James Carse:

James Carse: "The Religious Case Against Belief" (Penguin Press, 2008)

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
There are many controversial theses in Carse's wonderfully-written book. The first one is that there is a difference between a religion and a belief system. Carses defines a belief system as a rigid, intolerant set of beliefs (in other words, what we agnostics and atheists think of religion), whereas religion to him is a milder case of accepting the mystery of the universe as a divine process. A belief system is centered around "willful" ignorance, a kind of ignorance that refuses as blaspheme any source of knowledge that would weaken the belief system itself. By definition, a belief system is bound for war. Religion, explains Carse, instead accepts a degree of ignorance: in fact, it accepts that, no matter how much knowledge we may accumulate, we will never know the truth. Religion is, in a sense, a form of contemplating one's inevitable ignorance of the ultimate truth. In contrast to belief systems, religion is therefore supposed to be compassionate and understanding, not hostile and antagonistic. Religion is therefore eternal. Carse in fact defines it as the aspect of human institutions that accounts for their longevity. Contrary to what Christians and Muslims may think, religion is not about gaining immortality. Death is certainly a central theme of all religions, but immortality is a goal only in Christianity and Islam. Hinduism and Buddhism aim at breaking the cycle of births and rebirths (in a sense, their goal "is" death). Judaism promises an eternal land to the Jewish nation, not to each and every Jew: Judaism is about the eternity of the Jewish community. What all religions share is the belief that the religious community itself is eternal. Carse juxtaposes death and evil. Death is silence. Evil is being silenced. His definition of evil is narrower than normally held, and is symmetric to death. Unlike death, that is a state, evil is an act, a human act. Carse points out that, ironically, evil is caused by people who are trying to eliminate evil: as they perceive the non-believers as evil, the believers of a belief system commit evil actions to fight the non-believers. Carse's targets are clearly Islamic fundamentalists and Creationists, the most visible specimen of "believers" in his age. To highlight the difference between religion and belief system, Carse shows how the scriptures are vague and even contradictory, but nonetheless constitute a body of thought that creates a community of people with shared values but not clear answers (all religious scriptures must be "interpreted"); whereas belief systems are built on dogmas and clearcut answers. Carse sees religion not in the pronouncements of religious authorities but in the artifacts of religious people: temples, cathedrals, frescoes, music, poetry. That is the religious community at work, the dialogue among people who share common questions. That is the difference: belief systems do not generate art, poetry, music. They only generate hatred for the non-believer. Carse views his age as a new age of faith, unfortunately highjacked by belief systems, and hopes that we can rediscover the sense of wonder that is the true essence of what he calls "religion".