Much is made in “new atheist” circles about the supposed uselessness, harmfulness, and silliness of faith. However, I am skeptical about this claim that faith/belief is really the core issue in genuine religion and spirituality. Certainly the real issue is not the shallow, sophomoric “God = the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Flying Spaghetti Monster” slogan/analogy/cliche. The core issue is subjective spiritual experience, and the corollary is the non-materiality and non-quantifiability of spirit/Spirit.
Mystical experience, especially that of divine union, is never founded on belief.
Direct apprehension of the divine via mystical states, and the specialized knowing resulting from that apprehension (satori, gnosis), are neither belief-derived, nor belief-driven. The state of divine union and the claim of spiritual insight are experiential, not theoretical or intellectual.
The original experience is, of course, famously ineffable. But if it is to be put into understandable language, then naturally pre-existing terms will almost necessarily be invoked, and particular connections with the language of pre-existing faith systems may be established. But the experience itself is not mediated by “belief-in” or “belief-about”. As the mystics themselves say, once a thing is known, knowledge supplants faith; “belief-in” becomes obsolete.
This fact is important to the current conversation because historically all founders of religious movements operated out of direct spiritual experience, not out of belief(s). That is, Jesus was a divine union experiencer before he was a social reformer; the Buddha was a Dharma-Nirvana experiencer before he challenged the Brahmins. Therefore, perhaps somewhat ironically, faith – defined as belief-in/belief-about – is directly opposed to the original vision of the founders (even though it suffices for vast numbers of adherents appropriately designated as … “the faithful”).
Nor is the frequently invoked argument cogent that the brain can produce delusional spiritual experience, or even real spiritual experience. At this stage of the discussion, the primary issue is not the multi-capacities of our collectively-shared three-pound skull organ. The issue is simply the fact that the claim “religion = faith/belief” is inadequate at best, and distortive and false at worst.
Non-quantifiability of spirit/Spirit:
Spirit’s non-quantifiable nature, naturally, means that it is not materially quantifiable. Certian so-called “open minded” atheists who, with studied graciousness – and with a great show of humble liberality – declare that sufficient evidence could move them toward theism, can only maintain this position by ignoring the fact that spirit is non-material and materially unquantifiable. They have therefore conveniently set for themselves a playing field that is on the one hand impregnable and extremely comfortable (not to mention comforting); but on the other, is something of an intellectual ghetto, a view with a pre-embedded limited horizon, permitting only a certain circumscribed and predictable forensic outcome.
An atheist for whom materialism is an unquestioned principle by definition cannot acknowledge (even for the sake of argument?) religion’s non-materialist claims: thereby firmly encasing himself/herself into the box of a self-selected and limited field of discourse.
Put simply: If nothing exists but matter, the present conversation by nature must stop with that claim. And ideally, what should also stop is the claim that evidence might lead materialists and/or atheists toward theism, because the evidence offered by theism is, a priori, absurd and inadmissible to the materialist. This self-congratulatory (in the sense of “Observe how I am being fair and liberal”) position is really “anything but”, because it demands evidence that is, a priori, unacceptable to the very people who are trumpeting the call for evidence.
Of course, it is quite apparent that spiritual claims are not unquantifiable in the broad sense. Sages like the Buddha certainly claimed that spiritual knowledge/insight is subjectively quantifiable, and they meticulously set out means by which to verify their claims. Of course, the obvious difference is that science quantifies by looking outward, whereas spirituality quantifies by looking inward. But both proceed along the same threefold path of injunction, experimentation, conclusion, and sharing of the process with a community of those who have also adequately performed the three steps.
On a final note, it is tiresome to read airy dismissals of religion which originate from “salad bar” critics who condemn faith’s flaws while completely overlooking the fact that many unbelievers, too, sometimes participate in lunacy such as scientism, the myth of human progress, uncritical humanism, bald assertions, untested claims, excuse-making for scientific and technological dangers and failures, naive, unskillfully conceived and presented claims that theology is merely “the study of nothing”, and other such gaffes. Before such overbearing materialists and atheists cast stones, they are well-advised to commit to some degree of critical introspection – else they are doomed to duplicate – and act from – the same shoddy principles and unthinking attitudes which they claim to most despise in the religious.