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.


J G-W said...

I can't believe I missed this post until now!!

I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I found it very engaging, and I think it makes a helpful contribution to the discussion about belief initiated by folks like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and company.

I guess my quibble with those folks is their (self-?)righteous indignation that religion stubbornly just won't go away. Carse does a good job, I think, of explaining precisely why religion doesn't, won't and probably shouldn't go away -- even in spite of the harm done to its cause by "believers."

You've done a really nice job of summarizing Carse's key points about the distinction between religion and belief.

I guess my commitment to my faith boils down to a commitment to build "the Kingdom of God," an earthly/heavenly kingdom founded on love. So terms like civitas and communitas resonate for me. For me, faith is more about trust in the power of love than it is about blindly accepting intellectual propositions. So I'm OK with Carse, though I think he and I live in very different faith worlds.

I probably had a few *minor* quibbles with Carse as well, though none of them worth mentioning. The only one that really stands out in my mind (several years after reading him!) was his flippant dismissal of Mormonism. He's not sure if it qualifies as a religion. I guess it goes to show that even someone who bills himself as a paragon of religious tolerance can still find it in his heart to look down at his nose at somebody.

Knight of Nothing said...

Thanks! I wondered if you you had seen this post. I did like the book, and I agree - it's a worthy, fresh interjection of thought on what can be a contentious debate.

I can understand why Carse's comments about Mormonism might rankle, but speaking as a non-Mormon, I didn't take them as a dismissal of the faith. To me, it sounded simply like an instance of "not enough data". Part of his definition of religion includes longevity. And when using a millennial yardstick to measure the longevity of a religion, LDS naturally comes up short.

His book is actually helpful in thinking about politics as well. Again, though, the challenge in politics is to disentangle "belief" from "knowledge". Political people, like believers, often violently cling to their beliefs. I guess one could consider his book to be an extended essay on the perils and pitfalls of confirmation bias. :-)

J G-W said...

I also found his comments on totalitarianism as pseudo-religion. Religion might have its dangers, but it takes politics posing as religion to royally f*** up on a grand scale.

J G-W said...

I guess I did also take an issue with his millennial definition of religion.

After all, if we insist on this, then we're left with some ridiculous propositions, such as that Christians in 100 A.D. (or Jews in 1000 B.C.) didn't actually belong to a religion.

I like the way he defines a religion as a community that has found a common language to wrestle with questions related to the meaning of life. Your religious community doesn't have to be a thousand years old to do that extremely well... In fact, I think the history of religion suggests that new religions come into being all the time when old religions fail to do that as well as they should...

Knight of Nothing said...

I don't think it's ridiculous - after all, no one knew they were living in the Ice Age when it began. That doesn't mean that the folks who lived at the beginning of the last glacial period weren't in the Ice Age. It just means that they couldn't know that they were in fact in its midst without more data - data that they were incapable of collecting, because it spanned many lifetimes.

One might say we are quibbling over semantics, but then again, the whole book is an exercise in semantics on a grand scale. My impulse is to define religion as it was taught to me, and as I observe it to be practiced and preached. And if we restrict its definition to observable and measurable phenomena, then one has a hard time disagreeing with a lot of what Dawkins and Harris say about religion.

Carse, on the other hand, is arguing that he has a more appropriate definition of religion. It is a compelling definition, and I think that standing the test of time is a critical part of that definition. If any community that wrestles with a certain set of questions could be labeled a religion, that's a pretty expansive (and not very meaningful) definition.

Regarding your comment about the genesis of new religions, what you say sounds like it would fit nicely with what Carse is saying. But I think that, at least to Carse, it is critical that these communities find ways to renew themselves and their dialog over an extended period of time before he would grant them the status of a religion. Thoughts?

J G-W said...

The only problem with that is that "religion" is a validating term. Using it to describe a group confers legitimacy; while, conversely, refusing to apply it to another group denies legitimacy.

Growing up Mormon, I was very aware of the power of words like "religion" or "faith" to normalize and legitimize, especially when words like "cult" were routinely used to describe my religion...

Knight of Nothing said...

My take is that Carse is trying to rescue the term "religion" from itself; he doesn't really address the tension between the labels "religion" and "cult." He certainly isn't calling Mormonism a cult. But I can understand your concern that in the empty space left by his definition, others might fill it with a pejorative label.

J G-W said...

Well, as I said, it's a "minor" quibble. His arguments don't really depend on the notion that a communion has to be old to count as a religion. And I really did like most of what he had to say.