Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Fellow journalists, have no fear. Publishers Weekly assures us that an intriguing and newsworthy new book about religion is “enjoyable” and The New York Times finds it “lucid.”

This despite being written by a heavyweight philosopher and published by the intellectually elite Harvard University Press.  

The title, “The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View,” announces that author Tim Crane, raised Catholic in Britain, is, yes, a convinced atheist. But instead of preaching to his choir he seeks tolerance and disputes the contempt for belief from “new atheists” in media-beloved books like “Breaking the Spell,” “The End of Faith,” The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great.”    

To Crane, atheists of that sort do not grasp the immensity and sheer humanity of religion, why the world’s 6 billion assorted believers are neither fools nor knaves, and why faith cannot be liquidated in our scientific age though many have tried -- whether through education, propaganda, prison, or executions.  

The Religion Guy has not (yet) read this book but alerts fellow journalists to the news potential signaled in coverage to date. Note especially the Times treatment by James Ryerson, whose Book Review columns cover university press offerings. 

Crane -- reachable via timcrane@ceu.edu --  is no slouch among philosophy professors. He just moved to Hungary’s Central European University after holding the Knightbridge chair at the University of Cambridge, and previously headed the philosophy faculty at University College London.  

He laments atheistic portrayals of religion as some unfortunate carryover from primitive civilization that tries to explain the cosmos in the way science does, as a result appearing “irrational” and “superstitious.” Instead, he figures, two natural factors underlie faith. The first is the “religious impulse,” most peoples’ awareness that something transcends our ordinary experience. The second is “identification,” the satisfactions within  a social group that provides a sense of belonging and seeks to make sense of a perplexing world.

Thus religion can be fully rational, an “intelligible human reaction to the mystery of the world.”

Journalists well know the agenda. Why do bad things happen to good people, and good to bad? Why this earthquake or that tornado? Religionists will say that no neat, ultimate answers exist “in this life.” That attitude of acceptance toward mystery is the total opposite of science, which cannot abide unanswered questions and works hard to eliminate them.  

Incidentally, Crane thinks religion defies definition yet offers this bare-bones attempt: “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.” (Religious adherents would add doctrines, moral duties, rituals, scriptures, and, especially with Christianity, assertions about historical events e.g.  Jesus’ resurrection.)

Crane’s prolific academic writings mostly treat an equally inexplicable reality: human consciousness. He observed last May in the Times Literary Supplement (of London) that neuroscientists remain “utterly baffled as to how [the human brain’s] fatty, yoghurt-y matter could be up to the task” of fostering the mental contemplations, calculations and memories we all know; indeed, “how physical processes can give rise to any conscious experience at all.” It “seems impossible” yet “it actually happens.”

For more on Crane’s cast of mind see his “Mystery and Evidence” article picked up online by The New York Times, and various online speeches including this video

Further out, there’s some new interest in the turn-the-tables topic of whether atheism is irrational, per items from The New York Times, Psychology Today magazine and Michigan’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute.

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