Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Belief and Religion

Salon has an interview with James Carse, who has a new book titled, The Religious Case Against Belief. His main point is that beliefs don't have to be linked with religion, and that the only defining characteristic of religion is "longevity". Some of his ideas are interesting and some not so smart. (read the full interview here)
Carse, who's retired from New York University (where he directed the Religious Studies Program for 30 years), is out to rescue religion from both religious fundamentalists and atheists. He worries that today's religious zealots have dragged us into a Second Age of Faith, not unlike the medieval Crusaders. But he's also critical of the new crop of atheists. "What these critics are attacking is not religion, but a hasty caricature of it," he writes in his new book, "The Religious Case Against Belief."
...

I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?

It's an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don't perfectly overlap. It's not that they're completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who's not religious. Let's say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, "I think I believe all of these." But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there's a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It's not at all clear what exactly one should believe.

I think this is quite reasonable. What about religion?

So what is it that holds together a belief system?

A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system, everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very important to understand a belief system as independent of religion. After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief systems ever.

What, then, do you mean by religion?

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don't have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?

But aren't there certain core questions that religion grapples with: God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?

Well, let's talk about the five great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism 2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14 centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of challenges. Let's say you're a Muslim and you want to know what Islam is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.

And he considers "longevity" as the only defining characteristic of religion. huh!?

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.

Hmm...are there no reasons other than "a deeper sense of the mystery" that make a religion survive? And what length of time makes one system qualify as a religion? It appears that couple of hundred years certainly doesn't cut it (he excludes Mormonism). Would astrology qualify - its certainly older than Christianity? By the way, from his definition, science will be the only real religion left (woo hoo!) - the only problem is that he doesn't seem to be a big fan of science.

Ok, lets get to his views about the New Atheists:

Given what's happening in the world right now, do you think there's a lot at stake in how we talk about religion and belief?

Absolutely. In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system.

Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?

Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily.

Ok, now he is right on one thing: The New Atheists often don't distinguish between religion and belief. For example, Dawkins often focuses on the lack of evidence for a supernatural entity. But religions are also a social-cultural complex, where the belief in the supernatural may (or may not) be only one of the many components. So he is right in pointing out the importance of the specific god for attack rather than using "religion" as a broad term. But then he makes the same mistake of defining atheism in a narrow way that fits his own line of attack:

And yet, you've just told me that you yourself don't believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

The difference, though, is that I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

What?? So atheists are not "stunned by the mystery of things" or "to walk around in wonder about the universe". Has he ever read Dawkins? Or Sagan? (heck - or Einstein?) Its a shame that he is talking all about definitions, and then he comes up with such a dismal definition for atheism. Ok, so he has a bizarre idea about religion ("longevity" as the defining characteristic) and he has a terrible definition of atheism (not to mention his hostility towards a cognitive understanding of belief) - may be its a good idea to skip his book. The end of the interview is about poetry and his view that religions at their roots are inspired by poets. Ok - so this is a nice point, but it doesn't do enough to negate his views above.

You can read the full interview here.

3 comments:

Don said...

That definition of atheism is pretty weak. It sounds like he's one of those scholars of religion that perceives atheism primarily as a backlash against something indefinable... a rebellion without a target moved by rebels without a cause. Maybe because he thinks of science as a religion, and excludes any wonder from the atheist mind, he just thinks of atheism as an empty position. It's sounds strange for him to assert that you can separate belief from religion on one hand and then to claim that you can't have wonder without some kind of quasi-religious belief, but perhaps I've misunderstood.

Salman Hameed said...

I don't know if he considers science as a religion. I don't think he thinks much of science at all, hence his jabs at evolutionary explanations for religion (or beliefs).

It's sounds strange for him to assert that you can separate belief from religion on one hand and then to claim that you can't have wonder without some kind of quasi-religious belief, but perhaps I've misunderstood.

Exactly. This is the problem I had with his definition.

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