It is not answers that pull many people into the religious life, it is questions. The person who lives deeply and enduringly with, and within, a religion often finds that he is surrounded by ever more doubts as he goes on, not convictions. In an eloquent monk like Thomas Merton, the religious impulse is almost always fired by a kind of holy restlessness, as if each time the traveler ascends a peak, he sees nothing but the larger peaks that now confront him. “Our knowledge,” as Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “is a little island in a great ocean of non-knowledge.” Religion is in that regard like that other affair of the spirit and the heart, marriage. I may know my partner inside out, her habits and her gestures, and yet the more I see of her, the more I have to acknowledge how much will always lie beyond my reckoning—and in that very space of unknowing, my hunger for a continuing relationship may be quickened.

This is not always what people want when they turn to the imagined solace and sustenance of religion. Many of us take shelter inside belief systems that lay down unequivocally what is and is not kosher, who’s with us and against us, a creed that is a fixed and even finished product. As James Carse puts it, in his typically quotable and suggestive way, belief systems depend on boundaries as much as the religious impulse (as he defines it) relies on horizons. A boundary is clear-cut, and (its makers sometimes hope) will never change; a horizon, depending on where you’re standing, alters every time you walk toward it.

A longtime director of the religious studies program at New York University, Carse is the author of five previous books, such as Breakfast at the Victory, which show him to be an engagingly witty spirit who can plunge into discussions of the unsayable and the mysterium with a striking gift for the memorable epigram and the fine distinction. True to the very ideas he speaks for in The Religious Case Against Belief, this does not always make him an authoritative, or even persuasive, writer; rather it turns him into a kind of agile provocateur, eager to prise us out of our set positions, to get us thinking, even perhaps to move us to form counterarguments of our own. A professor (emeritus now) who writes for the inquiring reader, he contrives to make the thrashing out of essential issues both urgent and enjoyable.

In his new book Carse builds upon a typically intriguing and contentious distinction between religion and belief—or what is really a subtler distinction between open-ended, tolerant inquiry and a doctrine that knows what it knows and is not keen to hear about anything else (implications for our current political situation and for the argument between liberalism and fundamentalism run beneath every sentence in the book, though Carse chooses not to bring many of them explicitly to the surface). “The act of belief,” as he has it, “is always an act against; it requires an opponent who holds the contrary belief.” Knowledge, for him, is “corrigible,” and belief “rarely so.”

This will not convince the believer, and in fact the attempt to rescue the religious life from the “true believer” may be the secret impetus behind this work. By creating his own highly subjective and perhaps questionable definitions of terms like “knowledge” and “belief,” Carse in some ways loads the argument and settles it before he undertakes it, in a kind of philosophical preaching to the converted. Yet the very conviction and fluency with which he advances his ideas give his writings something of the debater’s charm and engagement of such works opposed to his own as Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith. And though he never tells us what his own religious affiliations might be—this reader guesses him to be a tolerant Christian —Carse, as a lifelong professor of religious studies, is in a strong position to argue that the recent broadsides against faith fail to acknowledge the fundamental divisions within religions (or between enlightened skeptics and believers) that are in fact central to the actual experience of religion.

In order to give immediacy to his position, Carse begins by retelling the story of Galileo, a man who had a profound and unshakable religious conviction—as well as an unswerving devotion to science and its principles of empiricism and objectivity. Galileo, in other words, was able to give himself entirely to both faith and reason, as one might to one’s job and one’s spouse, seeing that they belong to dimensions quite different. The Inquisition, by contrast (in Carse’s characteristic phrasing), represented the real heresy, precisely because its prosecutors were not inquisitive enough. They were what Carse would call “believers,” locked inside a system they were determined should never budge— while Galileo, for Carse, belonged to the party of religion as true knowledge, and was a genius at “finding questions at the heart of the most certain of answers.”


As he goes on, Carse recounts the life of Martin Luther, again to show us how the very changes that most of us undergo throw into question the validity of unchanging beliefs; life, in other words, is much more fluid and contradictory than the ideas we sometimes impose on it (I was reminded at such moments of the sign I saw this year outside the chapel at Gethsemane, just outside Jerusalem, aimed at too-voluble tour guides: “PLEASE: No Explanations Inside the Church”). The obvious point to make about Luther’s confrontation with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is that each of these learned, committed Christians saw the other as an agent of the devil, because both were members of incompatible (and inflexible) sects within the same church, with differing readings of the scriptures. But the deeper and more interesting point is that once the excommunicated Luther retreated into a cell and intensified his studies of the Bible, he decided that his greatest adversary was the enemy within, and called himself simul justus et peccator, at once a just man and a sinner. Once (in Carse’s scheme of things) an immovable believer, he grew into an apostle of true religious knowledge.

Such examples give rise and substance to what seems to be the book’s driving concern, its attempt to distinguish between ordinary ignorance (we do not know what the weather will be like tomorrow) from willful ignorance (we choose not to know what our teenage daughter is doing in her bedroom), and to distinguish both from what Carse calls “higher ignorance,” in which the deeper we travel into a subject, the more we see how much we can never know about it. We accept, as he puts it, both the necessity of trying to comprehend the truth and the impossibility of ever doing so.

This is not a new distinction—Abraham Joshua Heschel made it years ago, and it lies at the heart of such centuries-old mystical texts as The Cloud of Unknowing, the work of a medieval monk who advises a student that God should be sought not through knowledge but passion. Yet Carse dilates on the idea with panache. After describing many of history’s variant readings of Jesus, for example, he points out that “about the man Jesus, much is believed, almost nothing is known.” More than that, it is intrinsic to the meaning of Jesus that he can and should never be known. Those who claim to know “the ‘real’ Jesus” are in fact, in the very act, denying the mystery and unknowability of a figure who has meaning and force only if he can never be fully grasped. The true believer, who feels that Jesus has divinity as well as humanity inside him, often, in that very conviction, fails to acknowledge that she, being only human, can never truly understand him.

Carse’s deliberately tilted and loaded way of proceeding will likely give the professional philosopher or scholar plenty to disagree with. Some of his sentences grow less sound the more you look at them—“No one is evil by choice, willingly and consciously, but only by the desire to eliminate it elsewhere” (what of the sadist or the serial killer?). At times one feels that the neatness of his phrasing has led him to one sharp phrase too many: “Without time, experience is impossible; without experience, life is impossible.” Italicized emphases can be found on every page of The Religious Case Against Belief, and while they effectively convey a tone of voice, they also sometimes seem to push a reader to a conclusion that she’s not yet in a position to accept. It goes without saying, to take a central example from page 2, that “being a believer does not in itself make one religious.” But it is not self-evident that “being religious does not require that one be a believer”—since one may be believing, as Carse does, just in the principle of free inquiry, a life based not on certainty but mystery.

Carse provides a glowing, even inspiring vision of what he calls “awakened ignorance” and “permanent unknowing.” Those in this position— whom he sometimes confusingly calls “knowers”—“eagerly accept the emendation and enlargement of their knowledge from any source.” Knowers, he says, “have no need to win over resistant believers. Their only need is to enter into dialogue with others committed to the labor of extending the field of knowledge.” Knowers, in this formulation, are committed to finding the truth—or many truths— while believers are convinced they have already found it, once and for all. Knowers see how much they do not and will never know; believers believe that they’re already in possession of all that they need. Belief, as Carse points out, invoking Plotinus and medieval mysticism, goes against the fundamental fact that you can’t describe a divine truth fully if you’re part of it—and yet if you’re apart from it, you can’t entirely describe it either.


Some of this raises more questions than it answers. Carse reminds us, for example, that the presence of mystery in the world is no argument for the existence of God; but one could equally say that the doubt that he cherishes cannot be so readily translated into “wonder.” When he lays out a distinction between the civitas (which he sees as a doctrinaire, and therefore defensive, community of believers) and a communitas (a collection of enlightened seekers), he is in some ways simply creating terms to support the preferences he’s already decided upon. As he notes, disarmingly, on his final page, his entire book dismisses “belief systems by way of another belief system.”

More than that, in the religious area that I know best within his discussion, I’m not sure I buy many of his assertions. I don’t think the Buddha “lay down under the Bodhi tree” (he sat down under a peepul tree, more likely); and I don’t think he found enlightenment, as Carse says, because he’d given up the search for it. Rather, he suggested, as many religious figures do, that simply undertaking the search is the first step toward enlightenment and it is up to us to summon the willpower and hard work to embark upon the challenge. At one point Carse tells us that the Buddha’s “crowning insight was that suffering comes from striving.” In truth—since he spoke about striving as a desideratum in his final words to his disciples—he was always encouraging striving (as opposed to craving) as the only way we could liberate ourselves in our minds from suffering.

It might, indeed, have been interesting to include such figures as the current Dalai Lama in the argument, since he advances a religious position precisely by saying that nothing he says is inherently correct and that even the words of the Buddha should be thrown out if they are shown to be wrong by research and empirical testing. As a “nontheistic” religion (as the Dalai Lama puts it), Buddhism, in principle at least, has no time for faith and, when it deals with philosophical questions, stresses reason, logic, and what is as universal as Pythagoras’ theorem or the laws discovered by Newton. The Buddha himself, after all, would not have been a Buddhist, and did what he could (ultimately in vain) to try to prevent his listeners from creating a religion or belief system around him.

Yet for all the holes in his argument and the shortcuts taken by his decisive phrase-making, Carse offers a tonic and useful angle on what he calls our “second Age of Faith,” a time when, as he points out, as much as 85 percent of the American population calls itself believers, Orthodox Judaism is booming, as many as 75 million Americans claim to be “born-again” Christians, and Mormonism is “arguably the fastest-growing body of believers in history” (not least because of the Mormon birth rate). Nor is this just a New World phenomenon: Christianity is surging in Korea and Russia, Pentecostalism has made so many converts in Latin America and Africa that it now claims half a billion adherents, and Hinduism, Islam, and many other traditions that offer the comfort of certainty and direction are growing as seldom before. A skeptic might even suggest that the very mayhem caused by religions and their claims is pushing people more and more into the arms of faith.

After a lifetime of study, Carse is able to toss off parentheses that may enlighten many a general reader (the fact that Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, was the grandnephew of Albert Schweitzer and that Martin Heidegger was once a Catholic seminarian; the reminder that “hierarchy” in Greek means “rule by priests” and that Calvin said that every man is a fabricator deorum, or maker of gods). And many of the supple aphorisms that he delights in compress complex notions with an enviable concision. Arguing with believers makes no sense at all, he writes, because they “see the world through their beliefs, not their beliefs from a worldly perspective.” To call America a Christian nation or to call Christianity an American religion is, Carse says elsewhere, to place severe limitations on them both, and to deny the open-endedness that (as he sees it) both these institutions were wise enough to include inside their constitutions. In his view, each will only be as strong as the questions it asks of itself.

What he’s really doing is opening up a space for people eager to entertain contradiction and uncertainty—like, in fact, those members of the Christian left who are overlooked precisely because they are not strident or wedded to a single way of seeing and doing things. Or think of Graham Greene— who might here stand for many others in the church of doubt, and who at once hungered for a kind of religious comfort or clarity while remaining congenitally unable to rest inside any system of belief. Addicted to paradox and even irony, Greene would never fully give himself over to a faith in which he believed, let alone to a church that had no space for Thomas (the name he took when he was baptized). If this made him an apostate to many believing Christians, it also makes him a liberating thinker for those who are not prepared to accept that religion means the end of thought or inquiry.

The Religious Case Against Belief is, obviously, a timely book as religions of every kind come under special siege, both from science, which keeps uncovering new, and incontrovertible, facts about the universe and its constituents and, even more, as regular people find themselves appalled by all that is being done in the name of one religion or another. In the Age of Faith II, as Carse calls it, we are witnessing a desperate ferment of faith; but with it we are seeing holy wars, crusades, and less a “clash of civilizations” than a clash of incompatible belief systems, often within the same “civilization” (Sunni turns on Shia, Catholic battles Protestant).

One poignant irony of all these developments is that the bloodshed and cruelty inflicted in the name of many religions have left more and more people in need of the very guidance and clarity that religions traditionally provide. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, famously, Americans seemed to want religious leaders to tell them what to make of all the suffering, even as it was the distorted words of religious texts that were bringing them to tears. A vigorous neo-atheist like Sam Harris, while urging Western Buddhists not to turn their practice into a religion, engages in a form of meditative Buddhist practice himself.

America has long been drawn to what the Stanford religious scholar Frederic Spiegelberg called, sixty years ago, the “religion of no-religion,” though in its search for individual, self-created beliefs, this sometimes devolves into the New Age label “spiritual but not religious.” It is as if, especially here, people want religious light and fire, often, but without any of religion’s institutional trappings (or obligations). As Carse puts it, the hunger for something to believe in has allowed Marxism, fascism, and Freudianism to create their own secular religions (or, in his terms, belief systems). Such systems, he alleges, may seek to seduce us away from the awareness that it may be simple polarities and dualities that we’re trying to avoid in the first place (being in love with Jane needn’t make me oppose Sarah or Rachel).

Beneath such topical considerations, though, Carse is really writing about something timeless here: any person’s wish to keep both the fluid and the fixed alive in her, to balance the mind’s need for new horizons with the heart’s longing for a place that can be depended on. Visionaries, as he puts it in one of his many ringing sentences, “do not destroy the walls, but show the openings through them.” Like most of his insights, this might be open to argument or refinement. But it shows what this lively and invigorating writer is after, at heart, in reminding us of the value of not assuming that we can—or should—know everything.

This Issue

June 26, 2008