James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: 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.

Carse: 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.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.