Today I’ll continue reviewing books which both theists and atheists may find interesting.
In a short and provocative volume called The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), James P. Carse praises what he calls a “higher ignorance.” To admit how little we know “is the beginning of wisdom” (p. 4). I appreciate this idea, since facing ignorance is one of my main themes in Bridging the God Gap.
Carse, who directed New York University’s Religious Studies Program for thirty years, shows that religion can awaken our sense of the mysterious rather than closing our minds with pat answers. Spiritual seekers “may begin to acquire the art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties” (p. 3).
Learning to admit the limits of our own knowledge “comes only as the result of long reflection … with a continuing process of self-examination” (p. 16). He contrasts this higher ignorance with belief, an attitude which allows “no possibility of a reasonable objection” (p. 23).
Carse acknowledges that he is using an “admittedly uncommon definition of belief” (p. 45), and it seems to me that he is equating belief with closed-minded dogma. He might have titled this book The Religious Case Against Dogmatism or The Religious Case Against Rigid Belief Systems. But that sounds rather bland, and I can appreciate the attractiveness of a startling and paradoxical title.
Believers, says Carse, think “they have been brought to the end of their ignorance. This is a decisive mistake” (p. 59). I agree. But I do not agree that being certain about a belief is necessarily destructive. We are certain, for example, that the Earth revolves around the sun, and our certainty about this matter causes no difficulties. Presumably Carse is not talking about this sort of belief, but the example illustrates the confusion that arises when one defines a broad, vague, and commonly-used word idiosyncratically.
In Part Two I will explore Carse’s radical skepticism about religious knowledge, and discuss his critique of contemporary atheism.
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