Atheists need to understand that religion is here to stay -

Atheists need to understand that religion is here to stay

Why finding the middle ground between purely secular materialism and crazy religious fanaticism has never been more important


Nathan Coley’s installation of “A Place Beyond Belief”, 2012. Installation, National Gallery of Kosovo, Pristina. (Studio Nathan Coley)

“It was a bit of a flop actually,” laughs Tim Crane about the Bentham Lecture he delivered to the militantly atheist British Humanist Association at University College London in 2007. An atheist himself, Crane had grown increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as widespread misconceptions about religion among his fellow disbelievers, including its perceived lack of staying power. He decided to point out that inconvenient fact to them, not to mention “their exaggerated conception of the role of religion in the creation of the world’s problems.” It turned out to be a memorable evening: “I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk where I got such a cold reaction, outraged huffing with a little applause, followed by some very hostile questions and a chilly dinner at a pizza place where we tried to talk about anything else.” But the experience also prompted a decade of reflection—“I felt it was worth pursuing the topic because I clearly got a reaction”—that resulted in Crane’s elegant new book, The Meaning of Belief.

Crane may be unusual in his ability to command an audience—he is a distinguished British philosopher who is currently a professor at Central European University in Budapest—but he’s hardly alone in believing it’s past time for a new approach to one of modernity’s most intractable issues. Time, in fact, for religious faith and secularist skepticism to reach a peaceable modus vivendi, time for each side to realize the other is not going away. Ever.

Gillian McCann, for one, couldn’t agree more about the “sterility’ of the contemporary standoff, even though the religious studies professor at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., couldn’t agree less with most of Crane’s positions. McCann, co-author (with Gitte Bechsgaard) of The Sacred in Exile, says the “Enlightenment narrative”—the idea the Western world has steadily emerged from darkness and superstition to the shining light of reason—dominates any religious-secular discussion. “The only two positions ever allowed are purely secular materialism or crazy religious fanaticism—those are the supposed choices, when the vast majority of people are not like that, not part of either.” Religion’s great, worldwide middle ground is the focus of both books, with McCann and Bechsgaard lamenting the effects of its two-generation-long decline and Crane pointing at its durability as proof of religion’s ineradicable place in human nature. Beliefs and their role in religious faith are at the core of why the mutually incomprehensible “shouting match” only gets louder over time, because—as Crane forcefully argues and McCann and Bechsgaard implicitly accept—dogmatic belief, other than in certain core precepts, matters far less than most atheists and even some faithful fully realize.

READ: Did Jesus really exist?

All religions are an attempt to align with the transcendent, and it’s that sense of something beyond our ken, not the specifics of cosmological belief, that is the root of the human religious impulse, according to Crane. “But among the people I’m criticizing—the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett—the heart of their view is a specific conception of cosmology. They credit religious believers with having primitive and superstitious but very precise views that can be summed up as, ‘God created the world in six days and if we do this and don’t do that, we’ll go to heaven.’”

His fellow atheists, Crane says, think that by providing scientific explanations of natural phenomena—demonstrating, for instance, that the Earth is far older than the chronology that underlines the Bible suggests—they are demolishing the key supports of religious faith. “But I think a lot of what people actually believe is much less specific, and much more adaptable—which is not to say they think none of it is “real” or that it’s all metaphorical, just that in a significant sense, very deeply set in humans, having faith means committing yourself to a way of looking at the world that proclaims, ‘This can’t be all there is.’”

Church history and social science research back Crane’s claims about the protean nature of religious belief. There is enormous Christian variety, for instance, spanning time, geography and denominations, over how literally to take the words of the Biblical Book of Genesis, with the only unifying theme being that God created humans, endowing them with purpose and meaning. That is the same belief that lies behind the religious response to evolution, which is far more nuanced than skeptics realize.

For decades, report sociologists Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle in their new book, Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think, Gallup polls have shown about 40 per cent of American respondents will agree with the statement that God created humans as they now are within the past 10,000 years. But when Ecklund and Scheitle, whose aim was also to find some possibility of dialogue between believers and non-believers, drilled down into that response—through follow-up surveys and interviews—they found relatively few diehard adherents of the young-Earth hypothesis. For a majority of the Muslims, Jews and Christians, including evangelical Americans, who answered “Yes,” it often seemed the best of a bad set of options. They showed themselves as versed in evolutionary theory as their secular neighbours and relatively open to the idea—as long as God was involved (as initiator or guide) and the special purpose of human life recognized. That might enrage atheistic scientists, for whom recognition of the impersonal, chance-driven nature of evolution is necessary for understanding life on Earth, but it’s “massively improbable,” says Crane, that most humans will ever really abandon their intuitive belief that our lives are infused with larger meaning. “Religious ‘realities’ transform over time, but the search for the transcendent continues.”

McCann and Bechsgaard also focus on the transcendent—although, for them, weakened and inchoate—form in which it survives after two generations of the world’s first “post-transcendent” society. Since the 1960s, what Western culture once took for granted—the role of religious faith in forming personal identity, and the guidance it once provided for finding that sought-after sense of meaning, for conducting relationships with family, community and nature, and for coping with suffering and death—has been replaced by “nothing,” says McCann. “We have lost a lot. You can see the result in these skyrocketing rates of anxiety that you could have logically predicted. I see it in my students, just huge amounts of basic existential anxiety.”

The search for the transcendent takes on specific religious form, Crane and McCann concur, through faith’s other sustaining factor, ritual. McCann stresses how rituals link across generations as well as communities. “In my own family, I’ve seen, ‘We’re not going to do Christmas this year, we’re going to Florida,’ and the family starts to drift because maybe I only see my cousins on those days.” As a teacher, though, McCann particularly mourns the loss of “maturation rites such as confirmation rituals. I’ve talked to my students about this. They don’t know what it is to be an adult anymore. There’s no initiation into adulthood.”

READ: The invention of God

Even the irreligious increasingly recognize the importance of shared ritualized experience in building community, as witnessed by the founding of Calgary’s Secular Church and philosopher Alain de Botton’s temple for atheists in London. But Crane is skeptical of their long-term success. Rituals do have to begin somewhere, and some religious traditions, like Pentecostalism, privilege spontaneity, but in the older world faiths rituals derive much of their bonding power from their antiquity. They link past and present, with practitioners knowing that their ancestors—in some cases for centuries—did exactly the same. Even the archaic language taps into the sense of the sacred and transcendental, and the long history of the great religious rituals is one paradoxical reason they can launch new but accepted rites: the practice of bringing pets to church for blessing on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi is growing exponentially across the various denominations.

Partly because personal autonomy is one of the highest secular values, atheists find it hard to match the religious in crafting new and lasting communal rites. “You have to believe what’s going on in the ritual, don’t you?” asks Crane. “There’s something empty about rites made up to mimic someone else’s. There has to be an organic quality.” (The new openness to animal rights among Christian churches appeals to some, but not all, secularists: when a New Jersey animal shelter asked a Catholic priest to bless its residents, in November the American Atheists group filed a lawsuit against it on the grounds religion has no place in state-funded animal shelters.)

For all their differences—McCann believes the public square needs religion while Crane is (cautiously) prepared to tolerate its presence there—the two scholars are actually moving towards middle ground. That in itself is a remarkable development in a polarizing debate that has spent decades trying to demolish the very idea of middle ground. But the public square looks different in North America than it does across the Atlantic. For Crane, as for most Europeans, the question of religion in public life essentially turns on how, and to what extent, to accommodate Islam. He hasn’t yet formalized his thoughts on that loaded topic, which will be the subject of a future book. The Meaning of Belief concentrates instead on how atheists could incorporate religious toleration into their individual lives. To that end, it concludes with a story—complete with lessons learned—that turns the personal into the political.

Crane was at a Jewish funeral some years ago, for a colleague who had died young and in good health. “It was a day or two after the death, the sorrow still raw, more than a hundred people there, mid-winter in Cambridge,” he recalls, when there came one of those moments that are important to Crane and “some of my more atheistic” fellow philosophers. Namely, whether “to go along with a religious practice that might be the expression of a belief not held.” Someone passed around a bag of yarmulkes and everyone there not already wearing one—including Crane—took one and put it on. The right thing to do was crystal clear to the philosopher. “You could see that rituals, even rituals involving things you don’t believe, are bigger than you and are answering to needs in people that are real. I felt very small in the light of this great ritual tradition: the suffering, grieving and mourning, the thought, ‘Here we are again.’ What a funny reaction to this to say, ‘Well, I can’t [put on the skullcap], because I don’t think the arguments for the existence of God are any good.’ Why would that even be the question?”



Atheists need to understand that religion is here to stay

  1. Atheism is simply a religion that believes in the absence of God.

    In that way it too depends upon the belief in God for its relevance.

    It doesn’t have any tenets or rules to live by. Atheism doesn’t require any thought at all.

    • Wow, just a little condescending! How about atheism is simply acknowledging and understanding scientific evidence instead of blindly believing a story created by humans looking to control other humans.

      Atheism has no rules to live by; you mean like the great rules of religions that have and still cause so much pain, suffering, deaths, wars. Try again!!

      I’ll stick to basic human/living-being rules that our collective survival and success as a specie requires that we rely and support each other, using our own personal skills, for the good of the collective. No need for religions to do that.

      • Merry Christmas.

  2. LOL When religious types get THIS pushy, you know religion is on it’s way out.

    Happy Isaac Newton’s birthday

    • “Opposite to godliness is atheism in profession, and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind, that it never had many professors.“

      (Newton, as cited in Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir David Brewster, Edinburgh, Thomas Constable and Co., 1855, Vol. II, 347-348)

      • I’m sure some will celebrate Newton’s birthday, on January 4.

        • They might but they’d be wrong

          • Of course you’re using the wrong calendar.

            The Gregorian calendar is today’s internationally accepted civil calendar and is also known as the Western or Christian calendar.

            So unless you’re using the unscientific Julian calendar, Newtons birthday is Jan 4.

            Merry Christmas

          • There isn’t anything ‘scientific’ about either calendar. They are simply old numbering systems. Being born on Dec 25 meant a lot to Newton, so it remains his birthday.

            There are many calendars in the world For example it’s 5778 in the Jewish calendar.

      • I said it was his birthday……the father of western science.

  3. Trust me I know religious folks aren’t going anywhere in my lifetime. So sad that we have so much information and these digbats still think the world is only 6000 years old.

    • Oh they’ll disappear.

      Who was that Zeus fella again?

    • Most of us “digbats” in mainstream churches accepted evolution many decades ago. Ask any Catholic, Anglican, United Church person. Ask the Pope himself. Happy holidays!

      • Nothing to do with atheism or xmas.

        • My reply was to the comment before yours, about thinking the world is 6000 years old.

          • At least it was meant to be. I don’t know why it went in the wrong place.

  4. Anyone who claims to know that at least one god exists is a theist.

    Anyone who claims to know that no gods exist is an atheist.

    Anyone who claims they don’t know if at least one god exists or not is agnostic.

    Anyone who doesn’t know but believes that god exists is agnostic theist.

    Anyone who doesn’t know but believes that no god exists is agnostic atheist.

    Pick one. I don’t care which.

    Merry Christmas.

    • There shouldn’t be any such word as ‘atheist’ really.

      Q What do you call someone who doesn’t believe in Zeus?

      A Normal

      Q What do you call someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus?

      A ….?

      • Why not simplify the question to; What is God?

        • What is a unicorn?

  5. Thank you for an insightful article. Much to consider. A few points I think worth making:
    – Being an ‘atheist’ does not necessarily mean a person rejects the importance of spirituality.
    – A ‘spiritual athiest’ does, however, reject the notion of a god separate from the physical universe or a consciousness other than that of beings manifesting in the physical universe.
    – In fact, some believe our ‘purpose’ IS to experience and express the universe unfolding, that we are, in fact, the consciousness of the universe.
    – As soon as you posit a God standing outside the physical universe, who created the universe, and directs its unfolding, you establish the ‘right’, and some would say the duty, of one person to coerce and intimidate another in the name of that God.
    – You also create the conditions under which the name of God can be used by those seeking power to assert their ‘divine’ right, or to exercise their divinely sanctioned power and impose their will on others by any and all means.
    – Atheism is not synonymous with nihilism. Far from sanctioning ‘immorality’, a spiritual atheist insists that every human being must define his own purpose, and take responsibility for his authentic beliefs and actions in the situations he is given.
    – Atheism can take on the traits of a religion, and become just as intolerant and genocidal as some religions have been throughout history.
    Thanks again for raising an important conversation.

    • Hi folks – Merry Christmas to all (theists, atheists and agnostics included!) Remember this: Not all atheists are bad, and not all Christians/religious folk are good. We are each fully comprised of good and bad. Nothing prepared me for the day I was silently praying after my mother died and objects began to move around my apartment (for about one month, actually.. it was truly freakish and unbelievable.. Seems someone or something was trying to speak to me, no one else was in the apartment!!!. Won’t get into a long argument about God’s existence or not, but when the laws of physics are being challenged in one’s apartment, something is up (no pun intended). All the best in 2018 to all of you!

    Truth is Singular, the pursuit of truth, is the search for an absolution that remains infinite.

    Derek R Speed
    History, Biology, Psychology, Mathematics & Law


    Article 1.
    All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
    Wait until you see it, , , , , ,

    “Truth is Singular, the pursuit of truth is the search for an absolution, that remains infinite.”

    If it does nothing but consume and reproduce, what is it? A virus, a bacteria, and schizophrenic people, that think they’re intelligent. Let’s review the facts at hand, and then explain them throughout the “TIME”, you’ll spend reading it.

    A brief description of TIME, as it pertains to my mind, and this thesis.

    Oldest known cave paintings made by man, scientifically radio and carbon dated to approximately 40 000 years ago. The same science concludes, that there were less than half a billion people on the earth at that “TIME”. From the “TIME” of those cave paintings, until the year 1960, is how long it took human population to grow from less than half a billion, to 3 billion, a population growth of just 2.5 billion, over a “TIME”span of “40 000 years”, let me say that again, a population growth of 2.5 billion, over a “TIMEspan of “40 000 years” do you understand this number and “TIME”frame?

    However, from the year 1960, to this the year 2016, human population grew by almost double that, a population growth of 4.4 billion, over a “TIME”span of just “56 years”. Most people don’t understand these numbers, and how they apply to them, so. Human population growth in the last 24 hours, 200 000, that means, you the human race birth and build a city the size of Rochester New York, for EVERY 24 hour “TIME”span. Human population growth in the year 2015, “82 million”, that means you the human race birth and build a country the size of Germany, for every ONE year of “TIME”.

    7.412 Billion (current human population), if it grows at 1% per year, it doubles in 70 years, if it grows at 2% per year, it doubles in 35 years, if it grows at 3% per year, it doubles in 24 years. Anything that grows exponentially, grows in a predictable amount of TIME. “56 years” a population growth of 4.4 billion, talk about “Economic Growth”. Speaking of Economy, and Economic Growth, how does that all work, you figure? Supply and demand? Your country has what’s known as a GDP statistic, or (Gross Domestic Products) it’s a measure of your “Economic Growth”, and the “Stability” of your “Economy”. So, how do you continuously grow the demand for your country’s Gross Domestic Products? By exponentially increasing the population of other countries, to create the demand for it, that’s how.

    Therein lies the reason you birth and build a city the size of Rochester New York, for every 24 hour TIMEspan. If you don’t, your “Economy” will fail. So, it would appear, that you have to grow your populations exponentially, to maintain your quality and standard of life, or your economic stability. According to my math, and your Government, United Nations and IMF (International Monetary Fund), and the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States, you the human race, need at least 2.3% economic growth, to sustain your Global Economy.

    The Global Economy, isn’t just your jobs, it’s your Education System, your Health Care System, your Social Security System, your Justice System, your Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines, and the two most important things, your 19 trillion dollar debt, (plus interest), and your PENSION. So, if you grow your populations exponentially to sustain all these things, you end up with a war in Syria, that is a masquerade for a very real, very serious quagmire, that quagmire being, Economic Growth, is the leading cause of Global Warming, and Climate Change.

    Human population, is now growing faster than any virus or bacteria known to man, to sustain your economy, or, your quality and standard of life, it would be equivalent to you inhaling a single Ebola Virus, and that virus consumes and reproduces so fast, you’re dead in 55 seconds. Do you actually believe, the “Refugee Crisis” in Europe, is a result of a war in Syria? Considering 40% of the Refugees don’t come from Syria,,,, well, you figure it out. 7.412 billion, with a need to sustain 2.3% growth, equals 15 billion people on earth, by the year 2050. Or, human population will exceed the planet’s ability to sustain it, in the next 24-35 years, if you continue Economic Growth. It’s a quagmire, wrapped up in an ironic paradox of Karma, and there is nothing you can do to stop it, as, you’re out of TIME. ANYTHING, that grows EXPONENTIALLY, is UNSUSTAINABLE. Global Economic Failure, is IMMINENT.

    All Human Beings, is Relative to TIME.

      Hereditary Learned Behavior Schizophrenia.
      Schizo, meaning split, Phrenic meaning mind.

      1. Passing, or capable of passing, naturally, from parent to offspring through the genes:
      Blue eyes are hereditary in our family. “Christianity is our hereditary family, religion”.
      Compare congenital. 2. of or relating to inheritance or heredity: a hereditary title. a hereditary religion
      3. existing by reason of feeling, opinions, or prejudices held by predecessors:
      a hereditary enemy. a hereditary religious enemy, a hereditary political enemy.
      4. Law. descending by inheritance.
      transmitted or transmissible in the line of descent by force of law.
      holding title, rights, etc., by inheritance: a hereditary proprietor.
      5. Mathematics.
      (of a collection of sets) signifying that each subset of a set in the collection is itself a set in the collection.
      of or relating to a mathematical property, as containing a greatest integer, applicable to every subset of a set that has the property.

      Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and inactivity. Diagnosis is based on observed behavior and the person’s reported experiences. You have now become so dependant on hopes and dreams, that you cannot see the reality of things to come.

      A Gram-negative bacteria, almost impermeable to all antibiotics, this psychological disorder, is extremely hard to treat. How do you tell an intelligent person, their intelligence, isn’t intelligence, it’s schizophrenia.

      How to Diagnose:
      Think of a number, between 1 and 10.
      Multiply it by 9.
      Take the double digit you now have, separate them, and add them together.
      Minus 5.
      Take the number you now have, and associate it, with its corresponding letter in the alphabet.
      ie: A, would be 1. B, would be 2. C, would be 3,etc.
      Take the letter you now have, and think of a country in Europe, that starts with that letter.
      Take the second letter in that country’s name, and think of an animal that starts with that letter.
      What colour is that animal?
      The grey elephant is a symbol of your schizophrenia, (Intelligence) remember, crazy people, don’t know they’re crazy. What the eyes see, and the ears hear, the mind believes, an illusion, no matter how convincing, is still just an illusion. Controlled environments, don’t work, self sustaining ones do. Name one empire, in the history of manmade empires, that didn’t fail? 100% Failure Rate. What did they all have in common? The same thing Science, Religion and Evolution have in common, they all require Intelligence to create and understand.
      Occam’s Razor
      “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected”
      The Bible
      Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2, Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
      Is a theory of biological evolution developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and others, stating that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.

      If truth is your objective, these are your options. However, all of them exist in the infinite and perpetual passage of time. An infinite continuation of a finite absolute, that can’t be altered.
      In 1905, Albert Einstein determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, and that the speed of light in a vacuum was independent of the motion of all observers. This was the theory of special relativity. In the theory of relativity, time dilation is a difference of elapsed time between two events as measured by observers either moving relative to each other or differently situated from a gravitational mass or masses.
      Pandora’s Box, is an artifact of Greek Mythology, taken from the Myth of Pandora’s Creation in Hesiod’s Works and Days. The box was actually a jar given to Pandora, which contained all the evils of the world.
      Once you see something, you can’t unsee it, once you hear something, you can’t unhear it, once you learn something, you can’t unlearn it. I have permanently embedded the “Elemenet Of Doubt” in your brain, and now, it’s there forever, and will directly affect every decision you make from this point forward, it’s called “Intelligence” Brian Bethune, I call it Lucifer’s Inception.

      • What makes you believe that to be true?

      • Oh wow, Macleans, now you’ve done it! ;-)

  7. Can we stop talking about religion? Please, it is just impossible to suite every person. Especially today, when we have a lot of questions connected to this problem. Guys from said me that we will have a lot of problems in our society soon because of this. So please, stop it.

    • Stop trying to pander to everyone and recognize diversity.

      Religion is a huge part of culture and we’re supposed to embrace multiculturalism so we should embrace all religions.

      Are we multicultural or are we xenophobic?

    • People will talk about whatever interests them. This won’t change.

  8. I see hangovers have started to set in. LOL

  9. “Atheists need to understand that religion is here to stay”? Like a stain on your pants? It sounds like a threat, and that wouldn’t be out of character. Religion is about feeling good, about obsessions with you, you. you, and your puny soul. It’s about seeing being Christian as loving your kind, only. it’s about throwing the poor an occasional fish instead of recognizing their essential humanity and equality. It’s about siding with the big guys, like Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. It is nothing to feel so high and mighty about.

  10. Religion will exist as long as there are humans who cannot accept the possibility of death without life afterwards, and cannot face moral ambiguity. So, yeah, religion isn’t going anywhere.

    Just keep your kids away from churches until they’re at least 16 and able to think critically. They’ll be able to recognise religion for the insane delusion that it is, and they’ll be fine.

    • Would you care to provide an example of moral ambiguity that you have faced?

    • I didn’t think so.

      You knew you were lying about the existence of “moral ambiguity” when you wrote it, and could certainly never defend it.

      Morality is by definition unambiguous.

  11. Why do these rabble rousers with antagonist faith want to undermine faith based institutions?

    To me, religion is mostly about rules to live by that don’t change easily because they are based on truth. That’s all that affects other people anyways. God is about personal spirituality and responsibility.

    In my experience, people become atheists because they don’t like rules that interfere with their emotional or irresponsible desires. They have difficulty discussing personal spirituality and responsibility.

    Society needs rules that don’t change with every elected leadership. Today, religion fills that niche.

    It would be nice if our constitution did but our government violates people’s constitutional rights all the time and idiot leaders change the rules to pander to irresponsible voters.