Thursday, October 8, 2009

An Atheist Defends Religion

While browsing the religion section at my local Borders I noticed a new book I have never seen before, An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity is Better Off with Religion Than Without It. The title stood out at me as it appeared to be differing from the norm of current titles dealing with religion. That being either atheists ranting about how religion is the root of all evil and theists are all deluded degenerates, or theists, mainly Christians, screaming that atheists are going to burn in Hell. After reading the synopsis on the back it seemed this book may be a breath of fresh air in the ongoing God debate. The author does not attempt to either disprove, or prove, the existence of God, but attempts to show that religion can be, and has been, a positive influence on humanity in its ability to provide many benefits, such as moral, psychological, and emotional benefits to society, and that religion does this better than any other social institution. I will be doing a series of posts on this topic as I go through the book.

One of the first things that I noticed as I started reading is how the first couple chapters parallel a class I am currently taking, REL 200, Introduction to the Study of Religion. In class we have, so far, covered two books. The first is Mircea Eliade's The Sacred & The Profane (of which I will be doing a latter post on a particular section in the book about secular man). On just the second page of An Atheist Defends Religion the author quotes Eliade's book,
One of the most insightful observers of religion was the late Mircea Eliade, who understood the core of religion to be a relationship with the sacred:
Whatever the historical context in which he is placed, homo religious always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real. He further believes that life has a sacred origin and that human existence realizes all of its potential as it participates in the sacred.
Chapter one is basically a rough summary of Eliade. It attempts to quickly explain some key concepts and terms that readers need to be familiar with in order to better understand the study of religion. Some of these concepts are the explanations of the sacred and the profane, homo religiosus, sacred time, myth, and ritual. The author then ties these together with modern man and attempts to explain how the modern secular world has lost many of these meanings. He also talks about the inadequacy of science to replace religious myth and secular rituals.

Chapter two follows the basic ideas in the second book we have been studying in my class, The Sacred Canopy by Peter L. Berger. One warning about this book, while, as my professor says, it is one of the most important books in the study of religion, it is boring as hell (something my professor also agrees with). While Eliade's book is easy to read and comprehend, this one is neither. The main point in The Sacred Canopy is that religion, as a construct of humanity, serves as the best means to give society meaning and morals. Religion legitimates the world in which we live. In An Atheist Defends Religion the author follows this same reasoning through chapter two. He begins with a discussion on how religion is morality and community. He also asks if we can be good without God, which, the author says, we can but with one caveat, on page 39,
In our modern secular society, many moral values have already been institutionalized and on some level we can possess these values apart from the religion that developed them. These values will not disappear if we eliminate religion, but the infrastructure that has held those values aloft will substantially weaken. Of all the cultural templates we have, religion is the most robust and explicit about moral behavior.
He goes on to finish the chapter talking about how science is inadequate when used to derive a moral culture from.


  1. Jake:

    This is the author, Bruce. And I like your evaluation of my book so far. You realize that an atheist can delineate the value of religion as a belief system and a cultural institution. However, being an atheist, I do not derive the meaning and transcendence that religion offers believers. I look forward to your future posts about the book. And thank you for taking the time to actually read it while commenting on it.

    Bruce Sheiman

  2. this is a great book review