November 07

A BuJu Responds to Sam Harris

Jay Michaelson

When people used to say "I believe in God," they meant it in the way one might mean "I believe in you." It was a statement of trust, not ontology -- it's not that I believe you exist (or don't), but rather that I believe you'll come through for me. Emotion, not reason. Things are going badly, one might say, but I believe in God. It was a disposition of the heart toward faith.

This attitude of faithfulness made sense in a world in which ontology was not seriously in dispute. Everyone “believed in God” as an ontological matter; the only question was whether heart followed head. The same attitude made sens again in an existential philosophical context in which ontology became largely irrelevant, in which what mattered was a Kierkegaardian faith in that which could not, and perhaps should not, be proven.

Now, however, as the new crop of "neo-atheists" strikes back at the reactionary fundamentalism of Bush and Bin Laden, religion is reduced to something it is not: facts. Reading Sam Harris's best-selling The End of Faith, for example, one gets the sense that religion is all about bad science, bad statements of fact, and various bad beliefs that smart people discard around the same time they quit believing in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. It's as if Genesis was written as cosmology, rather than myth.

Now, to be fair, this is also how many religious fundamentalists understand religion: not myth but history, not spirituality but dogma. Pushed into the corner by the ever more powerful assaults of secularism and science, many religionists have, rather like the Catholic church at the time of the counter-reformation, struck back with a posture of insistent certitude. Dinosaur bones were buried by God, the wacko religionists (including many mainstream Orthodox rabbis) now say. The age of the Earth matters religiously, they tell us -- where formerly, the 6,000 year saga of humankind was meant to inspire, now it is meant to distinguish heathen from believer.

Harris, unlike his fellow neo-atheist Christopher Hitchens, is quite aware that the sort of fanatics who believe the Genesis creation story to be a factual account of the origins of the cosmos are a different crowd from religious "moderates" like, well, me. But for Harris, a religious moderate is someone even worse. Convinced by modern science, a religious moderate in Harris’ view is only clinging to the gestures of religion, filling in the details in an endless game of false consciousness. For Harris, religious moderation involves mental partitioning, cognitive dissonance, and various other psychological subterfuges that allow otherwise rational people to maintain some fidelity to absurd notions.

Needless to say, I think Harris has it entirely wrong, not because moderate religious belief is something different from what he says, but because belief of this sort has little to do with religious consciousness. As I've written about in this column over the past several months, “notions” have nothing to do with religion. I would fully support a notion-less religion, really, one composed entirely of gesture, meditation, and music, all tools pointing at the ineffable, singing concept-less notes in an imitation of the silent musicality of being itself. Ritual, community, symbols, foods, sacred times—all these could also have their place, since they enrich life without the need of a single nod towards cosmology. I also would keep telling stories, since stories communicate meaning in a way that meditation and instruction do not -- but myths are like Shakespeare, not a Ken Burns documentary. They’re not reportage, or history; they are high drama, tragedy, and, sometimes, comedy. This—the gestures, the ritual, the stories--this is, in fact, my religion.

I recognize that it is not the faith of many religionists. But this polysemy (multiple-meaning), rather than undermining religion as Harris claims, actually justifies it. Let’s face it: I'm a pretty privileged guy. Rich, educated, interested, intelligent -- I'm lucky, basically, and most folks haven't got the time, interest, or aptitude for subtle philosophical thinking such as that which Harris seems to demand. This is what's so powerful about religious ritual and myth: precisely that it can work on multiple levels, bearing simple moral lessons for some people, and astonishingly subtle archetypal, poetic, and psychological insights for others. Necessarily, that means myth can be dangerously literalized and corporealized -- but it also means it can be shared, in communities constituted by geeks and jocks alike.

I assume Harris has never read Maimonides, but he should. Maimonides, too, was troubled by the disconnect between science and religion. He did find a way to make it all fit, but the jokes, subterfuges, and ironies of his project of doing so, The Guide to the Perplexed, leaves one with the strong impression that he knows he's playing a game. Of course, the Rambam is committed to an infallible Torah, so a wildly fanciful interpretation that leads to the right answer is necessarily more accurate than a seemingly plain one which leads to error. But come on. He knew full well, and wrote many times, that the teachings of religion mean utterly different things to different people: a "common person" reads text one way, a philosopher another (more correct) way. It's how religion works.

I, like Maimonides, am more a contemplative than a mythologian. For me, no amount of immersion in the complexities of legend and myth really accomplishes the same cleansing of the mental faculties, spiritual intimacy, and clarity of vision as a meditation retreat. But that's just me. Over the years, I've come to see that, for other people, engagement with myth can play a primary, and ever-developing, role. The stories and characters of the Bible are not the creation of ignoramuses, pace Harris; they are the results of centuries of folk wisdom, tale-telling, and insight into the human condition. Ignorant of science, pluralism, tolerance, and contemporary ideas about ethics -- sure. But quite wise when it comes to the human condition, and easier to transmit than Shakespeare.

Of course, religion evolves, but as it does so it maintains some connection to a past which, notwithstanding Harris's condescension, may indeed have been wiser on matters of the spirit than our own day. At one point, Harris ridicules the fact that if a 14th century Christian were alive today, he would be totally ignored for his thoroughly incorrect advice on secular matters, but might be respected on matters of religion. True. But is this a joke? While it is obviously the case that we know much more about science than we did seven hundred years ago, is it really true that we are so much wiser about religion and spirituality than our ancestors? Ethics, sure -- but the stirrings of the heart? Hardly. If anything, our noisy, advertising-filled world makes it harder, not easier, for us to sense the splendor of a sunset. What was de riguer for our ancestors -- an inky sky punctuated by stars, untamable forests, a sense of mystery -- is now almost never experienced, save on carefully planned excursions into the remote wilderness.

At the same time as Harris denies the wisdom of the ancients, he overstates the contributions of the moderns. At one point, Harris states that any religious view other than fundamentalism is actually a creation of modernity, grafted onto religion. "Moderates in every faith are obliged to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interests of living in the modern world," he says. "The moderate's retreat from scriptural literalism... draws its inspiration not from scripture but from cultural developments that have rendered many of God's utterances difficult to accept as written.... The only reason anyone is 'moderate' in matters of faith these days is that he has assimilated some of the fruits of the last two thousand years of human thought." (p. 17) This is simply false. Anyone who's spent even a single Jerusalem summer reading the Talmud closely can see that the rabbis saw themselves as Divinely mandated -- not allowed, and not empowered, but required -- to interpret the law, even in ways which directly opposed the "plain meaning" of the text. (Even, in the famous 'Oven of Achnai' episode, God's explicit word.) Scriptural literalism was ridiculed in the 13th century by the Zohar, and in the 6th century by the Talmud. Stories are the mere garments of mystical truth, written laws the mere elaboration of the mandated oral law. Indeed, Harris's example of a belief now ignored thanks to modern progress -- stoning children for heresy -- was read out of the Law by the Talmudic rabbis themselves. (Of course, the Talmud and the Zohar were both composed within the last two thousand years, but I don't think they're what he has in mind when he talks about attempts to modernize religion.) To assume one’s only choice is the Bible or modern liberalism simply ignores how traditional (and not necessarily moderate) religionists understood how (some) religious teachers, at least in the Jewish tradition, see their mission and responsibility.

For Harris, you're either a fundamentalist or a waffler. He has no notion that religion is not always about belief, or that it is deliberately designed to function on multiple levels, or that it has progress built into it, or that there are indeed some things about which past generations might have known that we do not. He condemns religion, often in language I enjoy, but seems to be talking about something completely alien to everything that I practice. I'm not a "moderate." I'm not on Harris's spectrum at all.


Ironically, this is rather where Harris himself ends up. Harris is, by now almost famously, is aware of the power of the numinous. His book is about “the end of faith,” that is, belief in dogma – not spirituality. Himself a scientist who studies "the scope and plasticity of human experience," (p. 40) Harris accepts that mystical experiences can be transformative, and that "there is a sacred dimension to human experience" that, while mysterious, has a neurological basis and even some veridicality. "We cannot live by reason alone," Harris announces early on in his book, accepting and even insisting upon a spirituality that understands the limits of reason and transcends them through trans-rational means. He just doesn't think the Bible has anything to do with it.

The alternative? Surprise: it's the dharma. The last chapter of The End of Faith is essentially a proselytization for Western Buddhism. In a rather disorienting turn, Harris shifts abruptly from secularizing scientist to dharma teacher -- really, the chapter wouldn't be out of place in one of my columns, or on a meditation retreat. It's a handy introduction to nonself and nonduality (the same idea, really) and a great advertisement for meditation. What's a BuJu not to love?

Yet it's striking that Harris's exposition of Buddhism leaves out all of how the religion is practiced outside the monastery. His Buddhism is the same as mine: philosophical, based in meditation, and devoid of myth and ritual. Whereas, actual Buddhism -- "actual" meaning, as practiced by most Asian Buddhists -- is as steeped in myth as Western religions are. Tales of the Buddha's past lives, of his miraculous powers, of the adventures of the Bodhisattvas; descriptions of pure-lands and hell-realms; libations and prayers galore. If you think the Bible's got a monopoly on wild myths, go read the Buddhist sutras.

Some apologists for Western/monastic Buddhism suggest that all the mumbo-jumbo is a sad corruption of an originally pure tradition. Like the Jewish Reform movement, they argue that such stories are later execrescences attached like parasites to a core of rationality. Come on. The tales are there because tales work; they teach us about ourselves and our ancestors; and they work especially for people who aren't lucky enough to devote weeks to meditation and reflection. They are part of the Buddhist gestalt, because they are part of the human gestalt. Last week, for example, my partner and I went to a huge Buddhist monastery near my house to celebrate the Buddha's birthday -- occasioned by a "bathing the Buddha" ritual, chanting verses related to sin and atonement, and various pomp and circumstance. It was just like Yom Kippur, right down to the confused younger generation that didn't quite know what was going on, the well-meaning monks, and the misbehaving little kids. There were offerings of fruits and oil, and a nice kiddush luncheon afterwards. It was religion, in all its essence and manifestation.

I am often asked why I practice two religious disciplines, Judaism and Western Buddhism. One response is that, really, I'm just practicing the dharma -- only my bhakti (devotional) path is Jewish, rather than Buddhist. To pretend as though monastic Buddhism by way of D.T. Suzuki or Joseph Goldstein is how Buddhism actually functions in a society requires a willful blindness toward every Buddhist culture in the world. Yes, there are monks contemplating anatta and anicha. But supporting those monks are householders who bring offerings.

This is not just sociological accident; it reflects the nature of religious consciousness, which at times is reflective, at times reifies concepts into myth and story, and at times just wants to dance. There are many Zen tales of monks crying and laughing, and even in the staid Insight Meditation Society, which has carefully removed all the nonsense from the tradition, there are occasional chants, offerings, and references to deities and demons. It's just part of how we live as human beings. Just as proposition without enthusiasm, vocation without passion, and obligation without lovingkindness are all bereft of humanity, so too meditation without devotion is incomplete.

For me, the Jewish pieces provide the devotional elements. I sit, watching my breath -- and when gratitude arises, I express it in terms of God and blessings and benevolence. I note phenomena arising and passing, and when my mind is quieted, I feel... something... which I identify with "holiness." And when I am lonely, and sad, and bereft, I continue with my religious ritual, lighting shabbat candles and feeling the aching beautiful emptiness.

It's unpleasant, to be sure, sharing a vocabulary with bigots, zealots, racists, and ignoramuses. I sometimes feel as though I should just leave the God stuff behind, particularly when I'm trying to re-justify myself to people like Sam Harris who have written me off as a religious-spiritual nut. But it's not like religion has a monopoly on bigotry and ignorance. And if these touchstones of value work for people, if they really invite reflection and action, wisdom and compassion -- does it really matter that they make no more sense than the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Is it really true that we can do without the myths, and all become Ivy-educated philosophers? And is it really the case that meditation provides all the spiritual goods, that a childless woman kneeling before a statue of the Virgin somewhere isn't feeling something, something important, that can't be generated on her own?

I don’t want to argue with Sam Harris; I’d rather meditate with him. As it happens, for whatever reason, I've been asked several times over the last year to defend my meditation practice against all sorts of charges. Some activists say it's too selfish (they are usually unhappy activists), some Jews say it's inauthentic (they are usually angry Jews), and some secularists say it's delusion (they are usually deluded, unhappy, and angry). So it’s a pleasure to read someone like Harris, who says that meditation is the only spiritual practice worth keeping. But if Harris the sociologist should read Maimonides, Harris the philosopher should read Martin Buber. Saying "you" to the momentary passages of experience, as opposed to "it" (consumerism) or even "not it" (Buddhism -- which Buber discusses at great length), is itself a distinctive modality of our psychological experience, one which loses something in any translation or reduction. Contrary to the claims of religion's many popular and pseudo-scholarly debunkers, as well as those of some of its more desperate apologists, inclining this way may add nothing ontologically -- indeed, the less it adds, the closer it is to the truth of transcendence. It is an attitude, not a proposition. So is love.


Images: Kierkegaard, Plato and Foucault by Ezra Sarajinsky


Jay Michaelson is editor in chief of Zeek. This month sees the publishing of a new anthology of his poems, Another Word for Sky: Poems.