Author Topic: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse  (Read 3172 times)

Cainad (dec.)

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The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« on: November 08, 2008, 01:25:45 am »
After some months of occasionally raving about how great I think this book is, I've finally decided to do the right thing. That is, I will procrastinate on my schoolwork to bring you spags some choice quotes-n-notes from this book.

This will probably be tl;dr for many people. I'm okay with that.

AND SO IT BEGINS

Introduction:

Quote
Why a religious case against belief?

In the current and quite popular assessment of religion, there is one thing conspicuously missing: religion itself. It has long been a fashion, and even more so now, to frame arguments against religion in largely scientific language. From the perspective critics are right to expose the inherent falsehood of much that believers claim to be true. The popular argument states that those who believe in God, or Allah, have fallen "under a spell" worked on them by clever but fraudulent thinkers. Or that religious belief was once useful to the evolution of human culture but is now an impediment to mature societal advance. What is more, believers are not just wrong; they are also dangerous. Here, too, critics have abundant material to target. So-called true believers–those so convinced of the rectitude of their convictions they are eager to die, or to kill, for them–have brought once inconceivable havoc to the human community. Even a cursory glance at the present conflicts across the globe, executed in the name of religion, seems to justify a twist on the traditional Islamic exclamation, asserting that God is not good.

For all of their righteous passion, however, what these critics are attacking is not religion, but a hasty caricature of it. Religion has presented itself in so broad an array of disconnected and unique manifestations across the span of human history that no generalization can conceivably apply to the full variety of its expression. Although the critics are for the most part accomplished students of both science and modern society, their interest in the subject of religion seems to have been exhausted by a few initial glances at the actions of several selected groups of avid believers. This is a misfortune. Considering the extent of the chaos attributable to it, a reflective and religiously literate critique of belief is necessary.

Offering a religious case against belief obviously implies that religion is not strictly a matter of belief. It may come as a surprise that a thoughtful survey of the history of religion provides scant evidence for an extended overlap of the two. Quite simply, being a believer does not in itself make one religious; being religious does not require that one be a believer. This improbable distinction has been hidden by the tenacious notion that religion is chiefly a collection of beliefs. By this account, Hindus have a certain catalogue of assertions to which one must assent in order to take the name for oneself, Jews another. This leads to the absurd perception that one could, for example, come to a full understanding of what it means to be a Jew by carefully listing everything Jews are thought to "believe."

But if a religion is not strictly a matter of believing, what is it? Take note first of the irreconcilable differences between the historic religions. Although Islam and Christianity have been close neighbors for fourteen centuries, it is unthinkable that Muslims might occasionally mistake themselves for Christians. There is something in each tradition that definitively sets it off from the other. But what? It might seem reasonable at this point to consult Christians to learn what their religion is at its core, then turn to Muslims with the same request. After the first few inquiries, we would discover that there is little within Christianity and within Islam as to how the core of each faith is to be articulated. Indeed, this is such an open question that both traditions largely consist in the struggle over what it means to be a Muslim or a Christian. At the center of each, in other words, is a mystery they cannot fully comprehend; neither can they cease attempting to comprehend it. They may give this mystery the name "God" or "Brahman" or "Tao," but when we ask for more complete clarification, agreement among them scatters. How then can we say what the Christian religion is when Christians themselves have never been able to do so?

Yes, an inclusive definition of religion is out of reach, but to acknowledge that is not to terminate meaningful discussion of the issue. Instead, we must integrate the factor of unknowability into each of our conceptions of religion. This can have a strong effect on our thinking in general: reflecting on the remarkable way the great religions seem to develop an awareness of the unknown keen enough to hold its most ardent followers in a state of wonder, we may begin to acquire to art of seeing the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties. This is not just to develop a new intellectual talent, but to enter a new mode of being, a "higher ignorance." Through higher ignorance, an open-ended dialogue becomes possible. It is the goal of this book to reach beyond the phenomenon of belief not merely to defend the religions but to discover how higher ignorance can inform our most ordinary experience. Far from being a critical failure of religion, valued in this way higher ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.

Why a religious case against belief?

In one respect, it is not a mistake to associate religion with belief. Mystery is difficult to live with, and for some even terrifying. It can often be a source of great comfort to hide our unknowing behind the veil of a well-articulated belief system. For this reason, the historic religions seem to be a particularly fertile source for absolutisms. But when "true" believers claim that their convictions have been validated by a given religion, they are patently unaware that in doing so they have just rejected it. The certainties that led Christians to the Crusades, or Hindus to the universal imposition of the caste system, or Muslims to truck bombs all constitute a repression of the tradition they claim as their own. What is more, belief systems or ideologies that originate elsewhere–Nazism, Maoism, Serbian nationalism, American triumphalism–present themselves as the equivalent of religion, often taking on its presumed trappings: Nazi ritual, Mao's Little Red Book, the demarcation of sacred soil, the mission of democracy to enlighten a corrupted world.

This should be enough to indicate that the act of belief is highly complicated and richly nuanced behavior. That it consists of an avowed commitment to a set of truth-claims is the least part of it. On closer analysis in the following chapters, we will find that, among other features, belief 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 the possibility of of an open history, an builds on a sever form of self-rejection. These are characteristics of belief rarely cited in the general discussion. They appear in sharp profile only when we consider their inherent hostility to religion.

In sum, to counterpoise religion and belief is to make possible a deeper insight into both. Given the violence that originates in the absolutism of belief systems, it is urgent that we come to a more incisive grasp of what it at stake. It is proper to hold belief systems to the most stringent canons of knowledge in all its forms. In the process, however, we must take care not to pitch knowledge against religion, as though one is the violation of the other, for in truth they are in essential harmony. The challenge is not to make religion intelligible but to use knowledge religiously. Aristotle wrote that knowledge begins in wonder. By thoughtfully assessing the unmatched vitality of the great religions, we can begin to see that knowledge also ends in wonder.


Emphasis mine. Moar later.

GreenTeal Alpha.roses

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Re: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« Reply #1 on: November 10, 2008, 03:15:51 pm »
Read it and experiencing mixed feelings about it. Will get back to it after some reflection time.

Cainad (dec.)

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Re: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« Reply #2 on: November 10, 2008, 06:43:42 pm »
{My comments are in braces}

Part 1: Belief

Quote
Summoned to Rome in 1633, the aged and ailing Galileo Galilei made the arduous journey from Florence carried on a litter through mostly dreadful weather. He was, however, confident that the Inquisition would rule in his favor. He had reasons for thinking so. Pope Urban VIII had been a firm champion of his work and once had even written an ode in his honor. He was at the pinnacle of his scientific career. Although his discoveries had been received with some controversy, especially in the church, he had admirers at all levels of the hierarchy. He was probably the most famous person in all of Europe. Before his death he would be visited by a parade of notables, including Thomas Hobbes and John Milton. He regarded the trial largely a nuisance, a costly interruption of his work. What is more, it seemed highly improbable that the pope would make himself a fool in the estimate of the intellectual world. Galileo was nonetheless aware that there were powerful people outraged by his ideas. He was well aware that the outcome of every Inquisition was unpredictable. And in the background, there was always the possibility, however remote, of torture and prison, common features of an ecclesiastical trial.

The Inquisition, as history cannot forget, did not bear out his confidence. After months of interrogation, the exhausted, seventy-year-old Galileo gave in to the demands of the papal officers and signed his famous "abjuration." Specifically ordered to reject Copernicus's theory that the "earth is not the center of the universe," he agreed it was false and swore never to teach it again. The statement he was then forced, or chose, to sign is stark. Its decisive sentence leaves little ambiguity: "With sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse and detest my errors." And then, as if this were not enough, he added the disturbing promise, "Should I know any heretic or person suspected of heresy, I shall denounce him to this Holy Office." The confession, extreme as it was, softened but did not prevent his punishment. He was exiled to his farm in the village of Arcetri, near Florence, where he was held under virtual house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life.

The typical view of this event is that it demonstrates an inevitable conflict between religion and science: on one side is a set of fixed beliefs, and on the other is open and free inquiry into the nature of the physical world. But there are problems with this view. First, when Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus ninety years before Galileo's trial, he was largely unchallenged by both the church and the scientific community. In fact it had become a fairly typical element in the discourses among scholars. Second, nowhere in the transcript of the trial nor in his published works is there any suggestion that Galileo questioned the church's authority in matters of faith, as Martin Luther had a century earlier. On the contrary, he professed his devotion to the Church, even after the trial. What are we to make of this?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Galileo accepted the church's authority in matters of faith. In his view, this authority did not extend to matters of science, or knowledge. He treats the two as distinct throughout his writings. For him, neither the church nor the scriptures had anything to do with his experiments. This worked both ways: if the church had no role in judging the accuracy of scientific research, neither did science offer basis for improving or rejecting belief. "The phases of Venus had no theological significance; the Bible was silent on the velocity of falling objects."

There is a deeper issue in the conflict between Galileo and the church. He was passionate about empirical knowledge, about discovering the truth of physical things through repeated experimentation and observation. Though he sometimes spoke as if there could be a catalogue of scientific knowledge that would account for all the mysteries of the material universe, the actual course of his life reveals that he accepted nothing as a settled conclusion. He always made further observations and improved the manner of doing so, while taking careful notes. It was not enough to prove wrong Aristotle's teaching that objects of different weights fall at different speeds; he went on to write a treatise, De Motu, on the laws of motion, after years of careful experiments and calculation. He was dedicated to discovering the truth, but his life reveals that there is no end of truths to be discovered, and none of them are beyond challenge."What drove him, in other words, was not his knowledge but his ignorance. He knew that he did not know. He also knew he would never know it all."

Since associating Galileo with ignorance may seem odd, it is important to have a very clear understanding of what is involved in making this connection. "Ignorance" can be understood in at least three very different ways:

1) Ordinary ignorance. This is simply lack of knowledge of one kind or another. We can satisfy this ignorance with bits of intelligible information, but there is no end of things that we do not know. In one respect ordinary ignorance is a trivial phenomenon, but it does have larger consequences when the object of our ignorance is of great consequence. {Note that this is essentially the same point about ignorance that Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes in Black Swan: what we don't know is often far more significant than what we do know.}

2) Willful ignorance. This is a subtler and potentially far more dangerous form of ignorance. It is, simply, when we are aware that we don't know something, but choose not to know it.
Quote
I avoid asking a friend what he truly thinks of me, even though it is perfectly evident there are strong feelings involved. We are aware that our teenage children have a full world outside our own, but we deliberately shield ourselves from it. Creationists act as if they are oblivious to the huge and tumultuous field of evolutionary theory.... The rich will often make a conscious choice to shield themselves from the circumstances of the poor; there are matters there that they would rather not know.

A particularly apt example of willful ignorance is the debate over the personhood of a fetus. So-called right-to-life ideologies claim scientific support for their belief that personhood begins at the moment of conception. That may well be true about personhood, but there can be no scientific support for the notion. Anyone who is even faintly familiar with scientific methodology knows perfectly well that not only the beginning, but the entire phenomenon of personhood–indeed, life itself–falls well outside the capacities of science. It is in this sense that those who firmly believe that personhood begins at conception are willfully ignorant: they intentionally overlook the great mass of scientific work that leaves that question unanswerable. To call on scientific authority in this case is a false gesture, and they know it.

3) Higher ignorance. This third type of ignorance is so different that it seems not to deserve the name at all. It is found at the heart of philosophical and religious traditions from their earliest appearance but there is no simple way to define it. It is this kind of ignorance that describes the inner dynamic of Galileo's life work. As Nicholas of Cusa put it in his De Docta Ingnorantia (Concerning Learned Ignorance): "Every inquiry proceeds by means of a comparative relation, whether an easy or a difficult one. Hence, the infinite, qua infinite, is unknown; for it escapes all comparative relation."
Quote
By "comparative relation," Nicholas means simply the way one finite thing can be compared to another. No matter how many of these relations we might perceive, they will never add up to the infinite. Thus our ignorance of what things truly are. Truth, after all, is not only infinite, "but something indivisible.... Hence, the intellect, which is not truth, never comprehends truth so precisely that truth cannot be comprehended infinitely more precisely." No matter how many truths we may accumulate, our knowledge falls infinitely short of the truth.

It is important to understand that this higher ignorance is a learned ignorance. It is not simply the common truism that the more we know, the more we realize that we don't know. "The more aware we are of the limitations of our knowledge, the more awake we are to the world's enormous varieties." {This is of particular interest to me, because it seems very similar to the BIP. Specifically, the "larger," inescapable interpretation of the BIP wherein we are free to learn and explore infinitely, but we will always be constrained by our physical, biological limits}

Asserting the equivalence of learning and ignorance provides a convenient lens through which we can recognize a pattern of thought familiar to a great many thinkers throughout history. The Roman philosopher Plotinus referred to the real as One; the only way to observe it is to be outside of it, but to be outside of it would be to pluralize it, in which case we are not observing the One. This line of thought influenced the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystics, who typically said that to know God is to be God, therefore all things divine remain hidden from us. We can even trace this thinking into the modern period. Kant claimed that we cannot know a thing as it is in itself, and therefore the ultimate nature of the world is inaccessible to the rational mind. Nietzsche declared that objective knowledge is only the result of creative thinkers and not a representation of anything. Heidegger wrote that the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is perfectly unanswerable.

Higher ignorance is well represented in the great religions. Enlightenment for the Buddha, for example, is impossible without the suspension of the speculative mind, and even then the elevation to ever higher levels of purified mindfulness never ends. The transcendent deity of Hinduism, Brahman, cannot be defined except to say it is "not this and not that" (neti neti). The Tao te Ching states that life is a journey that stops nowhere and is of no permanence. The phrase "by the will of Allah" in Islam reflects an awareness that what that will is cannot be predicted. The rabbinical tradition in Judaism is a discourse in which no one has the final word.


To be continued...

Brotep

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Re: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« Reply #3 on: December 18, 2008, 07:30:55 am »
I found this section the most thought-provoking:
Quote
But if a religion is not strictly a matter of believing, what is it? Take note first of the irreconcilable differences between the historic religions. Although Islam and Christianity have been close neighbors for fourteen centuries, it is unthinkable that Muslims might occasionally mistake themselves for Christians. There is something in each tradition that definitively sets it off from the other. But what? It might seem reasonable at this point to consult Christians to learn what their religion is at its core, then turn to Muslims with the same request. After the first few inquiries, we would discover that there is little within Christianity and within Islam as to how the core of each faith is to be articulated. Indeed, this is such an open question that both traditions largely consist in the struggle over what it means to be a Muslim or a Christian. At the center of each, in other words, is a mystery they cannot fully comprehend; neither can they cease attempting to comprehend it. They may give this mystery the name "God" or "Brahman" or "Tao," but when we ask for more complete clarification, agreement among them scatters. How then can we say what the Christian religion is when Christians themselves have never been able to do so?

The difficulty in articulating the core of one's religion does not mean mystery is at the core.  How about religion as action rather than belief?  Something one does, generally as part of a community. 

It's a little weird to carve up different aspects of culture and say, "this is art here...music is over here...basic day-to-day living is here...and this is religion."  The mix and match approach, saying "we have the same culture but different religions" makes only partial sense.

A la Carse I can accept that the presence of a mystery is what makes something religious, but that mystery does not determine the nature of said religiosity.  So for example, belief in God (whatever that is) is religious but does not mean you must be a Muslim specifically.

Belief is a lot more important in Christianity than in Judaism or Islam, especially where the notion of salvation by faith alone comes into play.  You can be a good Jew or Muslim simply by following the commandments and traditions of your religion.

Kai

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Re: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« Reply #4 on: December 19, 2008, 05:29:54 pm »
I don't know, believing in YHWH or the oneness of Allah is a pretty strong component of Judaism and Islam.

Good stuff Cainad. So the authors thesis is that Religion is more than believing, that is is about recognizing self ignorance?
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Cainad (dec.)

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Re: The Religious Case Against Belief by James P. Carse
« Reply #5 on: December 19, 2008, 06:23:48 pm »
Yes, basically. I dropped the ball on this; maybe I'll post moar excerpts and summaries over the holidays.

Or someone from the interwebs could make a pdf of it and make my job easier. :argh!: