The Meaning of Belief
(Religion from an Atheist’s Point of view)
by Tim Crane

Tim is what we used to call a close reasoner. He does not jump to conclusions but makes his way to them in careful steps. I have little use for the term any more because I find few close reasoners involved in the public discourse to deserve the title.

The first thing that he notes about us theists is that we are unreasonable. We take our stand because we feel that we have experienced an unseen order and we feel that by conforming our lives to it all will be better. The atheist will only find it frustrating to argue with us about the unseen order, (called “God” in its most personal forms.) We did not think our way to this, we experienced it.

I accept that this is the fact. When not calling it “unreasonable” we call it “faith.” And I grant, as I think he does, that the nature of this experience can range from doing what mommy says God said we should and having it work pretty well to having our soul shaken as the heavens opened and our life calling was revealed indelibly. The closer to the latter the firmer the faith, the closer to the former the shakier. But again, even to the shakier, argument will not challenge as effectively as contrary experience. (One can experience the absence of God, and one can live a good life and lose her children to a drunk driver.)

The second bulwark against atheistic argument is that the theist normally belongs to a religion and practices that religion. (People who say they are still Catholic although they do not practice it are not. Granting that many Catholic twitches still remain. I know, I am one.) These practices bind the practitioner to other practitioners and bind the practitioner to the history of the group that so practices. Isaac always showed up at the Synagogue on the Sabbath. A fellow Jew complimented him on his need to talk to God. He said that he had no such need. Abe had that need. His need was to talk to Abe. And that binds him to the tradition nearly as tightly as faith would.

I kept waiting for Tim to explain to his fellow atheists how to get to us theists but if he said it, I missed it. I went looking for it in the back of the book and realized the last chapter I was exploring for deadly missives was entitled, “The Meaning of Tolerance.”

Thank you Tim.

The final accidental but helpful result of reading this book is to see the other side and without Tim prompting realize atheists have had a different experience than I have, even if the atheist’s realization of the absence of the divine order happened while a zealous Sunday School teacher was teaching her its presence. (Ah, Sister Mary Thomas, beloved by my thirteen year old heart, I regret to tell you that the first time I realized the Trinity was nonsense was while you explained why it was the corner stone of our faith.)

I think we owe Tim and his compatriots tolerance also. How I came to that conclusion in the life of my Quaker meeting is described in an essay called “Accepting the Challenge of Non-theism,” available on my web-site. <>

Tim, one last thing. The difficulty in your representing yourselves as “A-theists,” that is “not a theist” is that then in order to remain “Atheo” you must keep track of to where the “Theos” have moved. There is now a whole bunch of us, myself included, who do not think of another order outside of the natural, but have integrated the God-order into creation from that first big bang. (Chardin, Whitehead, Coehlo, Needleman) In one continuing act the shaper of the cosmos also shapes my heart. This does not make a lot of difference in what you had to say, but makes the whole thing seen my way more plausible to me. And your job of dissuading me even more difficult.

I wonder if the atheists among my readers might want to try reading The Meaning of Belief. I think you might find it useful in tuning your Atheism. For the most part Tim’s disagreements with other atheists were unimportant to me, but you might find them interesting and helpful as you sort out your own position.

For a quick glance at this style of Theism (Panentheism) check my reviews of Coehlo,(Awakening Universe) and Needleman (Unknown World) at <>