Book Club: Waking Up, Ctd

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Our latest Book Club selection is already shaping up to be our most popular, based on the reader response we’ve been getting so far:

I am an atheist, and until I read about Waking Up on the Dish, I had never heard of Sam Harris. I bought the book, read it, and because of it not only will I die happily, I will be happier for the rest of my life. I am 69, a retired engineer. For a long time I have wondered about, and struggled with questions such as, Where was I before I was born? What happens to me after I die? Sam Harris has convinced me that consciousness is self (I.) My perception of I is just my consciousness. Bingo! Now I am not worried about “I.” Thanks, Andrew, for paving my way to enlightenment.

Another atheist:

Count me as one excited for this pick! I had already requested it at the library in fact, before 51dolkylyou chose it. The timing of its release happened just as I have been reading more books on Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation myself. Despite being a long-time atheist, I have lately felt the need to find a different framework, a spiritual one, and Harris’s book offers me reassurance that I don’t need to feel I am betraying my convictions, or giving in to some soft-heartedness, by heeding the pull toward spirituality. At first I felt almost ashamed to be exploring meditation and Buddhism, as if I am failing to be rational or abandoning my intelligence. But in fact I think that my world when I only considered myself as an atheist and did not leave room for exploring other paths was too narrow and lacked room for any nurturing growth or exploration. I think it will be a great conversation.

The book has had a powerful impact on me, since I have long been drawn to many elements of Buddhism (Thomas Merton guided me there), but always stumbled at the problem of the self. The book helped me think about that problem more powerfully than anything I have ever read – including many Buddhist scriptures.

We’ll be starting the discussion next week, so there is still plenty of time to read the book – buy it here. And send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com. Sam has agreed to join the conversation in its final stages, so he might even respond to your writing. Another reader sends the black-and-white photo seen above:

Recently my wife and I went to hear Sam talk about his new book here in DC. Neither of us believe in the supernatural or an afterlife, etc, but we do believe there are numinous experiences to be had in life, and that those can be – and I’d argue can better be – had outside of religion.  So, we’re really stoked that you’re placing this topic on the table for discussion.

One more:

I’ve only been able to read the first half of the first chapter. I keep having to stop and process. bookclub-beagle-tr-2Is it true that all religions are similar but for the crazy fictions we place on them, or that you have to believe ridiculous, magical things before you can be a follower of all major religions (except Buddhism)? And that, honestly, all day long we’re just lurching between states of wanting and not wanting?

Many thanks for choosing this book. I am humbled, even after 21 pages, and grateful for the future time lost to the interesting conversations this reading provokes.

You Don’t Really Exist

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Discussing his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris uses the above image to explain why:

It certainly looks like there is a white square in the center of this figure, but when we study the image, it becomes clear that there are only four partial circles. The square has been imposed by our visual system, whose edge detectors have been fooled. Can we know that the black shapes are more real than the white one? Yes, because the square doesn’t survive our efforts to locate it — its edges literally disappear. A little investigation and we see that its form has been merely implied.

What could we say to a skeptic who insisted that the white square is just as real as the three-quarter circles and that its disappearance is nothing more than, as you say, “a relatively rare — and deliberately cultivated — experience”? All we could do is urge him to look more closely.

The same is true about the conventional sense of self — the feeling of being a subject inside your head, a locus of consciousness behind your eyes, a thinker in addition to the flow of thoughts. This form of subjectivity does not survive scrutiny. If you really look for what you are calling “I,” this feeling will disappear. In fact, it is easier to experience consciousness without the feeling of self than it is to banish the white square in the above image.

Damon Linker has a must-read review of the book here. Waking Up is our latest Book Club selection, introduced here. Buy it here and join the discussion at bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Quote For The Day

“The fact is that Waking Up lends a different picture of Harris (at least to me): an intelligent and sensitive person who is willing to undergo the discomfort involved in proposing alternatives to the religions he’s spent years degrading. His new book, whether discussing the poverty of spiritual language, the neurophysiology of consciousness, psychedelic experience, or the quandaries of the self, at the very least acknowledges the potency and importance of the religious impulse—though Harris might name it differently—that fundamental and common instinct to seek not just an answer to life, but a way to live that answer,” – Trevor Quirk, TNR.

Quirk doesn’t care for the new atheists and, until reading this book, was repelled by Sam’s public persona. But I’ve known Sam for a while now and always knew he was different from the others in his camp. His book is a place where the atheist, the spiritual and the religious can meet and argue. Join me in this month’s Book Club discussion of Waking Up. Get it here. We’ll be debating it in October. One reader’s on board:

What a timely choice for the next book! I’ve had a somewhat searching summer and finally gave myself the permission to identify as an atheist. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve taken a stand on the issue of God’s existence, but for all my life I’ve had a mental block against the word atheist. Atheism, on its face, seemed to lack the rich language necessary to sort out a complex world. In its fight against irrationality, it had forgotten how to make us feel (with notable exceptions). This gap felt real to me, but allowing myself the possibility of atheism applying to me opened me up a bunch of writers and thinkers.

Naturally, at one point or the other, I found myself reading Sam Harris. I definitely don’t agree with everything he writes, but it’s undeniable that he writes well and demands from you your attention. Waking Up seems to fit exactly into this gap that I mentioned. I had pre-ordered it when Sam Harris announced the project. Very excited to read the book and see what fellow Dishheads thinks.

Send those thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.

Book Club: Waking Up

Well, I couldn’t resist, could I? Sam Harris is a friend and great interlocutor. We’ve hashed out the issues on Israel and, indeed, religion itself in dialogues. See the Gaza conversation here; and the longer exchange of emails on religion here. I always learn something from him – and I have always thought of him as somewhat different than an atheist like Hitch. Why? I cannot imagine Hitch spending time in an ashram, or being dedicated to regular and disciplined meditation, or writing something like this:

I once spent an afternoon on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, atop the mount where Jesus is believed to have preached his most famous sermon … As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self – an “I” or a “me” – vanished. Everything was as it had been – the cloudless sky, the brown hills sloping to an inland sea, the pilgrims clutching their bottles of water – but I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained.

That’s a passage from Sam’s new book, Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. It tackles big subjects – neuroscience, consciousness, meditation, faith – in his sometimes dense but always pellucid fashion. At times, the book is actually quite funny – there’s a 51d++OL+kYLpart about him dealing with various water leaks in his house that cracked me up.

And the book’s argument is a rare and serious one: that it is possible to find a place in one’s mind where one is no longer in one’s mind. This elusive idea of consciousness is the basis of a peace and serenity and balance that we in the West have so often failed to achieve, even as our civilization constantly scales new heights. This can be achieved within a religious tradition – such as Buddhism or a Merton-like Christianity – but Sam also insists there need be no religion to the experience at all.

Now, I’m religious as well as spiritual, a believer in prayer and meditation as vital parts of any healthy faith life – while Sam is unrepentantly hostile to any idea of divine revelation, or anything but consciousness beyond our own delusional egos. And it struck me that many Dish readers – some engaged in our religious and spiritual coverage, some hostile to religion but open to the sublime and the spiritual – would get a huge amount out of the book, and the conversation it could prompt.

So drum roll … this is our September book of the month.

Buy the book now at Amazon and help us get a little affiliate revenue while you’re at it. I have a head start, because Sam got me an advance copy. He’s agreed to join the conversation in its final stages. I hope we can get somewhere in a debate often defined by polarization and cheap rhetoric – and see where we overlap and where we still differ.

And with your input, religious and spiritual people, I hope we can advance the conversation about spirituality as opposed to religion as well. I’ve long believed that the key thing we need right now is a revival of a Christianity less concerned with dogma and more focused on faith as a way of being in the world. Sam’s is as good a provocation on those issues as any out there. So join in! Get the book here – and we’ll start the discussion after the beginning of October. Send your thoughts to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com and there’s a good chance you’ll see them posted.

Book Club: How Extremists Need Each Other

A reader winds down our discussion by tying the lessons of Montaigne to the current crisis in Gaza:

It seems to me the most compelling angle to look at Montaigne right now is how living through the civil war of religion in France his whole adult life shaped his philosophy of bookclub-beagle-trmoderation. I had no idea how bloodcurdling the conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots were. That was just shy of half a century of neighbors dragging neighbors out in the streets to be tortured, killed, and perhaps slowly roasted over an open flame for witchcraft! All over what we now think of as slightly different flavors of Christianity!

Montaigne has been accused of being too bloodless and passive, with his stubborn refusal to pass definitive judgement and his pursuit of equanimity as a cardinal virtue. But if you consider the bloody backdrop of the times he lived through, his very moderation is the bravest and most radical stance I can think of.

As the mob violence spiraled out of control on both sides, the pressure to fall in line and declare the moral supremacy of your cause must be almost irresistible. In fact, “us or them” thinking would have been rational, in a prisoner’s dilemma kind of way. Instead, he championed the power of individual human dignity. Even amid war, he coolly proclaimed, the lives of most people are unaffected most of the time. For an observer of his caliber, that is a statement not of insensitivity but of quiet defiance. Life goes on.

He lived according to his philosophy of modest courage. For instance, he chose not to fortify montaigne.jpgthe defenses for his estate even as anarchy engulfed the countryside. Instead, he hosted travelers so graciously that one group who planned to rob him changed their minds. Politically, he was a passionate moderate who believed the civil war was a political problem with a political, not theological, solution. He complained that as a Catholic with many Protestant friends, he was considered “a Guelph to the Ghibellines and a Ghibelline to the Guelphs”. He toiled as a go-between for the king and the protestant Henry de Navarre.

It seems to me that the true fight that is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the moderates on both sides trying to hold the line against the absolutists on both sides. Even though the ultimate goals for the extremists on both sides are diametrically opposite, their medium-term goal is actually the same: to escalate conflict and prevent any compromise from tainting the purity of their victory. Unfortunately, it is shockingly easy to escalate conflict, especially with partisans on both sides searching for the worst in the others’ actions or rhetorics to justify their own hostile reprisals.

Montaigne would probably advise us to watch out for passion and zeal, so that we do not empower the absolutists. Easier said than done, even for those of us sitting safely with our American asses in our air-conditioned homes. But we all need to be more like Montaigne.

Book Club: Was Montaigne A New Atheist?

A reader welcomes him into the fold:

You ask if Montaigne was an atheist or Christian. Montaigne was most certainly atheist, and his atheism, though concealed for obvious concern about the consequences of opposing the opinions of those “stronger in number.” Montaigne’s atheism shines through in his Apology for Raymond Sebond, written in the wake the French Wars of Religion in which thousands were slaughtered in a sectarian conflict.

montaigneIn his Apology, Montaigne, by placing words in the mouths of others, openly ridicules the promise of heaven and knowledge of divine beings. One example: “The philosopher Antisthenes, as he was being initiated in the mysteries of Orpheus, the priest telling him, ‘That those who professed themselves of that religion were certain to receive perfect and eternal felicity after death,’—’If thou believest that,’ answered he, ‘why dost thou not die thyself?'”

Two more examples from the Apology: “‘Tis Socrates’s opinion, and mine too, that the best judging of heaven is not to judge of it at all.” And: “Nothing is made of nothing, God therefore could not make the world without matter. What! has God put into our hands the keys and most secret springs of his power? Is he obliged not to exceed the limits of our knowledge?”

Montaigne is, of course, cautious, with numerous references to the trial and execution of Socrates for disbelief in the gods, all expressed in a way that undermines any divine authority:

“For that which our reason advises us to, as the most likely, is generally for every one to obey the laws of his country, as was the advice of Socrates, inspired, as he says, by a divine counsel; and by that, what would it say, but that our duty has no other rule but what is accidental?”

Were Montaigne living today and free from the threat of persecution for his beliefs, his detractors would call him a “New” atheist.

Well, since this is a book club, we can now bring on Marshall MacLuhan the author Sarah Bakewell, to address the question. Here’s her response to the email:

Thank you for raising this fascinating topic! It’s one that I puzzled over constantly while writing the book, and I still feel that the answer is open to interpretation. To some extent (as with other areas) it depends partly on what one wants to read into Montaigne, because he is quite capable of pointing us in several different directions at once.

I am an atheist myself and therefore quite inclined to look for an atheist Montaigne. On the other hand, I came to feel that this would be an over-simplification.

By temperament and general world-view, Montaigne was extremely skeptical, and this inclined him towards atheism. But he was skeptical about all claims to a single truth about the world – both religious claims and what we might now call scientific ones. (The modern notion of “science”, let alone “scientific method”, did not exist in his day, which I think is relevant to this debate; it’s dangerously easy to impose our own categories on the sixteenth century).

montaigne.jpgBut “the New Atheism”, as I understand it, is a movement that calls not for the suspension or withholding of belief, but for active opposition to religious world-views. It calls particularly for opposing religion through rational and scientific arguments. This, I think, would have turned Montaigne off, because he was skeptical about the capacity of human reason to give us any certainty about anything at all.

The main thrust of the “Apology for Raymond Sebond” leads in that direction. He sets out to defend Sebond against attacks based on reason, by demonstrating the limitations of reason in general (never mind the fact that Sebond himself was a proponent of “rational” theology). Montaigne emerges in this essay as very much the Pyrrhonian Skeptic – a form of skepticism which casts doubt on the possibility of being certain of anything, even one’s own lack of certainty.

(Also, it seems weird to us, but this kind of Skepticism was quite acceptable to the Church authorities of Montaigne’s time, because it helped to shore them up against Reformists who put more emphasis on rational or privately derived beliefs.)

Having said all this, I always had the impression when reading Montaigne that he was FAR more interested in what went on in this world than anything that might happen in the beyond. He was fascinated by the natural world, by history, by the quirks of human behavior, by social variety – particularly by the beliefs of other cultures, which he seemed to find neither more nor less convincing than those of his own.

I think I’d sum up my impression of Montaigne by saying that he was not necessarily an atheist (still less a New one) – but that he was profoundly, enthusiastically, gloriously secular.

Read the whole Book Club discussion here.

Book Club: Montaigne On Chilling Out

A reader continues the discussion:

The next book club topic is to discuss whether Montaigne was Christian or Atheist? Puh-montaigneleeze. Does it matter? Does it matter to God Himself what you, me, Montaigne or anyone believes? Isn’t that a little prideful?

Do you think the first question God will ask all his Super Christian followers (or atheists) upon their death is what they believe in? Will their God want their opinions on evolution? Global warming? It’s like asking your dog’s opinion when casting your ballot.

It’s much more interesting to see how beliefs are played out. And for that, Montaigne/Sarah Bakewell is fabulous. We’re this Super Christian nation but that doesn’t always play out so well. Sure we don’t drown witches (anymore), but we torture and murder innocent people, turn refugee children away at our border. We justify these actions, as all extremists in crisis conditions do, by claiming exceptional times and unusual circumstances.

If, as Montaigne states, it’s just politics and therefore part of the cycle of decay and rejuvenation, then why react in such extremes? Why sue the President? Why intervene everywhere? Why listen to Hannity or McCain on bookclub-beagle-tranything? However bad things are, as Montaigne says, most of life goes on undisturbed. In the long view, fanatics wear themselves out. Preserving your dignity, your soul, and remaining true to yourself is forever.

Keep picking books like this one and the world will be a better place. No shit!

Send your thoughts on How To Live to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com.