Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review: 'The Religious Case Against Belief'

As the debate between the neo-atheists (or, as I prefer to call them, the nü-atheists, since Hitchens and Dawkins operate with all the subtlety and grace of Fred Durst screaming for the “nookie”) and their rivals, the neo-apologists, heats to a fever pitch, we’re seeing more and more voices insert themselves into the middle of the conversation. Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution are the two most prominent books of this sort. I haven’t read either of these, but I want to, and I’m planning on reading Wright, at least, and reviewing him on this blog sometime soon.

James P. Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief predates both of these books, but it has slipped between the cracks to a large extent. Carse is professor emeritus of religion at Harvard University and an avowed agnostic; with this latter fact in mind, upon reading the title of his book, it’d be easy to assume that it’s another screed against those idiot Christians, tempered, perhaps by some sort of social defense of religion as a necessary institution for the survival of civilization. It is not.

Instead, Carse divides the world of faith into two factions: We have on one hand “religious” people, whose world is “more complicated, often foggy, sometimes hidden, and increasingly varied” (111); on the other, we have believers, whose worldview

thrives on conflict, depends on the clarity and restricting power of its surrounding boundaries, has a one-dimensional understanding of authority, possesses a kind of atemporality that denies any possibility of an open history, and builds on a severe form of self-rejection.


On the on hand, we have people interested in asking questions; on the other, we have people interested in providing answers—even if those answers are arbitrary and given in response to questions that don’t even have answers.

Carse, much to his credit, does not limit believers to members of any particular confession, but extends it to a wide variety of -isms: Marxism, nationalism, Nazism, Maoism, creationism, and, yes, nü-atheism. He is also magnanimous enough to point out that the association of Evangelicals with Nazis is not an equation of evil or of degree but merely of orientation: the world of the belief system is narrowly defined and discourages thought.

Against the systematic theologians of the spiritual and materialist worlds Carse sets a few examples of genuinely religious people: Jesus and Buddha, of course, but also Galileo and Abraham Lincoln. What these figures have in common is something Carse calls “higher ignorance”:

What we see in [Galileo’s] life is that there is no end of truths, and not one of them beyond challenge. There is always something new and unexpected to be learned. What drove him, in other words, was not his knowledge but his ignorance. He knew that he did not know. He also knew he never would know it all.


This is undeniably an attractive proposition. Carse is essentially calling for a humility in the face of the wonders of the universe, and who’s not for that? The answer, of course, is believers, who all believe “that they have been brought to the end of their ignorance” (59). When he puts it that way, of course, it’s hard to come down in favor of belief over religious, and since he describes the two as essentially incompatible. “When ‘true’ believers claim that their convictions have been validated by a given religion,” we are told, “they are patently unaware that in doing so they have just rejected it” (4).

Thus, religions cannot have any kind of doctrine, at least not in their capacity as religions. Instead, religion is something akin to poetry, which, Carse declares (arbitrarily, in my opinion) “does not translate into belief, or into rational thought of any kind. It can be little more than a random insight, or a puzzling oracular declaration” (102). Like Oscar Wilde, who famously says in “The Critic as Artist” that “Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing," Carse has poetry (and with it, religion) performing as nothing beyond aesthetic spectacle—it may suggest, but it never says.

Curiously, he includes in the category of religious texts both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, large chunks of which are explicit and specific laws and more-or-less systematic theology. Carse claims that these texts are “a glorious confusion” and that their “power lies precisely in the fact that every attempt improve [them] is doomed” (118). We can’t interpret these books; all we can do, if we want to remain intellectually and existentially honest, is to “join in to make a joyful noise of our own” (118). Poetry stirs us to create more poetry, which, when Carse talks about it, often sounds more like turning cosmos back into chaos.

Oddly enough, although he instructs us that religion must be separated from belief, he maintains a very heavy division between the various world religions, each of which “has an identity that sets it apart, so far apart that it cannot even be said that one religion is like another” (138). This is where I got confused. If religions are not permitted to have doctrine, what is it that sets one so clearly apart from another? If I am not permitted belief, can I worship Shiva and the Goddess and still maintain my particular identity as a Christian?

This is the main weakness of Carse’s otherwise elegant and compelling argument. In the end, religion divorced from specific beliefs seems like it should end up with every religious person in the same large pot, perhaps the Unitarian Universalist Church, where from my understanding you don’t need to believe in anything in particular. Carse points out that Christians don’t agree with one another on some very large issues; this is true, but it’s also true that the glue that binds them together is belief in some even larger ones.

In the end, then, Carse seems to want us to replace the specificity of belief systems with a more-or-less vague religious impulse—that “sense of wonderment at the vastness of the universe” that atheists sometimes talk about to replace the gods they do not believe in. This is a very, very serious suggestion—one that would almost completely destroy the structures of religions as we know them. Beliefs are serious business, and to pretend that religions could get along without them would be closing your eyes to what they’re really made of.

There is one type of believer whom Carse likes and respects, by the way: the kind who says,

“My faith has uncertainty, even outright doubt, woven right into it. Nevertheless, I embrace the risk of a leap into the unseen.” I want to emphasize here that this kind of belief, with an acknowledged unknown at its heart, is not the kind that has led to the Age of Faith II with its absolutisms, its certainties, its martyrdoms, and its inevitable drift into violence and warfare.


The belief he describes is a Kierkegaardian one, built on the Dane’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (later renamed by scholars the “leap of faith,” a phrase Kierkegaard never uses). What Carse doesn’t seem to recognize is that Kierkegaard’s leap is toward a very specific God, a personality, in fact, one who has rules and laws and who demands an obedience and a set of beliefs, even if He makes the leaper suspend them momentarily. A leap into the dark only works if one is leaping in the right direction.

That’s not to say I hated this book. Carse has some very interesting things to say, especially if we temper some of his points. We can adopt his notion of “higher ignorance,” for example, and recognize and admit that we don’t know the metaphysical structure of the universe—in fact, we can’t know it—the way that we know more certain things in everyday life. But that doesn’t mean we should just chuck beliefs out the window, not as far as I’m concerned.

The Emergent Church in particular will find a lot to like here, particularly in Carse’s exposition of religion as composed of communities and his call for legitimate dialogue between believers and non-believers of every philosophy and theology. And Evangelicals of a more traditionalist stripe will definitely appreciate his defense of faith against the nü-atheists. But I’m just afraid Carse takes things too far—instead of a Reformation of belief, he wants an abolition of it, and I just don’t see any way to do that and make religion vital and meaningful.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't help but recall an article by James Wood that appeared in the August 31 edition of the New Yorker. Critiquing Eagleton, Wood says that many of these more elegant defenses of religion turn to Wittgenstein, where religion is not so much a belief as a way of life. Wittgenstein's own sentiments were stimulated by Tolstoy's views concerning an individual's actions taking precedence over the proliferation of creeds and doctrines. But Wood declares this approach to be unsatisfactory because it leaves out the personal side of religious belief. Wood explicitly declares Jesus to be his biggest hang-up with Christianity. It seems we now need scholars willing to confront the actual "characters" that pervade religious texts. Or perhaps Jesus was, as Harold Bloom suggests, invented by the author of Mark...

Anonymous said...

One amendment: I'm actually Heather's husband Cameron.

Michial said...


I read that article and found it interesting. Wood's novel "The Book Against God" is one of the most interesting religious works written by an atheist that I've ever read. (I review it elsewhere on this site.)

I wonder if we don't have a false dichotomy here; it'd be ridiculous to set up a system of belief while ignoring the actual person of Christ. ("The Last Temptation of Christ" presents a St. Paul who'd be willing to do just that.) On the other hand, we can appeal to the person of Christ for a huge number of positions--in fact, if you want to justify your position, the best way to do it is to appeal to the person of Christ. Both of these approaches seem wrongheaded to me.

Instead, I suspect we encounter the person of Christ, who brings us to the set of beliefs of the historical Christian church--which in turns leads us back to the person of Christ. That corresponds roughly to Kierkegaard's spheres of existence, as well.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Very thoughtfull post on belief .It should be very much helpfull.

Karim - Creating Power