Tuesday, 7 September 2010

James P. Carse: A Case for Religion

Young Freethought regular Eric Stockhausen, 19, provides an outline and commentary on James P. Carse's A Case for Religion.
I am presenting the ideas of James P. Carse on religion and freethought, not because I wish to ultimately persuade but to discuss another angle on religion. It is important that I am using Carse's definition for religion, which is different enough from the one commonly used in Religion versus Secularism debates to merit distinction. For Carse, religion is like the view of a Classics professor approaching the Iliad or a humanities student towards the Bhagavad Gita. I interpret Carse's definition as cultural output. This is probably the result of the difficulty academics have pinpointing what actually makes a religion a religion.
James P. Carse, professor emeritus of religion of NYU, argues in The Religious Case Against Belief that religion allows for exploration of consciousness and growth of culture. It is important to note that his definition of religion is fairly different than that of most people. For instance, he equates religion with the thousands of books on Jesus, all claiming something different. This creative outflow of religion is contrasted with belief, which dogmatically stops thinking with a creed.
In a post-atheist society, where the dogma of religion has faded, there will still be the humanities, the Classics, and poetry, all of which carry religious elements in them. For example, most secularists will not call the music of James Taylor religious in nature, but to James Taylor, it was the equivalent of the religious sentiment without belief. There will still be fantasy novels with deities in them, meaning polytheism will survive as a creative resource. One can also think of all the parodies of biblical stories that the freethinkers enjoy.
For atheist composers throughout the centuries, Christian music has been very meaningful for them. They take the creative impulse of interpreting the religious texts in symbols, translating it into music, and inspiring others in a performance. Verdi, Brahms, and Beethoven all made some the most famous Christian music yet were atheists. By taking part in the artist’s affinity for religious symbolism, they were able to create beautiful music, and, in Brahms’ case, smuggle in humanistic messages.
Counter arguments to the artwork argument usually run the line of who had the money and the power at the time (of course Christianity). This, in all fairness, is true. Even without religion, composers can create great work, inspired by momentary feelings, nature, or current events. One has only to look at the entertainment culture today to see endless material satirizing politics, dramatizing the modern family, and making the banal news meaningful.
Counter arguments against Carse’s definition of religion is to say both the religion and the belief are irreversibly fused together. For the believing Christian, that is indeed the case, but in some sects people have more or less successfully changed their ground to the point that they are in church for the ritual and community, as was my family. As Freethinkers, we should welcome a more nuanced view of religion in order to better understand the dogmatic way of thinking we find so abhorrent, and Carse provides an interesting point of view, I believe worth considering.
However, I will go out on a limb here and make a prognosis: I believe with the decay of religious belief or the reduction of dogmatic religion to isolated cults, religion will become simply ritual. Even James P. Carse predicts that the traditional Abrahamic religions of today with disappear like the religions of the past, perhaps to be replaced faster growing ones of modern day. His book Finite and Infinite Games is basically a book of platitudes in defence of Freethought with specialized terms and an emphasis on cultural growth.


  1. I should probably add that Carse is going for individualistic religion, where one comes to their own world views, without being absolute in them. This does not mean that they are rational or materialistic, but in a free society, it can be expected these kind of beliefs will exist, spontaneously arising as individuals feel inspired in some religious sense. That is probably why there are so many strange religions today. Supernaturalism may die out in time, but peculiar metaphysics and strange new world views will occur.

  2. I must have misunderstood an interview with James P. Carse with respects with this last paragraph. He does not believe Abrahamic religions will disappear but adapt. By not identifying fully with ethnic or regional background, Christianity and Islam has been able to spread and maintain itself. He argues this in order to explain the longevity of these religions. So I retract "Even James P. Carse predicts that the traditional Abrahamic religions of today with disappear like the religions of the past, perhaps to be replaced faster growing ones of modern day".

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