Is this an oxymoron?

This is Sam Harris' latest article:

I woke up this morning thinking about what's missing from my secular life - an experience that was met when I had supernatural notions about life.

I find taking about this topic quite difficult - because it is a taboo amongst atheists - or so I sense.

But I really am interested to conduct some science based research into what religious folks have - in terms of experience - that many or even most atheists may be lacking. Or perhaps not. But what I'd like to do, is to identify those experiences - which I know are natural and nature based, so that we can know what it is that religious folks have, that we can too - but the question is what is it, and how can we get it on tap.

My main aim for doing this is that experiences had that are named religious are beneficial to relaxation, healing and contribute to our general sense of well being. So I want to identify what those experiences entail - which is why I link to Sam Harris, because I think that they are to be found in different uses and area's of the brain.

But I don't have a brain scanner machine, so I'd be addressing it from a sociological perspective.

My idea was to sit with the many atheists in Melbourne (my current home town) and then with some of spiritual beliefs - from Sea of Faith and other religious institutions - Christian, Muslim, Buddhist etc. My questions would be an effort to find out what people get from religion that atheists don't get from science alone - perhaps? As I don't yet know what it is - it's hard to say what it is that might be missing. But first I think I need to quantify what I'm talking about - and for that I think I would need to speak to the religious folk. Get a picture of what they get from spirituality / meditation / connection with god / involvement in their faith. Once I've got a really good idea of what they feel and think and experience - then I can ask atheists if they feel, think and experience these things - and when and where they have them happen. My guess is that it could be a mixture of things including a feeling of joy from giving to others, a feeling of connection to something bigger than themselves. I wonder if Krauss might give an atheist something very similar to what a Christian gains from Jesus - a sense of overwhelming amazement at life and how we came to be here.

Anyhow - I don't want to go on a lot - and really it's only a starting of an idea here - that I'd like to develop over the next 2 years or so. But I really want to connect with others who can guide my research and make it up to date, relevant and useful.

I know I've got a lot of pre-reading to do before starting the interviews - I would love guidance - even just places to start looking. Perhaps this is covered already and I've failed to come across it so far.

I really would like to hear your thoughts, ideas and suggestions. Also please contribute your own experience's that might otherwise be called religious. But let's rename them with names that suit our natural perspective.

Please help me with this difficult to pin down discussion and get it well onto the "able to be studied scientifically" map. Just like Sam Harris is reclaiming Morals from religious folk, let's reclaim 'spiritual' experiences and epiphanies from them also.

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Yes - I agree - and this is what I'm trying to get my head around - it is a biological experience with natural origins.

I really want to name them differently.

My cousin went to the central america and did the paoti or something and went on a 14 hour trip which she said was out of this world - she now has some sort of supernatural take on it - but I think she may have almost died and triggered the same response as going really fast does - when you travel in space - the force causes you to pass out and get a hormonal high.

It's something about being able to name the experience from a science based natural perspective, that causes us to be able to reclaim those experiences from a totally naturalistic perspective and away from supernatural hands.

I've heaps more to say on this - couldn't wait to write back - but I've got to go now and get my kids some schooling.... :) back soon...

My cousin said it was a combination of 3 things, something from the bark of a tree and something from a plant and something else...


She also said that she felt upset that this life changing experience hadn't changed her life...


Go figure.

I'm not sure of the value of psychedelic drugs. I know someone who believed at one point in their lives at least (not sure now), that putting LSD into the water supply would create a better world. I'm not so sure about that. I think he changed his mind when I brought up the possibility of babies and children and old people getting a dose. But he for some reason believes that LSD causes people to be better people. I can't agree with that. Everyone I've known who has taken the stuff isn't any more special or more benevolent to my mind, they all seem to be a bit lost if they share anything in common. Although I'm generalising and haven't done a proper study as such.

Perhaps he is relating to the sense of something bigger than the self, that causes us to be more in awe of life - rather than taking things for granted or striving for our personal selfish desires despite others and nature.

I don't know. But drug taking isn't the missing part thing that I was trying to explain. I suppose what I was trying to explain is a natural high and sense of well being that is sourced from natural activities such as perhaps walking in nature or painting a beautiful picture or singing with a group or being with close family and friends. In fact it wouldn't surprise me if this is basically what is gained from religious groups - spending time with close and loved family and friends, gaining a sense of community, support, closeness and dependability from such a group. Also they tend to sing together, and celebrate gains and losses also together in a shared emotional state. They also share the same love for Jesus or God - that I think bonds them. Same as Indigenous societies share the same dreaming story that bonds them. But they all know different parts of the story that inform their lives - such as the children's story tells them where all the water holes are in their territorial lands. Then the women's stories tell of menstruation and child birth and so on.

I can see patterns in my own life about stories that I tell my children - but they are the story of Lawrence Krauss and Astrophysics and the stories of Darwin and Dawkins - Evolution. These are the childhood stories for my children. And I do get a sense of well being when I'm telling my children these stories. Because I feel that I am passing on important knowledge's about the way the universe and earth is constructed and works.

It would be nice to have more creative arts in our lives - as I think this is also a big part of our fully expressing ourselves and using all of our brains - that gives us our sense of well being. I think this may be in cooking together. Historically I think that finding food was a really strong part of this - but that has changed as we've civilised and got supermarkets etc. Now the shopping has gone from a peaceful wandering looking for berries or hunting animals, fishing etc to a stressful once a week shouting not to touch the produce for fear of having to pay for broken product.

I know that humans aren't designed to be a certain way. But we have evolved with certain drives that when followed are satisfying to our sense of well being. I'm simply wanting to tap into that. I'm just not sure how much is learnt in childhood - how much is constructed meaning, how much is genetic and embedded etc.

Alice, I sensed a sadness in what you wrote above, a sadness that you are missing something you once had, a void you once did not feel and that you now do feel.

Your awakening from religion--though you say little of it--appears to have been gentle. My awakening from Catholicism was traumatic, like a leap off a cliff into a void. The thought of returning to the cliff repulsed me so I set out to fill the void.

Use your energy to fill the void you are in, not on bringing the old baggage with you.


I think I've felt like I'm in a void for most of my life - if I ever did feel that I belonged I can't remember... although I've managed to create that now to a certain extent with my own children - I hope that they are feeling a greater sense of belonging and love and security in their lives - and enough of that to feel fulfilled into adulthood and beyond.


My sense of emptiness at the moment comes from a lack of creativity or peace or something like that presently in my life.  Life isn't perfect and so it's about each individual - especially in our individualistic society - to find a matrix of events that are fulfilling to us.  I think I'm missing a couple presently - that I'm not fully expressing myself or getting the most out of my life that I feel I'd like to.


It's something about using our brains and all parts of it.


Religious experiences are recorded by neuro scans as using other parts of the brain, that lead to experience's of well being.  In other words it's another way of getting a high.


We have drugs / alcohol

We have sex

We have love affection and attachment to children an other loved ones

And then we have a personal inner contentment based in something - it might be spending hours painting or dancing or singing or socialising at a party with a combination of factors contributing to well being.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that people of religion, spirituality - new age or otherwise, and supernatural belief generally - all combine to create experiences and rituals that contribute to participants well being.

I would like to identify what it is that religious, spiritual and those of supernatural belief: do, experience and gain in terms of well being - and then correspond that to secular or naturalistic actions and experiences that too contribute to well being.

It could also be done the other way around - we could study what naturalistic people do and experience that positively contribute to their well being.

But I would like to focus on religious folk - just so that we know that we aren't missing something. Call it being thorough. As I'm keen to break the myth that religious folk with supernatural belief have something that non religious naturalistic folk don't.

And also, it would be nice to have a study that compared and came up with a list of things to do that would contribute to our well being, individually and collectively.

Alice, I remember well some of the Catholic rituals that seventy years ago I knew.

Imagine yourself six years old and recite daily these words: "The purpose of life is to know, love and serve God and be happy with him forever in Heaven."

Now be an adult again and ask their intent and their effect. Was their intent your well being, or your submission to church authority? Was their effect to leave no void in your life, no place for the uncertainty that we non-believers carry about with us?

Talk with committed Catholics and you will hear certainty. It fills their void.

The void you feel opens you to life. To its sadness, to its happiness, and to what lies between. Value it highly.


Interesting perspective - that's the thing about life - we can't know what it's like to live another persons life.... although we can get a good idea from talking about it, or I find looking at studies on things helps me to get other perspectives....
It is an oxymoron. There are no benefits from religion that can not be achieved through non-religious means. When people go on about being "spiritual" but not "religious" they have no idea what they are saying. They redefine "spirituality" to the point that it loses its meaning. The experiences they want and/or describe are not "spiritual"! They are a result of this world and have an impact on our lives in this world. BY definition that not only is not "spiritual", it can not be. We need to move beyond societies ignorance and prejudices.
It is an oxymoron in the sense that science can't study something that isn't real - therefore science couldn't study the spirit - unless there was such a thing as a spirit - and if we could study it, it may well be that we would need to change the standard definition of the term spirit - which like you say would loose the point.

But it isn't an oxymoron in the sense that we can study experiences that people believe to be spiritual, because clearly they are real and can be studied by science and understood and named or explained scientifically.

For example - although I've never been a Christian - I used to have a casting crowns CD which is a Jesus devotional music group and I found their songs euphoric to listen too - very similar I suppose to other devotional music by Elan Vital for example - the Guru Maharaji music band. What is that feeling I have? Why do I have it? And how would I recreate that feeling in a non-religious sense? With out drugs? And why do I have such a euphoric feeling even though I've never loved Jesus as such? And yet, all I've read and understood about the guy, he seemed like a good person generally - he was about subverting the power and rule of the Romans and breaking the taboos of the current day about women being lower and not touched and the slavery of Jewish people and I think others. I have also read parts of the bible, but I don't think much to the sexism and general patriarchal hegemony of the blokes who wrote the new testament.
Interesting.....  I'm after a way that I can experience this sort of thing without the anxiety that it's in any way out of reality - or involving supernatural thinking.  I'm not sure why, but I have an anxiety about loosing myself in experiences - but also a need to at the same time.  I find it hard to go with the feeling - for fear of being tricked in someway - into believing something that is not true to reality.
I think I can have an experience that 'feels' out of this world, without it being out of this world in reality.  Of course I would say that everything is within this world and nothing is supernatural.




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