Must Atheists Trash Religion?

By Todd MayMarch 4, 2018

Must Atheists Trash Religion?

The Meaning of Belief by Tim Crane

WE LIVE IN polarized times, and that’s no secret. This polarization is often noted and often lamented. It is said to be tearing our country apart at its seams. However, is polarization as such a bad thing? Not always. The polarization that the American Civil Rights movement caused ended legal segregation in the country. The Vietnam War protests were nothing if not polarizing, yet they forced the Nixon administration to cease its barbaric operations in that country. The current struggles against racism, xenophobia, and misogyny under the Trump administration may have a polarizing effect, but they are necessary engagements if we are to help repair the broken soul of the United States.

When it comes to polarization, then, rather than moving directly to lamentation, our proper response should be: “Polarization about what?” Is the polarizing issue one that deserves it or not?

There is a group of thinkers who have come to be labeled the New Atheists and who believe that among the issues that merit polarization, religion has earned pride of place. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, A. C. Grayling, and (until his death) Christopher Hitchens see religion as an outdated practice, an archaic superstition that promotes ignorance and violence and is best abandoned as quickly as possible. And they are not loath in their diatribes to use inflammatory rhetoric that they know will have a polarizing effect.

But is religion deserving of such polarization? Should religion be subject to the either/or of a polarized discourse or attitude? The philosopher Tim Crane, a professed atheist, thinks not. In his small but valuable volume The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, he argues that the New Atheists’ approach to religious belief and practice is fundamentally flawed, and that the proper atheist response to religion ought not to be one of condemnation, but rather one of tolerance. This tolerance is not, as we shall see, a tolerance of everything done under the name of religion. But it is a general tolerance of religion itself, of a viewpoint and set of associated practices that may be foreign, and indeed mistaken, to the atheist, but not to be rejected for all that.

What is religion, this phenomenon that we are urged by the New Atheists to consign to the dustbin of history? For them it is fundamentally a belief or set of beliefs concerning a supernatural agency that often directs them to engage in silly rituals or commit violence against those who refuse such engagement. Crane believes this view is deeply misguided. It is one that would not only be rejected by believers; it is one that should also be rejected by atheists. Rather, he says, “Religion, as I am using the word, is a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent.” In seeking to understand religion we need to focus not only on the belief, but also on the meaningfulness of the practice in relation to that belief. Thus the title of his book.

The idea of the transcendent is central to Crane’s discussion of religion. It plays a dual role, one in which each aspect supports the other. On the one hand, the transcendent refers to a being or force or something other — usually called “God” — that lies beyond the experienced world. On the other hand, that being or force offers the possibility of meaning to those who live in our world. This meaning arises when one orients oneself to the transcendent in the way prescribed by the particular religion one embraces. In short, “Religion is the systematic, practical attempt to align oneself with the transcendent.”

What emerges in Crane’s description of religion, and what goes missing in the New Atheists’ treatment of it, is the meaning introduced into the life of the believer. By investigating this meaning Crane hopes to offer a more nuanced and sympathetic treatment of religion without going so far as to approve of it. After all, he is an atheist and therefore committed to the view that the belief in a transcendent is ultimately a false one.

There are, in Crane’s view, two intertwined elements in religion that we must grasp in order understand its place in the life of believers. He calls them the religious impulse and identification. The religious impulse is the belief that there is an order to the world that comes from something other than this world itself. It is this order that offers the possibility of a meaningful existence. Where Albert Camus, for instance, thought that the fundamental fact of human life was its confrontation with a universe that refused us meaning, those who possess the religious impulse commit themselves to the belief that the transcendent can offer us precisely the meaning that Camus was unable to find.

Identification involves participating in various religious practices as members of a community. These practices help create a communal feeling, one that links a participant not only with fellow worshippers but also with a past history of participants. They also bring one into contact with the transcendent. In religious ritual, “the repetition of these words — often strange, archaic, and only partially understood — is an attempt to link them not only with past worshippers and other members of their religion but also with something beyond the quotidian: what I am calling the transcendent.”

Identification, however, is a two-edged sword. While it creates bonds among fellow practitioners, it also creates boundaries between them and those who are not practitioners. This exclusionary aspect of identification can set the groundwork for religious violence, which is one of the most damning charges laid by the New Atheists at the feet of believers. Crane devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of religious violence. He points out — and this needs always to be borne in mind — that extreme violence is not unique to religion. Soviet, Nazi, and Chinese Communist violence were all committed in the name of programs that were distinctly unreligious, and to call them, as some have done, a different kind of religion is to stretch the idea of the religious beyond all recognition.

Crane argues that it is a mistake to claim that religious violence is founded on the theological content of religious doctrines. Rather, it is often through a combination of conflicts about rules for living or worshipping, identification, and more general aspects of human psychology and culture that such violence takes root. For instance, the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims arose out of a dispute about the proper heir to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland had more to do with the historical treatment of Catholics, and the general place of Ireland in British history, than with any dispute about the truth of Catholic or Protestant religious doctrines.

Crane’s denial of the role of theological content in religious disputes is, to my mind, one of the less convincing claims in his book. While it is difficult to deny the role of identification in religious violence, it seems to me that we might distinguish proximate from more remote causes of such violence. The latter may play an underlying but still determining role in creating conflict. This point might be obscured in the examples to which Crane appeals, since they involve conflicts within particular religions. However, the violence perpetrated under the name of jihad, the current rise of anti-Semitism, the egregious violence of the Israeli occupation (and particularly the settlers), and the exclusionary zeal of right-wing Christians against LGBTQ folks are difficult to understand without a recognition that each dispute justifies itself to a great extent through appeal to religion.

The final chapter of Crane’s book is about tolerance, specifically about the duty of atheists to tolerate religious believers. Crane argues that such tolerance need not be rooted in either a self-defeating relativism of belief or any sort of epistemic approval of religious doctrine. Rather, his claim is the broadly Kantian one that “all people, rather than their opinions, are worthy of respect.” This respect need not tolerate all religious practices. Bigotry and violence associated with religion hardly need to be tolerated. But to recognize that others have beliefs that one considers mistaken and identifications that are distant from one’s own, and that those beliefs and identifications are important to them and need not be the subject of merciless attack is, perhaps, the beginning of wisdom for an atheist.

This wisdom is reinforced in Crane’s distinction, earlier in the book, between optimistic and pessimistic atheists. The former believe that nothing is lost when one rejects religion. Everything religion offers has its correlate in an atheist’s life. There are wonders aplenty in the mundane world to compensate for the abandonment of religious practice and belief. Crane, by contrast, is a pessimist. While the world does indeed offer its own wonders, the failure to believe in a transcendent that offers meaning to a group of believers who reinforce their identification with one another through repeated ritual practice has no adequate substitute in an atheist’s life. This pessimism should not tempt the atheist into belief. In fact, to seek to believe in a transcendent because it would enrich one’s life to do so would seem to be self-defeating, Pascal’s wager notwithstanding. Rather, Crane’s pessimism should turn the focus of the atheist to the importance religion might hold in the life of a person worthy of respect.

There are philosophy books that break new ground, offering us theories or explanations of perspectives that have not appeared before. Other books of philosophy call us to a recognition of things that are right in front of us but that we have not yet fully grasped, or perhaps whose implications for our lives we have not grasped. The Meaning of Belief is of the latter sort. It reminds atheists that there are others out there who are (we would claim) mistaken but whose lives are enriched by those mistaken beliefs and their associated practices in ways that need not be subject to unrelenting attack. In particular, whatever religion is, it is not merely, as the New Atheists would have it, a simple combination of a fairy-tale belief in the supernatural and an archaic moral code. We atheists could do much worse than to bear this recognition in mind as we navigate our own lives through a world still overwhelmingly populated by believers.


Todd May is Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of the Humanities at Clemson University.

LARB Contributor

Todd May teaches philosophy at Warren Wilson College. He is the author of 17 books of philosophy, including A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe (2015), A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability (2017), and A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us (2019), all with University of Chicago Press.


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