ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If this last day of the year has you reflecting on big questions -who you are and what you believe - then take note of this next book recommendation. It's by Sam Harris. It's called "Waking Up." Astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank says it may speak to the 20 percent of Americans who say they are spiritual, but not religious.
ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Ten years ago, Sam Harris's book "The End Of Faith" appeared with its strident denunciation of literalist religious belief. Harris's book became a turning point in the public debate about religion and science by being the first important work of the so-called New Atheist movement.
But for persistent readers Harris's now decade-old book held a surprise. In the last chapter, this fiery critic of religion argued that real spiritual experience was not only possible, it was a kind of birthright. I remember getting to that last chapter and thinking, whoa, what just happened? Well, what happened was that Harris, like many people, had experienced a sense of spirituality outside of traditional religion.
Those experiences now take center stage in his latest book "Waking Up," where Harris is anything but squeamish about his language. He writes, I will use spiritual, mystical, contemplative and transcendent without apology. Later he adds, spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary.
Wow. That is quite a statement coming from a guy with a PhD in neuroscience and a decade of ticking off all forms of religious folks. But Harris's firm foundation in science and his new emphasis on spirituality tell us something important about the growing category of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. There are now nearly 20 percent of Americans, that's almost 1 in 5, who mark unaffiliated on surveys about religion. And here's the point; like Harris, many of the spiritual-but-not-religious are trying honestly to understand what it means to be both spiritual and scientific. I've seen this from my experience giving hundreds of popular science talks around country. And I've also seen that many spiritual and religious folks feel the same way.
As Pope Francis's recent affirmation of evolution and Big Bang cosmology show, rejecting science need not figure into the science and spirituality conversation. Harris's book shows us there are really interesting conversations to be had in this new territory where you're not forced to choose between spirituality and science. It's all the terrain lying beyond the false certainties that have dominated the last 10 years of exhausting public religion-versus-science debate. It's a new conversation that will hopefully truly welcome curious people of all persuasions - religious, atheist, scientific and spiritual.
SIEGEL: That's astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank with his take on Sam Harris's book "Waking Up."