How Atheists get it Wrong, According to Tim Crane

Ever since Socrates said “follow the argument wherever it leads,” the practice of rational debate has been central to our intellectual culture. The ideal is that when qualified parties disagree you allow each side to adduce arguments and present its case in an open forum. The hope is that, once each position has been thoroughly aired and vetted, the side with the stronger arguments will eventually prevail, and that consensus, or at least compromise, will emerge.

Sometimes this practice works. In the natural sciences even the most rancorous disputes are eventually settled as new evidence or more rigorous analysis prove decisive. Sometimes one side prevails and other times the emerging consensus is a synthesis of previously opposing views. Philosophical debates tend to be more intractable because they lack the robust empirical constraints imposed on scientific discourse. Nevertheless, rational persuasion does occur among philosophers, at least to the extent that some doctrines, such as logical positivism, are subjected to criticisms that are regarded universally, or nearly universally, as decisive.

One glaring failure of the model of rational debate has been with respect to the perennially intractable disagreements between religious believers and atheists. These debates, frequently bitter, are not merely inconclusive, but, perversely, often seem to end with each side even more intransigently entrenched than before. Each side is nonplussed when arguments they regard as cogent, even unanswerable, make no impression at all on the other. In this situation it becomes tempting for each party to castigate the other as willfully obtuse and debate quickly decays into mutual recrimination. Those who follow such debates on Internet forums have seen this happen more often than they can count.

Why is this? Of course, our commitments to religious belief or nonbelief are deeply emotional and not merely intellectual. When we feel strongly, even about our tastes in trivial matters, there is a tendency to think that there is something wrong with those whose experience is different. A fortiori this applies to important issues. As with the disagreements between liberals and conservatives, far more divides believers and atheists than their attitudes towards certain propositions.

Philosopher Tim Crane’s important new book The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View (Harvard University Press, 2017, 207 pages) argues that the impasse between religious believers and atheists is due to atheists’ misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief. Crane, himself an atheist, primarily addresses the “new” atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. According to Crane, atheists regard religion, which in our cultural context means theistic religion, as a kind of defective cosmology, a spurious proto-scientific hypothesis about the origin of the universe via the supernatural acts of a divine agent. These atheist writers then see the persistence of religious people in advocating such a non- or anti-scientific thesis as evidence that believers are superstitious, primitive, and irrational.

If indeed religion were a sort of crackpot cosmology, then belief in God would be like belief in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or ancient astronauts, and the condescending smirks of atheists would be justified. Crane argues that religious belief is not any kind of hypothesis or proto-scientific claim. He says that religious belief consists of two elements, what he calls the “religious impulse” and “identification.” The religious impulse is the drive to recognize the existence of a transcendent order that is both factual and normative: God is posited as real (factual), and his will specifies how things should be (normative). Believers find life’s meaning by living in harmony with that transcendent order, by obeying God’s will. “Identification” is the desire to belong to a community that historically defines itself through shared beliefs and practices and which understands the world in terms of those beliefs and practices. What unites these two elements is the sacred. Sacred things point beyond themselves to something transcendent, says Crane, and shared experience of the sacred promotes a strong sense of identity.

The consequence is that the critiques of atheists miss the point and are dismissed as irrelevant by believers. Atheist arguments may be decisive against theism construed as a semi-scientific hypothesis, but these critiques fail if belief is something entirely different. In short, atheists have been belaboring a straw man.

Is Crane right? Have atheists badly mistaken the nature of religious belief? I think so, but Crane fails to note that this mistake is hardly a gratuitous error on the part of atheists. Many of the leading defenders of theism, such as Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, and the “intelligent design” theorists, present theism as precisely a scientific or quasi-scientific hypothesis. Swinburne, for instance, in The Existence of God establishes a framework of Bayesian confirmation theory and argues on that basis that the hypothesis of theism is better confirmed given the existence and nature of the universe than the hypothesis of naturalism. Craig’s Kalaam argument is specifically and explicitly a cosmological claim presented within the context of physical cosmology. The “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity” of ID theorists are offered and defended as scientifically legitimate hypotheses.

If Crane is right, such would-be apologists miss the point just as badly as atheists. Further, such forms of apologetic always end up providing grist for the atheist’s mill. Atheists subject these claims to relentless and corrosive criticism, and when these hypotheses fail, which they inevitably do, this reinforces the atheists’ perception that theism is just a kind of pseudoscience. If Crane is right, apologists need to pick up their game just as much as atheists.

If religious belief is not a hypothesis, what kind of belief is it? What is its epistemological basis? Crane could be clearer on this point. He seems not to have read a work that I consider essential to all such discussions, John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion. According to Hick, religious belief is not hypothetical but interpretive in nature. Reality, says Hick, is “ambiguous” in the sense that the facts compel neither a naturalistic nor a religious view. Hick, a believer, concedes that a naturalistic view is entirely reasonable and maintains that religious apologists can offer no evidence or argument to show otherwise. However, a religious interpretation is equally reasonable, says Hick. Those who experience their lives as lived in the presence of the divine have every epistemic right to posit the existence of a transcendent “Real.” Hick further advocates the thesis of pluralism whereby each of the world’s great post-Axial religions represents an attempt to grasp, in inevitably inadequate human terms, the nature of that Real.

If Hick is right, and I think he is, the efforts of zealous atheists to debunk religious belief, and the similarly fervent efforts of hard-core apologists to bludgeon atheists into submission, are equally pointless and wrongheaded. For one thing, atheists should desist with the simplistic and invidious characterization of faith as a sort of willful gullibility, a perverse determination to accept, in Hume’s terms, “what is most contrary to custom and experience.” Hick’s view is that faith just is the exercise of interpretive freedom, i.e. the decision, in the face of unavoidable ambiguity, to follow your best lights and commit to the worldview that makes the most coherent sense of your overall experience. Likewise, theists should drop the even more invidious claim—which I have actually heard expressed by parties who should know better—that atheists are primarily motivated by the desire to sin guilt-free. Whatever shape dialogue between religious believers and atheists should take, Crane and Hick would have us begin by not regarding each other as fools or rascals.

In general, I agree with Crane that religious and non-religious people should take a more respectful and nuanced view of each other, a view based upon a fairer and more accurate understanding of what motivates those on the other side. That said, it remains true that some of those making religious claims do not deserve respect. Fundamentalists, fanatics, creationists, theocrats, and bigots deserve the reprobation and astringent criticisms directed at them. Indeed, some of the most potent criticisms of religious extremists come not from atheists but from other believers, who often perceive most clearly the disconnection between those who preach a religion of love and peace while committing violence or ruthlessly pursuing political dominance.

My chief differences with Crane concern some of his details. Crane makes it an essential element of religion that it posits the existence of a transcendent reality. It follows that there can be no such thing as a pantheistic religiosity. I disagree. When the poet Novalis called Spinoza “The God-intoxicated man,” I think he was right, though Spinoza’s God, Deus sive Natura, is not transcendent but identical with the universe. Likewise, Einstein said that he believed in Spinoza’s God, and when Einstein referred to the universe as Der Herr Gott—The Lord God, this had a genuinely religious resonance. Also, when you read the final, splendid peroration that closes The Origin of Species, you have to think that Darwin felt something closely akin to religious awe in contemplating the history of life on earth.

But is not the universe meaningless for atheists? Crane thinks so. He calls himself a “pessimistic atheist,” that is, he holds that the universe might have had meaning had it been created by God, but, since there is no God, the universe has no meaning. How, then, can atheists claim, as I do, to find meaning, indeed religious meaning in the universe, especially when, on other occasions we will say that the universe is meaningless. Is this not simple confusion?

When I and, I think, many other atheists deny that the universe has meaning, what we intend to say is that, not viewing the universe as created, we do not see it as having been made with any sort of specific function, telos, plan, or purpose. The universe is not like a house or car, something made for a specific purpose to perform specific functions. Neither do we see the universe as in any sense pervaded by those qualities that give human life its particular meaning–qualities such as love, intelligence, morality, compassion, and consciousness. The universe does not give a damn about you. It cannot.

We think that physics is the best bet for describing the universe, and the terms that physics uses are descriptive, not normative. Quarks and leptons have no moral nature and no moral significance. If the ultimate constituents of the universe turn out not to be quarks and leptons, but, say, superstrings, this is merely a fact and has no moral significance.

However, to say that the universe has no meaning in the above sense is not to say that we cannot find the contemplation of the universe deeply meaningful and rewarding, nor that we cannot regard the universe with genuine—I would say genuinely religious—awe. Carl Sagan’s pantheistic paean to the universe at the beginning of the original Cosmos series from 1980 is for me a kind of Apostle’s Creed:

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

The universe for me, as for Sagan, is an object worthy of religious awe, the sense of mysterium tremendum et fascinosum that defined the sacred for Rudolf Otto. The experience of elemental awe and wonder, often expressed by the greatest scientists, is an expression of the encounter with the numinous.

For me, the wonder and beauty, indeed sacredness, of the universe is not that it somehow intended me, or is concerned about me, or shares my values, but, on the contrary, that, like God speaking to Job from the whirlwind, it demands to be taken on its own terms, not on ours. To truly appreciate the universe in all its sublimity and majesty, we must set aside our petty human egocentricity and determine to see things as they are rather than how we wish them to be. Religions want the ultimate reality to be like us, to see something like our own faces peering back when we look into the depths. Atheists see that desire as a refusal to appreciate the universe on its own splendid but utterly non-human terms.

Crane will have none of this. He says “…atheists who say they can preserve some idea of the sacred are either mistaken or using the word in a very different way (p. 116).” The reason is that on his definition, the sacred always intentionally “points” to a putative transcendent object. Atheists believe in no transcendent entities, and so for them it must be the case that literally nothing is sacred. Therefore, “There can be nothing like this in an atheist’s world picture (p. 117).”

The inadequacy of Crane’s definition is obvious from the fact that on that definition God is not sacred. God does not point beyond himself to any other transcendent; he supposedly IS the ultimate transcendent. Crane’s definition applies to objects that are sacred in a secondary or derived sense. Their sacredness inheres in their role of pointing beyond themselves to things that are sacred in a primary sense. In the primary sense an object is sacred when its intrinsic nature is worthy of our deepest feelings of awe and wonder, the sense, as Sagan put it, “…that we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” For believers, God is the object worthy of such religious awe. I submit that the universe is.