Sam Harris and the Perennial Philosophy

The Perennial Philosophy is the idea that the major religions all have something in common: a belief that a mystic human experience can locate the Divine in the individual soul and provide a sense of oneness with the universe to that individual.   Adherents of this philosophy like Emerson believe that we can rally behind this idea as a way of uniting the world, since traditional religions are really only a variation of this theme.

Sam Harris , however, rejects that idea.   In Waking Up he argues that Christians, Muslims, and Jews maintain that the universe is dualistic. Put bluntly, God is out there and He ain’t in you.   None of this humanistic stuff–God is outside somewhere, and there are punishments in store if you do not do what He says as described in His scriptures.   Harris acknowledges that there have been mystics in all the religions who describe transcendent experiences, but more often than not they are persecuted and driven out of the mainstream religion. Waking Up is all about finding this transcendent experience through meditation, so for Harris this dualism is just one more nail in the coffin of institutional religions. Moreover, the idea that we can unite the Abrahamic religions behind this idea of the Perennial Philosophy is a non-starter, he says, because religions are so different in what they demand of their disciples, there is no way they can unite.   To really call yourself a Christian, for example, you have to believe in the virgin birth. To call yourself a Catholic you have to believe that the Pope is infallible. To call yourself a Mormon you have to believe God has a body of flesh and bone. Believing in these kinds of things is central to identifying yourself as being of that religion.

He’s right, as far as what we might call fundamentalist religionists. But I think he’s missing a bigger picture, and that is, that there is a movement afoot to bypass these beliefs and get to the meat of the matter, which is, in fact something akin to the Perennial Philosophy.   The ranks of the Nones (those checking “none of the above” when asked about their religion) are growing by leaps and bounds.   Even within the mainstream there are many who, when pressed, would say they’re not hung up on the hard-to-believe beliefs like the virgin birth or whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or walked on water. They’re simply looking for community, for some support in raising their children according to a moral code, and for some kind of spiritual experience.

I think the main point to keep in mind is, we’re never going to convert the entire world to one religion. Despite the best efforts of good-hearted Christians, you’re never going to get those billions of Muslims into Sunday School any more than they are going to get Christian children into madrassas. Harris is right, we’re not united, but despite that, we can and must come together as human beings living on an increasingly crowded planet. There is another avenue to a common ground and that is the Seven Universal Sacraments based on human experiences.   Anyone of any faith or no faith can warm themselves in the joy a family feels at the birth of a healthy child. That moment of birth is sacred, and for the parents provides that incredible, ineffable human experience that is very much what the Perennial Philosophy is all about.

One thought on “Sam Harris and the Perennial Philosophy

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