Is atheism rational or possible

Tim Crane: The Importance of Faith


Show-off atheism

Are there show-off atheists? The atheist Crane is certainly not a show-off and does not use this term for his opponents. And yet when reading his critical remarks, depending of course on previous experience and the bias of the reader, an implicit negative image of the perfect show-off atheist may emerge.

Such a person sees no problems in the death of the gods and in human mortality: he looks fearlessly into nothingness and rises triumphantly over the weakness of religious needs, he feels smarter or more enlightened than the former and death is nothing more than natural to him biological fact, no reason for any exaggerated emotional sensitivities. The show-off atheist believes with his convictions on the side of truth, reason and rationality; mostly he sees his own convictions as almost proven by science or at least the burden of proof owed to the believers. He himself leads a life with complete and ruthless clarity, without any naive self-delusions. His preferred approach to the world qua science and rationality is the only significant and acceptable one. Religion is the root of all evil, while the show-off atheist is naturally on the side of the good with his own worldview, a kind of "atheistic do-gooder". In fact, his own convictions are essential to saving the world. Moments of scientific and reasonable knowledge make the advanced show-off atheist tremble with an oceanic-sublime feeling.

Of this pure form of the perfect show-off atheist, there should be only a few examples in reality, but probably some in a more human and that is to say imperfect shape, with this or that share of the heroic and triumphant attitude described. It would be good for atheism if this thinking creeps away in the future. Crane's book could help with that.

The content in brief

The book by the professor of philosophy at the Central European University, which has been driven out of Budapest and is now based in Vienna, contains five chapters. In the first chapter, Crane explains what he understands by religion, atheism and humanism, whereby it is particularly important for him to differentiate his own atheist position from the so-called "New Atheism" (Richard Dawkins and Co.) as well as from humanism. In Chapters 2 and 3 he explains what he considers to be two essential elements of religion: the religious impulse and identification. He understands the religious impulse as the conviction of believers that there is an invisible, transcendent order to be orientated towards. The decisive factor here is the distinction between a belief that is “held to be true” and a scientific hypothesis. By identification, Crane means the belonging to a religious community and its practice, which believers experience as essential, the importance of which he sees in the fact that it adds a decisive "third category to religion alongside cosmological theories and moral commandments" (p. 87). In the fourth chapter, Crane turns against the view, which is not uncommon among atheists, that all problems in the world are caused directly or indirectly by religion and, in particular, by its false cosmological beliefs. He does not subscribe to the idea that believers can be motivated to change their beliefs by showing “irrationality”. The final chapter is a plea for the “path of tolerance”, which is based on the goal of living in peace instead of teaching. Crane contradicts the criticism often heard from atheists, that tolerance implies relativism and respect for all convictions of others.

There are two crucial diagnoses on which the book is based. First, Crane sees that 6 in 7 billion people globally are religious and he does not expect religion to disappear from human societies anytime soon. Second, he sees that the attempts of the New Atheists to convert religious people through rational and scientific reasoning completely ricochet off them. From both together he concludes that from the atheist side an improved ability to dialogue is required, which is suitable both to tackle the global problems of the coexistence of the many together and to be able to place one's own atheist position more seriously.

Atheist criticism of the new atheism

Crane's main point is his belief that New Atheism lacks an adequate understanding of religion. This falls on deaf ears with the religious, because they would not find themselves in his understanding of religion. This way, there is no serious argument in the first place. So Crane believes it is important that atheists and religious people get into conversation, and he thinks it is possible.

He suggests the following “rough definition” of religion: “Religion, as I use the word, is a systematic and practical attempt that people undertake to find meaning and meaning in the world and their place in it, namely in Form of a relationship to something transcendent. ”(P. 17) In contrast to the understanding of religion of the new atheists, Crane explains on the one hand that the transcendent is by no means to be understood as a clearly defined idea of ​​a“ supernatural ”and, on the other hand, that this relationship to the transcendent should not be placed in the sole focus of the understanding of religion because this neglects other aspects - such as the "identification" to be explained. If this is not taken into account, the picture of religious phenomena is distorted, and Crane stands behind the well-known accusation "that the New Atheists adhere to a 'fundamentalist' or 'scriptural' conception of religious belief" (p. 23).

Tim Crane is an atheist but not a humanist (p. 37). He is not a humanist because he dislikes the humanists' tendency to present humanism as an alternative to a religious worldview (p. 10) and because he ascribes to him the idea, which he does not share, that all values ​​are of human origin (p. 39- 41). This, of course, is not really an examination of the very diverse forms of humanism. But the second point in particular is interesting because it assigns humanism an anthropocentrism that it does not have to represent in this form. I see myself as a humanist, but I would not adopt the idea that any Value is of human origin, but the idea that people create value through evaluations and that this is of central importance for their coexistence. I would not want to categorically exclude the possibility that things can be valuable even without human evaluation, nor the possibility that other living beings (suffering animals?) Or maybe even artificial intelligences can create values ​​in the near future. However, this is irrelevant to the value of Crane's book: his atheistic criticism of the new atheism can easily be shared by contemporary humanists. It's just a shame that he doesn't see the strong similarities between his relaxed atheism and humanism himself.

Religious impulse

One of the two central determinants of religion for Crane is the “religious impulse”, the “need to lead one's life in harmony with the transcendent” (p. 22). For the religious there is an invisible order and the highest good is to live in harmony with this order: cosmology plus morality. Crane explains convincingly why he does not consider this impulse, although he expressly does not share it, to be either a mental confusion or a self-deception: “Rather, I consider this very clearly a comprehensible human reaction to the mystery of the world and life that im The rest was common practice for long periods in human societies. "(P. 52)

Crane thus renounces the atheistic boasting of portraying himself as irrational and blinded in the light of rationality and enlightenment, sunbathing religious people. It is this renunciation of an identity that always needs the supposed stupidity of others for its own abundance. The main reason for this is that he does not confuse the religious impulse with a scientific "God hypothesis" à la Dawkins and Co. According to Crane, whoever has a religious impulse does not have to believe in a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, the existence of which has to be scientifically verified or falsified. For many believers it is clear that God withdraws from human understanding. The religious impulse includes beliefs that are believed to be true and meaningful to believers. You don't have to share this meaning, Crane doesn't and I don't either, but one should try to understand that speaking of a God hypothesis is only plausible in terms of one's own scientific horizon and does not help at all to understand what a religious one is Belief is. "So it is not hypotheses that are central to religious belief, but the commitment to the meaningfulness of the world." (P. 76)

Therefore, believers do not have the certainty or probability of scientific knowledge on their side. Moments when you like Samuel Beckett's Hamm in Endgame thinks, "The scoundrel! He does not exist ”, exists not only in the life of the atheist, but also in the life of the believer. But those who believe hold on to their beliefs despite or precisely because of all adversities, just as, by the way, many humanists believe in the realization of humane living conditions and are committed to it, even if the course of the world seems to indicate otherwise. Not being able or unwilling to understand the unconditional nature of religious belief is perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses of some atheists.

I hope that relaxed atheists, who are not so attached to having to be absolutely right about their position, will one day be able to join Crane's position on the relative autonomy of religious belief vis-à-vis the sciences (which is by no means criticism of religion in concrete forms of Religious practice excludes). But what relaxed atheists will not and should not befriend in the future, and Crane does not illuminate this point, is that of course climate change deniers and other fact-resistant conspiracy theorists also claim a form of autonomy vis-à-vis the sciences to take. But those who deny the Shoah or man-made climate change are not referring to another transcendent order that gives them meaning and dictates a moral, but rather they enter the field of science and must be fought there. Relaxed atheists do not need to fear, with an acceptance of the relative autonomy of religious belief vis-à-vis the sciences, of a tendency towards the post-factual and to give up the means to combat it.


Crane criticizes the new atheism not only because, in his opinion, it misunderstands the religious reference to something transcendent, but also because the new atheists would only place the reference to something transcendent at the center of their understanding of religion. In addition to the religious impulse, which is misunderstood as the “God hypothesis”, Crane understands by recourse to Émile Durkheim “identification” as the second essential determinant of religion. What is meant by this is the emotionally connecting execution of a common religious practice, the common repetition of confession and routine activities and rituals with religious connotations. Religion is not only belief in something, but also affective affiliation. And it is actually strange, according to Crane, when scientists, who would definitely experience the experiences of joint research and knowledge as meaningful, ignore this aspect in religious people or cannot recognize it as something valuable. And perhaps here again, as Crane goes on, an element of show-off atheism can be diagnosed when non-religious religious people smile at people for a need from which they are by no means free.

In this chapter, however, Crane seems to be overstressing the importance of rituals for religion a little, when he questions the seriousness of their religiosity with people who have not been to a church for years and still call themselves religious (p. 97).

What is missing is what connects the two central elements of religion, the religious impulse and identification: Crane sees it in the idea of ​​the sacred. He explains the sacred - and again Durkheim's godfather - in contrast to the magical and the supernatural, as objects, words, places or ceremonies that have meaning within a rite and at the same time provide a connection to the transcendent.

In my opinion, the moving question of Crane about the correct understanding of religion is not only about the atheistic ability to dialogue and social peace, but also about one's own humanistic or atheistic self-image that is directly related to the understanding of religion. Because whoever understands religion primarily as a scientific hypothesis, for example, will also understand his own self-image primarily in the sense of a better hypothesis or even a scientific truth. Conversely, someone who understands religion as meaning, ethics and community will also accord these things a central role in his own self-image.

Violence and religion

If one approaches religion from a differentiated perspective without general rejection, with the hermeneutical goal of understanding, then one should not ignore the topic of "religion and violence". So also Crane: Even with the somewhat simple thesis that most and worst evils in the world are primarily caused by religion, he deals in detail and seriously, although its rational untenability is basically clear. His related statements on irrationalism are more interesting. Crane argues against the thesis that it is the irrationality of religious assumptions that leads to violence and that violence can be successfully combated by a scientific-rational refutation of religious assumptions. He rightly denies the underlying premise that religious statements are irrational per se. Once again, a potential facet of the show-off atheist characterized at the beginning shines up, who not only believes he is quite immodest on the side of the reasonable and good, but also seems to exaggerate the causal significance of ideological basic assumptions for violence and other factors such as the fight for Marginalized power and resources.


Many atheists are notoriously unhappy with "tolerance", they fear that this will lead to relativism and force them to advocate things that they actually disapprove of. Crane himself also seems to fear the verdict “relativist” very much and goes to great lengths to show the fundamental incoherence of the thesis that truth is relative. With regard to tolerance, however, it is actually clear - and Crane could have made it easier for himself that it is not about answering questions of the truth, but rather ignoring questions of truth: The goal of the idea of ​​tolerance is to maintain peace and not "truth" . This exclusion is therefore earmarked, it serves the purpose of peaceful coexistence. So if the factoring out makes or changes the fact that people are oppressed, then it is not doing its job and needs to be questioned.

The second fear, that tolerance means the unwanted approval of things that are disapproved, is based on a misunderstanding of tolerance. This always includes a moment of rejection or disapproval, even if it expresses itself as respect or appreciation: It simply makes no sense to tolerate something that you don't think is bad at all. Crane himself argues primarily in the direction that tolerance relates to people as autonomous and responsible beings and not to their views. One can tolerate the person and at the same time disapprove of their view.


Anyone who is interested in seeing the relationship between religion and atheism in a more relaxed way, without simply putting on rose-tinted glasses and not taking the ideological conflict seriously, will enjoy reading Crane's book and get a whole range of encouraging ideas.If you are interested in a critical reflection of your own atheistic attitude, but find the talk of show-off atheism exaggerated, please look up the reviewer and read the book anyway, because Crane refrains from such exaggeration. But if you want to keep the hat or hatred hat on or on, you will find a lot in this book that he or she may not like. Those who attribute themselves to New Atheism will probably not find themselves everywhere in its characterization by Crane.

Ralf Schöppner


The review is also available as a citable PDF.

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