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Book Review: The Meaning of Belief

By (October 2, 2017) No Comment

The Meaning of Belief:

Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View

by Tim Crane

Harvard University Press, 2017

Cambridge University philosophy professor Tim Crane opens his short, thought-provoking new book The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View with the familiar assertion that it’s going to be all but impossible for him to come up with a definition of “religion” – and then proceeds to give a definition that will do just fine: “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.”

This definition works to encompass the roughly 6 billion humans on earth who belong to some kind of organized religion, and Crane’s core contention is that this massive compulsion is largely misunderstood by the world’s small but doggedly vocal population of atheists, who tend to hold that religions largely consist of “certain cosmological beliefs,” and that the “proper atheistic attitude” toward those beliefs should be to eviscerate them with science and philosophy and, presumably, replace them entirely with secular humanist values. Crane points out that this approach never, in fact, works … religious belief seems impervious to such assaults.

Crane himself is an atheist, what he refers to as a pessimistic atheist, one who considers the universe to be devoid of any deeper meaning. And he’s aiming most of his contentions not only at his fellow atheists but at those tending toward the “New” atheism espoused by such best-selling exponents as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. The Meaning of Belief is clearly pitched to turn down the rhetorical temperature on this religious debate by helping each side better understand the other.

Given the volatility of the subject, Crane doesn’t do his readers any favors by misstating his terms, as when he refers to humanism as a belief that the human is paramount over all, or when he defines atheism as “the claim that God does not exist,” and as is the case with all such gap-bridging attempts, The Meaning of Belief gains most of the success it achieves mainly by engaging in the lamentably time-honored practice of drawing false equivalencies between religious faith and science. He writes about the concept of prayer and evil in a supposedly God-supervised world:

When the devout pray and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence that has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They generally feel no obligation to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be something that accounts for this, even though we may never know what it is. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery, a painful and troubling mystery.

And then immediately follows up with this:

Science too has its share of mysteries (or, rather, things that must simply be accepted without further explanation). But one aim of science is to minimize such things, to reduce the number of primitive concepts or primitive explanations. The religious attitude is very different. It does not seek to minimize mystery. Mysteries are accepted as a consequence of what, for the religious, makes the world meaningful.

As Crane knows perfectly well, this is wrong on two counts. First, there is nothing in science that’s promulgated as a matter of faith, without further explanation. And second, the religious attitude doesn’t view mystery – unfathomable, unquestionable mystery – as a “consequence,” some sort of unavoidable by-product of faith; in all the world’s religions, mysteries are the faith, the very heart of it, and blind acceptance of those mysteries is the first requirement imposed on the faithful.

This suggests a wider gap than the one Crane is trying to describe in The Meaning of Faith, and it therefore suggests deeper problems with the book’s core contentions. The wide range of Crane’s learning, and his eagerness to dig into every aspect of the modern religious experience from what he hopes is a dispassionate outsider’s stance, make his book a necessary and interesting addition to the shelf holding The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God is Not Great, but its bridge-building ethos will probably leave its readers unmovedly agnostic.