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NewsReal Sunday: Secularist Sam Harris says "There is a Core of Truth to Religion That We Should Be Interested In."

Posted on August 23 2009 3:00 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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See Part I of my NewsReal Sunday discussion of Friday night’s interview between Bill Maher and Sam Harris on Real Time.


Leftist comedian Bill Maher just can’t help being a jackass even toward people he respects. You’d think that if anyone could get him to at least attempt to grasp the value in the religious experience it would be believers who share his “progressive” political faith:

Maher: I have unending respect for Bill Moyers. He’s a brilliant man. He’s also a Baptist minister. Jimmy Carter, y’know, a pretty bright guy. How do we reconcile someone who is so intelligent but who believes things which you and I think are incredibly childish and nonsensical? It’s a neurological disorder that they have?

Harris: No, it’s a social disorder. It’s a conversational disorder. It’s the fact that we can’t apply enough pressure to these ideas and it’s taboo to do so. And there’s this fact that there is a core of truth to religion that we should be interested in. There’s the fact that people do have transformative experiences. If Jesus really was who they said he was or Buddha likewise, it’s possible perhaps to be the Tiger Woods of compassion. It’s possible to really be someone who has transformed himself. And we should be interested in that we should want to actuallize that and understand it scientifically. But the problem is it’s so mired in religious mumbo jumbo and superstition and taboo and religion has seemed to be the only game in town in talking about that possibility and we need to overcome that.

(I’ll leave rebuttals to Maher’s remarks about Moyers and Carter to NewsReal’s diligent commenters. I have other concerns today.)

This open admission about the truth in religion is one of the reasons that of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheist movement (Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) I prefer Harris. Of course it must be said, though, that I have a great deal of affection for what Hitchens has to say on plenty of other subjects.

Unlike his fellow three horsemen and most secularists, Harris is able to distinguish between religious fundamentalism (something to challenge) and mysticism (something to encourage.) On these points Harris and I are somewhat in agreement. He’s just a bit more aggressive in his confrontations with fundamentalism and I’m more enthusiastic in my promotion of mysticism. I have far too many Christian friends who I love and respect far too dearly to come to Harris’s conclusions about the “danger” of their faith.

What is mysticism, though? What is this “core of truth that we should be interested in” that Harris talks about?

Robert Anton Wilson does a pretty good job of laying it out there in this four- and-a-half minute excerpt from Maybe Logic:

Wikipedia also has a great definition:

Mysticism (from the Greek μυστικός, mystikos, an initiate of a mystery religion[1]) is the pursuit of communion with, identity with, or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality, divinity, spiritual truth, or God through direct experience, intuition, instinct or insight. Mysticism usually centers on a practice or practices intended to nurture those experiences or awareness. Mysticism may be dualistic, maintaining a distinction between the self and the divine, or may be nondualistic.

Buried within almost all religions is mysticism. Religion is a gateway which allows one to experience mysticism which allows one to experience a unity with the Universe. This is why Carter and Moyers are so passionate about their Christian faith. And Maher’s lack of understanding of a mystical connection with the universe also explains two other things about him:

1. His need to be a jackass and lash out so cruelly toward others who he doesn’t understand. (Isolation and a lack of connection with the world causes an emptiness and a need to hurt others.)

2. His fondness and advocacy for marijuana. That is where he gets his mystical union — through the haze of his bong smoke. But hey, at least he has that. Can one imagine how much more vicious he’d be if he didn’t? I have a few ideas of what one might expect.


(You find these same two traits manifest in Hitchens except he seems to prefer liquor to weed.)

People who manage to form some sort of mystical connection to the universe are, by and large, just more pleasant, loving people to be around than those like Maher who have not.

Not all believers manage to find mysticism in religion. And plenty of atheists — like Harris — do stumble upon it apart from religious traditions. But the deck is still  stacked in favor of people of faith to achieve mystical awareness. More religious folks are mystically tuned in and thus kind and loving. This means that they’re generally more persuasive and likable than the often bullying Hitchens, Maher, and Dawkins.

It’s because of this that people of faith shouldn’t be overly concerned that the four horsemen will be successful in bringing forth the Atheist Apocalypse Across America anytime soon. Without the loving spirit that’s a natural byproduct of achieving oneness with God it’s hard to accomplish anything of value or substance in this world.

To Be Continued Soon… (There is an important connection between the Mystical Idea and the American Idea which will discussed soon.)

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