Ross Douthat Is On Another Erroneous Rampage Against Secularism

by Jerry A. Coyne | December 26, 2013

photo credit: audioscience/Shutterstock

Are there any conservative columnists who aren’t either wooly-brained, filled with unrighteous anger, or both? Even George Will occasionally got it right, but Ross Douthat? Nope. And he writes for The New York Times, the best newspaper in America. Can’t they do better? I would actually want to read a good conservative columnist, for it’s bad to become complacent and it’s salubrious to have your views challenged. But Douthat isn’t a contender.

Take his column from December 21, “Ideas from a manger.” The theme is Douthat’s musings on the religiosity of America, inspired, of course, by the Christmas season. While gazing at a manger scene, his heart racing as he sees the baby Jesus, Douthat gets an idea: American religious worldviews fall into three categories, one of which is deeply problematic (guess which one!). I’ll list the categories and show what he finds dubious about each (Douthat’s words are indented).

 

1. Biblical literalism.

The view:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

The same God? You mean the one that sends Christians and Jews to hell if he’s Allah, and Muslims to hell if he’s the Christian God? How can that be the same God?

Douthat’s problem:

The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

Really? The problem is how to keep being a fundamentalist in a “commercial, sexually liberated society?” Curious that Douthat doesn’t mention that literalism is also insupportably wrong. Curious, too, that Douthat doesn’t mention the disparities between adherents of “the same God” who for some reason find their dogmas in irresolvable conflict.

2. The “spiritual” take.

The view:

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene—the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight—but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our ‘God bless America’ civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone—including you.

I’m curious what the “spiritual version” of a visitation from an angel really is.

Douthat’s problem:

The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

One senses that Douthat doesn’t really like this point of view: the “New Age bath” seems pejorative. If I were to guess, I’d put his own view somewhere between #1 and #2. But what really irks him is #3:

3. The secular view.

The view:

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message—the common person as the center of creation’s drama—remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, save for the idea that atheism is dominant within the “intelligentsia” (it’s not, even among scientists), and secularists’ supposed view that “the common person is the center of creation’s drama,” which isn’t true, either. If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all. There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig. Nevertheless, Douthat hates secularism:

Douthat’s problem:

“The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm—the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism—tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

First, I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says “cosmology does not harmonize at all” with the moral picture of secularism. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

Nor do all atheists insist on moral and political absolutes. Most of the savvy ones, at least, approach their politics and ethics, like we approach our science, provisionally. Take ethics. Sam Harris, an atheist, wrote a book proposing a scientific view of ethics that, he said, was objective. Many atheists didn’t agree, and the arguments went back and forth. Is it okay to torture people if there’s a possibility to saves lives by doing so? Is it ever ethical to lie? It is atheists who argue most often about such things, for religiously-based ethics is either fixed or malleable only by the hammer of secularism. Secularists like Harris and Peter Singer argue about what’s right and wrong using reason, while Christians like William Lane Craig are the Biblical absolutists.

But the worst part is Douthat’s characterization of the effects of secularism:

... the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

Talk about rope bridges! What is Christianity but a giant rope bridge flung across the Chasm of Hope? And we see nothing on the other side.

Utilitarianism may not be a perfect ethical system, but what, pray tell, is Douthat’s? If it’s Biblical, does he give away all his possessions and abandon his family to follow Jesus, as the Bible commands? Does he think that those who gather sticks on the Sabbath, curse their parents, or commit adultery should be killed? If not, why not? It’s what the Bible says! If he doesn’t believe in that kind of morality, then he’s adhering to a secular, extra-Biblical view of ethics, which he then must justify.

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

I have run on too long, but I want to show Douthat’s penultimate paragraphs, which are even more misleading:

The second [religious question] is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism—the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing—will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

Check out those two links. The first is to Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, which decries evolution as insufficient to explain life’s diversity and posits, without any evidence, some non-Goddy but teleological force driving the process. It’s a bad book and has been roundly trounced by Nagel’s fellow philosophers (see here, for instance). It’s not a crack, but a crackpot book.

The second link is to a nice article by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, “Physics: what we do and don’t know.” It’s a succinct summary of the state of the art of both cosmology and particle physics, highlighting the mysteries that beset those fields, including dark matter, dark energy, string theory, how to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces, and whether there might be multiple universes. We don’t know the answers, but what is science without unsolved problems?

And it’s those unsolved problems that Douthat sees as “cracks.” Presumably 200 years ago he would have seen cracks in the unexplained “designlike” features of organisms, in the origin of the universe, and in the unknown constituents of matter. These “cracks” have now been filled. In the unanswered questions that remain, Douthat sees gaps that, he thinks, can be filled only with God. But it’s always been a losing strategy to argue that scientific puzzles presage the death of naturalism and the arrival of Jesus.

Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous websiteversion of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.

Images via Shutterstock.com

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