An Atheist Defends Religion

I recently read Bruce Sheiman’s An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without it.

It’s a bit disappointing, so I won’t write a long review. The thesis of the book is interesting enough: that organized religion and supernatural belief has significant social and personal benefits, and that even those who find themselves unable to affirm the reality of a God should recognize how religion improves all our lives. Sheiman, as a nonbeliever who wants to believe, brings an interesting perspective to the perennial debate over religion.

I’m not going to call the book worthless. It’s not a bad read; visiting its web site gives a decent idea of what its all about. Still, at a scholarly level, it is a poor job – Sheiman relies almost entirely on cherry-picking and hack-philosophizing. He regularly ignores research that might support more skeptical conclusions. He indulges in too much Mircea Eliade-style mush and romanticizing of “primitive” religion. And Sheiman’s constant hand-wringing about how religion provides meaning to life and the universe is annoying – particularly for those of us who, contrary to his bald assertions, don’t go through life with any great need for existential meaning of the sort transcendental doctrines purport to provide.

Sheiman even botches the job in areas where some hard evidence supports the social and personal value of religion, for example in the area of health. The social scientific and medical literature is full of studies that affirm the benefits of religion. Indeed, this is a consistent theme, particularly where the United States is concerned. Generalizing beyond that is, however, reckless. Sheiman does not place any of this research in context; for him, all these studies are just data points showing that religion is generically and universally a good thing.

This could have been a good book if it had been done right: I would have liked to have a readable, compact book that puts together a case for the benefits of religion. There is a serious argument for that. An Atheist Defends Religion, unfortunately, is not it.