Defining religion down

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Aug 1, 2008 No Comments ›› Greg Jones

Defining religion down

In 1993, the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay (http://www2 NULL.sunysuffolk NULL.htm) in which he argued that America had grown accustomed to alarming levels of crime because society was “defining deviancy down.”  By this Moynihan meant that sharp increases in violent crime had the effect of redefining what constitutes “deviant” behavior such that what was previously considered unacceptable behavior had become more normal because worse crimes were being committed more often.  In other words, societal standards of morality shifted downward as a way of coping with rising crime rates. 

Enter retired New York University Religious Studies Professor James Carse, who has written a new book titled The Religious Case Against Belief.  In his book, Professor Carse essentially does to the concept of religion what violent crime did for the concept of deviancy in the early 1990′s: he defines religion downward to such a degree that it hardly means anything at all.  Yet, what is perhaps even more frustrating is that Carse pretends to be enamored by religion even as he scoffs at the notion that any real truth is contained in any religion., an extremely liberal website, has posted a long interview (http://www NULL.html) with Carse about his book.  Interviewer Steve Paulson begins his article with the tired (and completely erroneous) observation that all the conflicts around the world “seem to be driven by religious hatred.  It’s enough to make you wonder if the animosity would melt away if all religions were suddenly, somehow, to vanish into the ether.”  That is the same argument which “neo-atheists” Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris often make about religion: it is the cause of all the strife in the world.  Professor Carse does not like the new atheists, saying (in one of his few correct and coherent observations), “What these critics are attacking is not religion, but a hasty caricature of it.”  But then, Carse does not seem to like real religion either. 

Professor Carse’s aim, according to Salon, is “to rescue religion from both religious fundamentalists and atheists.”  His argument seems to be that religion is not about true faith at all; it is about “longevity.”  He defines religion as a system of belief that has lasted a long time, though he seems to think that none of the religions really know what they believe.  Religion, Carse says, “is about mystery and unknowability,” not “transcendence or belief in an afterlife.”  He tells us that “[r]eligion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry.”  I don’t know what this means, and I doubt Carse does either. 

In the course of attempting to explain himself, Carse confidently proclaims that the “great religions” of the world are “absolutely different.”  This observation is somewhat refreshing in an age where we so often hear the mush that all religions are the same and lead to the same thing.  The “can’t we all just get along” theory of religion ignores the distinct claims on truth that most religions make, such as the Islamic claim that there is only one God and his name is Allah, the Hindu claim that there is no such thing as Hell, and the Christian claim that the only way to God is through Jesus Christ.  These statements cannot be reconciled with other religions, and those who try to do so merely demonstrate their ignorance of one or all of these religions.  However, it is unclear to me why Professor Carse bothers making this observation since his major theme about religion is what they allegedly have in common: ”longevity” and the ability to appeal to the “mystery” in life.   

After waxing about religion generally, Professor Carse then spends some time in the interview taking pot shots at Christianity.  First, he claims that the debate in Christianity over who the real Jesus was “says nothing” because he does not think the New Testament accounts of Jesus are credible.  He seems to base this on the fact that the Gospel accounts were written as many as 90 years after Jesus lived on earth.  Carse is entitled to his opinion, of course, but as a religion professor one would think he would offer stronger evidence than a time-line to refute the reality of Jesus.  The time-line is one piece of evidence, but how does Carse explain why so many disciples sacrificed their lives on the claim that Jesus is God’s son or how such a supposedly scant historical figure was able to inspire a religious change throughout the entire Roman world within 300 years of His death? 

Professor Carse then pontificates that “Christianity is losing its resonance.  It’s history looks to be more a matter of decades than millennia.”  Thus another prediction of the impending demise of Christianity comes to the fore, and like the thousands of prognosticators of the past on this subject, Carse simply demonstrates his ignorance.  It would be one thing to say that Christianity in the West seems to be on the decline, a statement that I think is inarguable.  But it also happens to be exponentially on the rise (http://www NULL.foxnews,2933,74563,00 NULL.html) in places like China (http://www NULL.chicagotribune,0,2458211 NULL.story), Africa (http://archive NULL.southcoasttoday NULL.htm), and South America (http://www NULL.firstchurchbloomington NULL.asp?id=28065&PID=571401).  The result is that there are more believers in Christianity at this time than ever before—hardly the right time to be predicting its doom. 

More interesting than these pathetic pot shots is the fact that Professor Carse does not subject any other religion to doubt about its founder or its future.  Christianity apparently holds a special place of derision in Carse’s heart, which makes you wonder whether he is really as dispassionate about the study of religion as he claims to be.  Regardless, Professor Carse is clearly confused about the nature of religion because he says things like “you can be religious without being a believer.”  This is a true statement, so far as it goes, with the Pharisees coming to mind as quintessential examples since they were very religious but did not believe that Christ was the Messiah.  But it misses the point of what religion is supposed to do: connect people to God.  And that connection cannot be established without belief in God; otherwise it simply makes no coherent sense.

Professor Carse admits that Christianity in particular focuses on belief, but he claims that “when you look at the history of Christianity [i]t’s not at all clear what exactly one should believe.”  This is, again, simply wrong.  There have been various heresies throughout the history of Christianity, but the core of what it means to believe has not changed at all.  But he is equally offensive toward Judaism, saying, “To be a Jew is really to be an active, practicing Jew.  It’s a way of living a certain kind of life, not believing something.  In my judgment, you can be a very good Jew and have very little sense of transcendence.”  Again, all this establishes is that someone can go through the motions of the things people typically associate with Judaism without actually being an adherent.  It proves nothing, other than the fact that people can be superficial or hypocritical; it does not change the meaning of religion. 

Considering all of this, it seems clear that what irks Professor Carse most in religion is true belief.  He theorizes, with obvious disapproval, that we are in a second “Age of Faith.”  The first Age of Faith, he says, began withthe Crusades and was a “terrible” era of conflict because of unwavering faith in what he calls “belief systems.”  He says we are “back in that crusading spirit” and cites the bloodiness of the 20thcentury as proof of this supposed fact.  Of course, he conveniently leaves out the fact that most of the murderous death in the 20th century was caused by atheistic, political regimes like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Worse than his historical flub, though, is that Professor Carse is equating true belief with physical and violent coercion when that is, in fact, the exact opposite of true belief.  As James Madison explained in the Memorial and Remonstrance of 1785 (http://press-pubs NULL.uchicago NULL.html), “[t]he Religion . . . of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man . . . because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.”  In other words, true belief cannot be coerced because it must flow from an individual’s own conviction and conscience. 

By removing the core element of belief from his definition of religion, Professor Carse turns religion into nothing more than a cosmic philosophy that gives expression to things we cannot comprehend in our limited finite state as human beings.  But such a definition of religion makes God nothing more than a figment of the imagination.  I am perplexed as to what Professor Carse finds so awe-inspiring about that.

In the end, Professor Carse is what he claims not to be: an arrogant thinker.  He claims superior knowledge of religion because he says he knows that it teaches us about our ignorance.  He seems to think he has stumbled upon some grand idea in the fact that as humans our knowledge is limited and thus there will always be mystery about life and the universe.  He uses that observation to say that it shows that religions are nothing more than discussions about this mystery which cannot have an answer.  In this way, his knowledge of his ignorance makes him caustically arrogant because he is essentially laughing about the fact that ordinary people dare to believe that they can know some truth and desire to act on that truth.  He is very much like philosopher David Hume, though he feigns more reverence for religion than Hume ever bothered to do.   

What Professor Carse misses is that at least some believers know that the existence of God means there is a vast universe of things about which they will never understand, but because they trust in God and communicate with Him, they do know something outside of themselves and can speak to the truth of it.  It is this truth, and not just the mystery, that enables religion to transcend time and place.

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