Is Sam Harris Atheism's Deepak Chopra?

I know, I know. Any articles about Mr. Harris that are not glowing tributes to his superior intellect (and now spiritual awareness) are unfair, but while listening to this episode of “Waking Up”, #102 Is Buddhism True? it occurs to me that Harris may be a modern spiritual guru in the style of Deepak Chopra. Before you get mad that your favorite cult of personality is being compared to fucking Deepak Chopra, just hear me out, or don’t, whatever, go fap to The Bell Curve if need be.

Deepak Chopra is in fact a scientist.  He’s an endocrinologist. The thing about that field is, well, your income tops out in the 6 figures range in most cases. Not a bad living, in fact that income allows you to live basically wherever you want so long as you can find work in your field. Instead of pursuing a relatively lucrative career practicing medicine, a career which could have helped a great many people, Deepak decided to become a guru.  He is an “expert” in transcendental meditation. Or something. He speaks of “mind-body medicine” and makes an awful lot of claims that aren’t backed by the facts and then trots out his academic credentials to deflect criticism of the pretty absurd things he’s been known to say. It’s a pretty good grift if you can pull it off, no doubt.

Sam Harris got a degree in philosophy and then later a PhD in neuroscience. Neuroscience is a fascinating field, but it comes with the same problem as endocrinology, a salary that generally tops out somewhere in the 6 figure range, again, a nice living, but not the kind of living one can make as a guru. So Mr. Harris, having already gathered a bit of a following in the new atheist movement that spawned as the internet became ubiquitous, seems to, at some point, decided he was gonna become a guru. He traveled abroad (on that sweet sweet Golden Girls Trust Fund his parents provided) to study Buddhism and, funny enough, transcendental meditation. Later, Sam wrote “Waking Up”, a book that essentially tells us that Mr. Harris’ version of spirituality is based on science and reason. Folks who would otherwise be skeptical of this kind f claim are a bit more likely to buy into it because, you guessed it, Harris has a degree in neuroscience. He’s “zen” now everyone! In addition to being “zen”, he’s also a scientist!

This works out really well when Harris has people like Charles Murray on to talk about The Bell Curve, a book which has been roundly rejected by Mr. Murray’s peers. You see, not only is the guy who had Murray on “zen”, he’s also a scientist, a critical thinker! So if one were to suggest that Murray’s work is bullshit, the faithful can demand credulity because not only is Mr. Harris a neuroscientist, but he also has the goods on spirituality and mindfulness. Because, you know, he had his “Waking Up” experience. Speaking of Murrays, when Harris had Douglas Murray on his show and they joked about how they were not too many degrees separated from KKK members, credulity is in order because this dude is a fuckin guru now.

Talk of "waking up" is usually a red flag for skeptics.... 

Talk of "waking up" is usually a red flag for skeptics.... 

I do see differences between the two men. Deepak Chopra is far more woo-ish than Sam Harris when talking about matters of science whereas Harris is more likely to entertain long discredited ideas in the realm of the humanities. The other thing I notice is that Chopra spent a good deal of time working in his professional field before transitioning into being a guru whereas Harris has spent very little time doing work in the field of neuroscience. I do recognize that Chopra is more demonstrably full of shit though, but it’s not like this is a zero sum game or some kind of dichotomy where one being more full of shit makes the other one legitimate guru, whatever the fuck that means.

The marriage of science vocabulary and bullshit spirituality is nothing new, and it’s big business if you can get it right. Your books will be best sellers and your fan base will often respond to criticism of your work or your statements with the same fervor as Scientologists presented with criticism of L Ron Hubbard. Becoming more or less a cult leader is an unfortunate side effect of leveraging one’s science credentials to become a guru. Well, at least I think it’s unfortunate. Not sure what Harris would say about having become a cult of personality, but I know that the mere suggestion indicates that I am not a critical thinker, that I have taken him out of context, and that I need to be more credulous in this, the war of bad ideas.