Epigraph. If we don’t understand religion, “we lack an adequate sense of a fundamental part of human civilization and its history, and we therefore lack a proper understanding of ourselves” (Crane, p. xi)
What follows is not a review of this book (subtitle: ‘Religion from an atheist’s point of view’) but a drawing of attention to certain points contained in it (and elsewhere). Professor Louise Antony in the work she edited, Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life (Oxford, 2007) writes that sceptics and atheists are presumed to be arrogant, devoid of moral sentiments, and insensitive. But Professor Crane is no bull in the china-shop of deeply held religious beliefs. Unlike some of those known as ‘New Atheists’, his is not an “evangelical atheism” trying to demolish religion but an attempt to understand it. Crane states at the outset that his book is concerned with the meaning of religious belief rather than with the truth of religion. Over 80 percent of the world’s population identify as belonging to a religion (Crane). As Louise Antony states, atheism is a minority position in today’s world; nor has the rate of theism much to do with the level of scientific or technological development of a society: she cites the USA as an example.
Since religious belief is not entirely founded on reason, it cannot be eliminated by reason. (There’s a similarity here with ‘racism’: no amount of scientific evidence has any effect on racial thinking and behaviour.) Religious belief is not simply a cosmology, not a morality nor is it a cosmology-plus-morality. We will fail to understand this fundamental human phenomenon if we try to force it into these preconceived categories (Crane, page 4). Further, it is now accepted by those who theorize about religion that it is impossible to define religion (pp. 4-5). The attempt, Crane argues, should not be to define but to understand religion. He posits the following: Religion is a systematic and practical attempt to find meaning in the world and our place in it in terms of our relationship to something transcendent. (He prefers the term “transcendent” to “supernatural” because the latter is linked to magic.) The “religious impulse” (soteriological) is systematic, involving “a collection of ideas and practices that are designed to fit together”. It is practical, behoving us to act in certain ways, and to participate in certain rites, either collectively or individually. Religion is a search for the meaning of life, bearing in mind that not every search for meaning is necessarily religious: one can find meaning in such things as human relationships, the quest for knowledge, doing good works or in the Arts. The crucial distinction is between meaning in life and the meaning of life. Belief is a state of mind but not a conscious state of mind, since no one is ever consciousness of all the things that they believe in at one given moment: a certain belief has to be brought into consciousness. Apart from the religious impulse (above), the other essential element singled out by Professor Crane is that of identification: “The element of identification consists in the fact that religion involves institutions to which believers belong, and practices in which they participate” (page 23).
Whether Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy or a set of moral precepts ihas been discussed and debated by those far better informed than me. As Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) pointed out, there are great religions in which the idea of gods and spirits are absent. See also, Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001. However, the word “atheist” comes from “a – theo” (as the word “amoral” is distinct from “moral” and “immoral”), and means no “theo”, no god. I quote from my review of Ronald Dworkin’s Religion without God (2013): “Dr K. S. Palihakkara in his lucid work, Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles (Stamford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya, 2003), notes that unlike in other religions, there is no Creator God in Buddhism (p. 97). All Buddhists know that “Buddhism preaches ‘Anathma’ or no rebirth” (page 41). Lest Dr Palihakkara’s credentials be questioned, the book tells us that he has held posts such as ‘Director of Education, Sri Lanka; Director of Pirivena Education (temple schools)’ and was ‘also one time Secretary to the Oriental Studies Society (which conducts examinations mainly for the Buddhist clergy’).
Elsewhere, I’ve suggested “a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: While religious doctrine is ‘divine’; religion is a human construct.” However, if the “religious temperament” (see Thomas Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament, Oxford 2010) is not merely to live life as the creatures that we are but to participate in the life of the universe as a whole, atheists can have a religious temperament while some who are religious can lack it. So too, certain things can be “sacred” to atheists, in the sense of being very precious or of the utmost importance. Atheists can have great affection for religious Art (including music), and for certain religious ceremonies and customs: Heidegger wrote of our Geworfenheit, our “thrown-ness” into a family and culture, including religion. Perhaps this saturation, almost from infancy, explains the joke: “I thank God that I am an atheist”!
Returning to the aspect of reason, Crane points out that science too, like religion, postulates invisible structures to explain visible phenomena (page 36); and very able scientists and thinkers have been believers. However, while religion is the search for meaning, science is the search for knowledge. The idea that the transcendent is ultimately beyond our finite human understanding is something central to all religious traditions (Crane, page 56). Indeed, to believe without fully understanding is taken to be a sign of the strength of that belief. The motto of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was Credo ut intelligam: I believe so that I may understand.
A hypothesis is a proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without the assumption of its truth. To believers, God does not need explaining: he is the explanation. To atheists, ‘the God Hypothesis’ is worse in explaining things than the evolutionary hypothesis. Religion deals with mystery while science is concerned with problems. An old, old question is: Why, if God is all-knowing (omniscient) and all-powerful (omnipotent) is there so much injustice, cruelty and suffering in the world; in His creation? To what degree are things preordained, and to what extent are we free and, therefore, responsible?
In passing, Professor Yuval Noah Harari argues (the Guardian, 15 September 2018) that free will is a myth inherited from Christian theologians who developed the idea to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward others for their good choices. Humans do have a will but it’s not free. “You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easy-going or anxious, gay or straight. Humans make choices – but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry and whom to vote for, but these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc. – and I didn’t choose which genes or family to have.”
While terrorists kill in their tens or hundreds, governments kill in their thousands and tens of thousands. Yet it’s the former who cause headlines and create shivers of fear and repugnance. So too, religious violence kills far less than secular violence: Stalin, Hitler and Mao are but three examples. A saying attributed to Voltaire is that those who make you believe religious absurdities can next lead you to commit atrocities in the name of religion. But what appears to be religion-based violence often has non-religious grounds. Graham E. Fuller in his book, A World Without Islam, argues that what passes off as a conflict between two religions, or sub-divisions of a religion, has really to do with “worldly issues” – ethnicity, power, territory etc. In a personal message to me, Fuller wrote: “Despite my Christian upbringing, it is ultimately Buddhism which has contributed to my personal, most basic world and spiritual views today (although I don’t claim I am Buddhist as such.) I had initially tended to think that Buddhists were of course something of an exception to the bloody links between religion and violence. Yet I discovered in later years that in Sri Lanka, and indeed in Myanmar, that Buddhists too (not really surprisingly) still fall prey to the same human instincts…”
Tim Crane points out that the differences in structures and practices between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims originated in a contested line of succession between Abu Bakr, the father of the Prophet’s wife, and Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Over time an identity, a group identity, is formed and that proves more potent than theological or doctrinal differences. “Although it is often described as conflict between Catholics and Protestants, the details of religious belief have played almost no role in the Northern Ireland conflict” (page. 137). Crane then relates a revelatory joke from Northern Ireland. A man is stopped at a roadblock and asked his religion. When he replies that he’s an atheist, he is asked: Protestant atheist or Catholic atheist? As the Jews of Spain under Isabella and Ferdinand realized, conversion bought no safety. What matters most is ethnicity. There are no genetic or biological features that identify all people of the same ethnicity (page 139), yet emotionally, ethnicity remains a ‘fact’. In turn, that feeling is created by a sense of identity built on shared language, religion, history. It’s not difficult to imagine the answer, “I’m a Buddhist” being met with the further challenge: “A Buddhist Sinhalese or a Buddhist Tamil?”
To the pessimist atheist, if God doesn’t exist; if there is no unseen order, then existence becomes meaningless. Thomas Hardy in his poem, ‘The Impercipient’, suggests that atheists don’t wish the non-existence of God: “O doth a bird deprived of wings / Go earth-bound wilfully!” Nihilism (from the Latin ‘Nihil’ meaning ‘nothing’) is associated with Nietzsche and his declaration that God is dead. This need not lead to pessimism: meaning becomes something that we, human beings, must create. The onus is on us. James Tartaglia in his Philosophy in a Meaningless Life: A System of Nihilism, Consciousness and Reality (2016) argues that Nihilism is not bad in itself; that it’s simply a fact, such as that life on Earth evolved, and neither good nor bad. The optimist atheist sees the non-existence of God as a challenge. For example, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote: “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold; surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man’s place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.”
It seems to me to be more likely that someone who has long been a convinced atheist, towards the end “sees the light” and becomes religious than that a believer at the end embraces atheism. It reminds me of the following anecdote. As Voltaire was dying, a priest burst into the room and urged him to curse the Devil and all his works. Voltaire, witty to the end, is said to have replied: Don’t you think this is a bad time to make an enemy of him! I quote from Primo Levi’s (1919-1987; Holocaust survivor; world-renowned writer) The Drowned and the Saved:
“I too entered the lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience in the lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed in cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas?
I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death: when, naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go to the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working.
For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise, were I to survive, I would have been ashamed of it.”
There’s no reason to fear death. What’s to be feared is dying: that it be painful, and much worse, protracted.
To atheists to say that there is some underlying purpose in the suffering in this world, including that of children, is an obscenity, but to believers it is an unavoidable and troubling truth “part of the acknowledgement of the mystery of God” (Crane). To atheists, God needs explaining; to believers, He is the explanation. “God, I believe; help my unbelief” (St Mark, 9: 23-25).
Finally, I take up the aspect of toleration; the toleration of the beliefs and practices of others. Here I would draw attention to Professor Simon Blackburn’s essay, ‘Religion and Respect’, included in Philosophers without Gods, pages 179-193. To tolerate something implies disapproval or dislike: we don’t “tolerate” what’s approved by us. To tolerate means that we disagree, disapprove or dislike but decide, voluntarily or per force, to accommodate. What does respecting the belief of others mean in practice? Can we ‘not respect’ certain beliefs and practices, and still respect those who hold them? Do we tolerate intolerance? If not, what form or expression will our intolerance take? Extreme examples would be the stoning of women to death for adultery or the meting out of public flogging. Beliefs are contagious and, if tolerated, they spread. Is the sincerity with which a belief is held a qualifying criterion for toleration, if not respect? Here, we must not confuse sincerity with the degree of passion with which a belief is held. Professor Blackwell argues that sincerity is different from passion and conviction: it’s possible, and often appropriate, to be sincerely undecided. Indeed, indecision can be a sign of honesty and sincerity; and passionate conviction a sign of weakness. Passionate conviction, Blackwell states, is “the vice of weakness, not the virtue of strength”.
At a dinner, Blackwell and all the other guests were handed out the “kippah”, the cap worn by Jewish men. Though it seemed an innocuous, simple gesture; though it would seem boorish and impolite on the part of a guest, Blackwell declined to wear the cap. Wasn’t it a kind of trap to suddenly present guests with the kippah? Wasn’t it a demand for respect? On the other hand, was it insensitive and ungrateful of him to make an issue of it? “Indeed, I am not sure I would behave in the same way now” (page 183). A luta continua, and Blackwell’s “struggle” is to be open to new evidence and approaches, and to continue reasoning. Now that is a sincerity meriting respect. On somewhat similar lines, I know a Hindu-Christian couple happily married over many years. Sometimes, he accompanies her to church; sometimes she attends the temple with him. Should they do that? What are the theological and ethical implications? Did they think about them? As an undergraduate at Peradeniya in the late 1950s, I occasionally accompanied a Buddhist friend to the Temple of the Tooth. My friend secured a small basket of flowers and brought it to me; I touched it and then the flowers were offered in worship. Symbolically, I had participated but should I have done that? Did I qualify for that inclusion? If not, wasn’t it falsity? It seemed a simple enough gesture, and I admit I didn’t pause to ponder the implications, the pros and cons of the matter. I confess I’d do it again.
What counts is not our stance but our willingness to think with an open mind; again and afresh. The Meaning of Belief doesn’t give dogmatic answers but, rather, points to complexity. After all, to silence someone is not necessarily to have convinced her or him.