Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Religious Case Against Belief

The Religious Case Against Belief
James P. Carse (2008, Penguin Press)

Why is there a religious case against belief, and why is one needed? Doesn’t religion entail, or indeed consist of, a certain set of beliefs? Actually, not at all; in The Religious Case Against Belief, James Carse makes a philosophical case for disentangling the two concepts.
His definitions are not everybody’s: consider the recent spate of books that attempt to make a scientific case against religion, or, as Carse would have it, against belief. For instance, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith promotes the idea that (all) religion is a dangerous error of logic that could be cured by a universal commitment to factual reasoning. So far as I know, his reasoning has not converted anyone away from religion in the real world, and Carse explains why: “Belief systems are stunningly resistant to such correction, for the simple reason that deeply committed believers are not offering a variety of debatable proposals about the nature of the world. They see the world through their beliefs, not their beliefs from a worldly perspective.”

Belief (and here Carse is making the extreme case, caricaturing for effect) is the stuff of martyrdom, the sort of certainty one would kill or die for. He gives the example of Martin Luther under examination by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in a confrontation that would lead to Luther’s excommunication. “These were two powerful men, facing each other across a line neither of them would cross. Charles remained untouched by the young monk’s teachings. The monk never retreated.” How could they have? 

This mutual intransigence was epoch-making in its own right, of course, but Carse is making a more abstract point. “Belief systems thrive in circumstances of collision. They are energized by their opposites.” Belief creates boundaries between what is believed and what is not. Subscribing to one belief system involves rejecting another, by definition. “They are joined in a kind of compact that freezes them to a stable self-understanding consisting of a reverse image of the other.”

But did either Luther or Charles have the last word about what Christianity is? No. Whatever Christianity is, it is larger and more durable any of the belief systems that have attempted to contain it, and Carse regards this as a mark of a true religion. Like the other religions with histories reaching back through millennia, Christianity has evolved and renewed itself continuously even as it has maintained a distinctive identity. Each religion has characteristic questions which demand answers as insistently as they resist them. Who is Jesus? Who is the Buddha? What does the Quran say, or the Torah? What they have in common, according to Carse: “After a lifetime spent meditating on and studying these questions one only begins to understand how elusive the answers are. Can we even imagine Muslims agreeing on what the Quran says? The point is that in each case, it is not a general ignorance but one that is acquired, one that is specific to each religion.”

Religion is an unfinished conversation, which attracts a community willing to keep talking. Now we can see why belief is so often conflated with religion: it’s endlessly tempting to adopt solutions to the large questions.“Mystery is difficult to live with, and for some even terrifying. It can often be of great comfort to hide our unknowing behind the veil of a well-articulated belief system. For this reason, the historic religions seem to be a particularly fertile source for absolutisms.” 

Fortunately, the historic religions are also fertile sources for the poetic imagination, which doesn’t just push at the walls of belief, but dissolves them. Inside any religion, at any time, poets and prophets may arise to challenge the boundaries set by belief. Inside any religion, the gathered community gives rise to cultural expressions of all kinds, and these, in turn, nourish community.

James Carse is a retired professor of religion, but he’s writing here as a philosopher. His logic is careful; his language is precise and a little dense. He’s also the author, as it turns out, of one of my favorite books of the nineteen-eighties, Finite and Infinite Games.* If the words ‘religion’ and ‘belief’ have been poisoned irrevocably for you, I commend the earlier work, which covers much the same ground, couched in different words. Subtitled “A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility,” it’s philosophy in jeans and a sweatshirt.

However you read him, Carse stands for living in relation to the horizon, free from our self-created boundaries. At boundaries, we meet only conflict; beyond the horizon, the unknown waits.

*1986, The Free Press

Email edition, December 2010

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