I recently listened to a fascinating conversation between the Catholic writer Arthur Brooks and the atheist Sam Harris about the role of spirituality and religion in a healthy life. You will need to get a subscription to either the Waking Up app or to Harris’s private feed to listen to the section in question. I leave your support of Harris up to your own discretion.
For the time being, let’s set aside the political and ideological differences I have with both these men. I’d like to focus on a fascinating difference between Brooks and Harris.
Harris challenges Brooks about why one would remain tied to a particular religious practice. He asks,“why is, in your view, faith the right gesture given our spiritual opportunities?” (The term “spirituality,” as used by both these men and used through the rest of this post, does not refer to belief in the supernatural, but rather to the practice of self-transcendence.)
He goes on. (apologies for the gargantuan block quote. I paired this down as much as I could, and Harris is verbose.)
I have always had a conviction that there is a baby in the bathwater of religion that is not only worth saving, but it is in fact the most important thing in human life, and my gripe with religion is that religion most of the time doesn’t even do a very good job of protecting that baby, and yet it protects so many other things that are not only not important for it’s survival but create immense harm based on various irreconcilable dogmas out in the world. And the baby for me really is the capacity for self-transcendence, for lack of a better word, and all of the normative psychological and ethical implications that follow from that. Like, how is it that someone can be like Jesus, or Buddha, whoever those historic figures actually were?
There’s no question that it is possible for someone to really experience a transformation of their mind and life, and for that transformation to be durable and compelling to others, and can become the basis of truly extraordinary wisdom, and insight into the human condition. And so I have no doubt about any of that — I think it’s the most important human project. And yet, it’s obvious to me — and this is a fairly strong objective, if not arrogant claim, about being right about this — it is obvious to me that this is a universal fact of the human mind and is therefore deeper than any contingency of culture. This is like physics as opposed to being like one’s taste in food or dress. Which is to say that the truths here are not merely made up by anyone, and they would be true whether or not anyone in any given generation could discover them.
And so just as it would be crazy to talk about Christian physics just because it happened to be Christians who made the first breakthroughs in physics, it is in the end to be talking about Christian spirituality. Because the real spirituality has to float free of all of the denominations. There is no sectarian version of it, really. And that is a strong claim, but it’s not the sort of claim that rules out any attachment to or love of specific religions. The truth is that I love Jesus in half his moods and I love parts of the Bible, and I certainly love sitting in churches. So I get all that. But I do view religious sectarianism as a real problem that we as a species have to outgrow, and we have to outgrow it intellectually, and we have to outgrow it for more urgent reasons because people are still shattering world over it. And so I’m asking why you don’t see that possibility and why you would want to identify in any kind of sectarian way?
Why, in other words, does Brooks remain a Catholic when spiritual wisdom — the baby in the religious bathwater — is so much more valuable when it is universal and removed from the baggage of religion? Harris is a true universalist. He sees no need for any self-identification with a particular religion or tradition because, as a cosmopolitan spiritual seeker, he can lay claim to the wisdom of every sacred text, every spiritual practice, and every religion. He really doesn’t seem to understand why anyone would want to identify as a specific thing when you could be everything and nothing. It strikes him as backwards and incredibly un-practical.
Brooks’ response is just as compelling:
These are different languages for struggling to see what the underlying objective realities might be, and what our experience of them might be. We don’t know if one is more right that the other. I have the appropriate humility to know that I don’t have some special knowledge — I don’t have any special knowledge at all. But I also understand that I am born in a particular place: I’m from Seattle, Washington, and I grew up with a west coast accent in English, and these are the circumstances under which someone who has more or less the same realities of a human person in Calcutta would have it. I love going to Calcutta, but that’s not my home, and that’s not the vernacular that I’ve learned; that’s not the language that I can use to apprehend what I hope are the Platonic shadows on the cave wall. Now, what you rightly object to in the way that people live their religious experience is the dogma to say, “my way is inherently right, there’s no way I’m making any mistake, so therefore I’m going to denigrate or even harm you.” And that’s I think not necessary. Mother Teresa was asked, “how come you’re palling around with all of these gurus? all these Jaynes and Parses, and Buddhists, and Hindus?” and she said “I love all religions, but I am in love with the Catholic faith.” And that’s how I feel. I’m in love with the Catholic faith.
In other words, Brooks believes that spirituality is a universal pursuit, and that there are universal principles of spiritual practice, but that there is still value in engaging with those absolute truths through the lens of a primary religious identity. He is a Catholic, and engages in the universal practices taught by Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism, and so on, from the tribe of Catholicism. He seems to be drawing an analogy between language and religious identity. He loves Calcutta, but he doesn’t live in Calcutta.
I think the positions put forward by Brooks and Harris represent two different personality types — two fundamentally different postures that often have a hard time understanding each other. We can call them the Universalist and the Religious, or, perhaps, the Unbound and the Bound.
The Unbound see no need for religious identification and feel most free and alive when they are not tied to any religious affiliation or identity. They are universalists, cosmopolitan seekers, content to simply be unattached and yet learning from every direction. They feel no lack without religious identity, and would, in fact, feel intolerably limited by it. The Unbound also have a compelling moral case: religious sectarianism is bad and contrary to reason. It’s something we have to overcome.
The Bound, on the other hand, experience a deep incompleteness or lack of fulfillment without being tied to a specific religious language, identity, and tradition. Without religion, they feel naked and homeless. They may even, like Arthur Brooks, acknowledge that there is great universal wisdom to be found in other traditions, and that self-transcendence is a universal project, but find it most tenable to pursue that project from the confines of a particular religious identity. They can also insist, as Arthur Brooks does, that religion need not be destructively sectarian. One can simply have their own tribe without hating or denigrating the other tribes.
The Unbound cannot understand why anyone would want to go backwards into a religious identity when we can be free of religious sectarianism. The Bound struggle to be content without a supporting scaffold of religious symbol, ritual, and tradition to structure their lives.
I agree with Harris in an idealistic sense that the Bound position is fundamentally impractical and perhaps contrary to reason. It is far better to embrace the universal wisdom of spiritual practice, rather than be weighed down with the weight of religious baggage. Religion is fundamentally limiting.
And yet, I find myself one of the Bound. No matter how reasonable Harris might be, I am overcome with an irresistible need to be tied to religion — to be held accountable by a particular practice, path, and identity. Is it possible to be happy without religion? Certainly. Is it possible to live a full life without being tied to a religious community? Absolutely. But that is not how I want to live my life.
I confess that I don’t know how to square this circle. I don’t know how to reconcile my personal need for a religious community with the urgent humanitarian need to overcome religious sectarianism. While it’s easy to say that I can rise above sectarianism, I think it’s obvious that as long as religion exists, so will religious sectarianism. Simultaneously, I suspect that there might be significant drawbacks to removing religion entirely from the world – that could create an unprecedented crisis of meaning.