Theologians abuse rhetoric and call it philosophy
As I have become familiar with the writing of one of Dawkins's so-called "fleas", Eric Reitan, (author of a book entitled "Is God a delusion?"), it has become increasingly apparent that, while professionally employed as a philosopher, his methods are more those of a rhetorician wedded to a theology that he defends despite all incoming argument. An apologist, in short (which should have been clear from the title of his blog, "The piety that lies between").
The foundation of Reitan's view is that the spiritual experience (experiencing the transcendent, as he typically puts it) strongly, or even necessarily, implies that there is a transcendent order that exists separately from us that we are somehow "tapping into", or sensing by the modality of prayer or meditation.
His judgements are usually couched in smooth equanimity, such as: "True humility involves, as I have argued, being open to the possibility of a transcendent reality touching and transforming us in ways that offer wisdom unattainable through our ordinary cognitive faculties."
Who wouldn't want to be "open"? Who wouldn't want to be "humble"? Who wouldn't want to be open to "wisdom", let alone "reality"? The problems, however, are many. First is whether there is any sign of a transcendent realm, and second, even if there is such a realm, whether and how we have access to it, perhaps demonstrated by radical and accurate knowledge. On the other side is the competing hypothesis that points out that brain states like meditation are exactly those prone to imagination and subjective transport, and whose complete dissociation from reality is well-known by novelists, artists, and daydreamers of all stripes.
The modern scientific enterprise has blazed trails into actual reality beyond the wildest dreams of ancient philosphers, mystics, and theologians. Only the Indian Hindus and Buddhists, in their infinite rigor, came close to the vast stretches of time involved in the past eons of earth and cosmos. Scales from the great to the infinitesimal have far outstripped and defied transcendentalist description. Whatever conceptions had previously been floated about origins were fanciful tales (twice-told, in the case of Genesis) plucked straight from the imaginations of ancient poets. If they were in touch with transcendence, it was evidently with transcendent feeling, not transcendent reality-touching.
So not only has the vast knowledge of our current scientific corpus not found a transcendent realm, but those supposedly benefiting the most from transcendent wisdom have ended up wildly off the mark, usually spending their newly-enlightened time authorizing patriarchal systems, damning unbelievers, or creating bizarre food prohibitions (not to mention convenient rules about how many extra wives they could have).
Very well, the absence of evidence does not constitute the absence of transcendence, right? Perhaps the realm properly defined as perpetually beyond the reach of skeptical observation yet exists, and we have a special portal to it through the process of day-dreaming. But brain science has nothing but bad news on this front too. Brains are chemical entities, and either take in sensations from the outside world or compute on those sensations internally. Known modes of sensation have been widened substantially by modern cognitive science and neurobiology (body postion sense, several types of touch sensation, etc.), but no transcendent sensory mode has emerged. Indeed, studies of meditators have shown brain areas activated that made eminent sense in terms of reduced outward sensation and focus on imaginative and bodily inner states.
Again, the fruits of access to the transcendent realm also belie its existence, since one would think that the source of such wisdom would grant knowledge of amazing things- the origins of existence, the ground of all being, and the face of god. Yet the various faith traditions have come up with vastly differing elaborations of all three, almost as if they were making it up as they went along based on vague and common feelings, rather than observing some common and transcendent reality through the portholes of prayer.
One has to conclude that a great deal of humility is indeed in order- humility about transcendent claims. While naturalists, scientists, philosophers and people of good will are open to new findings and ways of looking at the world, the particular one of transcendent transport has proven something of a dry hole philosophically speaking, however beneficial it has been for the arts and for practitioner's health and well-being. Philosophers who insist in the teeth of evidence that there is something "veridical" about what is in essence day-dreaming are not only centuries out of date, but doing a serious disservice to their putative profession.
But hey, it could be worse. One of Reitan's colleagues at Oklahoma State University spends his time counting the number of persons within the person of god. One wonders whether OSU would hire a "philosopher" of Islam, or a "philosopher" of Voodoo, just to spice things up. Still, to see someone of Eric Reitan's eloquence and evident dedication to philosophy take the football of reason so far downfield only to decide to stop at the 10 yard line and call it a win remains disturbing.