An Atheist Defends Religion

I recently read Bruce Sheiman’s An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without it.

It’s a bit disappointing, so I won’t write a long review. The thesis of the book is interesting enough: that organized religion and supernatural belief has significant social and personal benefits, and that even those who find themselves unable to affirm the reality of a God should recognize how religion improves all our lives. Sheiman, as a nonbeliever who wants to believe, brings an interesting perspective to the perennial debate over religion.

I’m not going to call the book worthless. It’s not a bad read; visiting its web site gives a decent idea of what its all about. Still, at a scholarly level, it is a poor job – Sheiman relies almost entirely on cherry-picking and hack-philosophizing. He regularly ignores research that might support more skeptical conclusions. He indulges in too much Mircea Eliade-style mush and romanticizing of “primitive” religion. And Sheiman’s constant hand-wringing about how religion provides meaning to life and the universe is annoying – particularly for those of us who, contrary to his bald assertions, don’t go through life with any great need for existential meaning of the sort transcendental doctrines purport to provide.

Sheiman even botches the job in areas where some hard evidence supports the social and personal value of religion, for example in the area of health. The social scientific and medical literature is full of studies that affirm the benefits of religion. Indeed, this is a consistent theme, particularly where the United States is concerned. Generalizing beyond that is, however, reckless. Sheiman does not place any of this research in context; for him, all these studies are just data points showing that religion is generically and universally a good thing.

This could have been a good book if it had been done right: I would have liked to have a readable, compact book that puts together a case for the benefits of religion. There is a serious argument for that. An Atheist Defends Religion, unfortunately, is not it.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03932419322314950738 Jeffrey A. Myers

    Does he address in any meaningful way the fact that the vast majority of the most secular and irreligious countries on Earth actually have the most peaceful, crime free, successful, generous societies on Earth, while the most religious countries are the most violent, dangerous, and crime-riddled?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Jeffrey A. Myers: no, Sheiman does not address any of what you point out. Cherry-picking, as I said.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10546265581296919974 Rob

    Isn't it more accurate to characterize most of those countries not as "secular" or "irreligious" — but rather as post-Christian?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jeffrey,

    You write about “ the fact that the vast majority of the most secular and irreligious countries on Earth actually have the most peaceful, crime free, successful, generous societies on Earth, while the most religious countries are the most violent, dangerous, and crime-riddled”.

    In order to establish any causal link one must be careful to take into consideration the various confounding variables. Take for example crime, and in particular homicide cases. You will find some reliable data about many countries here. As you will see, there is a very strong correlation between gun ownership and homicide rate. Here are the numbers for secular Sweden and religious USA: Percentage of households with guns 73 and 21 respectively; homicide rate per million 76 and 13 respectively. Now England is about twice more religious than Sweden, but has an even lower homicide rate, namely 7; which is probably best explained by the fact that only 4% of English households have guns.

    The relationship between religiosity and moral behavior is a very complex one, which one cannot reasonably study at the level of entire countries. There are two few countries and too many confounding variables, such as history, racial and cultural homogeneity, legal traditions, etc. On the level of individuals, where confounding variables can be controlled more easily, several statistical studies have shown a strong correlation between religiosity and charity, and indeed between religiosity and personal well-being.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Another hatchet-job review by Taner, which gives us essentially nothing to chew on. Surprise surprise…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Jeffrey A. Myers – where is the data to back up your assertions?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11494806185915438337 The Universe is an Atheist

    @Alex
    http://www.endhereditaryreligion.com/2009/02/secular-societies-enjoy-better-quality-of-life/
    there are actually quite a few things published on this. This was actually a pretty informative review, and it didn't just say that the book was utter garbage, which I would have done. He points out the flaws of the work, and if you didn't have an obvious bias you might have taken something different from it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15374969210466882387 baicec

    Please, don't be menace in things that you don't understand. Please…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00484306768513176532 Kraxpelax

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: as a nonbeliever who wants to believe

    …and there you have it in a nutshell why the books ideas sucked.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    Taner's review isn't informative as to anything except his opinion. For it to inform, it would actually have to cite page #'s where the author does the things he is accused of, quote the author, cite research to the contrary, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826568465831489492 Alex Dalton

    The Universe wrote: "there are actually quite a few things published on this"

    Thanks for pointing this out. I'll check it out. Any others justifying your statement to the effect of "quite a few"? I have questions about the methodology. Have you actually read the study, or book? Or just that blog on it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14544680532155804010 Brenda

    Saying of Sheiman that he is a "nonbeliever who wants to believe" borders on ad hominem. At best you are projecting your own beliefs on him. Do you believe that anyone who defends a position they don't believe nevertheless secretly holds or desires to hold that position?

    "I'm not going to call the book worthless."

    I am glad to hear that you have stopped beating your wife.

    "He regularly ignores research that might support more skeptical conclusions."

    Shorter: The book is a failure because the author didn't write the book I would have.

    "Sheiman's constant hand-wringing about how religion provides meaning to life and the universe is annoying"

    I might be annoying to you but for the vast majority of human kind religion really does provide a sense of meaning and purpose to their lives. I don't think that you can so glibly ignore that human need as blithely as you do.

    Good luck trying to convince others that their lives are utterly devoid of purpose and meaning. While I do think that atheism demands some sort of existential and moral nihilism, how could it be otherwise, that's going to be a pretty tough sell. You might convince angst ridden urban hipsters of the emptiness of their lives, if there were any left, but you're not going to win over many other people with that message.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14544680532155804010 Brenda

    "the most secular and irreligious countries on Earth actually have the most peaceful, crime free, successful, generous societies on Earth"

    Correlation does not equal causation. In fact, probably a better explanation for why European nations have been relatively peaceful since WWII is… WWII. People react to extreme violence and the first half of the 20th century was *extremely* violent.

    Normal scholars, those without an ideological agenda, mostly say that the culprit for two world wars and the Holocaust is not religion but Authoritarianism.

    A second explanation for why Germany and Japan have been relatively quiescent since WWII is because the Allies decapitated their ruling class. Something that needs to happen here in the US before it's too late.

    The standard atheist claim (I'm agnostic BTW) that religion *causes* violence is nothing more than ideology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11494806185915438337 The Universe is an Atheist

    There is a direct logical path, Brenda, from believing that your "god" wants to murder all homosexuals to, in fact, murdering homosexuals and treating them like shit and calling them sinful. There is a direct logical path, brenda, to believing that aborition is a crime against god and seeking a perverted vigilante retribution against abortion doctors by murdering them and abortion clinics by destroying them. There is a direct logical path between believing that Allah wants you to die a martyrs death so you will be rewarded and flying planes into buildings. There is a direct logical path from believing insane things and acting INSANE. So, I think it is fair to take an opposed position to the entire bullocks-up; business of religion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09181224452493396547 AltWorlder

    There's also a direct logical path from enjoying a good brutal game of football and torching cars when the Raiders win/lose. What's your point?


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