back to e-flux.com

An Atheist Defense of Religion


#1

In the LA Review of Books, political philosopher Todd May reviews The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View by Tim Crane. Crane’s book stakes out an atheist position on religion that counters the position of the so-called New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. He argues that even if religion doesn’t deserve the credence of atheists, it deserves their respect for the meaning and sense of belonging that it brings to the lives of believers. Here’s an excerpt from May’s review:

But is religion deserving of such polarization? Should religion be subject to the either/or of a polarized discourse or attitude? The philosopher Tim Crane, a professed atheist, thinks not. In his small but valuable volume The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View, he argues that the New Atheists’ approach to religious belief and practice is fundamentally flawed, and that the proper atheist response to religion ought not to be one of condemnation, but rather one of tolerance. This tolerance is not, as we shall see, a tolerance of everything done under the name of religion. But it is a general tolerance of religion itself, of a viewpoint and set of associated practices that may be foreign, and indeed mistaken, to the atheist, but not to be rejected for all that.

What is religion, this phenomenon that we are urged by the New Atheists to consign to the dustbin of history? For them it is fundamentally a belief or set of beliefs concerning a supernatural agency that often directs them to engage in silly rituals or commit violence against those who refuse such engagement. Crane believes this view is deeply misguided. It is one that would not only be rejected by believers; it is one that should also be rejected by atheists. Rather, he says, “Religion, as I am using the word, is a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent.” In seeking to understand religion we need to focus not only on the belief, but also on the meaningfulness of the practice in relation to that belief. Thus the title of his book.

Image via CNN.


#2

Some fair points are made here against the clever-dickness of the New Athiests, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. People do indeed get a sense of community from religious social gatherings and the world has to become so civilised and so rational that all religious elements in all societies are overtaken by genuine scientific and rational thinking. And that can only occur by socialist revolution ending monopoly capitalism on a world scale and the flowering and evolution of human civilisation.
Which is not to say that many of Dawkins’ works on evolutionary science versus religious nonsense are not highly useful. For example, his exploration of how the human eye evolved and what that demonstrates against lunatic theories of “Intelligent Design” by an Old Man in the Sky are wonderfully enlightening.
But the real nasty problem with Hitchens and Dawkins is that their anti-religion, anti-Islam polemics justify the USA’s “war on terror” by making the so-called “terror” from the Middle East at Western civilians and military targets the responsibility of “religious evil”. This is completely cruel and stooge-like.
Capitalism and the US Empire are warmongering because of deep slump crisis. Washington’s blitzkrieg on the Middle East with its bombing, invasion and mass destruction of cities such as Mosul and Falluja has some focus because the area is a strategic nexus. But in some ways it is practically arbitrary. The failing US Empire needs war on a massive scale to try to reassert its domination by showing its firepower to scare all imperialist rivals, such as the EU and Japan, and get the great flag-waving war diversion from socialist revolution going.
With all the horrific destruction and bloodshed inflicted on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon by US-supported Zionism etc) it is hardly surprising at all that there is what the Americans call “blowback”.
Lacking the strong national armies and airforces to stand up in battlefields to US high-level bombing and Apache helicopters etc - the victims of the US Empire’s warmongering have responded as people have always responded - by guerrilla warfare, called “terrorism” by the right-wing (and pandered to as a concept by all the fake “lefts” of the planet, tut-tutting and issuing moralising “condemnations of terror” because of all the nastiness of unofficial warfare and deaths of innocent civilians but forgetting to give any Marxist analysis of what is causing all the tragic mayhem.)
Marx’s summation of religion as the “opium of the masses”, “a cry for hope in a heartless world” remains the starting point for understanding what religion is.
ALL religion is mystical and therefore barmy. It holds people back from scientific materialist-dialectical thinking.
But looking at history it was always a sure-fire guarantee that, in the absence of mass revolutionary communist parties strong and ready to fight imperialist invasion and bullying, existing leaderships in the Middle East would come under enormous pressure to lead such fightbacks. The tendency, shown by history, is that under duress they might well become more puritan, more ruthless, more sectarian, more God-fearing, less tolerant etc.
But there are also some good signs that rapprochements between various sectarian jihadist guerrilla movements can happen, where they grasp US and Western imperialism as being the main enemy. Hamas and Hezbollah, ISIS in the Sinai desert, groups fighting alongside Assad to see off Western subversion in Syria etc - although this is a very complex picture, with many groups funded by the CIA turning on their masters.
The watchwords are “Defeat for imperialism” - and by the world eventually turning to full-scale socialist revolution, the world will eventually emerge in a new age of reason where belief in a divine being will die out over time (encouraged by an education in science, civilised discourse and reasonable atheist propaganda).
The trouble for the New Atheists is that with their smart-arse support for the “rationality” and “modernity” of Western imperialism, they end up being Crusaders against the rebellion of the Third World.