Waking Up: Is Atheist Sam Harris Lying to Sell Books?

Author Sam Harris, credited with launching the new atheist movement with his provocative book The End of Faith, is now striving to fill the immeasurable spiritual void left from abandoning religion with a new "Spiritual" book.

When the working title was announced last year, Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality, I knew it may mislead potential readers. Little did I know the extent to which the marketing would conceal and deceive spiritual seekers. To understand how such a simple title could be so transparently deceptive, one must first know what Sam Harris means when he uses the word "Spirituality."

In a blog post defending why he uses the word spirituality instead of another word Harris wrote, "The word 'spirit' comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning 'breath.' Around the 13th century, the term (Spirit) became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc." He continues, "We must reclaim good words and put them to good use-and this is what I intend to do with 'spiritual'.....Of course, 'spiritual' and its cognates have some unfortunate associations unrelated to their etymology-and I will do my best to cut those ties as well."

The "unfortunate associations" Harris refers to are the very pillars of spirituality which make the word meaningful to the millions of non-religious and spiritual people, like myself, who use it. By rejecting the modern definition of spirituality that may include a higher mystical force or power, reference to a soul, or something that transcends the material world, Harris strips the word of all present day significance. In its place, he substitutes a diminutive definition based strictly on etymology. In other words, an Iron age definition only a handful of people use or are even aware exists.

Knowing this, and that Harris claims to seek precision in his use of words, I was perplexed that the subtitle of Waking Up wouldn't be used to elucidate what Harris means by "spirituality." After all, the vast majority of people don't read Sam Harris' books or blogs and would rightly assume the modern meaning of "spirituality" when they read the subtitle. This subtitle seemed to be a deceptive way to hook potential readers into glancing over the book and the summary description. Perhaps, I hoped, Harris would modify the eventual subtitle or clarify what he means by "spirituality" in the eventual book summary.

When Harris released the book's official title, rather than clarify his stance on spirituality, he doubles down on deceiving today's spiritual seekers. Reference to the role "science" and "skepticism" play in the book were dropped as the subtitle was steered directly at all people who identify as spiritual and not religious, naming it Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion. Well then, perhaps Harris would get it right in the book description. Maybe he would spell out the kind of spirituality he is referring to, and that even though it may not be of the variety the reader is accustomed to, the seeker might want to try it out. The book description would be the ethical place to say you have a different view of spirituality and are trying to "reclaim" the word and "cut ties" with the present day definition. Regrettably, the complete opposite is true.

The book's description states, "For the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion, Sam Harris' new book is a guide to meditation as a rational spiritual practice informed by neuroscience and psychology. From multiple New York Times bestselling author, neuroscientist, and 'new atheist' Sam Harris, Waking Up is for the 30 percent of Americans who follow no religion, but who suspect that Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Rumi, and the other saints and sages of history could not have all been epileptics, schizophrenics, or frauds."

Rather than be upfront and honest with potential readers, Sam Harris has chosen to deceive potential readers. He makes a direct and concerted effort to make the book appeal to spiritual seekers and fails to disclose that he doesn't mean the modern version of spirituality. Waking Up is being marketed under the false pretenses that it is a traditional spiritual book when it is far from it. This raises the uncomfortable prospect that Sam Harris, who has also authored a book about the pitfalls of lying, might actually be telling a variation of a tall tale himself, and a very public one at that. Instead of disclosing his version of spirituality, Harris has chosen to take advantage of people's yearning for spiritual guidance and meaning. Spiritual seekers may easily be duped into buying a book they believe is about one type of spirituality, when in fact it's about a completely different type of spirituality.

Consequently, I suspect many readers will be left thoroughly confused, cheated and disappointed. Why would Sam Harris market his book to "the millions of Americans who want spirituality without religion" and the "30% of Americans who follow no religion" without explaining what he means by spirituality?

Apparently, Harris is looking to get a slice of the $10 billion dollar a year self-help industry. The cover of his book has a dreamy new-age design depicting a face made out of fluffy white clouds and a picturesque blue sky. The title and subtitle Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion are direct appeals to individuals looking for a manual for spiritual improvement. More tellingly perhaps is Harris' recent name dropping of famous self-help gurus when discussing his book. Deepak Chopra and Eckart Tolle have recently been praised and scrutinized in his blogs and he pretentiously says his book is "Eckart Tolle for Smart People."

If Harris revealed what he truly thought of modern spirituality, far too many potential sales in the self-help category would be sacrificed. In Harris' book The End Of Faith he states, "Inevitably, spiritual practice must be taught by those who are expert in it, and those who profess to be experts – to be genuine gurus – are not always as selfless as they claim."

Touche Dr. Harris. The marketing of Waking Up by Sam Harris crosses the line of what is ethically acceptable. If Harris' publisher, Simon & Schuster, insisted on this marketing strategy, then it was unethical for Harris to agree to it. It breaks the trust of spiritual seekers and book buyers. It manipulates and deceives people who are vulnerable and hungry for spiritual fulfillment. As Sam Harris said in his book Lying, "I came away convinced that lying, even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and public trust." I couldn't agree with you more Sam. I hope you will repair the damage.

Author's Note: I emailed Sam Harris through his website to see if he would like to read this article before it was published and comment or clarify and received no response.

References: Harris, Sam The End of Faith W.W. Norton 2004 Harris, Sam Lying Four Elephants Press 2013

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