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'The Meaning of Belief' Prefers Calm Logic to Bold Catchphrases

An atheist argues against the New Atheists by promoting an alternative reaction to religion.

The "New Atheists" get it wrong about religious perpetuation, argues this philosopher, an atheist himself. Tim Crane rejects basing opposition to faith claims and belief systems primarily on bald evidence of their irrationality. This default stance characterizes non-believers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, and Daniel Dennett, who aver that if mass ignorance and dogmas were corrected by science and logic, these newly enlightened billions would, dazzled by the glow of reason, disavow delusion. For, if eight out of ten among us affirm a God or gods, why in this advanced era have not more been convinced of the error of their benighted, superstitious, and unverifiable suppositions?



The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist's Point of View

Tim Crane

(Harvard University Press)

October 2017

So Crane begins this brief book, The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist's Point of View. Based on his 2007 lecture which failed to sway his London academic audience away from a rote response centered on what Crane regards as an over-exaggeration of blaming the world's problems on religion as the root cause for every evil, this professor ten years later has refined his subtle message that tolerance better addresses religion today, and that this denotes neither its approval nor its affirmation.

He counters New Atheist objections with two observations. Religion combines much more than a system grounded in a cosmological construction of a powerful deity ruling the universe. It embeds two crucial needs which many humans have long sought and will continue to seek. First, the impulse for "more to it all than just this" motivates a religious quest. Second, this search offers inspirational enrichment in the historical legacy of a faith, expressed through ritual and tradition. Crane defines religion four ways: it's systematic, practical, a search for meaning, and an appeal to the transcendent.

Religion aligns humans with "a collection of ideas and practices" designed to match a particular worldview. Over six billion believers, in Crane's estimation, do not grovel before supernatural agents as their predominant concern. Rather, religion in their quotidian routines connects one's practice with a stable and supportive community. This is central, not peripheral, contrasted with a New Atheist critique which elevates the supernatural as if this occupies the majority of a believer's daily devotion.

Crane warns that his inversion of categories does not presume their truth. He strives to show how religion contains content which atheists tend to demote in their rush to convince duped believers. Given the faithful have not been swayed in significant numbers by the New Atheists, Crane asserts that believers do not recognize themselves within those depictions popularized by their detractors.

Delving deeper into impulse, Crane determines that people long for a meaning which will outlast their own mortality. This rests in a divine presence. Pessimists, of which Crane is one, admit, if tacitly, that if an "unseen power" (using William James' formulation from his pioneering work in the classification of experiences) could be verified, that disenchantment and meaninglessness would be replaced; the foes would become comrades in faith. Optimists dismiss enchantment itself as possible.

They reject "even the possibility that God's existence could give the world meaning." Crane, speaking for the former faction, considers the persistence of a "religious temperament" without one's belief. This is balanced by adherents who, as do many Christians and Jews nowadays, may participate in actions and rites without a temperament inclined towards any faith itself. This begs the question whether secular mores are accelerating this lack of a temperament, or whether those who formerly had to play along despite their true preferences may more freely express disbelief now. The challenge remains that belief by definition eludes our "full cognitive grasp" in words or images. This relates to theodicy -- how a good God can exist alongside bad things -- and the puzzle of creation by an eternal Creator, to name two venerable examples of puzzles which believers may confess they can't solve.

Scientific explanations rest on mathematics and laboratories; ordinary believers (not theologians) may lack education, or if they have it, Crane reminds us, few will pursue the higher study of what can be arcane knowledge and difficult data. They simply lack, again, any technical inclination. Their tolerance for "mystery and ignorance" is greater than a scientist's. They don't demand hypotheses or proofs. Not certainty so much as "continued struggle" occupies the mindset of many sophisticated believers more often than naysayers may imagine. Crane quotes Francis Spufford here in wise support. Facing the unknown and inexplicable, these faithful attempt to reconcile the explicit with that which cannot be explained in tangible form or clear articulation, but which nevertheless endures.

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Identification with the wider system within which this impulse persists incorporates many situations not based on belief itself. Crane appears to find wiggle room here, but he tallies how but one of the Five Pillars of Islam and the Ten Commandments respectively state a cosmological claim of God's existence and dominance. Rather, pilgrimage, dietary rules, or circumcision exemplify the granular means by which a religious community continues. Crane cites Emile Durkheim's reminder that believers belong to a larger polity. This collective figures out who will be a member and how, and invents rituals to incorporate believers and sustain the system which codifies faith-claims tangibly.

For those who balk at this argument, Crane notes how, without religion, a believer would indulge in only magic, which lacks any church. Akin somewhat to nationality, ethnicity, patriotism, family, and clan, humans establish manifestations of their common values and ties to their terrain and to one another. These endure; we belong to these categories without entering them by our rational choice.

Therefore, religion cannot be excised from our social order without leaving a scar. Crane judges that the academy for scientists themselves reifies a similar set-up. Those who are convinced gather together to repeat cherished actions and to find solidarity in sophisticated networks and ranks.

The concept of the sacred connects impulse with identification. Objects possess an external significance in worship, but they also emanate an internal meaning directed towards transcendence. Illogical as a funeral rite may be when weighed against its utility, Crane reflects, even an atheist might be moved by that moment. There's no logic why we place wreaths on a grave, but we bow to ritual.

The penultimate section of this text turns to the way pain and violence intrude upon everyday life. Religious institutions and groups of believers cause atrocities, Crane agrees. But he rejects the claim that they "have been in some way uniquely responsible for the worst horrors and evils of the human race." For "Stalinism, Nazism, and Maoism appeal to no spiritual agencies." He at some length, granted this short text, confronts those who would equate political ideologies with religious functions.

"Beliefs about God" do not align exactly with social uses or abuses of religion, Crane explains. Many supposedly religious conflicts "have little do to with any of the theological ideas that may have been responsible for the religious schism in the first place." This careful admission deserves attention. Crane cleanly cancels the canard promoted by both Dawkins and Hitchens, which blames the conflict in the North of Ireland on ecclesiastical debates. However, the Croats and Serbs two decades ago were not fighting over the "filioque" clause about the Holy Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son which led to the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Such lofty disputes played no role. On the other hand, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence against Salman Rushdie, this documents the precise cause and effect of a doctrine and a harm.

In Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, and even the Thirty Years War, ethnic and territorial allegiances entangled with denominational affiliation and princely power plays subsumed any distinctively religious content, Crane determines. This little work could have generated more space to this matter, for it's key in rhetoric repeated by leading atheists and secularists, but he retreats to a philosophical consideration of "theoretical rationality, or reasons for belief", which displays his scholarly bent. He shows that without religion, as recent events verify, human irrationality endures apart from any faith.

Yet, as the revival of religions within contemporary China reveals, nationhood gathered up within faith systems confirms this pair as the "main drivers behind world events", rather than what the last century assumed, as the battles between "principles about state ownership and the economy." This statement elides the economic roles religion promotes, generates, and perpetuates, but Crane in his final chapter clears room for non-political analysis. He explains that his last pages will elucidate instead the logic behind a personal advocacy of tolerance by atheists towards religion. This is not an agreement with faith-claims or ritual actions. It does not capitulate to the "non-starter" of "anything goes" relativism, or a "wishy-washy respect" for all faiths (one conjures up apparitions of the post-9/11 "Co-Exist" bumper sticker ubiquitous in enclaves of the bien-pensant liberal constituency) which glosses over pain and cruelty exacted by the perpetuation of barbaric and nonsensical codes.

Disapproval may follow wherever atheists live among believers. Not necessarily due to differing opinions or actions, Crane assures, but out of a moral imperative for a far more fundamental expression of mutual respect: that for each other as human. Non-believers may respect believers, while strenuously rejecting their views and their actions. Crane's first principle presents a common cause through a dignified expression of humanity, neither churlish nor condescending, towards faith. The Meaning of Belief prefers calm logic to bold catchphrases. It likely will not attract the attention given by supporters or detractors of the New Atheists' shelf of screeds, but it invites poised reaction.

Crane wraps up this swift study (too much so in one parenthetical moment when Muhammad is said to have lived "around 600 BC") by repeating that his colleagues, the New Atheists, are too optimistic. That is, by their idealism that with the imposition of reason, faith will ebb away smoothly. As a realist and a pessimist, he reckons neither secularism nor religion will disappear anytime soon.

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