’m always exhausted when I talk to well-known people about having to always show their latest book, because I always feel like I want to talk about the things that that I find most interesting about the MRD of their most recent thing. 

But this is one of those happy circumstances where it actually also happens to be, I think, one of the most interesting books. It’s a it’s a great book, waking up. Everyone should go and grab it. Thanks for being on point of inquiry and come back anytime. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you so much, Josh. It’s a pleasure. You got it. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.