By Dan Clendenin
Tim Crane, The Meaning of Belief; Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 207pp.
For the last twenty years or so, the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have attacked religious belief as morally repugnant, intellectually untenable, and politically disastrous. And what has been the result? Nothing much but stagnation and a stalemate, says fellow atheist Tim Crane. Very few people have changed their minds. That’s because the New Atheists badly misconstrue the nature of religion, says Crane, and as a consequence, believers ignore their arguments because they don’t see themselves in the caricature.
Religion isn’t belief in a pre-scientific and primitive cosmology with a dose of ancient and repressive morality. Rather, in Crane’s view, religion is first of all an impulse or belief in the transcendent, an unseen order that’s expressed in the common saying that “the world isn’t all there is.” Religion is the search for ultimate meaning — not just meaning in life, but the meaning of life. This transcendent is ultimately shrouded in mystery, and so the religious believer acknowledges that there are “epistemic limits” to belief. In addition, religion involves an attitude of identification — belonging to a group and historical tradition, and practicing its rites and rituals with others.
Crane’s book is a breath of fresh air and a welcome relief from the tired debates that he laments. His book isn’t concerned with the truth of religion, but with its meaning. In the final chapter he explores religious violence, irrationality, and the nature of toleration. Religion will never wither away, says Crane — it’s far too important for too many people in all the world. Atheists are better off to understand why and how this is the case, instead of tilting at intellectual windmills.
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