Religions vs Belief

James Carse

     ... religious scholar and author. The Religious Case Against Belief continues Professor Carse’s long-time public engagement with pressing current issues, as he did for many years on CBS-TV in New York City. His widely admired book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility has been continuously in print since first published in 1968. His other books include The Silence of God, Breakfast at the Victory and The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple. Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, Dr. Carse directed New York University’s Religious Studies Program for 30 years. He lives in New York City and Massachusetts’ Berkshires.

Audio Preview of James Carse



Religion and belief are very different, says James Carse, emeritus professor of the history and philosophy of religion. While scientists inspired Dr. Carse to make what he calls a religious case against belief, global challenges add urgency to his eagerness to clarify general confusion about the distinction.

“To put it into a kind of formula, you could be religious without believing anything, and you can be a true believer -- an intensely committed believer -- without being religious.”

Dr. Carse’s examples of belief systems range from dogmatisms found in all religions, to Nazism, Maoism, Serbian nationalism, and American triumphalism.

“Belief systems always have a complete explanation for anything that’s going on. They brace up authority, are perfectly rational and inherently dangerous. You want to keep a clear boundary around your belief system. You definitely want to stimulate opposition. You never win an argument with a believer.”

Religion, he says, is full of questions and the capacity to open us to ongoing wonder.

“Serious scholars of religion do not even try to define it. It’s too rich a phenomenon. Religions have nothing to say. Within the great religious traditions -- all of the great religions -- they are not sure themselves what’s going on. That’s why these traditions have such vitality. Once you know what a religion’s all about, it dies."

Dr. Carse says scientists who confuse religion and belief when addressing theism make a serious error.

“What they’ve done is to take a scientific point of view and attack a belief system. But the only way you can do that is to convert your scientific point of view into a belief system. So it becomes an ideological battle that really doesn’t enlighten anyone. The best treatment is indifference.”

Galileo is Dr. Carse’s example, anticipating we’ll be surprised by the reason Pope Urban VIII put Galileo on trial.

“The idea that the earth rotated around the sun had been generally accepted for 90 years. Why was the Pope after Galileo? Galileo never trusted any of his own conclusions. I think Urban VIII sensed that (this meant) there was no area of thought that isn’t subject to question. And of course that reflects back on religious dogma.”

Death and evil are two very good test issues for religion, he says.

“Belief systems invariably define what death is and what evil is. You have to have heroes and dying is part of the heroic element of a belief system. One thing I’ve found looking over great ranges of religious phenomena is there’s no definition of death out there.

“The important thing about evil is attaching it to our own inner reality where it belongs. One of my favorite remarks about evil is in Jesus’ really strong remark in the Gospels, ‘Do not look for the speck in someone else’s eye without seeing the log in your own.’

“I think one of the great services that religion does is to remind us -- urge us at every moment -- to be stunned. To find our existence and the world in which we find it marvelous. There is no point in our everyday existence at which we could not stop and be absolutely amazed that we exist even. How easily we forget that!”


[This Program was recorded July 22, 2008, in Western Massachusetts, U.S.]



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Related Links:


The Religious Case Against Belief is published by Penguin; Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by Ballantine Books, Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by HarperOne, Gospel of the Beloved Disciple and The Silence of God: Meditations on Prayer by Harper San Francisco.


An earlier program with James Carse is available here.


Philosopher Frederick Ferré has covered from a philosophical perspective some of the questions addressed by Dr. Carse.

Carolyn Jessop's account of her life in and escape from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) presents a vivid and terrible example of the dangers of a criminal belief system protected by the veneer of religion.

Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II written by Jason Berry and the late Gerald Renner tells another story of religious cover for illegal acts, in this case relating to the Legionaries of Christ, Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, Regnum Christi and the Vatican.

Surprisingly, at the end of his life, René Descartes added the emotions to his mind-body structure which lends support to Dr. Carse's "horizonal" view.  Russell Shorto gets beyond the simple stereotypes associated with Descarte in Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason.


Walter Truett Anderson has addressed many of these "life questions" in his writings. Alan Wallace approaches these questions from the perspective of Buddhism and consciousness studies.


Robert Funk devoted much of his life to exploring the human Jesus behind the mysteries of Christianity.


Garry Wills has explored the Christian perspective in a series of books on the New Testament.


Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman presents his view of how to reconcile science and religion in Reinventing the Sacred. Kauffman and psychiatrist Charles Raison explore science and the mind against a backdrop of Tibetan Buddhism.


Over the years, this program series has looked at what is broadly characterized as "religion" and its impacts on life today.  These programs include (in no particular order):  Cornel West, Robert Franklin, Bruce FeilerAlan Dershowitz, Joseph L. Roberts, John Shelby Spong, Robin Meyers, Reza Aslan, Geneive Abdo, Kevin Phillips, Leonard Shlain and Jim Wallis.


And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



We relish the grace with which Jim Carse shares his big ideas with wit, wisdom and wonderful good humor. We both were tremendously impressed with the elegance with which he applies his luminous ideas -- first encountered in Finite and Infinite Games -- to the challenges of today’s world in his Religious Case Against Belief.

We thank him for the many beautiful ways he’s lived his own “vision of life as play and possibility." We look forward to continuing this Conversation with the same enthusiasm he generated for us when he braved a blizzard to be Guest on our very first “Paula Gordon Show” in 1995.

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