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

By Tim Crane. Harvard University Press, 2017. 224 pages. $24.95/hardcover or eBook.

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“I don’t believe you / You had the whole damn thing all wrong / He’s not the kind [of God] you have to wind up on Sundays.” —Jethro Tull

Charles Taylor asked (in A Secular Age) “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” People who are dismayed by this development see various causes. People who applaud the movement to secularization also have their own favored accounts. Many of these, especially the more polemical intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker, premise their arguments on descriptions of religious experience that seem quite uninformed—fighting against both straw men and straw gods, so to speak. Tim Crane, an avowed atheist, is a philosopher who has decided not to start off with a simplistic framework upon which to rack religion, but to explore it in a way that neither compromises his atheist stance, nor oversimplifies what he calls “the religious impulse.” The result is a book that I can recommend to both the seeking theists and the seeking nontheists in our meetings as a more thoughtful and therefore more educative companion to the work of mutual understanding.

Crane points out that many of the modern atheist critiques of religion assume that the core of religion consists in the positing of a supernatural being, an assumption on which other irrational and unwarranted claims are made, often as a result of tradition, and maintained by the indoctrination of youth and other means. I have always felt that this general stance is quite unrelated to my own experience of religion, and seems primarily designed as a convenient target for attack. The aim then seems to be that all you need to do to get people to abandon their irrational, Bronze-Age worldview is just to explain how irrational it is, and what bad consequences it has had.

Taking roughly the same approach as that of William James, Crane assumes that something much more complex and subtle is going on, and that any framing, necessary for the purposes of reflection and reasoning, must recognize that “religion” is not definable as a proposition, nor based on a “hypothesis,” in the scientific sense. He explains his point of view:

This book . . . differs from some recent atheist writings on religion in two ways. First, it is not about the truth of religious belief but about its meaning: what it means to believe in religious ideas, what it means for believers, and what it should mean for nonbelievers too. . . . Second, it differs from much recent atheism in the picture of religion it draws. . . . While I think there are both cosmological and moral elements in religious belief, I reject the reduction of religious belief to either of them, or even to their combination. . . . We will fail to understand this fundamental human phenomenon if we try to force it into these preconceived categories.

Still, Crane must define the grounds for his inquiry. He posits four key elements of the “religious impulse,” and it’s his discussion of these which I think would be very useful in personal reflection or meeting discussion:

  1. Religion is systematic: Your religion involves a number of ideas, practices, attitudes, narratives, metaphors—a rich field of symbolic material—which form a fabric. Moreover, as Crane points out, most people’s religious fabric provides resources for interpretation and revision to reflect new times, new challenges, new sensitivities to moral or other challenges.
  2. Religion is practical: It is intended to shape one’s life, decisions, and actions—first as a member of the group, and second in relation to those outside the group. I would say that this is a key place in which a religious person includes themselves in the religious narrative with which they identify.
  3. Religion is an attempt to find meaning (and, I would add, a way to do so). He argues that, while “meaning” can come from a lot of different sources, the religious impulse is a holistic one, which might be paraphrased (here he quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel): “How can one bring into one’s individual life a full recognition of one’s relation to the universe as a whole?”
  4. Religion appeals to the transcendent. Crane points out that this need not be (indeed often is not) an appeal to God, a god, nor any “supernatural being”; rather, “God” is an oft-used term that in fact merely labels the experience of that which transcends our own personal scope and in some sense embraces the whole. Crane argues (following Émile Durkheim) that for many religious people, “supernatural” is not relevant, since that implies some opposition or separation between the Transcendent and the Immanent—a tension Friends are well aware of experientially.

Taking these together, Crane suggests that “religion is the systematic, practical attempt to align oneself with the transcendent.” It is not an intellectual construct, but a whole-self response, which can have intellectual as well as emotional, esthetic, and ethical elements: heart, soul, strength, and mind (Mark 12:30).

He then goes about exploring the ramifications of this impulse for the construction of our identities, and then into an extended and plain-spoken consideration of the “case” made by many polemical atheists that wickedness (especially wars and similar violence) represent the outcomes of irrationality. And since in their analysis religion is inherently irrational, therefore it is an easy thing to demonstrate a causal link between religion and war. Crane points out, “The obvious facts are that reasonable, rational, educated, and knowledgeable people can be wicked and vicious; ignorant, irrational people can be good and kind. And vice versa.” I cannot reproduce all his argumentation here, but it is worth engaging wit —especially in light of traditional Quakerism’s assertions about the seeds of war, and the work of Christ to bring us off from the spirit out of which wars come.

In his final chapter, Crane advocates an honest toleration of religion by the non-religious, and vice versa—acknowledging that religion in its multifarious forms is a persistent feature of human life, while not privileging it, in the exchanges of civil society: “The idea that all views or opinions are worthy of respect is entirely false. What is closer to the truth, however, is that all people, rather than their opinions, are worthy of respect.” He concludes with “Any view about how atheists and theists should live together and interact must ultimately confront the fact that neither religion nor secularism is going to disappear. . . . we can hope for a kind of dialogue between those who hold very different views of reality. . . . [T]he first step must be for each side to gain an adequate understanding of the views of the other.”

In one of my favorite challenges from the Psalms, God says, “Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself.” Crane’s accessible, philosophical inquiry represents a helpful companion in the construction of such dialogues, starting as it does from a commitment not to take it for granted that we know how others inhabit their world, to ask hard questions, and to listen as the answers come.

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