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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Replies to This Discussion

I don't agree that we evolved a fear of losing the self. Our interpretation of self, our selfplex, is an aspect of culture. Technology is already changing our sense of self. Marshfall McLuhan said that technology is an extension of the senses. The car is an extension of the foot. clothing is an extension of the skin. A microscope, telescope,  X-ray machine, or STM is an extension of the eyes. The computer is an extension of the nervous system. We integrate these new "powers" into our perception of ourselves. We can even perceive a mannequin as our body under the right circumstances.

I had a brief experience of shared consciousness, at least that's what it felt like to both of us. All it took was total mutual trust, meditating, breathing together, and dropping all self-censorship. Just by saying what came to us immediately, as we embraced and breathed together, we perceived ourselves to be one. It wasn't planned, it just happened. Our self boundaries are a lot more fluid than contemporary culture holds. The boundaries of self can also evaporate during orgies, when participants are very intimate, caring, and using drugs, I've read.

I suppose it might be connected to the fact that in these meditative states we are very vulnerable to brain washing - we are open on some levels - as if we have switched off our rational mind in some way to experience these altered states.
Interesting.... but you would still be vulnerable to changing your perspectives or being taken advantage of in a meditative state.  The meditation group I grew up with did meditation for 30 minutes and then read their scriptures about god etc and then more meditation.  They say you should attend every morning early.  I would say that is brainwashing, but it does include any torture, anxiety, pain or trauma.
ah ha. I see what you are saying - giving it a name is useful for me. Indoctrination as different to brainwashing.

Thanks Sophia,

It's been an interesting journey.  I'm now thinking about the possibility of doing vipassana meditation after reading Sam Harris' blog on the topic.  I've always had a bad association with meditation due to my past supernatural experiences with it.  But I'm wondering if it might be a good idea, and if I can find a secular version of meditation such as vipassana with others who are secular in their views and practice it is an attractive option.  At the moment with 3 young children who I have with me full time, 24/7 I don't get the time, but I can see as they get older that I will have time to pursue such interests.

My definition of spirituality is simply, my connection with the natural world. The splendor of the night sky, the beauty I see in flowers, the grandeur of mountains, and the diversity of life that surrounds me, inspire a deep sense of awe and wonder.  I also find comfort in nature. Sitting under a tree and just "being" is a great stress reliever for me. As well as, listening to my kitties purr, watching my ferrets play (always hysterical!), or just watching them sleep. I suppose I should included talking and hanging out with my awesome family and friends. Us humans are a part of nature, too=)


As afar as epiphanies go, deep thinking, intelligent discussions, and talking with my daughter, are always great source of learning and growing experiences for me. Especially talking with my kid! She is smart as a whip and she can really make me think.


Reality is filled with the extraordinary! Heck, watching ants is always an interesting way to pass my time;)

So spirituality as bio-chemical highs when with nature or enjoying life.


This from wiki:


Traditionally, many religions have regarded spirituality as an integral aspect of religious experience. Among other factors, declining membership of organized religions and the growth of secularism in the western world have given rise to a broader view of spirituality.[5] The term "spiritual" is now frequently used in contexts in which the term "religious" was formally employed; compare James' 1902 lectures on the "Varieties of Religious Experience".[6][7]

Secular spirituality emphasizes humanistic qualities such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others[8]:22, aspects of life and human experience which go beyond a purely materialist view of the world, without necessarily accepting belief in a supernatural reality or divine being. Spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation can be experienced as beneficial or even necessary for human fulfillment without any supernatural interpretation or explanation. Spirituality in this context may be a matter of nurturing thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are in harmony with a belief that everything in the universe is mutually dependent; this stance has much in common with some versions of Buddhist spirituality.[citation needed]


Yes, and the Wiki summed it pretty well.


I think that the religious terms, spirit and soul, are really just other terms for our emotional selves. I think it is our emotions that make us all unique. How we act or react in any given situation, or just our general view of life, are all influenced by our emotions. So, I think that when we nurture and"feed" our emotional selves, we are able to find our bliss and/or our sense of purpose. Perhaps that is all the so called "religious experience" really is? Hope that makes some sense=)



It's interesting that you seem to be reclaiming the words spirit and soul in a secular sense.  Is this doable?  Can we adjust the meaning and use them in a different context and meaning but maintain the character?  We are then open to misleading others as to what we are talking about.  I like the words, but I don't use them due to the their supernatural connotations.  Could it be a slippery slop using these sorts of words?


It's a similar problem with the idea of belief and facts and reason and belief in evolution being equal to belief in creationism - do we avoid the word belief because it might be misleading?

Well, yes and no. Spirit already has several secular meanings: As does soul: Christians' and other religious folks interpret it as an entity in and of itself, the secular definitions refer to spirit/soul being one's emotional nature. The most common secular uses I can think of is team spirit, or raising someones spirits: Cheering them up.


Ah, context is everything! You want your reader/listener to grasp the true meaning of what you are writing/saying. That is where context comes into play. How something is worded/said can dramatically change the meaning. If you try to convey an idea and use the wrong context, their will most likely be misunderstandings.  So, say what you mean ( I know, so cliche) is good advice.


Your last questions are excellent and rather difficult ones=) My stab at them: I don't say I believe Evolution, why? Well, I can see evidence of it. I have some really cool, ancient fossils. And the way bacteria can become immune to antibiotics. And I don't think I have ever heard anybody say that they believe the sun sets in the west. We usually just make that statement. Facts are just that and require no belief. Evidence is enough.  Belief is to think something is true without evidence of it being true. Law takes this in to account with the presumption (belief) of innocence, until proven guilty by the evidence and facts.


I hope I was able to answer your questions. I am off to do some more joyous chores;)

Yes it is important to say what you mean - I'm at a loss at the moment about expressing some more subtle aspects of my personality at the loss of words like soul and spirit. Since realising and accepting that I am a not supernatural believer I've cut out all words that might be misinterpreted, but now I'm feeling the loss of that for expression of emotional states or experiences subtle - so I might after 5 years of totally not confusing secular talk aim to express those things using words and see if I can say them how I mean without confusion.

Hi Alice:

I think that the fulfillment that religious people get out of practicing their beliefs comes from feeling that they are good or would like to be. Christianity especially allows them to feel that they are good even if they fall short of moral perfection. As such, I think their fulfillment is self-esteem generated by the belief that they want to be good. They do not realize that worship is not good in that nothing good would truly wish to be worshiped in the first place and would have the free will to change its mind about being good while others held it to be god. The question then is how, without worshiping, to get the self-esteem that comes with wanting to be good. The answer is to find the personal conscience and attempt to obey it. This is consistent with secularism and can be more so called 'spiritually' fulfilling than any religious practice. One need only look at the ruthlessness in nature to realize there is nothing good behind it. Your fulfillment must come from within you not from the external uncaringness that applies natural selection. In attempting to obey my personal conscience I often have to remind myself to not count how many times I fall but how many times I get up. 


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