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The Meaning of BeliefReview - The Meaning of Belief
Religion from an Atheistís Point of View
by Tim Crane
Harvard University Press, 2017
Review by B. Bailie Peterson
Feb 6th 2018 (Volume 22, Issue 6)

Tim Crane's The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist's Point of View is a thin volume rich in content.  Within, Crane provides an account of religious belief from a neutral standpoint; takes on important criticisms; and provides a positive account of how we ought to understand and react to the religious beliefs of those we disagree with.  His take is both refreshing and important, charting new territory while constantly locating the project within an ongoing historical conversation about the social, psychological, and philosophical elements of religious belief.  This work will appeal to those working in the psychology of belief, philosophy of religion, theology, and the social sciences of religion, and is of particular value to atheists and agnostics seeking to make sense of the beliefs of others.

Although Crane is an atheist, he is not making an argument for atheism or against religion.  As he sees it, religious belief is here to stay, and we ought to engage with those with whom we disagree from a place of tolerance.  Providing an accurate account that can be shared by all parties is a necessary step for genuine debate about religious belief to take place, and Crane's analysis is clear and conscientious throughout.    

He begins by outlining some of the difficulties inherent in providing a concise definition of religion, stemming from e.g., the complexity of our individual psychologies and the incredible number and variety of theists.  Despite these challenges, he makes a cogent argument in support of his view of religion as a (i) systematic, (ii) practical, (iii) attempt to find meaning that (iv) appeals to the transcendent (6).  Although some elements of this conception are straight forward, the view benefits from the careful, and largely successful, explication Crane provides, in particular, in explaining what is meant by the transcendent.  This is covered in the second and longest chapter of the book, on the "Religious Impulse," or the impulse to believe in an unseen order that theists must attempt to live in sync with (35).       

To get at what is meant by the transcendent, Crane distinguishes between finding meaning in one's life (e.g., finding meaning in one's children, in artwork, in the beauty of a sunset) and finding the meaning of our lives in general (8).  Religious belief offers a way to find meaning in this grander sense, which is something overlooked by many contemporary atheists.  Despite considerable progress towards a clear and concise view of the meaning of transcendence, this is clearly the most challenging element to support.  Nonetheless, Crane's discussion is both in depth and well-supported—drawing out nuanced distinctions between spirituality, mere religious temperament, and religious belief—and offering a concept that is sufficiently fleshed out. 

Chapter 3 draws out the importance of the role of identification between a theist and their particular religion.  Crane offers a strong analogy between the sort of identification he has in mind and that that one might feel with their country, even when in disagreement with its actions.  For example, the shame felt when one's country takes part in an unjust war makes the most sense if the protestor feels a certain sense of identification with their nation (93). 

All in all, the first three chapters carefully lay out a promising account of religious belief.  Much of this work stands in contrast to the "New Atheists" (figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett), whose definitions of religion he rejects as inadequate, in part because "most religious believers simply do not recognize themselves in the picture of religion painted by the New Atheists (34)."  Instead of "introducing God as a hypothesized entity and building our whole conception of religious belief outward from there (11)," Crane argues that the elements of religious belief highlighted above fit together to provide a full-bodied view, absent from the current debate, and, presumably, a view that theists and atheists can mutually recognize as accurate.  Crane's view helps enable the non-theist to approach theistic belief from a perspective that is not only more charitable, but is more accurate than that of the New Atheists. 

After his detailed definition is set forth and defended, Crane moves on to discuss some practical applications of his view.  He does not shy away from troubling aspects of religious belief, grappling with important contemporary issues without slipping into tepid platitudes.  In the fourth chapter, he offers an explanation of the view that violence and religion are intertwined, rejecting the view that violence is solely a result of religion without simply relegating the problem into another arena.  It can be noted that his analysis leaves open a certain type of criticism of religious belief, in line with some New Atheist critiques: perhaps theists are not subjecting their beliefs to sufficient scrutiny, and thus lack justification.  This could move the discussion into a fuller consideration of the ethics of belief and role of religious epistemic justification, which is unfortunately, although, understandably given the scope of the project, largely absent from Crane's discussion, with the exception the section on "Irrationality" in chapter 4.   

The final chapter explores the meaning of tolerance in the context of religious belief, and is independently strong, well supported and clear, especially in drawing out and rejecting two misguided points of criticism: that tolerance implies relativism and/or respect for all beliefs.  Crane's observation that one need not tolerate the beliefs one respects and accepts, but only those one is critical of, makes the second point clear, while Crane's arguments against relativism are both accessible and convincing. 

This chapter nicely wraps up his project—to give a neutral and nuanced account of religious belief; to acknowledge and discuss various criticisms and arguments; and to recommend an attitude of respect for and between all people, even if one does not accept (or even respect) their beliefs.  Because religious belief is not likely to go away any time soon, and because it is a large part of the lives of the majority of people on the planet, it makes sense for atheists and theists to approach each other on common ground, and in line with the way of tolerance Crane sets out.  In Crane's words, a genuine dialog between those who hold drastically different worldviews "will be very difficult to achieve, but the first step must be for each side to gain an adequate understanding of the views of the other (193)."  This work serves as a unique, reasonable, and thorough attempt to make such understanding possible.


© 2018 B. Bailie Peterson


B. Bailie Peterson, Department of Philosophy, University of Northern Colorado


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