An Open Society Should Permit Critique of Religion, Says Tim Crane

October 13, 2017

What we should respect are not views, but the people who hold the views, said CEU Philosophy Professor Tim Crane, while discussing his book “The Meaning of Belief” as part of the Rethinking Open Society series on Oct. 3. He also stated that New Atheist critique of religion misses what is central to these world views.

"When you think about open society and its history, religion is at the center of the story. The very idea of an open society and a liberal democracy has emerged precisely at the point of Reformation,” said Michael Ignatieff, president and rector of CEU during his introduction to Tim Crane's lecture, "Religion in the Open Society."How do we create a free society in which people can disagree about God, but have a public discussion that avoids civil war?"

Crane also traces back the history of religious tolerance to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when "as a result of the failure to impose religious conformity, religious tolerance emerged as an ideal, or human right. A failure evolving into a success." Crane takes odds, though, with the widespread interpretation of tolerance.

I think tolerance is frequently misunderstood, because many think that it has something to do with respect. Based on clichés like 'everyone is entitled to their opinion,' they think that all religious views are worthy of respect, and invulnerable to criticism," said Crane.

In contemporary debates about Islam and Islamophobia an often heard definition of open society is that it welcomes all views, and does not judge among them, he added.

"This is just a mistake about the very idea of tolerance, because it does not imply respect for all views," said Crane. "Toleration implies disapproval. I might choose to tolerate my neighbor's loud music on New Year's Eve, because I want to get along with him, but that does not mean that I approve of it."

Tim Crane spoke about the role of religion in an open society. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Tim Crane spoke about the role of religion in an open society. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

Based on this idea Crane argued that religious tolerance does not exclude disapproval, objection or a generally negative attitude to some phenomena of religion. "Some people call it the paradox of tolerance. I think it's just a fact," said Crane. "What we respect and what we should respect is not views, but the people who hold the views." According to Crane that means acknowledging people's freedom of thought to hold these religious views, without necessarily liking those views.

It is the same idea that underlies the conviction that everyone, even those who have committed the most vile crimes, are entitled to a fair trial. As for what the limits of tolerance are, Crane's answer is that if there is a rule of law in a society then all toleration must be constrained by that.

Crane also talked about the emerging "New Atheism," the views of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others. According to Crane, New Atheists see religion as a combination of cosmology and morality. The former providing a theory of the universe and the latter is a moral code about how to live. In Crane’s view, this division is too simplistic and the criticism directed at religion by New Atheists fails to address the question:

Why do people go to the church, the mosque, the synagogue?

The short answer to the question is that “religion is not just something you believe, it’s also something you belong to.” To account for this aspect of religion, Crane’s hypothesis on religion differentiates between two elements: religious impulse and identification.

“The impulse is easily described by a very widespread thought, that ‘surely this can not be all be there is, there must be more to this,” said Crane. “A feeling that there is an unseen order that transcends all things.” It is a claim about the world, but it is not a scientific theory, and therefore not incompatible with them, says Crane. “Seeing this takes a lot of steam out of the debate on religion.”

Tim Crane answers questions of the audience after discussing the key dilemmas of religion and tolerance. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel
Tim Crane answers questions of the audience after discussing the key dilemmas of religion and tolerance. Image credit: CEU / Daniel Vegel

The other element, identification, is about belonging to a community of the same faith. It also means that for many believers the world divides into two groups: those who are their kind, and those who are not.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of religion to incorporate into an open society.”

Sacred objects connect these two elements of religion together, on one hand being symbols of something beyond this world, but simultaneously binding religious people together in their shared history.

In Crane’s view, New Atheists have some valid arguments, but they do not take the effort to really understand the vision of the world proposed by religion. “It is not enough to list some propositions it contains. You also have to understand what is central and what is peripheral; what is at the core of a worldview, and what is just extra at the periphery.”