Pico Iyer Journeys

Knowing and Believing

Yet for all the holes in his argument and the short-cuts taken by his decisive phrasing, Carse offers a tonic and a useful angle on what he calls our “second Age of Faith,” a time when, as he points out, as much as 85% 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.” 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, many traditions that offer the comfort of certainty and direction are growing as seldom before. A skeptic might even suggest that the accelerating modern world is pushing people more and more into the arms of faith, of some kind, and the unilateral acts they perform in the name of these faiths are creating so much havoc that more and more others are pushed towards religion.

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

More profoundly, what he’s really doing is opening up a space for figures 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 wed 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 hungers 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 give himself over to a religion in which he believed, let alone to a church that had no space for Thomas (the name he took when he was baptized) or even Judas. 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 enquiry.

The Religious Case against Belief is, obviously, an acutely timely book as religions of every kind come under special siege these days, 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 perpetrated 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 9/11 attacks, famously, Americns seemed to want religous leaders to tell them what to make of all the suffering, even as they were having to accept that it was often the words of such clerics that were bringing them to tears. Even 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 new formulations, this sometimes devolves into the New Agey whimper of being “spiritual but not religious.” It is as if, especially in America, people want religious light and fire, but without any of the institutional trappings (or obligations). As Carse puts it, the hunger for something to believe in has allowed Marxism, fascism, Freudianism to create their own secular religions (or, in his terms, belief-systems), and to try 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, in any person’s wish to keep the fluid and the fixed alive in her, to balance the mind’s need for new discoveries and horizons with the heart’s longing for a house that can stay fixed. 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 scintillations, 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.

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