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The Religious Case Against Belief

4.3 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594201691
ISBN-10: 1594201692
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

While it seems paradoxical to oppose religion to belief—religions, after all, are systems of beliefs; and belief in deities, ritual practices and scriptures combine to form religions—Carse convincingly demonstrates that belief and religion are too often falsely linked. Belief, he suggests, is a response to ignorance. Carse examines three kinds of ignorance: ordinary ignorance is simply lack of knowledge of some kind, such as the weather in Africa. Willful ignorance purposefully avoids clear and available knowledge, such as Creationists acting as if they know nothing of evolution. The tenacious beliefs that grow out of willful ignorance often result in bloody religious conflicts. Finally, what Carse calls higher ignorance accepts the fact that no matter how many truths we accumulate, our knowledge falls infinitely short of the truth. Individuals acting in higher ignorance can recognize the many truths that religious traditions can offer. Seen in Carse's provocative way, religion transcends the narrow boundaries established by beliefs, and transforms our ways of thinking about the world. (June 2)
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From Booklist

In seeing the unknown everywhere—what he calls “higher ignorance”—Carse says, lies the beginning of wisdom, and the act of belief “is highly complicated and richly nuanced behavior.” Masterfully combining scholarly research and thoughtful commentary, he distinguishes religion from belief systems. Using the lives of such disparate figures as Jesus, Galileo, Luther, and Lincoln, he illustrates the various kinds of ignorance that confront the world, not only higher ignorance but also ordinary ignorance and willful ignorance. At its core, belief carries within it a strong element of the unknown and therefore requires risk, not certainty. With that in mind, he discusses the line between knowledge and belief, explores the complicated issue of authority, considers the notion of communitas, and declares that religion in its purest form is a type of poetry, relative to which, he interprets a Dickinson poem on death as revealing the thin line between the known and the believed. He also attempts to define evil to determine where it fits into the overall religious experience. A bracing consideration of religion, knowledge, and belief. --June Sawyers
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (May 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201692
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201691
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #726,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roy E. Perry on June 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Whereas many, perhaps most, books on "spirituality" make the case that "faith," "belief," and "convictions" are positive, laudable, and commendable, they cast suspicion on "religion" as being misguided and mistaken. The present book reverses such a judgment and asserts, in short: "belief" bad; "religion" good.

James Carse, professor emeritus of religion at New York University, has written a reflective and religiously literate critique of belief and its distorted understanding of the nature of religion.

According to Carse, the "blind ignorance" of belief systems, locked in literalism and absolutism, leads to violence of "the other"; the "higher ignorance" at the core of authentic religion, exemplified in imaginative "musicality," is the beginning of wisdom.

"What belief systems conspicuously lack is music," writes Carse. "They are monotonal. One voice speaks for all others." On the other hand, "religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry. As such, its vitality comes in the form of communitas [a community of authentic dialogue], fully independent of any civitas [political or secular establishment]. Belief is very often a sign that whatever counts for religion has been pushed aside."

Carse points out that to be human at all is to live in an ill-lit zone of imponderables: Why am I alive at all? Where did I come from and where am I going? What happens at death? How should I conduct myself in a world as confused as this? Why must so much of the world live in misery and violence? Why such collective self-destruction? Why do the evil prosper? Why is there something rather than nothing?
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I'm already a fan of Prof. Carse from "Finite and Infinite Games," and this new book adds to my respect for his careful way of seeing. In this new work, Carse offers a reasoned and useful distinction between religious thought and belief systems. The basis of his distinction is the comparative openness to wonder. Belief "systems" are not religions, by Carse's reasoning, but closed sets of dogma which thrive in opposition to other such systems. His basis for true religion is longevity. This book will reward rereading!
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Format: Hardcover
This book invites the reader to explore the differences between belief (dogma, doctrine, etc) and religion (living faith, spirit, connection with God/Spirit). I find it fascinating and very very accessible -- thought provoking AND fluid, not heavy as some theology books can be. Whatever a person's faith or spiritual journey, this book can be a valuable asset in looking at one's own journey and, most important, at the ways in which we (historically, collectively) tend to deal with differences in belief/tradition. Also looks at political and social belief structures.....fascinating and liberating!
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Format: Hardcover
At first glance, the reader may be confused by the title of the book since the terms seem to be synonyms. This, as it turns out, is part of the problem experienced by each concept. The mistake made by many is to apply the terms interchangeably. Religion and belief are two different things in a very important ways. Religion, as defined by Professor Carse exhibits features associated with communitas and requires a significant history. He uses many of the largely recognized religions to make his point, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. These he distinguishes from Mormonism which has too short of a life span and too few permutations to be described as anything more than a belief. It is the latter element that contributes to understanding his point. It is the ability of the religion to adapt and include that makes it a religion. The belief system is far less flexible and is easily threatened by the poets, a term he broadly assigns to those who express contrary ideas. The essence of the belief is that it relies on its ability to identify what is to be considered outside the boundaries of its tenets.
The beginning of this argument rests in the nature of ignorance, which Carse describes as having three basic forms: common, willful, and higher. Common ignorance is simply our inability to know certain things, such as what the weather will be next week. Willful ignorance is the choice to reject anything that falls outside the believer's conclusions. This may include the Creationists refusal to acknowledge that there is any credibility to evolution at all. Higher ignorance is the healthy form of humility that recognizes that we all have "bounded rationality" as noted by C. Wright Mills.
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One can sympathize with James Carse's intention in The Religious Case Against Belief without agreeing with his thesis.

His intention is to find some way to avoid the fruitless wrangling between religionists and atheists that is currently going on. He does this by arguing that the atheists are correct in their criticisms of dogmatic belief that goes by the name of "religion," but that such belief doesn't constitute religion at all. Belief systems, he says, are closed ideologies that frequently employ willful ignorance. Like Galileo's detractors, ideologues refuse to take seriously any claims that run counter to their belief systems. They automatically draw lines in the sand between themselves and everyone who disagrees with them, thereby creating adversarial relationships which can lead to excess and violence.

But genuine religion, Carse continues, is imbued with the spirit of what Nikolaus of Cusa called "learned ignorance": the humble realization that reality is far greater and more complex than an single explanation of it, whether that explanation is God-oriented or not. Genuine religious faith refrains from dogmatism because of its conviction that God is always greater than we humans can imagine.

This is a clever abstract distinction--and herein lies my disagreement with Carse--but reality is much messier. Religious humility is typically interwoven with a great deal of self-doubt, and this in turn easily breeds ideological tendencies. Learned ignorance in practice usually draws pretty clear lines between what's ultimately acceptable or unacceptable when talking about God. And belief systems, I would suggest, aren't nearly as monolithic as Carse suggests.
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