Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Religion: Poetic License?

The lead article in Salon’s newsletter caught my eye this morning when I perused the ol’ Google-mail Inbox. Under the auspices of Salon’s “Atoms and Eden: Conversations About Science and Faith,” Steve Paulson interviews James Carse (retired director of NYU’s Religious Studies Program) in Religion is Poetry. The byline: “The beauties of religion need to be saved from both the true believers and the trendy atheists, argues compelling religious scholar James Carse.” The interview comes on the heels of the publication of Carse’s new book, The Religious Case Against Belief.

Cerberus guards the gates of Salon in the form of advertisements, but this provocative interview is worth the read. So are the letters submitted in response to the interview.


A few highlights from the interview [Paulson's questions and comments are noted by bold text]:

Carse argues that belief and religion are distinct.

I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?

It’s an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that belief and religion don’t perfectly overlap. It’s not that they’re completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without being a believer. And you can be a believer who’s not religious. Let’s say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, “I think I believe all of these.” But does that make you a Jew? Obviously not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in particular are interested in proper belief and what they call orthodoxy. However, there’s a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you look at the history of Christianity. It’s not at all clear what exactly one should believe.

[Snip]

So what is it that holds together a belief system?

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.

What, then, do you mean by religion?

Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that applies to all the great living religions. Jews don’t have a priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different from another. The literature and the texts are radically different from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any generalization one could make about religion?

But aren’t there certain core questions that religion grapples with: God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?

Well, let’s talk about the five great religions: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism 2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14 centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of challenges. Let’s say you’re a Muslim and you want to know what Islam is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their questions not answered but expanded.

.

As a religious historian, Carse is well aware that religions wax and wane. He believes that Christianity and Islam as well as other traditions will “dissipate in one way of another.” He also comments on what a mess Christian belief is — “an abundance of Jesuses” — and that Christians cannot stop arguing with one another. Carse opines that the various interpretations of Jesus say nothing. But the poets of religion, now they’re the ones that Carse respects.

You also say poets are the real visionaries of the world. And you make the case that religion, at its root, is inspired by its poets.

You know, my entire career was at New York University, but I only taught the history of Christianity once. That’s when one of my colleagues was not available. So I went back to my graduate study of St. Thomas Aquinas. And I loved it so much. When we got to Thomas in the class, I began to notice that the students — most of them were Catholics — had stopped taking notes. They stopped moving. It looked like they stopped breathing. They’d never realized that there was so much beauty behind the Catholic teaching. They thought it was about doing something right or wrong, rather than this great cathedral of language within which they could understand their very individual experiences. It struck me that what was great about Thomas is not that he was right or wrong, but that he’s a poet. It’s just beautiful work. It’s an artistic creation of the greatest achievement. And when you take that insight and look across the traditions, you find people of very great poetic insight. The great religious figures are not philosophers, they’re not historians, they’re not institutional leaders in any sense. They are people who inspire the imagination and therefore deserve the word “poet.”

I think I understand what Carse is getting at here, and I agree that St. Thomas Aquinas’ writings are indeed poetic. But does my appreciation for them constitute embrace of religion? No. There is beauty in the poetic components of Aquinas, but in the history of Catholic belief, there’s some pretty ugly stuff.

Apropos of nothing (well, sort of), I recently re-read Milton’s Paradise Lost (the 2005 publication with commentary by Philip Pullman; highly recommended). I greatly enjoyed Milton’s poetic version of The Fall. But then, I am of the devil’s own party. And yes, I think the Bible can be read as fascinating mythology and sublime poetry, e.g. Song of Solomon. That doesn’t mean I hold the document as the sum total of Higher Truth. I like to eat shrimp, avoid being stoned, and look askance at Paul whom I regard as the Jerry Falwell of the New Testament.

His critique of atheists takes aim at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris with the usual canard that they have an inadequate understanding of religion, e.g.,

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.

I’m not sure what part of “absence of belief” that Carse doesn’t understand.

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. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. [Italics - Doc Bushwell] So I have very little in common with them. As a matter of fact, one reason I wrote the book is that a much more compelling critique of belief systems comes not from the scientific side but from the religious side. When you look at belief systems from a religious perspective, what’s exposed is how limited they are, how deeply authoritarian they are, how rationalistic and comprehensive they claim to be, but at the same time how little staying power they have with the human imagination. It’s a deeper and much more incisive critique.

Carse’s statement that atheists are not “stunned” by the mystery of things or do not possess a sense of wonder of our world — of our universe — is simply, well, stunning. That speaks to his fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist. He succumbs to the mistaken notion that we atheists are not mystified by the unknowable, or rather the yet-undiscovered. Or that we do not relish the poetic and find ourselves flying upon a “hawk-flight of the imagination” (Olaf Stapledon, Star-Maker). Or that we do not have some appreciation of the culture of religion. But unknowable does not equal “God.”

Anyway, the interview intrigued me enough that I one-clicked an order so that I can read Carse’s posits in full.

Addendum: The Skeptical Poet: The Interface of Art and Reason offers a poet’s view of the Carse interview in Religious Aesthetic. The Skeptical Poet put it well with regard to Carse and Chris Hedges: “having your religious cake and eating your secular pie too.”

Comments

  1. #1 Warren
    July 21, 2008

    There is beauty in the poetic components of Aquinas, but in the history of Catholic belief, there’s some pretty ugly stuff.

    I’d argue that it’s the history of the practice of the Catholic religion, not the history of Catholic belief, which holds the ugly stuff.

    And yeah, it’s fairly narrow of Carse to suggest atheists are without wonder. He might not get it.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    July 21, 2008

    I had a comment to say, but I found that it had already been said by Ibn Warraq:

    I don’t want to live in a society where I get stoned for committing adultery. I want to live in a society where I get stoned. And then commit adultery.

    And by Greg Egan:

    I wish we had a good word in English that meant only “the shattering majesty of reality”, so atheists could make it abundantly clear that they’re aware of this majesty, but don’t imagine that it’s due to anything that resembles a person in any way. But what atheists absolutely should not do is say “Well, I’m going to use the word ‘God’ to mean ‘the awesomeness of the universe'”. This is helpful for selling lots of tenth-rate pop-science books with “God” in their titles, and for winning the Templeton prize, but even when it’s not plain venal and dishonest it’s linguistically sloppy.

  3. #3 Skepoet
    July 21, 2008

    I hope you don’t mind that in writing a response to Carse (and indirect to Chris Hedges) and quote and link you here:
    http://skepoet.blogspot.com/2008/07/religious-aesthetic.html

    Whoever says scientists aren’t excellent communicators from which poets sometimes need to borrow words from never read SEED blogs.

  4. #4 Doc Bushwell
    July 21, 2008

    Warren (nice to see you, by the way), I’d place bets that you could make a good argument for your case. One of the beginnings of the end (of faith) for me occurred when I was in 4th grade and was told by my school chums who had been taking catechism classes that I, a Methodist, was going to hell for my church’s apostasy. Oh, then there was all the “God doesn’t hear the prayers of the Jews” bit, too. Another head scratcher. Ostensibly, these would fall into what Carse calls belief, but the dividing line between that and religion seems tenuous.

    Blake, fantastic quotes! Ibn Warraq’s is a hoot. I love Greg’s poetry: “the shattering majesty of reality.” That’s far better than a single word. And I am nodding vigorously with the rest of Greg’s assessments.

  5. #5 Doc Bushwell
    July 21, 2008

    Skepoet, I do not mind at all, and in fact, I am wildly flattered! Your piece offers an excellent parsing not only of Carse’s interview, but also of Hedge’s work (likewise, that one had me gritting my skeptic’s teeth).

    Thanks very much!

  6. #6 hopper3011
    July 24, 2008

    “Carse’s statement that atheists are not “stunned” by the mystery of things or do not possess a sense of wonder of our world — of our universe — is simply, well, stunning.”
    It would seem as though you and he are using different definitions of the word atheist – I believe that Carse is using a definition which accords with the points he is trying to make in his book (I haven’t read the book, I am just suggesting a possible logical explanation for his otherwise illogical point), and that yours is the more standard usage.

    “I’m not sure what part of “absence of belief” that Carse doesn’t understand.”
    I’m not sure that atheism can correctly be described as an absence of belief – if theism is a belief in the existence of a god or or gods, then atheism is a belief that a god or gods do not exist. Since it is not a proveable thesis either way, while you might correctly describe yourself as having an absence of belief in a specific religion, a profession of atheism doesn’t include an absence of belief.

    “There is beauty in the poetic components of Aquinas, but in the history of Catholic belief, there’s some pretty ugly stuff.”
    I would suggest that it is not the belief so much as the order to aggressively proselytise that belief which is the cause of the ugliness (although, as spreading the word is a specific instruction within the belief system, I suppose you could argue that the one is a part of the other?), although I would suggest that the political engagement of certain Christian sects in modern day America is uglier than the actions of the Inquisition, after all, you can only put the thumbscrews on one heretic at a time, whereas a faith-based initiative can impose a set of beliefs on millions of people simultaneously.

  7. #7 Lofcaudio
    July 24, 2008

    hopper3011, I am curious. Why do you find that “spreading the word” is ugly?

  8. #8 kemibe
    July 24, 2008

    “Why do you find that ‘spreading the word’ is ugly?”

    True to form, Lofcaudio, having made an utter ass of himself in one comment string, has, after a brief hiatus, taken his freak show of lies and non-comprehension to a new one. Does he really think people’s memories or that short, or does his own compulsion to proselytize and yammer simply overwhelm whatever sense of personal dignity he still has?

    I’ll answer his question, though: because spreading lies is ugly no matter what the ends are, and in this case they suck.

    The Jesus story is a lie. It not only fails on its own merits — incoherence, invocation of supernatural events, and so on — but is demonstrably anything but original. Lofcaudio and his fellow deceit victims can keep shading their eyes against this truth, but they can’t ward it off. As I pointed out here, it’s a fable pimped from a myth created at least 2,400 years before the alleged ministry of J.C.

    Go ahead, Lofcaudio, and explain in your own words how anyone without a fulminating neurological disorder can explain the similarities between the “gods” Jesus and Horus on the basis of coincidence alone. Until you can do this, you’re demanding, as usual, that people take the claims of your “faith” (one of many hundreds of bullshit “faiths” foisted on humanity and embraced by its blinkered and hapless) at face value, which means that you are — and I’m surprised that even you haven’t figured this out yet — serving as nothing but a punching bag here.

  9. #9 Lofcaudio
    July 24, 2008

    I’ll answer his question, though: because spreading lies is ugly

    While I agree with you that spreading lies is ugly, that does not answer my question. A lie is defined as a “false statement made with intent to deceive.” If there is no intent to deceive, then there is no lie.

  10. #10 kemibe
    July 24, 2008

    If I tell everyone in the bar that Ryan Hall has the American record in the marathon (something a lot of people believe), I’m merely providing misinformation. If someone then shows me a list of Khalid Khannouchi’s top performances as an American but I continue to claim that Hall is the fastest U.S. marathoner of all time anyway, I am lying.

    More broadly, if someone is presented with information (e.g., the reality that Christianity is a patchwork of older myths) that conclusively demonstrates that his statements are false, and he ignores this information in favor of repeating himself, then he is no longer guilty of ignorance. He is propagating a lie and is therefore lying.

    But why split hairs? Clinging desperately to a worthless idea and doing everything possible to continue believing it in the face of overwhelming facts to the contrary represents such colossal stupidity that some would consider it as bad as willful lying. It’s a solecism either way. You wouldn’t excuse people for bopping around the countryside convincing hordes of people that the gods of Olympus were all real; Christianity has no more basis in fact than do Zeus and the gang, so why should your bullshit be cut any slack?

  11. #11 Lofcaudio
    July 24, 2008

    if someone is presented with information…that conclusively demonstrates that his statements are false

    No such information has been presented that would meet the standard of “conclusively demonstrating” the falsity of my statements. On the contrary, the weight of the evidence supports my views. I am well aware of Horus and do not find such evidence to diminish the veracity of the New Testament one bit, especially when you consider how little of what is in the Bible is even remotely similar to the earlier myths. Most of the similarities come in religious traditions (such as the Christmas holiday and religious creeds) that are extra-Biblical. (“Horus” was most likely a generic term that meant “god” since there were actually numerous Horuses in the various regions of Egypt all of whom had different powers, with a few of those powers similar to those exercised by Jesus in the Gospels of the New Testament.) In fact, one of the things that makes the Jesus of the New Testament so compelling is that He is NOT what was expected from a messiah figure. Some of the early skeptics (such as the second century writer Celsus) found one of the strengths of Christianity to be its unexpected originality and unexplained growth despite staunch opposition. Kevin, the information you have provided is far from conclusive, especially when you consider (which you apparently have no interest in doing) all of the other information available.

    While you accuse me of lying, you in the same breath described your information to be “overwhelming facts” and that anyone who refuses to capitulate to your view is “colossally stupid.” Now which one of us is getting ugly with the truth?

  12. #12 kemibe
    July 25, 2008

    “I am well aware of Horus and do not find such evidence to diminish the veracity of the New Testament one bit”

    In that case, I might as well be talking to a Labrador retriever. You are so thoroughly brainwashed that you are the precise analog of someone who could watch “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and claim that it was not adapted in any way from Homer’s Odyssey.

    “While you accuse me of lying, you in the same breath described your information to be ‘overwhelming facts’ and that anyone who refuses to capitulate to your view is “colossally stupid.'”

    Another bald-faced lie. What I wrote was this:

    “[T]o continue believing [a worthless idea] in the face of overwhelming facts to the contrary represents such colossal stupidity that some would consider it as bad as willful lying.”

    Your attempts to personalize what I present and dismiss it as opinion are transparent and infantile. You are well aware that, regardless of the strength of your inculcated beliefs, the Bible is not merely a wreck of capricious morality but is flat-out wrong about a great many things concerning the natural world. There are no reliably documented resurrections, instances of transubstantiation, or other “miracles” in all of human history. Not one. This is not “my view” but the state of things, and one shared — not coincidentally — by vast numbers of people with both the good fortune to have escaped a religious upbringing and the willingness and ability to draw conclusions based on critical evaluation. Therefore, I feel neither glee nor remorse in pointing out that this idea you cling to for vexing but psychologically understandable reasons is in fact colossally stupid.

    It is beyond tiresome asking you to stay on point and provide evidence for your beliefs because I know in advance you will simply babble about reading things “in context” and ignore the fact that you only believe in your version of God because you happen to have been born into a culture abiding by — and in your case, a household evidently enforcing — the Christian flavor. You pretend that the success early Christian leaders and envoys has in reaching large numbers of people speaks to the intrinsic credibility of the Jesus fable, when all it does is establish that the strategy of presenting the canon so as to appeal to pagans and gentiles as well as “ites” was a good one.

    You are a parody of a parody, one more squint-eyed rodent feigning objectivity but ever on the edge of blurting out that the thinks the world is a few thousand years old and that evolutionary biologists are part of a grand and evil conspiracy. But contrary to what a related idiom says, being goofy twice over doesn’t make you the opposite. doesn’t make you the real deal. It just makes you really frigging goofy.

  13. #13 hopper3011
    July 25, 2008

    “A lie is defined as a “false statement made with intent to deceive.” If there is no intent to deceive, then there is no lie.”
    You got caught presenting only half of a definition on the last thread, do you honestly think I wasn’t going to catch you in this one:
    1 a: an assertion of something known or believed by the speaker to be untrue with intent to deceive b: an untrue or inaccurate statement that may or may not be believed true by the speaker
    2: something that misleads or deceives
    3: a charge of lying
    No need for “intent to deceive” (which is very on point to Kevin’s assertion, since, under sense 1.b, you can be the most earnestly devout Christian and still be lying). Interestingly, your assertion that the only meaning of the noun “lie” is the 1.a definition is itself a lie in the 1.a sense.

    “hopper3011, I am curious. Why do you find that “spreading the word” is ugly?”
    That is not how it works: first you answer the questions I asked on the last thread, then I’ll answer yours on this one. You don’t get to have another go at asking if you fail to respond to questions asked.

  14. #14 Lofcaudio
    July 25, 2008

    hopper3011, nevermind.

  15. #15 kemibe
    July 25, 2008

    That is not how it works: first you answer the questions I asked on the last thread, then I’ll answer yours on this one. You don’t get to have another go at asking if you fail to respond to questions asked.

    If this is the case, Lofcaudio has a backlog of work before him that would make the tasks and travails of Job look like a Swedish massage. To my knowledge, he has never finished any of the fracases he has started here, which is why I sidestep all pretense at civility when dealing with him — he is either dumb enough to think people won’t catch him in the act, here on the Refuge only to cause trouble because he resents critics of “faith,” or both. I think it’s about a 35/65 split.

  16. #16 Lofcaudio
    July 25, 2008

    Kevin, I don’t resent critics of “faith.” I truly don’t.

    As for why I am here, I enjoy engaging in rational discourse on some of the topics which are touched upon here from time to time. I am open to learning and challenging any pre-existing notions that I might be bringing to the table. If you think I am lying when I say that, so be it.

    I don’t feel the need to get the last word in a discussion, especially one that has completely devolved into a quote-mining quagmire (such as the last one here). I am well aware that you will use this against me at a subsequent time (just as you have done here) since you rarely have anything of substance on which to base your claims. Such ad hominems have become the norm for you.

    There’s no point in me spinning my wheels when I’m continually met with fallacious arguments. I thought that I asked hopper3011 a fairly innocent question as to why (s)he felt that spreading the word was ugly. Silly me for expecting a straightforward answer. If that’s how “it works”, then I’ll be happy to bow out until next time.

  17. #17 JimFiore
    July 25, 2008

    I’m not speaking for hopper here, but why should anyone bother taking the time to answer a question when there is no indication that such courtesy will be reciprocated?

    For myself, I’ll just say one minor thing regarding the “ugliness”: It is the height of arrogance to foist an idea for which you do not have demonstrable proof upon those who have no interest in it, will not benefit from it, and who just might have an equally unproved set of beliefs that are contradictory. That is a particularly odious characteristic of evangelicals, namely, the need to “save” other people. My hunch is that at least a portion of them feel they must “save” others if they (the evangelicals) are to go to heaven. I have said for many years that I really don’t care what sort of things people believe inside their own house (metaphorically speaking). I don’t care if someone believes in the divinity of a giant styrofoam locust named “Grazingula” and pray to it, prostrate, on alternate Thursdays. I simply don’t care. I begin to care when they start knocking on my door and telling me that I had better pray to their overgrown grasshopper if I don’t want to suffer eternal torment, and I care a lot when they start trying to change local, state, or national policy to keep them in accord with their particular beliefs.

    And for all of the crap that I have heard about “evil atheists” over the years, I have never, not once been approached by an atheist, either at home or in a public space, and told that I’d better wake up and understand that there is no god. Yet, for some odd reason, complete strangers seem to think that it is perfectly OK for them to accost me in a public space or come to my house uninvited and tell me that any ideas that I might have regarding life and the universe are woefully incorrect if they do not conform to their dogma, and essentially demand that I change my ways.

    You know, as crazy as moon-landing conspiracy theorists and UFOlogists can be, they don’t come knocking on my door. And I’d have less of a problem with them because at least they try to use scientific investigation, even if their efforts are woefully inadequate. I don’t think I could convince them any more than an evangelical, but at least the exchange might be mildly entertaining. Maybe it’s because they don’t believe that they have this “mission” from on high to fulfill that gives them a license to act like a boorish ass.

  18. #18 Lofcaudio
    July 25, 2008

    Jim, thanks for answering the question.

    why should anyone bother taking the time to answer a question when there is no indication that such courtesy will be reciprocated?

    In my defense, I answered almost all of hopper’s questions posed in the other thread. The ones I ignored were so far removed from the issues being discussed. Since the discussion had already gone well down a tangential path, I did not see the need to bound off on additional tangents.

    As for what you find ugly, I actually agree with most of what you said. I cringe when I see words such as foist and accost. And while I would not categorize it as “spreading the word”, I am disheartened by the political wranglings that any religious group makes in hopes of legislating their particular religious views and what they feel should be appropriate laws.

  19. #19 JimFiore
    July 25, 2008

    You might “cringe” at the sight of the words, but I’m less concerned with the words than with the actions. And if you do cringe, perhaps you should do something to dissuade those foisters and accosters.

  20. #20 hopper3011
    July 25, 2008

    “I don’t feel the need to get the last word in a discussion, especially one that has completely devolved into a quote-mining quagmire (such as the last one here).”
    Interesting that you, having selectively quote mined from Merriam-Webster to support your case on this thread, should be so averse to the practice; is this another case, like picking and choosing from the Bible, of something being OK when you do it, but not OK when someone else does it?

    “There’s no point in me spinning my wheels when I’m continually met with fallacious arguments. I thought that I asked hopper3011 a fairly innocent question as to why (s)he felt that spreading the word was ugly.”
    Firstly, you are the only one presenting fallacious arguments – as I have clearly pointed out both in this thread and the last one, and you simply have no basis on which to make that accusation. It is clear that you have no idea what you are talking about.
    Secondly, the questions I asked on the last thread were perfectly germane to the topic under discussion and your suggestion in #18 is mendacious in the extreme. If you choose not to respond to the questions posed then I believe that I am perfectly justified in refusing to entertain the idea that you have anything worth discussing. By refusing to answer you forfeited the right to join in any conversation, and the blog owners are perfectly justified in heaping on the abuse. In the circumstances I think that they are being remarkably polite, I don’t think I would be as restrained.
    Thirdly, I definitely didn’t say that “spreading the word was ugly”, if you want me to comment on something I said then I suggest you ask me about something I did say.

  21. #21 kemibe
    July 25, 2008

    “…you rarely have anything of substance on which to base your claims. Such ad hominems have become the norm for you.”

    Your response to things of substance produced by me and your other interlocutors is to deny that they exist. When shown Bible inconsistencies, errors, and contradictions, you say “no they’re not.” When it is pointed out that the Horus myth undeniably both predated and influenced the Jesus legend, you say “no it didn’t.” This strategy is failed, pathetic, and hilarious all at the same time, but at least it is simple.

    Given your determination to act like a jackhole whenever you commment, your refusal to answer direct question that you yourself raise, and your inability to refrain from commenting to the religious topics here, you really shouldn’t be surprised when people “stoop” to insulting you in the course of bunting aside your trite and childish arguments.

  22. #22 Warren
    July 26, 2008

    hopper3011, nevermind.

    Posted by: Lofcaudio

    Kind of sums it up, really.

    Goalposts? We don’t need no steeeeenkin’ goalposts!

  23. #23 Rhapsody
    July 26, 2008

    Oh I am having a great time with this article, thanks so much for sharing. There are plenty of times where I just could hug the man for being so spot on, so I forgive him for not knowing what atheisme really is. As a matter of fact, many conservatives do believe that atheisme is a belief at itself, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s influenced by that! However, I found myself nodding at:

    Later on, St. Thomas, the great theologian of the Catholic tradition, understood the church as the historical extension of the incarnation. This is a very radical idea. So you know Jesus not through Scripture and not through some kind of internal experience, but through the existence of the church itself. And then you get Martin Luther, who rejected that idea and said the only way you really get to know Jesus is through Scripture. It couldn’t be more different than Thomas’ conception. Then you get Calvin, a contemporary of Luther’s, who understood Jesus strictly in Old Testament terms, as prophet, priest and king. And then you have Soren Kierkegaard, under the influence of Hegel, who saw Jesus as “the absolute paradox,” the eternal and the human combined in one historical moment, which is in fact unintelligible. I call this long history of how Jesus has been understood and interpreted “an abundance of Jesuses.”

    and

    What’s striking to me is not that Christians keep disagreeing about these things. They can’t stop arguing with each other. The issue doesn’t go away. You’d think, we can’t settle exactly who Jesus is, so let’s forget it. But the subject burns. It holds people’s attention and requires some kind of response. I

    I am just wondering if he mean Thomas Moore here (given the connections and time periods.. I think he meant that. Moore was a humanist and many modern societies are based on Humanisme (well at least over here). Anyway, I agree he has a point here. It’s just mind boggling to observe how many different branches of Christian religions there are, the most obscure to me are the Evangelicans who base their believes on a part of the bible (which sounds rather selective to me as if the rest of the bible might not suit them). But within the Christian believes in the States, Mormon’s are being ridiculed by evangelicans and perhaps more, of being a sect, but if they also believe in God and Jesus, why the heck are folks fighting each other? Is it also partly because of the competitive nature instilled in its culture? Only this belief is the utmost best?

    Another one:
    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.

    In that sense Christianity to him is a system which derives from and bases most of his own traditions at the much much older acient religions. Which of course can be traced back historically (Ireland is I think the best proof of that) where the ancient believes formed the basis of Christianity. St Kevin at Glendalough and his men are awefully inspiring for that (a must visit if you ever cross the pond into my direction!), but anyone who denies that this has happened really is well, just ignorant or doesn’t know a single bit about European and also it’s religious history. Imho, of course. Let me know how the book is!

  24. #24 hopper3011
    July 29, 2008

    “As a matter of fact, many conservatives do believe that atheisme is a belief at itself, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s influenced by that!”
    I’m very definitely not a conservative, but I know that atheism IS a belief system in its own right.
    If you declare yourself to be an atheist, then you are positing something which can never be proven; the very basis of a system of belief.

    “I am just wondering if he mean Thomas Moore here (given the connections and time periods..”
    Unless I’m misunderstanding you, I would have to say that he means Aquinas – it is his theological positioning of the Church which Luther rebelled against.
    The Church, through its hijacking and rebranding of the Virgin Mary, attempted to position its teachings as the only route to revelation, and this positioning was put on a firm by Aquinas’ teaching, which equated theology with science.

    “Only this belief is the utmost best?”
    I would say that this mentality pervades ALL belief systems, regardless of what that system believes in.

    “Which of course can be traced back historically (Ireland is I think the best proof of that) where the ancient believes formed the basis of Christianity.”
    I have to disagree with you there, the basis of Christianity is found in Jewish religious tradition. The absorption and twisting of the various pagan traditions which nowadays make up mainstream Christian religious practices (Osiris and The Resurrection, priests praying with their eyes closed, etc.) were calculated political moves which ensured the various chieftains who converted to Christianity kept their jobs (if you are given a divine mandate by a sun god, it is very difficult to then proclaim to the peasantry that you were wrong, the sun god didn’t exist, but it’s all OK you have been given a mandate to rule by the new God – questions might be asked by the brighter peasants! Far more politically expedient for your traditional gods to be quietly dropped while continuing to celebrate the same holy days, etc.)

  25. #25 pough
    July 29, 2008

    I’m very definitely not a conservative, but I know that atheism IS a belief system in its own right. If you declare yourself to be an atheist, then you are positing something which can never be proven; the very basis of a system of belief.

    What you’re saying sounds like nonsense to me, in spite of how confidently assert it. I was under the impression that a lack of belief is not the same as a belief. I think maybe you’re committing the same sin as Carse is by redefining something until it means something else that’s easier to dismiss. (Actually, in your case I think you’re taking a subset of a group and claiming that the whole group belongs to it.)

    And hey, Wikipedia seems to agree with me and not you. Which is something, I guess.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implicit_and_explicit_atheism

  26. #26 hopper3011
    July 30, 2008

    “I think maybe you’re committing the same sin as Carse is by redefining something until it means something else that’s easier to dismiss.”
    1) Actually no – just the standard Compact Oxford English Dictionary definition:

    atheism

    /aythi-iz?m/

    ? noun the belief that God does not exist.

    ? DERIVATIVES atheist noun atheistic adjective atheistical adjective.

    ? ORIGIN from Greek a- ?without? + theos ?god?.

    2) I wholeheartedly disagree with your characterisation of the practice of re-defining a word as “a sin”. As long as Carse explicitly defines the way in which he uses the word “atheist” – which he may do in the book (as I pointed out earlier) and sticks to that use consistently, then there is no “sin” involved.

    “And hey, Wikipedia seems to agree with me and not you.”
    It would be even better if the article didn’t contradict itself. George H. Smith’s definitions:
    Implict Atheism “the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it”
    Explicit Atheism “the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it”
    Super, appears to support you all the way, until you get to the next paragraph, which deals with explicit atheism:
    a) the view usually expressed by the statement “I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being”; (isn’t that a statement of belief rather than the absence of belief?)
    b) the view usually expressed by the statement “God does not exist” or “the existence of God is impossible”; and
    c) the view which “refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god” because “the concept of a god is unintelligible”
    b) and c) actually collapse back into a) for want of empirical proof of those statements. Anyone who says “God does not exist” is stating his world view rather than a set of empirically proven facts, and likewise with the refusal to contemplate the concept of a god is wilful blindenss rather than a statement of fact.
    So Smith rather contradicts his own definition, doesn’t he?
    Implicit atheists are a logical possibility, but are, in my opinion, an academic exercise rather than a reality – do you know any?

  27. #27 pough
    July 30, 2008

    1. For a concept as complicated as a philosophy, a dictionary might be a decent starting place, but it’s far from the final word. As you could tell from the Wikipedia article, it’s more complicated than that. So complicated, in fact, that you assumed it was wrong when you didn’t understand it.

    2. For the rest of my conversations with you, I will define “Christian” as “person with pee-pee in mouth.” As long as I stick to that, you should have no reason to complain. Right?

    3a. No. Listen, if you can’t tell the difference between “I believe there is no god” and “I don’t believe there is a god”, there isn’t much more to say. You’re wrong and you don’t seem to have the ability to recognize it.

  28. #28 hopper3011
    July 31, 2008

    “So complicated, in fact, that you assumed it was wrong when you didn’t understand it.”
    Where did I say it was wrong? Please don’t put words in my mouth.
    What I said was that the article contradicts itself – and then I showed that. Might I suggest that, instead of faking up my position, you demonstrate how your article doesn’t contradict itself.
    I’m not sure when the opinion of George H. Smith became the ne plus ultra in metaphysical discussion? Certainly the fact that he contradicts himself so readily indicates that he doesn’t have a particularly strong grasp of the connotative/denotative content of the word “belief”.

    For the rest of my conversations with you, I will define “Christian” as “person with pee-pee in mouth.” As long as I stick to that, you should have no reason to complain. Right?”
    I’m guessing you think that I am a Christian, and that I will be insulted/upset by that definition? If that is the point, it would probably pay you to read the whole thread (and perhaps some others on this site), it might save you from looking foolish.
    I was under the impression that we were discussing a rejection of the supposition that a metaphysical supreme being exists, not simply a rejection of the Christian myth, and specifically whether such rejection constitutes an absence of belief or a “negative” belief system. If your whole point is to bash you some Christians, I think you might be barking up the wrong tree.

    “Listen, if you can’t tell the difference between “I believe there is no god” and “I don’t believe there is a god”, there isn’t much more to say.”
    I can tell the difference, but it seems as though you can’t, at least in relation to the subject under discussion. I would have thought that the use of the word “believe” in both sentences would have given it away, but obviously not?
    The phrase “I don’t believe” cannot indicate an absence of belief, simply because it acknowledges the existence of the facility of belief.
    Given two untestable theorems – that God (in the metaphysical supreme being sense, not the Christian mythologic interpretation) exists, versus that God does not exist, the phrase “I don’t believe” rejects the first by accepting the existence of belief in the second, but that is not an “absence of belief” in God, but the acceptance of a contrasting belief system.
    If it is not a belief then it requires proof – which I’m assuming you don’t have?

  29. #29 pough
    July 31, 2008

    1. You haven’t convinced me that there is a contradiction. I don’t see it. What contradicts what else? Maybe you’ve made a point, and it obviously seems like a clear and correct one to you, but to me it sounds like neither. Can you please state it again more clearly?

    2. I had no intention of “bashing me some Christians”, just like I have no intention of wasting my time by looking up all your posts to see who you are. You’re not so important to me. I just thought it would be a clear way of demonstrating how changing the definition of a well-known word is counter-productive to clear communication, unfair and stupid. For more examples, see Humpty Dumpty vs. Alice.

    3. So the difference in “I believe there is no” and “I don’t believe there is a” is simply word order? Once again, you haven’t convinced me. Is it possible to not collect stamps without being considered a collector?

  30. #30 Moreth
    August 1, 2008

    I read the interview with interest. He seems (to me) to want to define ‘belief system’ rather narrowly and then shovel all the bad, boring or contentious issues in there; then he defines ‘religion’ very (I mean *very*) broadly and puts all the unifying and cultural bits in there.

    But I suspect that many of the ‘poets’ are inspired by their need to define a belief system. I doubt you can separate the two and still have anything that functions as a religion (by his own definition) – what you *will* have is a nice, nostalgic fuzz… and little creativity.

    Even worse, I don’t think all the things that inspire the human spirit (‘poetry’ if you will) are *necessarily* nice (I’m thinking of his last response here). He seems to be very close to equating what is beautiful to what is good – and claiming that emotion as ‘religion’. A perilous path! Perhaps he merely picked bad examples.

    Really, if he wants to defend religion, he needs to do better then that! I’d be interested to know what you think of the book…

  31. #31 hopper3011
    August 2, 2008

    3. So the difference in “I believe there is no” and “I don’t believe there is a” is simply word order? Once again, you haven’t convinced me. Is it possible to not collect stamps without being considered a collector?
    You are conflating an empirically verifiable statement with a metaphysical judgement. The statement “I am not a stamp collector” is proven or proveable, and therefore does not form part of your worldview, but instead is a part of your empirical actuality whereas the sentences “I believe there is no God” and “I don’t believe there is a God” are unproven and, I would suggest, unproveable, and must therefore be subjective judgements forming part of your weltanschauung.
    Off topic, but philologically speaking, the idea of defining yourself by using the noun form descriptor of some part of your character: “a stamp collector”, “a believer” or “an atheist” is fascinating, and might offer an explanation for a large proportion of the disputes between religious and non-religious persons which seems so prevalent in the US (at least to outside observers).
    This difference is far more obvious when people are asked about their nationality; “I am an American” – a noun form description which contrasts with “I am British” – an adjectival description.

    1. You haven’t convinced me that there is a contradiction. I don’t see it. What contradicts what else? Maybe you’ve made a point, and it obviously seems like a clear and correct one to you, but to me it sounds like neither. Can you please state it again more clearly?
    The article quotes George H Smith directly:
    “Explicit atheism is defined as “the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it””
    The article then goes on to refine this definition:
    a) the view usually expressed by the statement “I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being”;
    b) the view usually expressed by the statement “God does not exist” or “the existence of God is impossible”; and
    c) the view which “refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god” because “the concept of a god is unintelligible”

    The refinement expressed in (a) therefore directly contradicts the quote from Smith, since to “not believe” in the existence of God is to posit the unproveable claim that God does not exist; a subjective opinion which is a fortiori a belief – albeit the opposite belief from that of a theist – and not “an absence of belief”. That is where the article contradicts itself.

    I just thought it would be a clear way of demonstrating how changing the definition of a well-known word is counter-productive to clear communication, unfair and stupid. For more examples, see Humpty Dumpty vs. Alice.
    I see – so when Smith redefines commonly used words it is OK with you (if you read the Wikipedia article you will note that: “Implicit atheism and explicit atheism are subcategories of atheism coined by George H. Smith”) because you agree with him, but when Carse does it, then “is counter-productive to clear communication, unfair and stupid”. Do we have a double standard here?
    For examples of perfectly legitimate redefinition, see the different definitions of analytic and synthetic used by, among others, Kant, Frege, Quine and Chomsky. What each philosopher did was to set out his definition (see Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” for an example: “In all judgments in which the relation of a subject to the predicate is thought (if I only consider affirmative judgments, since the application to negative ones is easy) this relation is possible in two different ways. Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it. In the first case, I call the judgment analytic, in the second synthetic.“) and use it consistently. I fail to see why you find that so surprising, how else could philosophy develop? So long as Carse does set out his definition, then there is no “sin” committed.

    “2. I had no intention of “bashing me some Christians”, just like I have no intention of wasting my time by looking up all your posts to see who you are. You’re not so important to me.”
    Supercilious comments never quite have the effect you intend, do they? You certainly came across as a right prick there.

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