If ‘religion is poetry’, it’s blank verse

[A few months ago, a friend, who is an ordained minister, asked what I thought about a piece at salon.com, which is an interview by Steve Paulson with James Carse, who ran the Religious Studies program at NYU for 30 years, about his book The Religious Case Against Belief. A lot of the issues are the same ones which came up in my comment/post regarding Mark Lawson’s recent waste of space in the Guardian, so this is a bit of a companion piece. What’s below is the reply I sent to my friend, with a couple of minor tweaks here and there.]

Some general thoughts first, and then some more specific.

It’s not a bad interview, in that the questions are good ones, which do well at picking up apparent ambiguities and inconsistencies. Carse’s views seem to be an interesting mixture of the sensibly pragmatic and the more, um, vague and wishful. He seems a good example of the sort of intellectual who’s become very good at compartmentalising his way of seeing the world, so that he can apply as much critical thinking as he wants over here, but doesn’t allow himself to apply so much over there.

The parts about Jesus, for example, seem entirely sensible. But the way in which he suggests in several places that there’s something intrinsically wonderful about the mysterious and unknowable is deeply uncritical. It’s where I lose him completely.

I also found myself hearing my PhD supervisor asking ‘Yes, but what do you mean by that’, over and over again, because what might have seemed perfectly clear and formal to me wasn’t anything of the sort. It’s generally hard for someone in the sciences — even someone as marginal as me — to deal with the hand-waving generalities in a piece like this.

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 there’s a good degree of disingenuousness here. He might have (what seems to him to be) a more sophisticated view of god and religion, but it’s very much the case that for hundreds of millions of theists around the world their god is a real figure, who actually created the world, who actually hears prayers, heals the sick, and so on. It’s probably true that a good deal of what Dawkins and Hitchins, etc., are attacking, isn’t the more vague beliefs of someone like Carse, but that doesn’t mean those beliefs don’t exist, and I suspect they’re far more common. So I don’t think it’s a caricature.

To Carse, religion is all about longevity; it’s what unites people over the millennia.

As is made more clear later on, I think he has this backwards. Rather than religion being defined as that which has longevity, I think it’s far more that theism is just a very powerful meme. It persists for all sorts of reasons, which have to do with indoctrination, feelings of community, ritual, comfort, etc., and also poor science education in many parts of the world.

I also slightly resist the implication that longevity is in itself a good thing. To the extent that a belief system or a way of life doesn’t change, it often means that it’s perpetuating dogma. Things should change, as we find out more about the world, and about life. That’s a good thing.

He writes that religion’s vitality is based on mystery and unknowability: ‘Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry.’

I’m not sure what this means. I’m sure that most theists would argue that there is poetry in religion and its rituals, but I’m not sure how many would agree that that’s its purest form. This is also where he begins to place ignorance on some sort of pedestal, and there’s something offensive to me about that.

Exactly. In fact, very passionate believers are often not at all religious. However, it does happen to be the case that people who hold on to beliefs with great passion begin to describe themselves as religious.

No. I think he fails to qualify this nearly enough. Some might well use vaguely religious-sounding language, but if one equates passion with the religious, then the word ‘religious’ is being used so vaguely as to lose all meaning. Passions can be rational and truth-based.

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.

He conflates two very different concepts here, and ends up confusing the issue. I mostly buy his definition of a belief system — in that it seeks to describe something that is ‘absolutely real and true’. But I don’t think that includes political/social philosophies such as Marxism. I’m not really a political scientist, but I don’t think (for example) Marxism seeks to represent some absolute truth. It’s just a way for a society to organise itself. There’s no meaningful sense in which Marxism could be claimed to be true.

I think he’s right that a belief system doesn’t have to involve religion, but the difference between a belief system (in his definition) and a political or social philosophy is just as important. One says: ‘I believe this is true’. The other says: ‘I believe this is a good way to live’. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s pragmatic.

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.

He gets very confused here. In contrasting belief systems with religions, he seems to be saying that religions aren’t in fact belief systems — which doesn’t make much sense. Even by his own definition of a belief system, they clearly are. Following on from what I wrote above, I think a much better dichotomy is between religious belief systems and non-religious belief systems — or between religious belief systems and political/social philosophies.

But even with that dichotomy, you’re really trying to compare apples and helicopters. They don’t work in the same sorts of ways, and don’t have the same sorts of goals. Political/social philosophies appear, vanish, and reappear over and over again across the globe, over millennia. What doesn’t happen is that they’re somehow proved false and then ditched forever. What we might call ‘Marxism’ might have been found thousands of years ago, and might be found again thousands of years in the future. It’s not so specific a ‘belief system’ that it’s delimited by time and place. It’s more general than that, and ‘Marxism’ is only a temporary name in our society and our time for the concept. A religion, on the other hand, is defined by its specific beliefs, idols, rituals, etc. Religions across the world and across time might share concepts, but they’re different religions.

So one can only talk about something like Marxism having lasted 70 or 80 years in such and such a society, at such and such a time. It’ll be back, in other places and at other times. His claim that Nazism only lasted 12 years is only true using a very odd interpretation. As a belief system, it’s alive and well — albeit smaller. What he’s talking about is merely a single instance of a political movement, whose demise owed far more to some terrible military decisions than to some sort of natural lifespan. If Hitler had concentrated more on the Western front than Russia, he’d at the very least have lasted quite a bit longer. I don’t think that sort of circumstantial eventuality is really what Carse is talking about.

And his linking of religion with longevity is once again backwards. The point is that religions tend to persist, because of how they’re constructed, not that belief systems have to have persisted to be called religions. Should Christianity in its youth have been called a religion? Of course. There was no need for it to wait several hundreds of years to qualify.

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.

This is really tantamount to saying that religions persist because they don’t make any falsifiable claims. They carve out a safe haven of vague mysticism, which is beyond any practical scrutiny. The difference between that and a political/social philosophy such as Marxism is clear: Marxism can be put into practice, and tested within a time and a society. If it doesn’t work — for whatever reasons — it can be rejected. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, in some other time and place; merely that it’s been rejected in that context.

So, I think he has a point here. One of the reasons religion persists is that it hides in constructed mysticism from any practical testing. Unlike him, I think, that position strikes me as anti-reason. It tries to make a virtue of ignorance, which is pretty reprehensible.

But if the only test of a religion is its staying power, are you saying Mormonism, which has been around less than 200 years, is not a religion? Or Pentecostalism, which some religious scholars say is the most important religious movement of the last century?

Those are large questions. Will Mormonism hold out over the centuries? It’s a difficult judgment. I don’t have an answer for that. What I’d really like to focus on is how extremely long the great traditions are. There are other traditions that aren’t that long: Sikhism, various kinds of Middle Eastern religions, mystical movements. Mormonism is an open question. You could even talk about Scientology. Does it really have staying power over the centuries? I would doubt it, but we don’t know yet.

He’s talking himself in circles here, and he avoids the question, which isn’t whether these things will last, but whether the fact that they’re still relatively young means that they’re not religions. He’s begging the question: something has to have persisted to be a religion, and it has to be a religion in order to persist.

Are you religious yourself?

I would say yes, but in the sense that I am endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human, to exist at all. Or as Martin Heidegger asked, why is there something rather than nothing? There’s no answer to that. And yet it hovers behind all of our other answers as an enduring question. For me, it puts a kind of miraculous glow on the world and my experience of the world. So in that sense, I am religious.

He’s right. His enthusiastic embrace of the ‘unknowability’ (whether that’s how things are or not) strikes me as deeply religious. The scientific mind sees the gaps in knowledge as a challenge, and tries to fill them. If it turns out that some gaps can’t be filled, well, that’s a shame, and regrettable, but it’ll keep on trying. The religious mind leaps all too eagerly to ideas of the mystical, the unknowable, and wraps them around it like a comfort blanket, as if there’s something upsettingly dangerous about knowledge. Or it makes stuff up to fill the gap.

In fact, human intelligence has a certain limitation that keeps it from being able to embrace the infinite or the whole. Therefore, every one of our statements about God and the universe is tinged with a degree of ignorance. I would say that I am deeply moved by the thought of an unnameable mystery. If you then ask me, exactly which mystery are you then referring to? I can’t answer. That’s as far as I can go. But it’s got its grip on me, for sure.

See above.

His claim that there’s a ‘limitation’ on human intelligence, which licenses the ignorance that he’s so fond of, reminds me very much of the way that the whole new age subculture trots out concepts of quantum physics — which they barely know anything about other than the name — to justify pretty much any crackpot bit of alternative medicine or pseudo-science. As he pretty much admits here, his ‘beliefs’ are so vague as to be meaningless.

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.

The obvious irony here is that he’s only just finished talking with apparent authority about the limitations of human intelligence — as if he feels entirely qualified in that area — yet is quick to deny the validity of the views of others who aren’t experts in his own field. That attitude towards science is all too common, unfortunately.

PZ Myers’ “Courtier’s Reply” is relevant here, I think. The basic idea is that theology is largely about intricate argument concerning the exact nature and construction of the Emperor’s new clothes.

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.

Again the Courtier’s Reply. It’s really not clear what he means by a ‘deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality’, other than what the Emperor’s new clothes happen to look like and be made from. It’s really like saying to the child who points out that the Emperor is naked: “You really need a deep and well-developed understanding of fabric and tailoring before you can say that the Emperor is naked.” Well, no, not really.

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.

There are two important points here. The first is — once again — that to be ‘stunned by the mystery of things’ is just a simple-minded embrace of ignorance. It might be the premature leap to a conclusion that something is unknowable when it is nothing of the sort; alternatively, it might be an acknowledgement of the inevitability of certain gaps in knowledge. Either way, to celebrate such gaps is a strange and primitive position.

The second point is that there’s a good deal of straw man in Carse’s argument. An atheist might not celebrate gaps in knowledge, but they’re perfectly capable of finding plenty that’s worthy of awe in understanding how the universe works. The implication in Carse’s words is that atheism is somehow dulling of the senses, and that’s not at all true. To argue that ignorance is somehow more life-enhancing than a true understanding of the processes behind life is backwards indeed.

Even if atheism were somehow dulling of the senses, that would not in itself be an argument for theism, except as a comfort blanket. Something being emotionally appealing doesn’t make it more likely to be true.

No Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *