Sam Harris: Can we live meaningful lives without religion?


From Sam Harris
Excerpt Transcribed from Podcast Ask Me Anything #8
[Lightly Edited]

I continue to hear from people who have lost their religion and are powerfully relieved to have lost it. I’m really vividly in touch with [that] it is possible to lose one’s faith and to feel relieved of a problem rather than to be thrust into a new problem. For most faiths, people are spending a lot of their time thinking about unpleasant things like hell and sin. There is a tremendous amount of fear, and a tremendous amount of guilt and inner conflict. As Hitch used to say, you’re born sick and commanded to be well by religion — a fairly untenable situation for most people even if they don’t acknowledge it.

So for all the people that you may feel have lost their moorings, or never found them due to the absence of religion, there are those who have finally recognized how valuable their lives are… really the one life they know they have. Now they are newly in touch with that. Once you shed the fantasy life that is encouraged by religion… once you cease to be otherworldly, then you recognize that your life if not a rehearsal… it’s not a way station… it’s not something to be casually sacrificed for a fantasy of a world to come. It is your life in this moment that is profound. This universe, the only universe you can know, is the appropriate object of your awe… not some old book that tells you how to sacrifice goats.

Now this universe is a mystery, and it’s a beautiful one. And what is neither mysterious nor beautiful are the instructions for living that you will find in books like the Bible and Koran. So I don’t worry too much about arguing the case for reason, which is the case against faith. But I do worry about the problem of living a meaningful life… and about how people’s uncertainty of how to do that leads to unhappiness and worse.

I think I said in The End of Faith that for me it boils down to love and curiosity. I think that does cover it. Obviously you need love. If you don’t love someone in your life, perhaps not everyone, but surely someone, then you are missing something. You’re missing one of the main things that makes life good. So life without love is a problem.

But so is life without curiosity. Curiosity is your interest in knowing what’s true… your interest in knowing what’s going on. So it is reason, and it is science, and it is a fact-based orientation. And it is honesty, which is the place where love and curiosity really come together. It gives you the ethic of being honest with yourself and honest with others… and wanting to live in a society that encourages those norms.

So I think love and curiosity gets you more or less everything because then you want to straighten yourself out… then you want to overcome the impediments you find in yourself to being a good person. One of the consequences of being honest with others is if you find things in yourself that you can’t be honest about then you want to change. This is what it is to live a coherent life. Relationships would be ruined if people could hear the things you say when you leave the room, then you have a problem with your relationships, or you have a problem with your mind. I’m not saying that there’s not some natural distinction between how we are in private and in the privacy of our own minds, and how we are with others. But insofar as it is possible to get who you are, really, to cohere with how you want to be in the world, and how those you most respect want you to be so as to respect you in turn, well then that is what it is to live a really authentic and ethical life.

Whatever philosophy you have, you have to be able to live it. This is what it is to live an examined life. It’s not merely understanding yourself conceptually, and then just thinking those thoughts. It’s using that understanding to live a better life. It is one of the failings of western philosophy in its analytic form, or even in its continental form, you either get gibberish or you get brittle academic squabbling… and there is not a lot in-between. It was not always so. If you go back to the Greeks then philosophy had to translate into action. But since then it’s been possible to be very smart and to come to good answers on difficult questions and yet not have that translate into wisdom. So many of us have had to import eastern ideas into our philosophizing so as to marry clear thinking to personal insight and change. As I think all of you know, I think meditation is instrumental in doing that.

The problem of finding meaning in this life is really a pseudo-problem. It really is a lack of attention, and that’s where meditation comes in… where the ability to focus comes in. You wouldn’t ask this question if you are a surfer catching the biggest wave of your life. That is not the moment where you ask this question: what does life mean? or what is it good for? Because you are living your life in a fully engaged way, and in that moment. And this concern really is something that only appears in those moments when we’re failing to be immersed in something beautiful or interesting.

The answer I recommend to that question is a non-answer. It is pay more attention to anything really, but certainly things that are beautiful and interesting. And you will forget this concern… and forget it in a way that is not trivial. You will forget it in that you’ll be occupying a space where there is no foundation for that concern. It is impossible to worry about the meaning of life when you are really connecting with someone you love, or when you are really discovering something that fascinates you. Or when you’re just one-pointed on anything… it could just be your breath. The truly subversive discovery one finds in meditation is that it does not even have to be interesting. It’s really just the quality of mind that you get when you can simply pay one-pointed attention to anything. That quality of mind is enough. It is enough to merely be conscious.


See also:

Our Search For Meaning

Walking Our Blues Away