Religion and Atheism

Beyond the Divide

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Editor(s): 
Anthony Carroll, Richard Norman
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2016.
     278 pages.
     $41.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138891913.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Anthony Carrol and Richard Norman work to initiate meaningful conversation between two camps often positioned as antagonists in a tense debate. In Religion and Atheism: Bridging the Divide, the collection of essays Carrol and Norman have composed aim to do far more than merely build bridges. The varying approaches to discussing religion and atheism found in this collection complicate not only the nature of the divide between the two philosophical orientations, they question and analyze the validity of every aspect of the debate, including to what degree religion or atheism constitute meaningful categories at all.

Such a strategy necessitates a deep and broad philosophical survey of various viewpoints. On this front, Carrol and Norman succeed. While conversations are skewed towards the Christian vs. atheist dichotomy, there is a broad consideration of religious concepts which make the essays in this work comprehendible to readers who have limited background knowledge on the “divide.” On this note, however, there is some work in store for the reader if they hope to come away with a deeper consideration of the nature of the divide and the ways in which these essays question its validity.

A collection of essays from various authors who are addressing questions about the nature of belief, being, or a creator is one necessarily full of caveats and couched definitions, and the careful and thoughtful approach by the authors naturally leads to variations in the way terminology tracks from essay to essay. Therefore, the reader must keep conceptions of identities, like believer or non-believer, or what exactly an atheist or God is and is not, flexible when moving through this book. When managed, however, this is a rewarding read.

Carrol and Norman divide this collection into four parts, each with a specific theme. The opening section, “Dialogue,” is clever in that it recognizes that the divide is rarely addressed through carefully crafted essays but rather in conversation between two disagreeing parties. The transcribed conversation between Raymond Tallis (a well-credentialed academic and the non-believer in this section) and Rowan Williams (the former Archbishop of Canterbury) serves as a helpful introduction to the tone of the remainder of the essays, which is conspicuously cordial while delving deep into religious philosophy and the limits of discourse.

The remaining sections, “Knowledge and language,” “Ethics and values,” and “Diversity and dialogue,” approach the divide from various angles, each helping to complicate the nature of belief, or a lack thereof, with many of the authors imploring their readers to consider the ways in which one position or another contributes to a subject’s identity and is deeply intertwined with their lives in complex ways. Some opt to address this directly, like in Fern Eldson-Baker’s essay “The compatibility of science and religion?” Others, like John Cottingham, approach it indirectly by addressing the role that spiritual experiences can play in the lives of both believers and non-believers, even when the terminology and examination of these experiences vary from one individual to another.

This is not to say that this collection of twenty-one essays speaks with a single voice or goes about articulating the same conclusion twenty-one different ways. While many of the essays aim to bridge the divide (or at least complicate the concept of that divide such that a bridge seems less necessary), several of the essays opt out of bridge-building and search for alternate paths. Rather than looking to reconcile differences by identifying points of cohesion or breaking down by-definition antagonistic categories, Julian Baggini suggests that individuals look elsewhere for common ground rather than ignoring the irreconcilable nature of the belief/unbelief divide.

For a reader who is familiar with philosophical discussions about belief and unbelief there may not be much new information here. However, the careful way in which the various authors approach the conversation, and the many angles from which the divide is considered, is an edifying read even for scholars who are deeply entrenched in this sort of religious philosophy. By collecting essays on such a long-considered topic, Carrol and Norman cannot have hoped to break new ground so much as offer solid footing to those hoping to take the bite out of this conversation. In collecting such a thoughtful group of essays by authors who take the divide seriously and approach it tactfully, this book is a sizeable step in that direction.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert Lee is a doctoral student in American Religious History at Florida State University

Date of Review: 
December 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony Carroll is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, UK. His publications include Protestant Modernity: Weber, Secularization, and Protestantism (2007), and he is an Anglican priest.

Richard Norman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, UK. His publications include On Humanism (2nd edition 2012), and he is a founder-member of the Humanist Philosophers’ Group, and a Patron of the British Humanist Association.

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