The Religious Case Against Belief

James P Carse

I like book catalogs, so it’s always one of the high points of the month for me when Edward Hamilton Bargain Books shows up in the mailbox.  Lately I’ve been intrigued by a 2008 title, The Religious Case Against Belief, by James P. Carse.  When I say I was intrigued by the title, I mean precisely that.  There are several ideas that might go under that label, so I wanted to know what it was Carse was saying.  So I looked the book up online and came upon this interview Carse gave to Salon when the book came out.   Here’s a bit that seems to sum up his big idea:

In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as a religion.

Exactly. That’s a very interesting contrast with belief systems. Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive, passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason the great religions don’t run out as quickly is that they’re able to maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and guarantees its vitality.

Carse seems to be saying that the main thing that’s praiseworthy about religion is that it binds one generation of people to other generations.  Belief systems can’t do that, at least not beyond a few generations and certainly not without a great risk that the militant ignorance needed to sustain the system will do less to bring people together than to drive them apart and to bring in elements of intimidation that will poison such relationships as they do maintain.  So Carse’s case seems to rest on an appeal to use rituals, stories, and a sense of awe to lower the barriers that separate one person from another. 

Carse was for 30 years a professor of religious studies at New York University; his case sounds like the sort of plea a kindly old scholar might make to the world at the end of such a career.  He maintains a fine blog, and is an accomplished photographer.  I hope to be a kindly old scholar myself someday, I blog, and I appreciate photography.  So I admire Carse and wish him well. 

Another idea that I thought a book called The Religious Case Against Belief might put forward is one that’s been on my mind as I’ve tagged along with Mrs Acilius to her Quaker meeting every Sunday.  Many Quakers, like other mystics, distrust language and say that they seek a knowledge that cannot be confined to the words of human speech.  So Quakers have historically resisted the formulation of creeds and litanies.  Dogmatic theology has little place in the history of Quakerism.  Quakers might quote Thomas á Kempis with approval, when he wrote in the Imitation of Christ that he was grateful for his education because it had freed him from a multitude of opinions.  It would seem logical for a mystic of the Quaker stamp to take Thomas a step further, and to define religion, not as a set of beliefs, but as a set of practices that free a person from the power that beliefs formulated in language might have over his or her mind.

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