I believe that there is a mistake being made on both sides of the theism/atheism debate, one that is made as often in the former camp as in the latter. It is the idea that if the experiences people have when engaged in religious or spiritual practices of one sort or another don’t actually connect them to a divine reality, then the experiences aren’t worth seeking.
Among theists this mistake can manifest as a vehement defense of even the most absurd aspects of religion. When a person finds a state of perfect bliss and contentment after hours spent praying to Jesus, it’s easy to understand how she might interpret this as evidence of the divinity of Christ and the truth of Christian doctrine.
In light of this it’s also easy to understand how a conversation between a theist and an atheist can so rapidly spiral into histrionics, if the atheist believes her objections are a matter of logic and the theist is hearing a full-frontal assault on the most valuable experience she has ever had.
But given how many truths aren’t directly, subjectively accessible, we should be very careful in drawing conclusions from spiritual experiences, no matter how profound. And because practitioners of different religions report near-identical experiences despite engaging in wildly different rituals and praying to different gods, we should suspect that something deeper is happening here; perhaps successful contemplatives and mystics, even the non-religious ones, are tapping into states of mind that are human-universal.
Among atheists this mistake can manifests as a categorical dismissal of anything labeled ‘transcendent’, ‘mystical’, or ‘spiritual’. I can sympathize, as I too have come to realize that almost everyone who fecklessly sprinkles such words throughout conversations is peddling bullshit. But, when one carefully slices away the myth which inevitably gathers around mystics, what is left behind is empirical. An experiment is being proposed: if you train your mind using technique x, you can have experience y.
Here is the solution as I see it: remember that spiritual experiences stand on their own feet. Whether or not you had them while meditating in an isolated temple in mist-shrouded mountains or during a raucous neopagan ritual by firelight, your experiences, as experiences, are real and valuable. And they remain valuable even if you realize that you live in a godless universe.
It is atheists, particularly those with an interest in the future, who must be the most careful here. If we let lunatics like Deepak Chopra be the gatekeepers of the numinous, if we claim that the sacred isn’t real when millions of human beings know that it is, we’ll never build a secular world worth living in.