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

In the first two parts of this series on The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), I’ve considered James P. Carse’s idea of a “higher ignorance,” the humility which some people achieve when (after years of study) they realize how much more there is to learn. As Socrates, one of the most brilliant minds of his time, put it, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Socrates).

Although Carse sometimes expresses himself with great confidence, he invites readers to critique his work: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection” (p. 213).

Both theists and atheists will find themselves challenged by The Religious Case Against Belief. Many theists will be disturbed by his claim that holy scriptures do not provide information about how Earth was made, why we’re here, why we so often do evil, and how we can be saved. Despite the fact that religious texts contain many thousands of words, Carse maintains that, “like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

Although atheists may appreciate this rejection of Biblical literalism, Carse criticizes the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for attacking “a hasty caricature” of contemporary God-concepts” (p. 2). “Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions” (p. 31).

Several other writers, including Karen Armstrong, have made similar comments, but I find it utterly baffling to imagine that religious texts have essentially zero factual content. Certainly many Christians emphasize factual statements about deity. Surveys show that in the U.S., a great many religious people believe in highly traditional beliefs about God. For example, about 80% of American Christians believe that Jesus will return to Earth. (See http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/287.pdf.) “A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050” (Tom Krattenmaker, USA Today, August 23, 2010, p. 9A). It seems perfectly reasonable for atheists to critique the merits of these widely-accepted doctrines.

Carse also denies that churches should preach a literal belief in an afterlife, partly because he says it’s a horrible idea. Like the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, he thinks that an unending afterlife would be hell. Endless personal consciousness, Carse maintains, would drive us mad with boredom (p. 169). He also concurs with Karen Armstrong’s suggestion that ancient religions did not focus on eternal life (p. 173). But ancient stories from all over the world mention visitations from the dead. Traditional cultures have typically assumed that we do go on in some form. Thus the Bible would not have announced the afterlife as an astonishing revelation. It was taken for granted.

Although I don’t agree with everything in The Religious Case Against Belief, I recommend this compact little volume as a meditation on how little we know and how many ways we can interpret what may at first seem like clear and straightforward religious doctrines. “The higher ignorance” is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom.


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