James Carse directed the Religious Studies Program at New York University for thirty years. In this interview with Salon, regarding his new book The Religious Case Against Belief, he gives us a taste of what he learned from all that study:

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. 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. (Italics Added)

What a remarkable statement. Here on Planet Earth an atheist is someone who does not believe in a supernatural God. But it would seem that on Planet Religious Studies Department there’s this added proviso, where you must also be unimpressed with the glories of nature.

Carse simply made that up from whole cloth. He certainly did not get the idea from anything Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris wrote, and they were the two people about whom the interviewer specifically asked (shortly before the question I just quoted). Dawkins, let me remind you, entitled the first chapter of his book “A Deeply Religious Non-Believer.” That one can be awestruck at the beauties of nature without going in for any goofy supernatural religious beliefs is a major theme in his writing.

Sam Harris devoted an entire chapter of The End of Faith to questions of spirituality and transcendence. He is as impressed as anyone with the mysteries of nature. Like Dawkins, he simply rejects supernatural explanations for those mysteries.

This sort of thing is sadly typical of the academic response to Dawkins et al, as we have had cause to discuss many times here at the blog. To read this interview in its entirety is to see someone who agrees almost completely with every point Dawkins and Harris make. That traditional religious beliefs are limited, authoritarian, and can not live up to their claims of rationality and comprhensiveness are precisely the major points being made by the New Atheists.

But forthrightly admitting this would not give him the opportunity to show off how smart and learned he is. (He even plays the “I’m a religion scholar, they’re not!” card). So he gleefully goes about his business of redefining terms, thereby allowing him to criticize Dawkins and the others for not following his own bizarre and idiosyncratic usages.

So an atheist is now someone who fails to be awestruck by nature, as opposed to someone who rejects the existence of a supernatural God. Religion, meanwhile, is about poetry and mystery, as opposed to beliefs and doctrines and institutions. In Carse’s world the minutiae of the doctrines of the various major religions are not so important, since he regards them as plainly false. But even though Carse acknowledges that the people who think belief is terribly important to religion are both powerful and frequently dangerous, he believes Dawkins is to be faulted for devoting too much attention to them.

Dawkins is well accustomed to this sort of thing. After the publication of The Selfish Gene it became fashionable to criticize him for anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. One such critic was philosopher Mary Midgely, who embarrassed herself with a stunningly ignorant review of the book for the academic journal Philosophy. Dawkins wrote the following in his reply:

In effect I am saying: ‘Provided I define selfishness in a particular way an oak tree, or a gene, may legitimately be described as `selfish’. But no reasonable philosopher would say: `I don’t like your definition, therefore I shall interpret your statement as though you were using my definition of selfishness; by my definition your concept of the selfish gene is nonsense, therefore it is nonsense. This is, in effect, what Midgley has done: `Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous, elephants abstract or biscuits teleological’. Why didn’t she add to this witty little list, for the benefit of quantum physicists, that fundamental particles cannot have charm?

It is precisely what Carse has done as well.

I urge you to read the whole interview. It is a useful reminder that when you hear academics griping about the lack of sophistication in the books of Dawkins and Harris, they are just vamping. They are dismayed by their own irrelevance, and are flailing desperately for some pseudo-intellectual weapon they can brandish in reply.

Comments

  1. #1 jk
    July 22, 2008

    Why do you say “on Planet Religious Studies Department” rather than “on Planet James Carse”?

    Many religious studies professors are atheists (in the normal sense), even if they don’t admit it publicly. They’re not all as foolish as this guy.

  2. #2 Robert O'Brien
    July 22, 2008

    I agree with Carse that Dawkins, Harris, and the other members of the New Atheist clown car are unsophisticated but I also agree that Carse is vapid; I guess I am feeling ecumenical of late.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 22, 2008

    jk –

    I suspect that Carse’s attitudes are very common among religious studies professors. I could be wrong about that, of course, but Carse is hardly the only one out there making these sorts of arguments. Carse himself is an atheist in the normal sense, so I don’t think that’s any protection against foolishness.

  4. #4 Jay Steele
    July 22, 2008

    I am in the process of reading Carse’s book and might post more about it if it is germane to the thread, but I wanted to respond to your “gleefully goes about his business of redefining terms.”

    I had this charge leveled against me here a couple of weeks ago on another thread that briefly delved into the nature of Christianity. The problem, from my perspective, is that within the long history of Christianity there isn’t just one definition of what it is. There have always been dissenting voices and minor themes within the Christian tradition. I am not making up a new definition but picking up on an old, albeit minor, one.

    Same with Carse. Carse is not making up new definitions to fit his purposes but sharpening a distinction long made by those who study religion. It may be news, though, to those who are looking on from the outside and don’t know the inside baseball.

    I agree that his comments about the new atheists was stupid.

  5. #5 A
    July 22, 2008

    jk says, correctly:”Many religious studies professors are atheists (in the normal sense), even if they don’t admit it publicly.”

    But religious studies profs normally work where?

    As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

  6. #6 Elf Eye
    July 22, 2008

    Meh, this atheist just managed to sneak the “there is grandeur in this view of life” passage into one of my LOTR fanfiction narratives. I guess marveling over the diversity and interconnectedness of life doesn’t qualify as “walk[ing] around in wonder about the universe.”

  7. #7 phisrow
    July 22, 2008

    The old “atheist=the sort of person, definitely not me, who holds positions no reasonable person could possibly agree with” just won’t die, will it? It was bad enough back when atheist was primarily a term of abuse for people differently religious than oneself; but somebody who doesn’t believe in god claiming that he isn’t an atheist, because those people don’t think nature is wonderful is just pathetic. Even more so when the person doing so has years of experience in a field that demands a fair amount of subtle definitional logic chopping. Pitiful.

  8. #8 jk
    July 22, 2008

    Jason: Carse isn’t an atheist in the normal sense, because he thinks he isn’t an atheist and doesn’t even understand what atheism is ;-). When I said that many RS profs are atheists in the normal sense, I meant that they will plainly admit in private that they are atheist and that Carse’s brand of nonsense is far from ‘normal’.

    A: RS profs work in universities. Judging from your quote, perhaps you misunderstand what religious studies as a discipline is really about. It is fundamentally different than theological (and related) institutions, which your Sinclair quote properly applies to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_studies Religious studies is the secular study of religion.

  9. #9 jk
    July 22, 2008

    Jay: what do you mean when you say “Carse is not making up new definitions … but sharpening a distinction long made by those who study religion”?

    Can you give a reference for this distinction? As far as I am aware on the basis of my studies within the field of religious studies, his distinction has no basis whatsoever. Atheism within religious studies means the same thing it means here on scienceblogs: the belief in the non-existence of deities, or at least a vigorous belief in the extreme unlikelihood of their existence.

  10. #10 James McGrath
    July 22, 2008

    I’m a religion scholar – dare I jump into the fray here?

    Dawkins is a good example of someone who, on the one hand, says he is opposed to and disbelieves in “all gods of every sort”, and says that all Deists and pantheists are really atheists.

    My guess is that James Carse wishes to acknowledge that there are more than two options, and while if one understands atheism to mean specifically “the denial or rejection of theism” he might well consider himself an “atheist”, if it means “denial of all notions of the divine, including pantheism, panentheism, and others that are not classical theism” then he isn’t.

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    July 22, 2008

    Dawkins is a good example of someone who, on the one hand, says he is opposed to and disbelieves in “all gods of every sort”, and says that all Deists and pantheists are really atheists.

    What?

    No, seriously, what?

    How do you go from what he says in The God Delusion to that? The emphasis in the following is mine:

    Let’s remind ourselves of the terminology. A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation… A deist, too, believes in a supernatural intelligence, but one whose activities were confined to setting up the laws that govern the universe in the first place… Pantheists don’t believe in a supernatural God at all, but use the word God as a non-supernatural synonym for Nature, or for the Universe, or for the lawfulness that governs its workings… Deists differ from theists in that their god does not answer prayers… Deists differ from pantheists in that the deist God is some kind of cosmic intelligence, rather than the pantheist’s metaphoric or poetic synonym for the laws of the universe. Pantheism is sexed-up atheism. Deism is watered-down theism.

    OK, maybe his usage of “pantheism” should be qualified with “naturalistic” or some other adjective; certainly, one could find a self-identified pantheist who doesn’t feel that Dawkins’s description covers him. Honestly, that’s beside the point. What matters is that Dawkins does not consider deism to be the same damn thing as atheism (otherwise, why would he devote a chunk of The God Delusion to explaining why he finds the deist conception of a creator also unsatisfying?).

  12. #12 Russell
    July 22, 2008

    There is the equally astounding notion that religion isn’t tied to belief. While that might be true for some religions, it certainly isn’t true of Christianity. If Carse wants a religion without belief, he need only reject traditions that have doctrines, catechisms, confirmations, and the other institutionalization of belief. Which is to say, the whole of the Christian tradition.

  13. #13 Jay Steele
    July 23, 2008

    JK:

    I was referring to this part of the post: “Religion, meanwhile, is about poetry and mystery, as opposed to beliefs and doctrines and institutions.” Carse is trying to make a distinction between the rituals, practices, scripture of a religion like Christianity that are shared by all adherents and the particular beliefs of various sects. Although Carse gives it his own twist, most scholarly studies of religion that I know of do the same in one way or another.

    Carse’s point is that it is the belief systems that are dangerous because they are “not only impervious to opposition, they thrive on it.” From his book. Christianity has within its fold multiple belief systems, Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Fundamentalist, etc. Each of these particular expressions of Christianity makes exclusive truth claims – at least that is what got them started – that are mutually incompatible with the other belief systems within Christianity. Christianity as a religion manages to not be fully captured or killed off by any one of them or by their past and present battles.

    Carse is trying to rescue the religion from the belief systems. The religious expression of Christianity is, according to Carse, a work of poetry about human aspirations and the human condition. (Same is true for the other religions each in its own way.) It is an expression that continues to evolve and change as times change. Something is always lost when someone tries to capture it with doctrines and beliefs. In fact, not only is something lost, but something dangerous usually results. Because people are sure they have captured the truth and think it is worth fighting about.

    Belief systems and their dangers, according to Carse, are not just associated with world religions. Nazism and Marxism are examples of belief systems that made the same kinds of dangerous ultimate and dangerous truth claims.

    Carse thinks that the religion can be separated from the belief systems and that there is something of value in the religion. He is pitching his book to those, like me, who don’t buy the belief systems but think there is something worth saving about the religion.

    Carse agrees with Dawkins and Harris that the belief systems, as he frames it, are dangerous and need to be exposed and opposed.

  14. #14 Jay Steele
    July 23, 2008

    Russell:

    The mystic tradition within Christianity and the Quaker tradition are but two examples of expressions of the faith that are not defined by belief.

  15. #15 Pseudonym
    July 23, 2008

    Russell:

    Further to what Jay Steele said, there’s also a difference between a religion being tied to belief and one being based on belief. Many Christian denominations (for example) talk about belief, but rely mostly on practice and/or experience. Pentecostalism is the obvious example here. I don’t know Jay, but I suspect his church prefers narrative to catechisms, too.

    The point being that even if belief is there in a religion/denomination/whatever, it may not be emphasised, or even particularly important.

  16. #16 Tony
    July 23, 2008

    Jason says, “I suspect that Carse’s attitudes are very common among religious studies professors.”

    That’s an assumption.

    Carse is merely defining an atheist a certain way, as someone who does not believes in God AND has no sense of wonder. While this seems like a weird definition, he has a right to his own connotation.

    It seems to me that he is having a hard time dealing with the negativity surrounding the term “atheist.”

  17. #17 JApex
    July 23, 2008

    I propose three+ categories of religious belief:
    1. No supreme being of any sort,
    2. A supreme being, but no personal god,
    3a. A personal god incorporating the supreme being context entirely,and
    3b. Personal gods incorporating facets of the supreme being with a core level distributed across the universe.

    It took me a long time to really understand the difference between 2. and 3., and I suspect many others do not fully appreciate the difference. People holding to category 3., especially 3a., consider all members in 1. and 2. to be atheists. It renders discussion between the first two categories and the third incomprehensible.

    Carse appears to be in the second category and seems to not understand that and the first category. FftT (Forest for the Trees) syndrome may apply here.

    P.S. Agnostics are probably second category members.

  18. #18 BaldApe
    July 23, 2008

    Carse said:

    To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe.

    And you said:

    But it would seem that on Planet Religious Studies Department there’s this added proviso, where you must also be unimpressed with the glories of nature.

    I’m not getting that from what Carse said at all. Let me try to rephrase what Carse said– “The definition of an atheist is not that one is stunned by the mystery of things or that one walks around in wonder about the universe.”

    If that is what he meant to say, I don’t see much wrong with it. It just seems like he thinks that an atheist ought to come by his atheism from a religious perspective. In his words, “not from the scientific side but from the religious side.”

    IOW, science can’t prove there is no god. Science can show that fact claims made by religious people are false, and can explain phenomena formerly explained by mythical stories, but if you’re going to reject a religious idea, you ought to do so on religious grounds.

    I could be all wet, but that interpretation gives the guy some credit for basic intelligence.

  19. #19 Jud
    July 23, 2008

    Further to the original post and Blake Stacey’s comment, there seems to be a cottage industry of people who appear not to have bothered to read what Dawkins has written, but nevertheless feel themselves somehow qualified to opine on it.

    Jason wrote: I suspect that Carse’s attitudes are very common among religious studies professors. I could be wrong about that, of course….

    Errm – defensive IMO. This is similar to the sort of generalization, supported by little but anecdote and personal bias, that you criticized Carse for in the original post.

    For some intellectually stimulating reading from the head of a religious studies department, may I suggest the books of Bart Ehrman?

  20. #20 Tulse
    July 23, 2008

    The mystic tradition within Christianity and the Quaker tradition are but two examples of expressions of the faith that are not defined by belief.

    There are no beliefs associated with such mysticism, like, as an example, those mystical experiences are associated with a supernatural being or beings and not just the results of natural biological processes?

  21. #21 sdg
    July 23, 2008

    To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe.

    Just to add to some of what BaldApe wrote…
    This wording is a little bit confusing. He does not say

    To be an atheist is to NOT be stunned by the mystery of things or to NOT walk around in wonder about the universe.

    One interpretation is that all he said was that being stunned by the mystery of things and/or walking around in wonder about the universe do not make you an atheist. In this interpretation there is nothing saying that doing these things prevents you from being an atheist, just that these alone do not make you an atheist. If this is the correct reading then I think it is a true statement (and perhaps a useless statement).

    @BaldApe – What are “religious grounds”? Seems like a squishy concept to me. (I did not read the whole article so I apologize if it is explained there)

  22. #22 BaldApe
    July 23, 2008

    @sdg- I agree that “religious grounds” doesn’t mean much. Maybe I should have said “theological grounds” but that’s not much better. Typical GIGO, as far as I can tell.

  23. #23 ken
    July 23, 2008

    BaldApe, your logic is wrong

    “Scientist can’t prove there is no god”

    I actually wrote a paragraph explaining what was wrong with that statement and then realized, why bother?

    Atheists don’t believe there is no god, we have concluded that there is no god. There is not a shred of evidence which backs up a theory of the existence of god.

    Ken

  24. #24 James McGrath
    July 23, 2008

    You’re right, in my haste I expressed myself inaccurately. His statement is in fact something like “pantheism is merely sexed-up atheism, and deism is merely watered-down theism”. My point was simply that he tries to reduce everything to two categories.

  25. #25 tomh
    July 23, 2008

    Tony wrote:
    Carse is merely defining an atheist a certain way, as someone who does not believes in God AND has no sense of wonder. While this seems like a weird definition, he has a right to his own connotation.

    He can just make up his own definitions and spout them as if they were true? No dictionary in the world defines atheist in this way. Maybe he should write his own dictionary instead of wasting his time mis-defining words and pretending it means something.

  26. #26 Explicit Atheist
    July 23, 2008

    “Carse thinks that the religion can be separated from the belief systems and that there is something of value in the religion. He is pitching his book to those, like me, who don’t buy the belief systems but think there is something worth saving about the religion.”

    Well of course, by distinguishing our imagination from the world outside of our imaginations, all fiction can be “separated” from its made up fact claims. This argument being attributed (probably correctly) to Carse goes too far in the direction of wanting the cake and eating it too to be taken seriously outside the cloistered walls of religious studies departments. Its redefining religion as fiction and then insisting that as fiction it is still some meaningfully distinct category different from all other fiction in terms of impacting human behavior or thought or some other impact. That just isn’t true.

  27. #27 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 23, 2008

    Jay Steele –

    Carse pretty blatantly redefines the term “atheist” and does so in an especially unflattering way. And his sharp distinction between “religion” and “belief”, while common among scholars, is not common in everyday language. Carse can define his terms however he pleases, of course, but he can not then turn around and accuse Dawkins and Harris of doing it wrong by following the more common usages. As I showed in my post, Dawkins recognizes the distinction between belief and religion, but he chooses to focus on belief as the aspect of religion with the most important social consequences. Carse, as you acknowledge, agrees in large measure with the substance of this criticism, but instead of stating this forthrightly, he states that he has stumbled on to a more substantive critique than Dawkins and Harris managed to provide. I find this vexing.

    There are certainly doctrinal disagreements among the various Christian sects, but there are far greater areas of agreement. You don’t need Christianity to wax poetic about the human condition. It simply confuses the issue to apply a term like “Christianity,” which is usually associated with certain specific views regarding God’s interactions with humanity, to refer to universal human needs or aspirations.

    James McGrath –

    Of course, you are always welcome to comment here. Your comment, however, is typical of what I find so frustrating about the writing of so many scholars of religion. “Atheist” is not a complex term. It refers to someone who does not believe in a supernatural, creator God. Carse makes it clear that he does not believe in such a God. Therefore, he is an atheist.

    Carse tells us that he is not an atheist because he is stunned by the wonder and mystery of nature, and that he actually has little in common with people like Dawkins and Harris. This, despite the fact that the distinction between religion and belief is built right into the title of Dawkins’ opening chapter, and despite the fact that both Dawkins and Harris devote ample space to precisely the sort of wonder that Carse says they reject. This is really a very poor performance on his part.

    Finally, there really are only two categories. Either a supernatural creator God exists, or does not exist. Pantheism, panentheism, and deism are not alternatives to this basic dichotomy.

    Nobody was confused about what Dawkins and Harris were talking about in their books. When Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book “How Religion Poisons Everything,” nobody took him to mean that standing humble and awe-struck before nature is a bad thing. But Carse and so many of his colleagues insist on spreading a fog of confusion over what are ultimately pretty straightforward issues.

    If they just wanted to introduce some nuance and subtlety to the discussion I could go along with them, at least as an intellectual exercise. But people like Carse invariably present their views as some sort of devastating refutation of Dawkins et al, brunishing their academic credentials as a weapon, and lambasting them for their lack of sophistication. This as a preulde to a concession of virtually all of Dawkins’ major points.

    Once again, I find that vexing.

  28. #28 Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth
    July 23, 2008

    See what nonsense Alister McGrath and haughty John Haught spew against us! Jason, amen and indeed!

  29. #29 Jay Steele
    July 23, 2008

    Jason,

    I think one’s perspective makes a difference. From the outside looking in it may appear that the disagreements within Christianity are minor compared with areas of agreement. But then why have Christians been fighting with each other for centuries about the nature of Christianity? Inside the house there are big and consequential differences.

    Dawkins and Harris don’t get or care about these differences. They are looking on from the outside. Carse, in contrast, is inside, and his target audience is insiders. He is trying to rescue religion from its worst adherents. He thinks there is something worth saving. He is articulating an argument for those who care like him.

    He is not excused for making erroneous claims about atheism or anything else, of course. But he thinks, as do I, that Dawkins and Harris don’t have much of an understanding of Christianity or religion in general. Their target is a small slice of a much bigger pie, a rotten and poisonous slice without question, but still only a slice.

  30. #30 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 23, 2008

    Jay Steele –

    For the purposes of their books it was not necessary for Dawkins and Harris to get into the doctrinal differences among different Christian sects. Their concern was the common ground among Christians, and other monotheistic religions, as I alluded to in my previous comment.

    What basis do you have for saying Dawkins and Harris don’t “get” the disagreements within Christianity?

    Since Carse seems to be very critical of any sort of supernatural belief system, I’d say those “worst adherents” to whom you refer are a very large percentage of Christians generally. It’s not just fundamentalists, after all, who take seriously the church’s doctrines about the divinity of Jesus, the fate of sinners in the afterlife and so on. I don’t think you can dismiss these attitudes as representing a small slice of Christianity in general. Only a small slice would advocate violence, certainly, but we are talking about far more than that.

    As for what to salvage from Christianity, I feel about Carse the same way I feel about most liberal religious scholars (John Shelby Spong comes immediately to mind here). I think people like Carse and Spong do a very good job of identifying the problems with traditional theology, but the version of Christianity they offer in its place is so denuded and vacuous that ir hardly deserves to be called Christianity at all.

  31. #31 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 23, 2008

    Morgan –

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  32. #32 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    July 23, 2008

    This, despite the fact that the distinction between religion and belief is built right into the title of Dawkins’ opening chapter,

    Not to mention an entire separate book with the title Unweaving the Rainbow.

  33. #33 Jay Steele
    July 23, 2008

    Jason,

    Dawkins and Harris, like you, dismiss the differences within Christianity as trivial compared to the similarities. You disparage the perspective of liberal Christians like Spong, who afterall served for several decades as an Episcopal bishop in good standing, because he doesn’t fit your definition of Christian. You, of course, are free to define Christianity in any way you see fit.

    I note in your latest response that your definition of Christians focuses primarily on what they say the believe:

    “It’s not just fundamentalists, after all, who take seriously the church’s doctrines about the divinity of Jesus, the fate of sinners in the afterlife and so on.”

    I am much less interested in what they believe than in what they actually do. What is the ratio of physicians to faith-healers in America? How many children go to private religious schools versus public schools? How many grow up to be clerics versus scientists, lawyers, teachers, etc.? How much time to they spend watching TV versus reading their Bibles?

    Religious belief in America is a mile wide and an inch deep. For most Americans. They may say the believe God created the earth in six days but they send their kids to public schools to learn about evolution. They take them to the doctor. They barely raise an eyebrow when their child marries a Jew or a Buddhist or a Muslim.

    Religion is a source of inspiration, comfort, and socialization. Its fun to sing in a choir; it feels good to feed the hungry. It is comforting to believe in an afterlife with God. But religious concerns don’t dominate their everyday lives. In fact, as any fundamentalist Christian pastor will tell you the vast majority of Americans live their lives as if they are functional atheists. Lots of them are apparently reading Dawkins and Harris.

    What worries me are the small slice of Christians whose beliefs are rigid and whose actions follow those beliefs. They are dangerous. But they are hardly representative of most Christians.

  34. #34 James McGrath
    July 23, 2008

    Jason, thanks for replying! You wrote “When Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book “How Religion Poisons Everything,” nobody took him to mean that standing humble and awe-struck before nature is a bad thing.”

    I think the concern is that there are religious traditions, and historic streams within even major religious traditions, that are all about being humble and awe-struck, and not about dogmatic claims to know things that no human being really does. Are Quakers and Buddhists not representatives of “religion”?

    Ah, but now I’m forced to divulge what is a well-known ‘open secret’ in religious studies: we are no better at defining “religion”… :)

    Anyone who has the interest is invited to contribute their $.02 worth over on my blog, where I’ve asked for comment on this very question: “What is an atheist?”

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2008/07/what-is-atheist.html

  35. #35 Heleen
    July 24, 2008

    How to parse the sentence?

    To be an atheist is (not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe).

    or

    To be an atheist is not (to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe).

  36. #36 Snark
    July 24, 2008

    Well… to be a theist IS to be stunned by the wonder of all things natural. And to be scared to death by it all. And so to replace it all with made up banal, vapid and primitive stories and “goddidit-explanations” about it.

  37. #37 Tulse
    July 24, 2008

    Religion is a source of inspiration, comfort, and socialization. Its fun to sing in a choir; it feels good to feed the hungry.

    …and it’s fun to go to science fiction conventions, and it feels good to hang out with other people who knit, and it can be inspiring to meet with other model railroad enthusiasts. What distinguishes the latter activities from the former is precisely the issue of belief. The reason the religious claim they act as they do, and demand special treatment (such as tax breaks) is because of belief, not behaviour. It is ludicrous in the extreme to say that religion is not about belief — if it isn’t, it is just a social club, and no different from Rotarians who meet for breakfast, or people who dress up as Klingons.

  38. #38 Jay Steele
    July 24, 2008

    Tulse:

    Are you sure that religion is all about belief? Have you ever read anything about Buddhism, for instance? And what about Judaism? A substantial population of the American Jewish population is secular. They have no belief in God or an afterlife. But they celebrate Passover and other Jewish rituals every year. Their religion is practice, not belief.

  39. #39 Tulse
    July 24, 2008

    Are you sure that religion is all about belief?

    I didn’t say it was all about belief, but rather belief is what distinguishes religion from other social activities and organizations. There are traditions, rituals, observances, and other activities associated with many forms of social organizations. What separates religion from those other organizations is not the behaviour, but the alleged foundation for those behaviours, which is based on belief.

    Have you ever read anything about Buddhism, for instance?

    My spouse is Buddhist, so yeah, I know a bit about it. And she would call herself an atheist, and would argue that in many fundamental ways Buddhism is not a religion, but more a philosophical approach on the order of Confucianism or Taoism.

    And what about Judaism? A substantial population of the American Jewish population is secular. They have no belief in God or an afterlife.

    To be fair, the afterlife has never figured prominently in Judaism, however non-secular.

    But they celebrate Passover and other Jewish rituals every year. Their religion is practice, not belief.

    No, I’d argue that their practice is not about religion, but culture, and that, for such Jews, Passover isn’t all that different from US Independence Day, or the multiple holidays the Greeks in my neighbourhood always seem to celebrate. Judaism is strongly tied to culture, more so than most other religions (the closest in the US might be something like the Amish, or perhaps even Mormons). That doesn’t make observation of the major holidays a real religious observance, any more than than the fact that I visit family over Christmas makes me a Christian (or that I celebrate Thanksgiving makes me a Pilgrim).

  40. #40 Jay Steele
    July 24, 2008

    Tulse,

    You are free to define religion as you like. But Buddhism and Judaism and Confucianism and Taoism are all listed as world religions in any standard definition of world religions. And they are not primarily belief-based. They also all “demand” and receive special treatment from the government in the form of tax-exempt status.

    And while Christianity is primarily belief-based there have always been movements within Christianity – including much of liberal Christianity today – that is oriented towards practice and not belief.

    And that – to get back to Carse – was his main point. It is possible to separate religion from belief.

  41. #41 shortie
    July 24, 2008

    Buddhism for one is taken on faith by most of its adherents – they haven’t pondered aforehand as to the aptness of its philosophy. And many of its sects have added beliefs in supernatural aspects of that philosophy (which some argue wee there to begin with or karmic destiny would not be possible).

    So it’s clearly a belief system.

  42. #42 Tulse
    July 24, 2008

    Jay, it is possible to associate practices commonly done with certain religions, I will agree, but to call those practices alone “religion” is to do violence to the term. More specifically, it is not what is meant when the term “religion” is commonly used in the English-speaking world, and certainly doesn’t distinguish between, say, religions and science-fiction conventions, or social clubs, or other organizations.

    And, to nitpick, the vast majority of adherents of Confucianism would not call it a religion. In general, the issue of what counts as “religion” in Asian thought is far more murky than Western concepts, and I think it quite reasonable to say that these things are far more based on philosophical concepts and moral teachings than notions of the supernatural, which is what most Western views of religion use as a foundation. And if you want to challenge that on the basis of “standard definitions of world religion”, I will remind you that the whole issue is whether the standard definition of religion, as entailing specific beliefs about the supernatural, encompasses the phenomenon. You can’t have it both ways, and argue that by the standard definition of world religions Confucianism counts while at the same time challenging the standard definition of Christianity that requires belief in a Supreme Being.

    All that said, I think Carse is essentially throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but if he wants to neuter religion to that extent, and make it all about smells and bells, potlucks, and bingo, that’s fine with me. I’m willing to give up a semantic quibble if people who call themselves religious will stop demanding that gays can’t get married, that women can’t get abortions, and that evolution can’t be taught in schools. (And of course all of those positions, and more, would have to be abandoned by the “religious” if there is no beliefs to underlie them, if “religion” is no more than a social club.)

  43. #43 baboo
    July 24, 2008

    Christianity requires belief in the supernatural, with its supreme being as the specific mover of that force field. Most Asians are also believers in the supernatural, whether they adhere to Confucianism or not, as their beliefs encompass a variety of so-called philosophical doctrines, most with supernatural overtones. Trying to draw accurate lines between Asians who revere (or fear) the supernatural and those who don’t is pointless. And yes, Carse can have it both ways if he so chooses.

  44. #44 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 24, 2008

    James McGrath –

    Jason, thanks for replying!

    And thanks for commenting in the first place! :)

    I think the concern is that there are religious traditions, and historic streams within even major religious traditions, that are all about being humble and awe-struck, and not about dogmatic claims to know things that no human being really does.

    My point is simply that you don’t need religion to be humble and awe-struck. That is something that comes naturally from being alive and looking around (and learning a bit of science). By arguing that you can have a religious tradition that consists of little more than being humble and awe-struck you are making it effectively impossible to be non-religious. I think that is a real cheapening of the term.

    The situation is this: Around the world we have huge numbers of people who do not make subtle distinctions between religion and belief. They take their religious doctrines to be true statements about the world. Many of these people try to have their governments enforce their religious doctrines, and to force others to show a ridiculuous level of respect and obsequity towards their beliefs. This is a serious social problem that needs to be dealt with. People like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris provide some much needed pushback against this tendency, exposing the extent of the irrationality of what these folks claim to believe and documenting the harmful social consequences of allowing them to acquire too much power. Yes, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of all three books. But they got all of the big things right, as even Carse agrees.

    Yet they have been almost universally condemned by academics from Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies. Michael Ruse calls Dawkins’ book “downright awful” on the grounds that he gave short shrift to the ontological argument. James Carse desperately flails about for an excuse to say he has little in common with Harris and Dawkins, when his interview makes it clear he actually has huge common ground with those gentlemen. Terry Eagleton (okay, so he’s an English professor, but it’s the same attitude) excoriates Dawkins for not discussing super-obscure religious tracts that two dozen people on the planet have ever read.

    That is why I am so disgusted with these folks. Given an opportunity to make a small contribution toward solving a serious social problem, by at least acknowledging that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are saying a lot of things that need to be said even while they find points to criticize in their books, they chose instead to behave like stereotypical academics, boasting of their credentials while elevating nit-picky definitional distinctions to an absurd level of importance.

    Vexing, vexing, vexing.

  45. #45 Jay Steele
    July 24, 2008

    Tulse,

    I have never quibbled with the notion that the standard definition of Christianity involves belief in a Supreme being. I have quibbled with the notion that all Christians share that belief. They don’t. They are still Christian because they choose in some way or another to orient their lives around the historical figure of Jesus.

    And of course many religious Christians – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, UCC, and more are gay friendly, pro-choice, and at home in an evolving world.

  46. #46 baboo
    July 24, 2008

    Except that there is no known historical figure of a Jesus that came close to walking on water and otherwise having supernatural powers and/or ancestry.

    Not that Tulse got it right either.

  47. #47 J. J. Ramsey
    July 24, 2008

    I think that part of the problem is that those on the very liberal end of the religious spectrum end up redefining “God” such that it ends up meaning something along the lines of a sense of wonder.

    Yet they have been almost universally condemned by academics from Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies.

    Dawkins wrote a book that dealt with their turf and did it with a combination of sloppiness and brash confidence. That tends to come off as arrogance and inspires a lot of ire.

  48. #48 Michael Glenn
    July 24, 2008

    Dawkins wrote a book that dealt with their turf and did it with a combination of sloppiness and brash confidence. That tends to come off as arrogance and inspires a lot of ire.

    So Chris Heard basically agrees with Dawkins but splits hairs differently?

    *Sigh*

    That is why I am so disgusted with these folks. Given an opportunity to make a small contribution toward solving a serious social problem, by at least acknowledging that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are saying a lot of things that need to be said even while they find points to criticize in their books, they chose instead to behave like stereotypical academics, boasting of their credentials while elevating nit-picky definitional distinctions to an absurd level of importance.
    Vexing, vexing, vexing.

    I have to admit that Jason really, really has a point.

  49. #49 J. J. Ramsey
    July 24, 2008

    Michael Glenn: “So Chris Heard basically agrees with Dawkins but splits hairs differently?”

    Nope, Heard’s not an atheist, so he obviously doesn’t basically agree with Dawkins. He was simply going through the chapters of TGD, noting what he thought of them as he went, both good and bad, and he happens to have detailed several places where Dawkins screws up. Also, pointing where Dawkins flat-out gets arguments wrong is more than just splitting hairs.

  50. #50 Michael Glenn
    July 24, 2008

    Well, J. J. Ramsey, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Anyone following this thread can click on the links we’ve provided and check out Chris Heard. Dawkins gets arguments “flat-out wrong” in ways that seem utterly hairsplitting to me.

    I have my problems with Dawkins, Dennett, et al. in terms of their conflating theology (a more or less specifically Christian phenomenon) with the human phenomenon of religion as practiced worldwide and throughout history. But that they don’t delve into thousands of volumes of meandering Christian rationalization isn’t one of them.

  51. #51 Tulse
    July 24, 2008

    They are still Christian because they choose in some way or another to orient their lives around the historical figure of Jesus.

    So those who orient their lives around the historical figure of William Shatner are also practicing religion? Honestly, how does the term “religion” have any meaning if it is indistinguishable from what happens in Rotary Clubs and Star Trek conventions? (I’ve made this point several times, and still haven’t seen any principled argument in response.)

  52. #52 baboo
    July 25, 2008

    You and Steele are both wrong, so it doesn’t much matter which one is the wronger.

  53. #53 Tulse
    July 25, 2008

    You and Steele are both wrong, so it doesn’t much matter which one is the wronger.

    I am humbled by your incredibly detailed and sophisticated argument.

  54. #54 baboo
    July 25, 2008

    Well, it’s at least as sophisticated as any point you seem to think you had made earlier.

  55. #55 Jeremy
    July 25, 2008

    As far as comments saying it’s a small slice that believe in Jesus’ divinity, earth in 6 days, etc. Have you guys been to the bible belt? How about to Harrisonburg, VA? The vast MAJORITY of people here would be classified as fundamentalists. Having been brought up in an extremely religious family in the bible belt, I related exactly to Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins’ books. They were right on with their classification of the average Christian.

  56. #56 Leni
    July 26, 2008

    Jay Steele wrote:

    And they are not primarily belief-based.

    There are lot of different Buddhist variants, so I don’t want to overstate this, but I have a very good Buddhist friend who repeatedly makes statements regarding the practice she follows practices that are definitely belief-based. She follows a Tibetan tradition, and while there isn’t theism per se, there are plenty of beliefs that would probably best be described as supernatural. For example reincarnation, long life blessings, karma, and perhaps even the concept of enlightenment (if I’m not misunderstanding it).

    I don’t wholly disagree with you, but I think there is enough mysticism involved that I question whether or not belief isn’t “primary”, as you put it.

  57. #57 fongooly
    July 26, 2008

    Leni, several other motherfuckers already made that point, so you have indeed overstated things – but hey, that’s what you do..

  58. #58 Chris Schoen
    August 2, 2008

    Tulse wrote

    There are no beliefs associated with such mysticism, like, as an example, those mystical experiences are associated with a supernatural being or beings and not just the results of natural biological processes?

    Tulse, that’s what mysticism is: the cultivation of direct experience (you can put that in scare quotes if you like) without mediation of concepts (including belief).

    True enough, there are words used in the descriptions of these experiences, as in say Sufi poetry, but these aren’t intended to define the experiences as much as connote them. They should not be confused with beliefs, or discursive propositions, as we find in logical expression, including exoteric religion.

  59. #59 Chris Schoen
    August 2, 2008

    Tulse again:

    And, to nitpick, the vast majority of adherents of Confucianism would not call it a religion. In general, the issue of what counts as “religion” in Asian thought is far more murky than Western concepts, and I think it quite reasonable to say that these things are far more based on philosophical concepts and moral teachings than notions of the supernatural, which is what most Western views of religion use as a foundation.

    This is true, but: these “philosophical concepts and moral teachings” themselves imply beliefs that diverge from modernist naturalism. Ancestor worship, for example. You can’t just look for the presence or absence of a “supernatural” creator god and divide the results into two piles, atheistic and religious.

    Every school of thought makes positive metaphysical claims, science included. There is a world of difference between the traditional Chinese apprehension of reality, and the modernist Western one. We can’t just equate them because they each lack a supernatural god.

  60. #60 Film indir
    September 20, 2008

    Thanks..