Derek Sivers
The Religious Case Against Belief - by James P. Carse

The Religious Case Against Belief - by James P. Carse

ISBN: 0143115448
Date read: 2023-10-15
How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
(See my list of 360+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Theology surprise, differentiating belief and religion, belief and faith. So many unique insights. So interesting to hear a theologian’s stance against believers, in favor of “higher ignorance”.

my notes

To believe is to know that one believes, and to know that one believes is no longer to believe.

bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. End of discussion.”

Being a believer does not in itself make one religious.
Being religious does not require that one be a believer.

Integrate the factor of unknowability.
Have an awareness of the unknown keen enough to hold a state of wonder.
See the unknown everywhere, especially at the heart of our most emphatic certainties.

Through higher ignorance, an open-ended dialogue becomes possible.
Higher ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.

Violence originates in the absolutism of belief systems.

No matter how many truths we may accumulate, our knowledge falls infinitely short of the truth.

The more we are aware of the limitations of our knowledge, the more awake we are to the world’s enormous varieties.

The word “belief” has as many uses and varied meanings.
We can arrange beliefs on a scale that begins with casual asides or guesswork.
At the opposite end are beliefs that we live and die for, or kill for.
At the soft end of the continuum would be those that come in the form of such expressions as “I do believe the weather is improving,” or “We’ve got to believe that the planet Earth is in a stage of acute warming.”
In each case, we are indicating that there is something we do not yet know but are inclined to suppose is the case.
At the far end of the scale are passion and action.

Believers have crossed the line from uncertainty to conviction.
There is no possibility of a reasonable objection.
Those who disagree are placed in the category of unbelief and can therefore be bracketed out of serious conversation.

The distinction between “belief” and “faith”:
Maoism and Panslavism are belief systems.
Christianity and Islam are faiths.

Deeply committed believers are not offering a variety of debatable proposals about the nature of the world.
They see the world through their beliefs, not their beliefs from a worldly perspective.
Therefore, whatever happens can only confirm the truth of what they believe.
When we present believers with contrary “evidence”, we only prove to them that we are outside the realm of faith and therefore unable to see the world as it is.
For this reason, belief systems are not only impervious to opposition, they thrive on it.

Disagreement, not agreement, keeps scientific passion at its keenest.
One person’s conclusion is an invitation to another’s challenge.

The duty of every student is first to learn what has been taught, then to question it, then to succeed it.
The process does not pretend to be headed toward consensus or any kind of conclusion.

Proving the nonexistence of god is an especially embarrassing exercise.
Any student of religion would ask immediately, Which god is it exactly that you are disproving?
Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions.

Distinguish between the religions themselves and the belief systems with which they are often identified.
There is a Christianity that is emphatically not a belief system, one that finds itself in a long tradition, long enough to pre-date Jesus himself.

Some religions are all but free of beliefs (Buddhism and Judaism, for example).
There are belief systems (Fascism and Marxism) that can hardly be considered religions.

Well-developed belief systems have the capacity to account for and explain any issue or question that might arise.
They present themselves as thoroughly rational and comprehensible, while answering to a final authority, whether that be a person or a text or an institution.
There is no event in the past or present that does not fit neatly into their ideology.
They present a tidy, accessible, and coherent view of the world complete with an ethic for dealing with it.
They have succeeded in cleansing the thinking of their believers of all mystery.
Everything makes sense.

The vast, organized, and savage criminality of the last one hundred years or more is the result not of religion, but of belief.

All modern revolutions, beginning with the French, are idea-driven.
The ideology of the French Revolution was so complete that it not only reconceived the role of the government but even rearranged the calendar, changing the name and dating of days, months, and years.
The tragedy of the revolution is that the iron certainty of its believers led them from the ideal of equality to the runaway horrors of persecution and punishment.
The American Revolution, also a creation of highly educated upper-class gentlemen, had a different outcome because of a simple but profound intellectual insight: they developed a belief system that did not completely believe in itself.
By conscious design, they left holes in it, creating space for new ideas and social realities, and all but invited constant redefinition.
That gives the United States its distinctive identity - its ability to restrain the excesses of belief.

The world’s most developed religions are simply not reducible to tidy formulas or rigidly ordered credos.
No limits or definitions can be imposed on them.
Unlike belief systems, they are not at their core intelligible, and they are saturated with paradox.
Religions change, grow, and expand - but without losing their identity as this religion or that.

Religions produce belief systems.
Belief systems, however, cannot produce a religion.

Belief is largely defined by its opposite.
Belief is always an act against; it requires an opponent who holds the contrary belief.
How could there be Sunni Muslims if there were no Shia?
Belief systems are energized by their opposites.
For every believer there is a nonbeliever on whom the believer is focused.
Believers need to inspire fellow believers to hold firmly to their position, they need just as much to inspire nonbelievers to hold to theirs.
For this reason, belief systems are territorial. Rarely do they overlap.

Belief marks the line at which our thinking stops.
At some level they are aware that they are doing it - a classic act of willful ignorance.
Belief absent of thought is not belief at all, only a habit of mind, or empty repetition.

Believers are acting against themselves, caught up in a mode of self-rejection.

How else can we explain the strange fact that the minuscule, decidedly pacifistic, and independent Falun Gong seems to have terrified Chinese leadership?
The mere fact that someone is free of its ideology, or the official belief system, is a potent reminder to the nation that Maoism (however it has been refined) is only an ideology, one among many, therefore neither universal nor absolute.
Such dread experienced by enormously powerful regimes is a clear hint that religion carries within itself a critique of all belief systems.

Because belief depends on hostile others, it is necessary for us as believers not to think what the others are thinking, or else it could pull us across the defined boundary into another system of belief.
So we must be careful to know exactly where to stop our thinking.

Even if our beliefs are true, because they are beliefs they are still contradictory.

Belief is raised to the status of knowledge.
As new believers we are convinced we are coming into a realm of truth - hard, undeniable fact.
So it is with all “true” believers.
If I know that what I believe is true, it is as true for everyone as it is for me.
Along with certitude comes universality.
If you believe something else, you are in error and must be corrected.

The conviction of believers is that they have been brought to the end of their ignorance.

By confusing belief with universal knowledge, believers place themselves in a curious irony: they claim a certainty that even knowledge itself does not have.

If I am a knower, I am open to correction; if I am a believer, I resist it.
One says, “This is what I am thinking; I will wait for your response to see if it is the truth.”
The other says, “This is what I think; I will wait for you to see it as the truth.”

Beliefs are not without consequence; they are not “just in our heads.”
They lead to actions that can have significant results for ourselves and the world around us.
Not seeing their voluntary nature is an opening to dangerous behavior.

Belief is a thoroughly voluntary act.
It may be initiated by an unsuspected source.

Belief: morality.
Because we choose what we believe and what we do, we have reasons for our actions, we employ principles of judgment, we subscribe to distinctive sets of values
- even though we may seem to be doing only what is “necessary” or “required under the circumstances.”
Prior to the act, we have already decided what is necessary or required.
Believing is therefore a thoroughly moral activity.
The assumption of the believer is that since it is the system that is the source of morality, dutiful adherence to the prescribed beliefs is therefore inherently moral.
One’s morality, in this case, is measured by the degree of one’s obedience.
Properly speaking, it is not the believer who is moral, but the belief system.

Knowledge has little influence over belief.

Knowers have no need to win over resistant believers.

Belief takes on a certainty that knowledge itself does not have.

Knowledge is infinitely corrigible; unlike belief, it can be altered or canceled by new information.
Belief refuses correction.

A powerful and effective authority is experienced as comforting.

Belief cannot be imposed.
If we were forced to believe, it would not be belief but a mere mechanical iteration.
We would at best mouth the prescribed phrases.
For this reason, when authority is ignored, it has no means of remaining a true authority.

Authority does not come from the top down but from the bottom up.
The Constitution does not tell us what to make of it; we first make of it what we wish, and then falsely claim its authority as the source of our beliefs.

Threats of severe military and judicial action:
Although these powers were pervasive and enormously feared, the nation became a soulless shell.
The citizenry learned to speak the language of Marxism quite without the least belief in its truths.
Official statements were regarded as little more than intrusive noise.
The Soviet rulers confused authority with power, failing to understand that power by itself has no authority, and authority has only the power its observers give it.

Artists, writers and actors were a danger to his carefully ordered civitas.
Because they could present images of things that did not exist - that is, use their creative imagination - they could distort reality itself and cause false beliefs among the citizens, weakening the authority (power) of the philosopher-king.
The poet “is a manufacturer of images and is very far from the truth,” thus heats the passions and “lets them rule”.

The real danger poets represent lies not in their rejection of belief systems but in their indifference to them.
Poets are not believers.

Because they are not focused on disproving belief, they do not come with arguments.

A common strategy for repelling ideas is the attempt to convert them into a belief system and then reject them.
Threatened by what they thought Darwin was saying, they created a “Darwinian” ideology that they then simplified and made suitable for scorn.

Lincoln is the greatest of the nation’s poets.

Assigning to belief an essentially voluntary character, in spite of the claim that it originates in a source outside oneself, seems to lead straight into relativism - where nothing is absolutely true and anything can be believed.

The first four books of the New Testament are not called “The Gospel,” but “The Gospel According to - .”

We can continue to shout down the offending voices until we hear something that echoes our preferred composition, or we can join in to make a joyful noise of our own.
We can read it for what we think it says, or we can read it for what it allows us to say.
We can regard the text as definitive, containing all we need to know, or as generative, leading beyond itself to what is not yet known.

In the two thousand years of Christian history, countless scholars and theologians have tried to draw out a definitive understanding of the man.
Altogether the effort must be seen as an extraordinary work of the imagination.

There is only one reliable extratestamental reference to Jesus’s existence.
Flavius Josephus (37-c. 100 CE).
Josephus describing Jesus as “a wise man, a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure.”
He reports that Pilate condemned him to the cross - for an unspecified crime - but “those who loved him did not cease to do so. And up to this very day the tribe of Christians, who loved him, has not died out.”

Most of the authors of the New Testament material wrote without direct knowledge of the others.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the book of Acts (also written by Luke) take up approximately half of it.
Of these authors essentially nothing is known beyond their names - and even their names were honorifics added in the late second century.
They were most certainly not eyewitnesses of the events they describe, nor do they present themselves as such.
The individual parts were written over a period of at least thirty years, approximately from 70 to 100 CE.
Not only were none of the writers eyewitnesses of the events reported, most of them could not have known such a witness.
Jesus spoke Aramaic, the evangelists Greek.
His entire ministry takes place within the few miles that extend from Galilee to Jerusalem, not more than a two days’ walk.
They were dispersed throughout the Middle East and probably never visited Jerusalem.
They were members of rival Christian churches.
Were John’s Jesus and the Jesus of the Synoptics to meet, they would not recognize each other.

As we scroll through the gospel texts the inconsistencies and enigmas continue to multiply.
The relative unreliability of the text for drawing a complete picture of Jesus was known to the evangelists themselves.
The author of the fourth gospel concludes with the remark, “There are many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
Luke, too, refers to the many who “have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which were accomplished among us” (1:1).
The obvious implication is that the Christian community was abounding in gospels and recollections, of which scarcely a trace has survived.

Some thought that he only appeared to be human (Docetism); others that he was human enough but that the divine communicated through him without creating a union (Nestorianism).
One widely held theory was that he lived such an unblemished life as a naturally born human being that God chose him as his son (Adoptionism).
By radically emphasizing the divine nature in Jesus, another theological view was that Jesus and God are essentially one person (Monophysitism).
The claim that he was divine all right but of a degree lower than God, and in fact created by God (Arianism), became controversial enough that it was dividing Christendom.
Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa (354-430), and probably the most influential thinker in Christian history, held firmly to the view that Jesus was of two natures, divine and human, each perfect in itself. It is a stretch to find anything in the New Testament that explicitly claims this, and Augustine did little to explain how it could even be possible.

The church in effect makes itself the historical extension of Christ.
The church, in other words, can speak for Jesus.
To go to Jesus is to go to the church, that is, to the church hierarchy.

For Martin Luther, however, identification of the church with Jesus blocked the Christian’s path to Jesus.
For all the scriptural integrity of Luther’s interpretation of the biblical Jesus, there is a danger in its extremes.
By shifting the authority of both church and tradition to the individual listener, those who hear the Word can interpret it any way they wish.
There is no external restraint on their beliefs or actions.
One Jesus is as authentic as the next.

All these Jesuses are there only because they have been invited by someone who believes they are real.
They are not therefore the images of Jesus himself so much as they are the images projected by this believer or that.
What can we say but that everyone is wrong?
The vast libraries of books, essays, and sermons composed about the man are but an accumulation of errors.
It is true that some of it may be right, but there is no way finally of knowing.
Essentially there is nothing everyone can agree to, beyond the reasonable fact that there was a man called Jesus.

Whoever this person was and whatever he did in that final year of his short life, there was enough power there to set off a tsunami of ignorance.
What does it mean then to “believe” in Jesus, or “believe” that Jesus was God, or to “believe” that he was not God, or that he was anything else?
It means at the very least that we have to hide from ourselves how much we do not know; we have to call in our selected Jesus and close the door against the clamorous horde of alternative Jesuses.

The degree of their familiarity is an indication of the depth of our ignorance about them.
We know a great deal, and yet nothing, about the Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Shankara, Lao-tse, and Shakespeare.
The inability to settle on a final reading of any of them is not a matter of being historically or intellectually inaccurate.
When interpreters claim certainty, declare that they have the “real” Jesus and the “true” teachings of Muhammad, they are not making a factual but a religious mistake.

Gandhi said, “I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. And I believe that, if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the stand-point of the followers of those faiths, we should find that they were at bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”

Defining religion arises in the Enlightenment of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.
The word is of Latin origin (religio) and nothing like it is found in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic.
The earliest attempts at definition were driven by the desire to find a rational core to all systems of thought, including religious belief.

Each of us by nature is a fabricator deorum, a maker of gods.

There is no institution that approaches the longevity of religions.
Hinduism is at least 4000 years old, Buddhism 2500, Judaism more than 2000, Christianity 2000, Islam 1400, and none of them showing any clear signs of abating.
The existing religions have developed the genius of surviving, even thriving on, the challenges to their existence.

“identity”: the term in its purest Latin sense: to have an identity is to be unlike anything else.

Islam, for example, cannot be understood in Christian terms, nor Christianity in Islamic terms.
There is no category to which both belong.

In each of the religions, ignorance must be learned.
“Higher” ignorance is not ordinary ignorance.
It is seeing that the desire for knowledge is ignited by what knowledge does not yet, and can never, contain.

Religions are marbled with inconsistency, paradox, and contradiction.
Rationality and truth seem to have no influence on the durability of a tradition.

Belief is the place where we stop our thinking.
When we speak of “defending” our beliefs, we obviously take them to be positions that we will hold against all challenges.
The assumption is that we are certain about the truth of our beliefs, and that we are in hostile relation to nonbelievers.

Religions have not been able to clarify for themselves what their identity consists of.
They are animated by an ignorance that remains ignorance, regardless of the efforts to replace it with knowledge, or with belief.

To have decided on the “real” Jesus, for example, is to assume that the quest to find him has been completed; there is no need to reexamine the events of the New Testament, nor to read through the libraries of works by those who have, nor to wonder what history has yet to uncover.
Such claims are bound to expire, and quickly.

The experience of evil is not the experience of silence but of being silenced, whether by death, injury, isolation, deprivation, mind-numbing ideology, the designed crushing of one’s culture, or something as common and simple as not being listened to.

Every offered belief has its distinctly objectionable opposite.

Believers have little to learn from the world.
Therefore, there is no need to listen to the world, but every reason to speak to it.
Believers may in fact listen to the voices of the unwashed, but they do so only for reasons of rebuttal.
Questions, even when genuinely asked, seem to be little more than triggers for answers already prepared.

Once believers have selected their authority, genuine dialogue is abandoned.
Discourse does not take its own spontaneous path but is aimed always at correcting and strengthening the existing thinking of those who already believe.
Indeed, an attempt at genuine dialogue within the belief system can be taken itself as an act of unbelief.
Government employees, especially those in the military, may have their own thoughts on a great many issues, but to challenge orthodox policy can quickly end or damage their careers.
To remain on the “inside,” they forgo open dialogue with their superiors; officially, they must be considered true believers.

Religious texts must be interpreted.
They do not come to life until there is a living response to them.
They demand original words from the listener.

Many biblical interpreters, for example, seem to be searching for the “text behind the text,” or what the Bible is “really saying.”
A “literalist” reading of the Bible is not reading the Bible at all.

Belief systems are monotonal.
One voice speaks for all others.

It is the shared assumption that we have the truth that is so devastating

Socrates was “corrupting” the youth of Athens by teaching them to wonder about everything.