This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Atheist philosopher Tim Crane wants to make progress in the debate between religious people and atheists by giving an atheist account of religion that is deeper and more nuanced than that given by the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins. While he addresses matters of religion and violence and of tolerance in society, I will respond only to his notions of religion and rationality.
Atheist philosophers can be quite wrongheaded about religion in general and especially Christianity in particular. Tim Crane is one such philosopher. The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View advances no new ideas about religion and ignores the philosophical, historical, and scientific case for Christian theism, which has been robustly reengaged in the last thirty-five years.
Crane distances himself from the flame-throwing New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins not by his worldview but by his approach to religion in general. (Crane is mostly concerned with Christianity, as is Dawkins.) The New Atheists chastise religion for not being rational, which means, to them, contradicting science. Dawkins, in The God Delusion, asserts that Christianity offers a hypothesis about reality. Unlike atheism, Christianity offers a cosmos that is designed for a purpose by a personal being. Atheists, on the other hand, say that the cosmos is all there is. The religious hypothesis, Dawkins thinks, withers and dies under the microscopes and through the telescopes of science. Christianity is but a failed attempt to explain the universe scientifically. Any appeal to mere faith only reveals Christianity’s intellectual poverty and impairment. Crane’s response to Dawkins and company is right in a few ways and acutely wrong in other ways.
First, Crane, like Dawkins, rightly insists a religious belief “aims at truth” (p. 16). The content of a belief (what one believes is true) is made true by something outside of the belief itself. While he does not use the term, he is affirming the correspondence theory of truth: a belief is true only if it corresponds to reality. This is significant, since some religious scholars (many influenced by Wittgenstein) think that religious ideas fail to refer to objective states of affairs. These beliefs are part of a “form of life” for a community and cannot penetrate beyond that.1
Second, Crane’s definition of religion is accurate: “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” (6). On his view, atheistic worldviews are not religious, since it allows no transcendence of the universe of matter and energy. Further, this definition grants that there are religions that admit the transcendent, but deny that it is personal. Buddhism is in this category.2 Dawkins ignores this in his account of religion.
Third, Crane is right that religion is grounded in much more than beliefs about the universe. Here he goes beyond Dawkins. Religion trades on a “religious impulse” shared by those who seek some transcendent reality as well as on a sense of sacred “identity” that places believers into stable patterns of ritual, association, and remembrance.
This is not news to any student of religion, even if the New Atheists ignore it. While too many Americans claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” religions require settled patterns of actions that mirror a standard pattern of beliefs preserved through a tradition. Some religions are ritually thin (Quakers) and others ritually rich (Eastern Orthodoxy). Nevertheless, without some ritual and shared identity, there would be no glue to hold any religion together.
Now let us consider three crippling errors contained within this book that are important for apologetics issues.
First, Crane wrongly believes that the religious impulse and group identity explain exhaustively why religious believers continue to believe even when their worldview supposedly has no rational support. If Jill has a “religious impulse” to grope for something more than life on Earth can provide and if she finds a community of likeminded and like-acting people, it will not matter much that Richard Dawkins and others have expunged Christianity of all rational support.
While the religious impulse and group identity help Christians withstand intellectual challenges to their faith, they are not their only resources. To argue against this, Crane assumes that atheistic assertions based on supposedly scientific evidence have won the day for any person not otherwise religiously inclined. He fails to cite or refute philosophers and scientists who find strong evidence for theism in biology and physics, for example. Crane ignores the entire Intelligent Design movement, omitting stellar intellectual protagonists such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer. This is inexcusable for a philosopher opining about religion, science, and philosophy in 2017.3 It is ironic that Crane appeals to the prestigious philosopher Thomas Nagel several times, since Nagel, though an atheist, respects Intelligent Design and thinks Darwinism is false.4
Crane also accuses Christianity of having no rational response to the problem of evil. It is illogical to believe that God is good and all-powerful when there is so much evil in the world. The benighted Christian can appeal only to mystery (57–58). But the Christian can give sufficient reasons for believing both in God and give good reasons for why some of God’s actions are inexplicable from a finite viewpoint (see Deut. 29:11; Rom. 11:33–36). That is, mystery can be framed by knowledge and is not absurdity. Crane fails to consider this.5
Speaking personally, despite having a “religious impulse” and a “religious identity” for many years, the rational support for the Christian worldview is a bedrock in my life as a Christian and as a Christian philosopher. In a way, I have tried to disprove Christianity since I converted in 1976. I have done this by investigating the case for Christianity and the case against it. The path of suffering through my wife’s dementia has been the extreme test of the rationality of my Christian convictions. Yet, through it all, I know too much to go back (see John 6).6
Second, Crane is guilty also of committing the straw man fallacy by misrepresenting a basic and cogent argument for God’s existence. He says that, in his “experience, believers are typically not troubled by the” question: “If the existence of the universe is explained by God’s creative action, then what explains the existence of God?” (61). Perhaps in his experience he has encountered fideists, who are not bothered by challenges to their faith; but that is irrelevant, since the answer to the question is straightforward and has been given many times.
No religious philosopher, to my knowledge, has ever argued that since everything is created, the universe must be created by God. This ill-conceived argument entails that God needs to be created as well, which destroys the argument, since God is supposed to be the Creator. Cosmological arguments (there are several forms) claim that everything finite or contingent needs to be created or explained by something outside of itself. God explains the finite and contingent universe precisely because God is neither finite nor contingent! Rather, God is self-existent and, thus, eternal (Acts 17:15). Thus, the answer to the child’s question, “Who made God?” is “No one. He is the Maker, not the made” (see Gen. 1:1; John 1:1–3; Rom. 1:18–32).7
Crane is wrong in a third way. In exploring his idea that religion is upheld by the religious impulse and a sense of identity, he asserts that religious meaning is something beyond morality or factual claims. What he calls “religious practices” involve “performing certain activities, either once in one’s life (baptism, confirmation, the hajj) or on a regular, repeated basis (ritual prayers, giving alms, the Sabbath).” These activities “are absolutely fundamental to anything that we recognize as religion, but they are neither matters of morality nor simply the straightforward expression of some cosmological belief” (87–88). This third category — in addition to cosmological belief and morality — helps explain religious belief despite its lack of rational support.
On the contrary, in Christianity, as well as in other religions, “religious practices” are meaningless if not framed by the religion’s worldview, which always involves morality and cosmological beliefs. Consider communion, for example. Those partaking of communion ought to believe several propositions:
- God exists. This is a cosmological claim.
- Jesus died and rose in history. This is a cosmological and historical claim.
- Christians should partake of communion. This is a moral claim based on a cosmological and historical claim.
- No one should take communion in an unworthy fashion. This, too, is a moral claim based on a cosmological and historical claim.
There are more beliefs pertaining to communion. Further, mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens in other religions. Muslims are obligated to travel to Mecca once in their lives because Allah commands it through Muhammad as it is written in the Qur’an. Religious meaning finds its place within the religion’s factual claims about the cosmos and morality. Crane’s third category does not exist.
Crane’s style, while clear, is repetitive. Thus, the book is both too long in words and too short of convincing arguments —Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
- See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 75-79.
- On the definition of religion and its study, see Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 2nd (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
- For the scientific case for the existence of God, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 240–329. See also Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (New York: HarperOne, 2016).
- See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
- See Groothuis, “The Problem of Evil,” in Christian Apologetics.
- I tell this story in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness — A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017). See also C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (orig. pub., 1961; New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
- See Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 208–9.