Sam Harris created some controversy with his speech at the AAI Convention (see video below). Most attention was drawn to his suggestion that use of the term “atheist’ was diversionary and that atheists should instead define themselves by activity around positive issues. Unfortunately the second part of his speech has been completely ignored in the resulting discussion. This is a pity because he was suggesting that some religious traditions have aspects that are of value to modern societies, a value which should be appreciated by non-theists as well as the religious.
Harris specifically discussed the meditation and contemplation particularly practiced in eastern religions. He himself practices Buddhist meditation and discussed its value in his book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. He makes clear in his speech that he doesn’t accept the religious dogma and mystical explanations that accompany Buddhist meditation (he calls it “mumbo jumbo”) but argues that the practice does produce clear benefits.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Sam Harris explains that many people in modern society suffer negatively from their uncontrolled thoughts, the often self-critical chatter which continually goes on in our heads. Meditation is a way of addressing these thoughts, removing their negative power and providing a personal peace. I find it interesting that modern psychotherapy recognises the value of “mindfulness” and meditation in coming to grips with negative self-talk. There is a new branch of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which uses these techniques. In effect patients learn not to avoid their negative thoughts, or to attempt modifying them, but to accept them, observe them and recognise that they are just thoughts. This therapy has proved to be very effective in dealing with constant pain, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other problems.
I think this example shows that we should not reject ideas or techniques which have been developed within ancient religious traditions. Inevitably these will be surrounded by, and explained by, superstitious and mystical dogma. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the techniques themselves are groundless. If we keep an open mind it becomes possible to access these techniques, make use of them, investigate them and build more realisitic explanations based on modern scientific approaches.
Sam Harris speech Part 1 (40 min)
Sam Harris, Q&A Part 2 (26 min)
Why do we believe?
Lies and misinformation
Problems with atheism?
Science and the supernatural
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Miracles and the supernatural?
Dalai Lama visit