On December 29th, 2010, Sam Harris was interviewed on ABC’s Nightline, which aired a pretty fair segment on Sam, and gave an outline of his book The Moral Landscape. The interview was, as main stream media usually treats leading atheist authors and speakers, actually interesting, and didn’t seem to include much of the tongue in cheek skepticism usually displayed. It outlined the premise of his book accurately, and again, didn’t seem to try to denigrate it with the faint praise usually reserved for content reporters feel is - distasteful - but can’t directly accuse if of being on air.
All well and good, but what caught me immediately was the comment they made at the end of the interview in a single almost throwaway line, noting that Sam has a new book in the works on the subject of spiritualism - but with a twist. That twist is the suggestion that spiritualism can be practiced and studied without religious mumbo jumbo. I believe the words they used were similar to the phrase “mythology of religion”.
Remarkable! Both the use of “mythology” and “religion” in the same sentence, and the serious idea that one can actually practice something usually associated with religion, but ignoring the myths.
Wikipedia defines spiritualism as a religion, monotheistic, believing in spirit communication and an anthropomorphic deity, but not a biblical one. This seems a bit different from how I have heard Sam speak of it in the past.
In an essay entitled, “Selfless Consciousness without Faith” back in 2007, Sam said:
There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world. I believe contemplative efforts of this sort have a lot to tell us about the nature of the mind.
That essay is a very good preview of how Sam thought about this subject three years ago. I recommend reading it in its entirety, as it undoubtedly outlines his thinking as he prepares to begin his next book.
It also provides a look at what could be the future of American religious life.
Lies, damn lies, and polls
For going on 60 years now, the Gallup organization has polled Americans, reporting pretty consistently that about 85 - 86 % of Americans are Christian through self-identification. Some others have reported in the last ten years that number may have dropped by as much as 10 - 11 % to around 75%. ("American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_studies/aris.pdf )
But there have been various studies that suggest otherwise, that those numbers may have been inflated by a combination of polling techniques, skewed interpretations and the tendency of Americans to actually lie to pollsters. These studies, outlined on a web site called Religious Tolerance (http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2a.htm), clearly show that the inflation could be as much as 100%, or literally twice the actual figures. Some polls have been taken that counted church attendance through actual physical counting of members present on a series of Sunday services, and showed that actual attendance was only about half of the numbers reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28% vs. 50% for Roman Catholics.
Others have suggested that the numbers of actual attending Christians are decreasing by as much as 2% per year in percentage of population. Combined by recent polls suggesting that atheists/agnostics in this country may be self-identifying in numbers approaching 15% of the population, it is becoming obvious that the actual numbers of practicing Christians is much lower than traditionally touted by religious leaders.
Other recent polls have suggested that the numbers of people that are “unaffiliated” comes pretty close to filling out that 86% figure. That designation includes not only unaffiliated christians, but people that are, in essence, deists, naturalists or - spiritualists. People that claim to believe in some kind of higher power, but shun religious organizations and decline to characterize their “gods” as anything approaching a biblical stereotype. Apparently, those numbers appear to be on the increase, along with non-theists.
The problem with non-theism
One of the reasons that the secular community has been so drastically under-represented politically is, in part, due to the above polls hyped consistently by the mainstream media over the last 60 years, leading our politicians to pander exclusively to those religious groups thus shown to be in the “majority”.
Of course, since non-theists tend to have only one belief in common - a lack of belief in a biblical god - it has been difficult to get these disparate folks to band together politically. There just isn’t enough they’ve got in common to get them to stay in one room long enough to agree on the size and shape of the table - much less any common ground!
Combine this lack with the very common criticism of atheism/agnosticism by theists that we have no moral compass or teaching, and what sane American would even think of having anything in common with us, much less agreeing to become part of the group?
Thus, an expansion of the numbers of the secularists is, at least publicly, problematic. One can claim that due to traditional hostility of Christians towards atheists/agnostics there is a larger secular community than is known or admitted to, but until those in the closet begin to make their presence known, that is only so much speculation.
So, what do we do about it? What is missing in the secular community that the religious have that fulfills the social needs of those that remain in that community, but in reality, don’t believe?
Is it only community?
The obvious answer is - a community that meets regularly and has a set of beliefs in common, providing support for families and individuals alike in times of need and crisis.
The secular “community” is missing, in most places, the meetings, which mean a lack of a support system, at the very least. Since, as mentioned above, there is only a lack of belief in religion in common, most people assume there is a lack of common belief and morality as well. This seems to be a reasonable position, since secularists often span the political spectrum, as well as the cultural one as well.
What can the secular community do? How do we become a larger community that can displace the religious organizations that loom so large on the American political scene?
I think that Sam Harris is onto something. Many Americans now claim to be more spiritual and less religious in the traditional sense. Less of a belief in traditional theism and more thinking that people have a spiritual side that is somehow lacking in modern technological life.
But Americans are also very committed to what is a decidedly materialistic way of life. Consumerism is rampant. Credit cards enable many to live beyond their means, driven by advertising that entices them to want, and buy, more and more material goods.
This sets up many for a serious case of cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile the materialism with the religious teachings that they were raised with.
I cannot claim to have a single, unifying idea that combines all of this in some simple, sound-bite-easy new theology or philosophy. Perhaps somebody will do that, maybe Sam can.
But I suggest that his idea of a simple spiritualism that needs no religion can bring large numbers of people, both in the secular community and the unaffiliated community, together with a common goal of taking the disparate ideals of the American culture and making some sense of how it can all work together. Obviously, people from other cultures bring their own ideas, which will inevitably be brought into the mix somewhere.
People naturally gather together into groups, and people like to associate with others of similar thinking. All it takes is some spark, some idea coalescing into the public mind, percolating to the top like a good expresso.
The future of American religious life may not be secular in a strict sense of atheism or agnosticism, although I believe that it will contain a much more numerous such community than it seems to today.
What I think it won’t have is a strong Christian community.
Sam, bring on your book! We need more grist for our mills of discussion!