After quite a few years of debating on philosophy forums, I have formed the view that few of the atheist critics of religion and spirituality have much insight into what it is they don’t believe in. Writing from the perspective as a kind of ’spiritual-but-not-religious’ practitioner of Buddhist meditation - although I am finding that the distinction is hard to maintain! - I think there is a profound truth in this observation by E. F. Schumacher (of Small is Beautiful fame) in a 1957 radio broadcast called The Insufficiency of Liberalism, about what he termed ‘the three stages of development’ in society:
The first great leap was made when man moved from Stage One of primitive religiosity to Stage Two of scientific realism. This is the stage modern man tends to be at. Then, he said, some people become dissatisfied with scientific realism, perceiving its deficiencies, and realize that there is something beyond fact and science. Such people progress to a higher plane of development which he called Stage Three. The problem was that Stage One and Stage Three looked exactly the same to those in Stage Two. Consequently, those in Stage Three are seen as having had some sort of relapse into childish nonsense. Only those in Stage Three, who have been through Stage Two, can understand the difference between Stage One and Stage Three 1
A Straw God
There is a Buddhist idea that Buddhism itself - all the teachings, liturgy, sutras and commentaries, and everything else, are but ‘fingers pointing at the moon’. The Buddha points the way, but you have to walk it. Even Dharma must be abandoned in the end to say nothing of 'adharma'.
However according to anti-religion, there is no moon, nothing to point at, no 'way' to traverse, and no such thing as ‘release’ or ’nirvana’. There is only our momentary life in the world, book-ended between the non-existence that we have fortuitously and momentarily sprung forth from by entirely material processes. It follows from this that the only aims in life are utilitarian and technological - things which aid material comfort and well-being. Certainly there are intellectual and artistic aims, but these aren't related to the cosmic order - only to social, civic and personal aims and virtues. They are always ultimately subjective and relative. But if you point this out, they say 'What else is there?'
There is an asymettry in this: for the materialist, it is only about the denial of 'a belief', and furthermore one which has no 'empirical referent'; whereas, for the awakened, what is denied is a dimension of being-knowing-bliss (sat-chit-ananda) which is as real as the ground we stand on (or even more so, being the ground of the ground). So for the atheist, reality is simply the world of appearances, that is known, imperfectly, through the sciences and the senses, into which we are born, by chance, and from which we eventually disappear; whereas for anyone of whatever spiritual persuasion, this life is simply one chapter in the overall story, one facet of a larger whole. So from the atheist point of view, it is simply a matter of a false belief, whereas for the spiritual, what is at stake is the very nature of life itself.
But it seems it can only be understood in terms of an archaic Sky-Father-God image by many people - both believers and atheists. So even if that is not what you mean, that is what they think you are talking about, and then they proceed say that you're irrational or retrograde for believing such a thing. (I'm sure that many theistic believers actually believe in something very similar to Jupiter, which is derived from the Indo-European word for 'Sky-Father'. After all 'Jehovah' and 'Jupiter' are very similar words, even if from completely different etymological roots. Although it ought also to be considered that this might be necessary at some stages of development. )
Poisoning the Well
Right now I am reading David Bentley Hart's The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness and Bliss, and finding it generally congenial to my outlook. There are some basic points of dogma that I don't go along with, but, having been awakened to some small degree by meditation, I now am more sympathetic to Christianity as a spiritual philosophy, than I ever could have been previously. (Although I still think there are perspectives that are missing from the way that both its advocates and opponents portray it. Some books I encountered which helped me to see alternative perspectives were Inner Christianity by Richard Smoley, and A Different Christianity, by Martin Amis; they both put a lot of emphasis on the path of meditation and are generally 'gnostic' in some sense. The absence of that perspective of 'inner knowing' is what drove many people to Eastern spirituality, although I am now beginning to recognise the treasures of the tradition I was born into.)
The basic issue in all this is, that the aspect of spiritual philosophy that is important is concerned with a different way of being. It is not, as many atheists depict it, 'an hypothesis' about a being. Metaphysics requires metanoi - and 'metanoia' means 'change of mind' or 'change of heart'. This doesn't mean suddenly adopting a belief in a super-natural designer - whatever that might be! - but discovering a different way of being, and the very different perspective that comes out of that.
That is why meditation puts a lot of emphasis on inner silence rather than on discursive thought.
The true meaning of sitting Zen is to cut off all thinking and keep not-moving mind. So I ask you: what are you? You don’t know; there is only “I don’t know.” Always keep this don’t know mind. When this don’t know mind becomes clear, then you will understand. So if you keep it when you are talking, this is talking Zen. If you keep it when you are watching television, this is television Zen. You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.2
'Always keep this don't-know mind'. That is the way to higher truth, which is actually and simply 'what is' when the monkey mind is in abeyance.
(This kind of understanding can be found in Christian teaching also, if you know where to look, but you generally wouldn't learn about it in Church.)
Fear of the Unknown
And I think another problem is that atheism projects a lot of unconscious fears onto religion rather than understanding that it is really about inner peace and understanding the nature of mind (as Buddhists would put it). Furthermore it does this unconsciously, that is, without really being aware of what it is doing and why. You can actually see this in the deep hostility that 'the new atheists' have towards religion - a real 'fear and loathing'. Hence also the long-standing aversion in analytical philosophy to metaphysics, which it disparages as 'woo'.
I think that this fear and loathing is a manifestation of the unconscious awareness of aspects of our own being - the unconscious, which is ambiguous, fluid, not subject to quantification, but at the same time foundational to existence. So there is the constant, relentless drive to 'prove' what 'the real ground of being' is, in terms of science, physics and quantifiable, external data - what can be made explicit, what can be made manifest and objectified. So whether it is 'the selfish gene' or the theory of the ultimate material entity, perhaps in some ways it is always the sublimated search for the immortal, for that which is beyond change, decay and death. But it has to be external, objective, 'out there somewhere', as people say nowadays - that in terms of which everything else can be explained (on which point, see The Gospel of Scientific Materialism). But the very search itself has now overflowed, so to speak, the vast Universe itself, into many worlds and multiple universes - which is something for another post.