I originally wrote this post for Idealist in NYC, but thought Ecumenical Women readers might like it as well. Enjoy!

In a country where the larger part of our population is religious, and where our current president believes that social change should come about through religious organizations, Former NYU Professor James Carse’s message might be hard for some to swallow: religion, he argues, has very little to do with belief.

from Mrs. Maze, on Flickr

To Carse, religion is all about longevity rather than belief; it’s what unites people over millennia. Additionally, Carse dismisses attempts to find some underlying unity to all religions. This idea, I would say, is fairly unpopular among many religious people, either because they want to avoid being exclusionary or because they want to find a common thread in humanity’s search for meaning. As a current student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, I find Carse’s arguments in this Salon.com article incredibly interesting and compelling.

But I bet a lot of folks would wonder: If we remove the idea of belief from the religion, would we lose our ethics as well? And with them, our propensity to act?

Carse’s answer, I imagine, would be no: most of us are governed by a belief system of our choosing, but that doesn’t mean it must be a belief system solely provided by a particular religion. “You can be religious without being a believer,” says Carse, “And you can be a believer who’s not religious… [in fact,] very passionate believers are often not at all religious.” Meaning, even if we separate religion from systems of belief, people who aren’t religious can (and likely will) still believe in something — whether they read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Kierkegaard, or nothing at all. The point is, people operate based on intricate patterns of belief and ethics, whether or not they’re religious.

This means that for some, the motivation to do good in the world might come from the lessons taught by a Rabbi. For others, it comes from the careful observation of the world around them, and a clear internal discernment of right and wrong. As for me, and like many others, I find myself somewhere in between: using both my inner moral compass and seeking out external resources (sometimes including religion) to construct my own system of beliefs and ethics. Hopefully, this will help me act in ways that better the world.

Read Salon’s interview with James Carse