Philosopher says fellow atheists should give religion - and peace - a chance

A lot of atheists dismiss religious believers as... how to put it politely... not too bright. Philosopher and atheist Tim Crane believes his fellow atheists should develop a more sophisticated understanding of religion and be more tolerant of religious believers.
Philosopher Tim Crane argues atheists should take the time to truly understand the religious worldview before dismissing it. (AFP/Getty Images)
If you want to understand human history, if you want to understand civilization, you have to understand religion. I know that some of my fellow atheists regard that as regrettable. I regard that as a fact and something that we need to understand rather than something that we need to combat.- Tim Crane

Tim Crane  is a professor of philosophy at Central European University in Budapest and the author of The Meaning of Belief - Religion From an Atheist's Point of View.   

Brought up strictly Roman Catholic, Crane is now an atheist but he doesn't agree with the dismissive way many of his fellow atheists approach the concept of religion.

Philosopher and author Tim Crane

"The new atheist approach is relentlessly combative - they see no good in religious belief. They see religious belief as dominated by very simple errors of reasoning," Crane says. "The question [atheists] have to ask themselves... is why aren't they persuading people? Why don't all these very intelligent people who come across their arguments... just say 'oh yes, you're right. I don't have any reason to believe in my belief. I don't have any reason to believe in God."

Crane thinks that by categorically dismissing the concept of religion, atheists may be overlooking its importance in understanding human nature.

"[The religious worldview] a huge mess, the whole thing. It's a very human mess. And you find all the flaws and triumphs of humanity in the history of religion. The real history of religion is the history of humanity, so you see all the horrible side of humanity and you see the great side of humanity. You see amazing vision, moral vision, self-sacrifice, charity, unending kindness and generosity. And you also see cruelty and bigoted behaviour, stupidity, mass hysteria, terrible group-think and people being led to do the most awful things to each other."

Atheists may make a compelling case that there is no scientific proof for the existence of God, but Crane recognizes that these arguments have little impact on people of faith. He says people hold onto their religious convictions because they satisfy a deep human need for connection and belonging.

"It's an obvious fact but it's significant: the things you do, the words you say in a religious ritual like going to mass or praying, are things that are very repetitive. You say the same things every week, sometimes you say the same things every day, you say the same things that people have been saying for thousands of years in some cases... And why is it important to say the same things?... You're linking yourself to the community of people who came before you... This, I think, is the central... element of religious belief which is identification with others. Which again, is a very human thing."

Crane hopes to encourage more tolerance between atheists and religious believers so that they can engage in a healthy debate and coexist harmoniously.

"I think people should be trying to live in peace. And if you're going to live in peace with people, then you have to tolerate other people. The atheists have to tolerate the religious, but the religious have to tolerate the atheists too," he says. "I think if people could just focus on peace rather than conversion, then this would be a start."

Click LISTEN above to hear Tim Crane's thoughts about the religious impulse and the nature of violence.