James Ryerson, New York Times Book Review
“[A] lucid and thoughtful book… In a spirit of reconciliation, Crane proposes to paint a more accurate picture of religion for his fellow unbelievers.” —
Contemporary debate about religion seems to be going nowhere. Atheists persist with their arguments, many plausible and some unanswerable, but these make no impact on religious believers. Defenders of religion find atheists equally unwilling to cede ground. The Meaning of Belief offers a way out of this stalemate.
An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. Crane offers an alternative account based on two ideas. The first is the idea of a religious impulse: the sense people have of something transcending the world of ordinary experience, even if it cannot be explicitly articulated. The second is the idea of identification: the fact that religion involves belonging to a specific social group and participating in practices that reinforce the bonds of belonging. Once these ideas are properly understood, the inadequacy of atheists’ conventional conception of religion emerges.
The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.
[A] lucid and thoughtful book… In a spirit of reconciliation, Crane proposes to paint a more accurate picture of religion for his fellow unbelievers.
Like Hitchens, Crane is a committed atheist, but his intellectual project is very different…He wants to understand religion…For those willing to listen, Crane opens up a more nuanced and enlightened conversation. His intervention in the debate tackles the meaning of religious belief rather than its truth, and he elucidates two features of religion—religious identification and the religious impulse—which are neglected or misunderstood by many of its critics…There is much to admire in this book: it offers an elegant and careful analysis of religion from an outsider’s point of view, and Tim Crane’s writing is crystal clear. His sincere and unfailingly intelligent effort to understand religion is a welcome antidote to the blinkered bluster we find in many atheist polemics.
[A] small but valuable volume…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.
As Tim Crane points out in The Meaning of Belief, a lucid critique of the many ways in which atheists have misunderstood religion, religious opinions or beliefs are not entitled to respect just because they are religious.
The Meaning of Belief prefers calm logic to bold catchphrases. It likely will not attract the attention given by supporters or detractors of the New Atheists' shelf of screeds, but it invites poised reaction.
The Meaning of Belief is a breath of fresh air. Crane’s argument is as cogent and well-researched as his writing is accessible and lively. It is exciting to see someone who is unwavering in both their atheism and their defense of religion as rational response to human needs that is deserving of respect. His book should be required reading for anyone, believer or nonbeliever, who wishes to engage with ‘the other side’ of the religious divide.
[A] valuable and compact contribution to the dialogue between atheists and believers. Crane writes as an atheist to an atheist audience in hopes of reducing the combativeness stirred up by ‘New Atheists’ such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but he also provides useful language for religionists about their own experiences. By identifying the religious experience in terms of ‘religious impulse’ and ‘identification’ linked under a canopy of the sacred, Crane situates religious belief as complexly human, rather than something that should die with the advent of science. Tolerance with a goal of living peaceably with religionists should be the atheist aim, argues Crane. Crane’s precise arguments, lucid writing, and astutely selected examples make this book enjoyable as well as clarifying. His concise unpacking of religion and violence in the context of war, as well as of the nitty-gritty of moral relativism, provides a vital lens for interpreting today’s politics.
Tim Crane has written an unusual and excellent book about religion. By recognizing the psychological and social attitudes constitutive of religious belief, Crane enables us to see how shallow many atheist critiques are. He is following in the footsteps of serious thinkers about religion—William James, in particular, often comes to mind—and he presents with great clarity a far more sophisticated atheism than we usually find.
Distinctive, thoughtful, and carefully argued, The Meaning of Belief contributes to correcting the misleading picture of religious belief promoted by many contemporary atheists, as well as exploring some of the reasons why religious belief plays such an important role in people’s lives.
- 224 pages
- 4-3/8 x 7-1/8 inches
- Harvard University Press
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