In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Robinson examines that unfortunate dichotomy from all angles. On one side, the “new atheists” and their ilk badly caricature religion as an explanation of the world that competes with other explanations from disciplines of physics, biology, psychology, and so on. Viewed from another vantage point, religion itself often colludes with this ill-conceived critique, betraying its highest vision with sound-bite answers to genuinely open questions and hitching its wagon to dubious causes (like the defense of a historically novel “capitalism”). Science is equally misunderstood when its practitioners and its fundamentalist detractors alike view it as a way of understanding that can dispense with religion, as if the latter were a veneer obscuring a more persuasive, secularized explanation of life. In this spiral of mutual misunderstanding, the humanist ideal of deepening appreciation for the awe and “depth dimension” of human existence is curtailed.
Robinson offers her essays in the face of this confusion, as “night thoughts of a baffled humanist,” which is how she referred to her musings in a recent Internet excerpt from the book. She aims to defend both religion and humanism from their not-quite-so cultured despisers, many of whom may be found self-identifying as “religious” or as “humanists.”