James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part One

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.

Roger

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part One

  1. I don’t believe Carse was referring to beliefs about such things for which we have “proof.” Your example with the “earth revolving around the sun” (which was diametrically opposed to the prevailing worldview at one point in time) is a good one. But I can’t imagine someone saying “I believe the earth revolves around the sun.” Surely this has solidified to mere scientific, empirically verifiable fact. I think he uses the word “belief” to point exclusively to things which otherwise lack proof or which are in no way verifiable claims about religion (ie, the domain of religion / metaphysics / “the spiritual”).

    Carse’s arguments here against belief resonate strongly (IMO) with the Buddha’s admonition to his followers on not holding to “fixed views.” A sure pathway to suffering, was, in the Buddha’s words, holding firmly to any “views.” We can’t help but have views but when they solidify and harden into “beliefs” is where we get into trouble. Think about how much less religious violence (violence committed in God’s name) there would be if all religious peoples held their beliefs loosely! Maybe there would be none!! Such a vision is worthy of Lennon!

    • Re: I don’t believe Carse was referring to beliefs about such things for which we have “proof.” … I think he uses the word “belief” to point exclusively to things which otherwise lack proof or which are in no way verifiable….
      Reply:
      I agree, except that I would say “which lack proof according to Carse’s scientifically-informed world-view.” There are plenty of “believers” who are convinced that they have absolute proof of God’s existence, e.g., because they survived a horrific car crash or other disaster, and in their way of thinking this “had” to be due to divine intervention. They still speak of “belief in God” because that is a customary expression in the language of their faith community, but they actually are certain that God exists.

      Re: Think about how much less religious violence (violence committed in God’s name) there would be if all religious peoples held their beliefs loosely! Maybe there would be none!! Such a vision is worthy of Lennon!

      Reply: Indeed. And I love Carse’s concept of the higher ignorance.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Singram.

      • Roger,

        My pleasure. I’m certainly glad I found your blog. I look forward to diving into your posts this coming week.

        Shawn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s