9/1/2014—Five years ago, the book Hallowed Secularism was published. As part of the roll out in 2009, I set up a panel at the Netroots Nation convention in Pittsburgh on the subject of a "New Progressive Vision of Church and State."
The panel did not go all that well. Dr.Denise Cooper–Clark characterized my position in a blog entry on August 20, 2009, as "supernatural atheism." And she wrote that that would not work. Most of the audience probably would have agreed with her.
It was an honest disagreement. But I am wondering now how Dr. Cooper-Clarke feels about the upcoming book, Waking Up, by Sam Harris, the noted new atheist. You see, CC's discomfort with my position had to do with the notion that people encounter a "mysterious otherness" both personally and historically and that these experiences are valuable, indeed crucial, to creating a life and a civilization. CC characterizes a story from my book as "a woman who had a freak spiritual experience." CC writes of this idea, "Yes, the human brain can go haywire and stimulate the temporal lobe to give an awe–inspiring feeling of oneness. How can this teach you how to live? How is it objective?"
But now it is Sam Harris who, in his new book, points to experiences of the feeling of transcendence in a very positive light. According to a pre-review by Frank Bruni in yesterday's New York Times, this book is "so entirely of this moment, so keenly in touch with the growing number of Americans were willing to say that they do not find the succor they crave, or a truth that make sense to them, in organized religion." Bruni writes that the subtitle of Harris's book "can be read as a summons to them: 'A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.'"
So, what does all this mean? I think it means that our categories are about to be expanded. Harris believes that it is prejudiced and willful to call experiences like this religious and to give them dogmatic content. Maybe he is right about that. I remember an Indian thinker that I quoted in Hallowed Secularism saying that transcendent experiences are characterized by reference to the traditions in which we have grown up. But these interpretations are not therefore false. They are a vocabulary. Or, to put it another way, if I experience transcendence as forgiveness of sin, Harris may just have to accept that my experience actually was forgiveness of sin.