A final word on “The Zero Within the All”

One of those who attended the PhiloSophia meeting on this topic was Greg who submitted this preliminary “final word” on the subject under discussion:

The “all” (I think) are religions and philosophies where very many people have complete “faith” that they are “right” in their understanding of the details of their fundamental beliefs. For them, not only do they not see the zero as part of the all, they of course, do not see any other religion, or philosophy as part of the all. But, the religions’ leaders/administrators (particularly) are aware that in the older technologically advanced countries the senior level educated classes are increasingly drifting away, many to the zero. And, I think, many are going to one, or another of a number of the versions of the zero, and this is also significant regarding measuring up to the scientific community’s scrutiny and power. In my view, of course the zero belongs to the all, but it is a long, long way from being “there yet”, so how do the people of “the zero” (the atheist, anarchist, and deist philosophically inclined, too?) and those who are “religious” – get it there? I have a view on this, but I am unable to do it justice, at this point.

My own response to this is that Greg is using the word “faith” with a particular meaning that is different from the one that is accepted within serious academic religious studies. In fact, he is using “faith” where (dogmatic) “belief” would be more correct.

I would direct him (and any others interested in this distinction) to the following resources:

My own brief summary or paraphrase of what Smith and Carse are saying in their books would be the following:

Faith is really more of a commitment or an expression of love/devotion. For example, I have faith in truth and justice. Belief originally had this meaning – the “lief” in it is related to “love” – but it has developed a meaning closer to “belief that (a proposition or statement)” rather than belief (faith) *in* some ideal. In other words, “belief” has now come to mean “I am convinced” rather than “I am committed”.

I would invite further comments (below) after some acquaintance (at least) with the CBC radio interview.

WC Smith: Buddhism as Atheism

In my recent research among Smith’s writings I’ve looked around for the word “atheist” (or “atheism”) and have found it elusive. He does write of the “secular”, the “humanist” and the “rationalist”; as well as (my own favourites) the “confused” and the “eclectic perplexed enquirers” (of the “New Age”?). So far, the only clear reference to atheism that I’ve found occurs in Smith’s Faith and Belief: The Difference Between Them. Indeed, he has there a whole chapter titled “The Buddhist Instance: Faith as Atheist?” from which I’ve taken the following excerpt (p22) available through “Look Inside!”:


I don’t (yet) have a copy of this book but I would like, one day, to read it in its entirety.

WC Smith: philosophia as religious tradition

I have been researching the writings of WC Smith for the purposes of the coming PhiloSophia meeting on “The Zero Within the All”. I came across an essay dating back to 1984 and titled “Philosophia as one of the Religious Traditions of Humankind”. The essay appears as a chapter in Smith’s Modern Culture from a Comparative Perspective (Ch 3) and also in editor Kenneth Cracknell’s Wilfred Cantwell Smith: A Reader (Ch 8).

I have made this essay/chapter available to PhiloSophia members as well as some friends who are not members. The casual reader might like to look at the partial preview available via Amazon’s “Look Inside!” feature at Smith’s Modern Culture …

I would invite anyone who reads this – and especially who likes this – to comment here.

Thank you!

The Zero Within the All

Anne will present on the ideas of Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), a controversial professor of comparative religion and highly influential in the development of interfaith dialogue.

“It is hardly too fanciful to hold that our one-worldedness is bringing all humanity together in such a way that every one of us is being caught up in the processes of all.”
Smith: Patterns of Faith Around the World

The one thing that bothers me in Smith’s writings is the apparent exclusion* of the “no faith” position, the “zero” position among the community of faiths. As a mathematician I happily accept that zero is a genuine number and for me, it also follows that atheism should be present at the table in any interfaith discussion.

* I have, since writing this, found a footnote in which Smith talks of a “secular/Christian divergence” over whether Christ is the son of God which is akin to the “Western/Muslim divergence” over whether the Qur’an is the Word of God. However, for Smith, the end goal of interfaith dialogue is a “world theology” while for a more secular theorist like Mircea Eliade the end goal was a universalist humanism. Can we find a new word that covers both of these ideas? A word that “contains” both theology and humanism? Both the “one” and the “zero”?

Edited on 20/4/13: I have further delved into Smith’s writings and found a clear statement on his position that yes, “zero” does belong among the “all”. See:

WC Smith: philosophia as religious tradition