Sam Harris: I'm Trying to Rehabilitate the Word "Spirituality"

Neuroscientist, Philosopher, and Author
Despite its spooky etymology, there's no better word than "spirituality" to describe one's personal exploration of human consciousness. Harris explains why it's important to reclaim powerful words despite their past misuse.
  • Transcript


Sam Harris: I’m almost as embarrassed by the word spirituality as every other atheist. It’s not – I’m not comfortable with my use of it. The problem is – and this is a problem you almost never encounter in English. We just don’t have a good word for this domain. We just do not have a good word for the project of taking seriously the notion that you could become like Jesus or become like the Buddha or become someone who inhabits the far end of the positive side of the continuum of human psychology and human well-being. And someone who can have really radical insights into the nature of consciousness by virtue of a disciplined practice like meditation. So to talk about things like awe and well-being and love and positive psychology and happiness, that doesn’t get at how deep and rarified this project can be. It also doesn’t link it to the traditional context in which people have pursued similar projects. So there is a point of contact between what I’m talking about and, you know, what a Tibetan Lama is doing in a cave for five years. I mean it’s very explicit. Most of these teachings come out of traditions like Buddhism. So while I argue that we have to get out of the religion business and the doctrines that have framed most people’s discussion of these experiences are as unwarranted as I’ve always said. There is no alternative term for the efforts that people can make through meditation or psychedelics or some other means to really transform their consciousness and have insight into the – it’s intrinsic selfless nature. And it’s inconvenient but I feel like the other words that are available are even spookier, something like mysticism, you know, or more specific like contemplation, the contemplative life. I use contemplative a fair amount but again that doesn’t get at for most people what the subject matter is. So for better or worse I’m just – I’m trying to rehabilitate the word spirituality.
I mean one burden I think we have is to reclaim good and powerful words no matter how they’ve been misused in the past, no matter what the inconvenient details of their etymology is. So I would say spirituality is one of those words. But a word like evil is also spooky for many people. It’s felt that evil is a holdover from religion. When religious people talk about evil they’re thinking about things like Satan and a force that is somehow not to be understood in scientific or naturalistic terms. And it’s thought, I think, rightly that once we understand psychopathy at the level of the brain fully we will have a discussion of evil that will seem to erode any basis for using this spooky word. But I think to lose the word evil would be unfortunate and would disempower smart people from making strong moral claims and fighting a war of ideas on this front. And so we need potent words. We just need to be precise about how we use them and the kinds of experiences that merit their use.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton