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Tim Crane

THE MEANING OF BELIEF

Religion from an Atheist Point of View


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
In 2007 Tim Crane was invited to give the Bentham Lecture at University College London. The lecture is sponsored by the Philosophy Department at UCL and the British Humanist Association. His lecture was badly received. The reason, Crane thinks, is that the audience members were expecting an attack on religion of the kind they were used to, whereas what they got was a call for understanding and toleration.

Crane identifies himself as an atheist, but he disagrees with those he describes as the New Atheists: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. The combative attitude of these writers and others who think like them has, he believes, been counter-productive; they want to eliminate religion but they are unlikely to succeed.

I have long thought myself that this is the case, but I hadn't fully worked out the reasons. Crane provides a good explanation of why this approach is bound to fail.

[The New Atheists'] writings are dominated by two views; (1) that religion is largely constituted by certain cosmological beliefs, none of which are true; and (2) that the proper atheistic attitude to religion should be to use scientific evidence and philosophical arguments to remove these beliefs and, with them, the phenomenon of religion itself.
In Crane's opinion both of these ideas are mistaken; they fail to come to terms with the real nature of religious belief. With regard to (1), there is more to the religious world view than cosmology. As for (2), arguments based on science and philosophy have a very limited impact on the religious. After all, by no means all religious believers are lacking in scientific knowledge; indeed, many are themselves eminent scientists.

Dawkins speaks of the "God hypothesis", and says that it is highly improbable and lacking in evidence. But it's a mistake to think of the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis that can be disproved by contrary evidence. An important reason why people believe in God is that they want to find meaning in the world, which science doesn't provide. Religious belief comes from a psychological need, not from acceptance of scientific or philosophical propositions. It depends on what the philosopher Thomas Nagel has called the religious temperament. It is possible to have the religious temperament without being religious or believing in God (Nagel describes himself as an example of this).

So belief is more complex than Dawkins's view of it.

Seeing meaning in everything is not just a matter of belief in the truth of some proposition. It involves belief, to be sure; but it also involves something that is more analogous to perception, or an emotional coloring of the world. Not all ways of apprehending the world cognitively are beliefs.

The discussion of the nature of religious belief, and whether belief is the right name for it, occupies the first two chapters—nearly half the book, and to my mind this is the most interesting part. There are three more chapters which deal religion as a participatory activity (which Crane rightly thinks is important), how far religion is responsible for violence in our world, and how we should understand tolerance in connection with religion; these serve mainly to counter commonly voiced objections to religion.

Unlike most of_Crane's audience at UCL, I found this a useful book. The idea that religion can be eliminated from human society seems to be held by many rationalists and humanists but I'm sure it is wrong. One atheist who recognises this is Taner Edis, who concludes his book The Ghost in the Universe as follows.

It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents. … For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit."
Crane doesn't tell us his own reasons for rejecting religious belief; all he says is that he doesn't believe in the transcendental and so cannot believe in God. The world as we see it and as science reveals it is all that we have. I understand his reluctance to embark on what would no doubt be a different and much longer book, but given his evident sympathy, up to a point, with the religious impulse, I would have welcomed a little more information. There are hints that he shares Nagel's propensity to the religious temperament, at least to some extent.

29-10-2017


%T The Meaning of Belief
%S Religion from an Atheist Point of View
%A Tim Crane
%I Harvard University Press
%C Cambridge, Massachusetts
%D 2917
%G ISBN 9780674088832
%P xiv+207pp
%K religion

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