Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Religion versus Belief

James Carse is from New York University where he directed the Religious Studies Program for 30 years. He has a new book out, The Religious Case Against Belief. He is featured in a recent Salon interview where he talks about the difference between belief and religion:
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.
Carse argues that belief systems can be found within all major religions, but don't need to be religiously based. Nazism and Marxism are examples of belief systems without religious roots. They share with religiously based belief systems the same tenets. From his book:
Well-developed belief systems have the capacity to account for and explain any issue or question that might arise. They present themselves as thoroughly rational and comprehensible, while answering to a final authority, whether that be a person or a text or an institution. But they are not only large intellectual schemes. They often have distinctive historical narratives, an extensive mythology, a pronounced sense of community, a pantheon of heroes and martyrs, an array of symbols, scripted rituals, sacred geographical sites and monuments. On top of all this is an absolute certainty in the truth of their beliefs. What is more, they see themselves surrounded by treacherous unbelievers who wish nothing more but their demise. (pp. 32-33)
A religion like Christianity can can spin off and sustain multiple belief systems, like Catholicism, Protestantism, Orthodox, Fundamentalism, etc. Belief systems are usually born in conflict and depend on its continuing presence to fan the flames of adherents.

Religion, by contrast is "in its purest form a vast work of poetry." (p. 111) A religion like Christianity resists all attempts by its various belief systems to pin it down to any doctrines or essentials. The Christian scripture is a model religious text. It is a "glorious confusion" that invites continuous interpretation. The search for the real Jesus within the text has been going on for two thousand years:
Altogether the effort must be seen as an extraordinary work of the imagination, a long creative train of innovations, or successive visions... To the present day, novel readings of the text have outrun all attempts to channel or contain them. (p. 119)
Hence, religion, like poetry, is not definitive but generative. It continually leads beyond itself to what is not yet known.

Carse makes some distinctions that I find helpful. He distinguishes three kinds of ignorance. There is "ordinary ignorance" which is simply a lack of knowledge that can be rectified with learning. There is "willful ignorence" which is choosing not to know things that make us uncomfortable or don't fit within our belief systems. We know that someone is unhappy with us but pretend that there is nothing wrong. Belief systems and willful ignorance usually walk hand in hand. Creationists simply ignore the evidence that the earth is older than 10,000 years.

There is a third kind of ignorance that is a "higher ignorance." Higher ignorance comes as a result of long reflection and continuing self-examination. No matter how much knowledge one accumulates, there is a recognition that our knowledge falls short of "the" truth. Religion invites us to grow into this "higher ignorance."

Related to this is Carse's distinction between boundaries and horizons. Boundaries mark the borders of what is true and what is safe. On the inside we are protected; on the outside there is danger and chaos. Belief systems attempt to create clear boundaries. Horizons, on the other hand, do not have a fixed outer edge:
It is not a line drawn by someone else, but the limit of one's own vision. If we walk to the point where our vision was thought to end, the horizon will only have extended itself... Every step taken alters the horizon, changes the field of vision, causing us to see what had been thus far circumscribed as something quite different. (p. 80)
Boundaries and horizons are not incompatable. There are healthy belief systems with fuzzy edges. But there is always a tendency within belief systems to build fences and scare people away from exploring the dangerous borders.

Carse thinks that much of the strife in our world is caused by true believers living out of their unhealthy belief systems, willing to kill in the name of God or the Motherland or the Will of the People. He is out to rescue religion from its true believers.

Along the way he takes a few pot-shots at the new Atheists whose books are selling so well these days. From the Salon interview:
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.
This comment caught the attention of Jason Rosenhouse at his EvolutionBlog, where he fired back and invited further discussion.

I have yet to read the final third of the book entitled Religion Beyond Belief but I think Carse adds an interesting twist on the effort to rethink Christianity and other religions, moving away from defining them by outdated and rigid beliefs. I have been drawn to making a distinction between Christianity as praxis versus Christianity as a set of doctrines or beliefs about Jesus or God. To be a Christian is to follow in the way of Jesus. But Carse's religion-as-poetry metaphor opens up another way of thinking about what it means to be a religious person. The horizon has been altered once again.

1 comment:

Mystical Seeker said...

A religion like Christianity resists all attempts by its various belief systems to pin it down to any doctrines or essentials.

I agree with that assessment, but the funny thing is that so many Christians insist upon imposing some set of "essentials" to the faith.

I have come to the conclusion that religion is a form of poetry, and this is also something that militant atheists just don't get.