Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now I'm a Believer

A couple of years back, a friend recommended a book to me - James Carse's The Religious Case Against Belief. I recently got around to reading it, and found it to be an engaging, worthwhile experience.
God said it - I believe it - that settles it.
- bumper sticker
So begins the book. Carse sets out to disentangle "religion" from "belief", which are not the synonyms I (and most people) take them to be. For him, this is no mere academic exercise: it can be argued that conflicting religious beliefs are responsible for much of what is shocking and violent in our world today, and he wants to draw a sharp distinction between the two.

Carse argues that belief marks a boundary beyond which thinking and questioning and exploration cease. For a believer, there is nothing beyond his own beliefs. Religion, on the other hand, is surprisingly difficult to define; he writes that it is an ethereal and mysterious and enduring phenomenon, in which its practitioners strive for knowledge without ever reaching it.

The author posits that the great religions of the world have thrived not because of their legions of believers, but because of vital conversations within themselves about their own meaning. Using his expansive knowledge of history, he illustrates that the result of these religious dialectics is what he labels the "poetry of religion." In striving for the infinite, there can be no boundaries, no ultimate truth; only horizons and contexts.

Carse spends a great deal of energy developing his definition of belief in order to distinguish it from religion. He starts by enumerating three types of ignorance: ordinary, willful, and "higher". Ordinary and willful ignorance are self-explanatory, but this last form was unfamiliar to me. He states that "higher" ignorance is a form of mental discipline in which a person has come to practice intellectual humility and honesty in the presence of a vast and unchartable universe. The money quote: "knowledge is corrigible, belief is not."

He goes on to say that willful ignorance is the cornerstone of belief systems. For Carse, belief has a limit imposed by some authority (a text, a person, an idea), and its effectiveness as a system is in securing its intellectual borders and defining its limits:
Once believers have selected their authority, genuine dialogue is abandoned. Discourse does not take its own spontaneous path but is aimed always at correcting and strengthening the existing thinking of those who already believe. Indeed, an attempt at genuine dialogue within a belief system can be taken itself as an act of unbelief.
Belief needs and thrives on opposition, because only walls that are being attacked need defending. He further states that because of this rigidity, belief systems actually contain the seeds of their own demise.
Believers and warriors tend to merge into one another: the military sees itself in religious terms, while believers take on the images of warfare.

[Belief systems] have an absolute commitment to their own orthodoxy, something missing in all the great religions... For all of their apparent worldly power, they are surprisingly fragile.
In striving to distinguish these two related yet (for him) oppositional words, he actually lights upon a compact and almost elegant definition of evil: "evil find its perfect home in our own belief system and the moral certainty that goes with it."

As his distinction between belief and religion become clear, the book develops the idea of the human institutions that make a body of believers vs religious adherents. He uses the terms civitas and communitas to speak about these groups. He begins to examine just how difficult it is to define "religion" and what it encompasses. He uses some iconic historical figures: Galileo, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, and even Jesus to help illustrate his message about the gulf between religion and belief.

My greatest critique of Carse's work is that while his distinction between religion and belief may be meaningful and fairly well-established among scholars of religion, my experience with these phenomena in the wider world is that the two are almost hopelessly entangled. And while his definition of belief is compelling, he goes a bit too far when he tries to categorize scientific pursuits with it.

All that said, Carse's work is a good reminder that religious tradition and experience has a richness and depth and eloquence that resonates with people.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pretty Much

"All of this playing at politics is completely unnecessary. Democracy is for those capable of self-governance. Americans are not interested in governing themselves, but in watching television, and the political spectacle does not make for particularly compelling television viewing."
From ClubOrlov, a blog I've been checking on now and again. 

I can't decide if I'm a cynic or a cynic.