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.