Sam Harris’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion presents itself as a guide to meditation for the skeptical atheist, one that can separate the practice and insights of meditation from the quasi-religious claims that often accompany how it is taught in the west. The book builds on Harris’s intellectual atheism (laid out in more detail in The End of Faith) and integrates it with his years of experience with meditation, including intensive retreats of many months duration. Anyone seeking spiritual clarity from an atheist or agonistic starting point will find it a beautiful and challenging read.
No aware and curious human being, no matter how atheist, can live with this set of facts without feeling overwhelming, urgent curiosity about something that is outside the scientifically verifiable world. We humans crave an understanding of consciousness in the same way that we need a creation story or a foundation for our ethics. If science won’t provide one, then we’re going to speculate, intensely and passionately, and we're going to believe what we need to believe in order to make sense of this mystery. Harris has made a powerful case for the necessity of mysticism, speculation, faith, or whatever you want to call it.
What is atheism, at the end of this book? Perhaps the term is indeed as weak and vague as this would suggest. Perhaps, as Harris proposes in Letter to a Christian Nation, "atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs." Perhaps atheism is coherent only with respect to Abrahamic monotheism. Or perhaps it's just agnosticism (the word I always preferred) armored with exclamation points.
What is clear is that the atheist/theist dualism is just as dualistic as any other. Arguably, too, the very notion is Abrahamic. Is Harris still an atheist? And are we, if we accept the lessons of his experience as ours?