David Brooks’s new op-ed in the New York Times says exactly nothing. So why am I writing about it? Because of his thesis, squeezed into the last three paragraphs (see below). First, read his piece—if you can stand the sanctimonious attitude—by clicking on the screenshot below:
I’m not sure whether Brooks is really religious. He was Jewish and practiced occasionally, but may have converted to a form of Christianity, which I’ll mention below. But his conclusion, which follows a tedious virtue-flaunting and irrelevant description of racial tension, is that something apparently immaterial and supernatural makes us all brothers and sisters. To wit (and my emphasis):
[Frederick] Douglass could withstand all the ups and downs, all the ambivalences, because of an unchanging underlying belief: in the natural rights of all humankind.
He constantly returned to the core belief of America’s founding in 1776, that we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights. Slavery and racism were not just wrong — they betrayed the divine natural order of the universe. Douglass had an underlying faith in the providence. Justice would eventually triumph. The “laws which govern the moral universe,” he said, would make it so.
And here we get to the nub of what sustained Douglass and what sustains people today as they do this work. It is the belief that all humans have souls. It is the belief that all people of all races have a piece of themselves that has no size, weight, color or shape, but which gives them infinite value and dignity.
It is the belief that our souls make us all radically equal. Our brains and bodies are not equal, but our souls are. It is the belief that the person who is infuriating you most right now still has a soul and so is still, deep down, beautiful and redeemable. It is the belief that when all is said and done all souls have a common home together, a final resting place as pieces of a larger unity.
When people hold fast to their awareness of souls, then they have a fixed center among the messiness of racial reconciliation and they give each other grace. If they lose the concept of the soul, they’ve lost everything.
Souls? Grace? That sounds pretty Christian to me. And of course there’s no evidence for souls, even though Brooks asserts with confidence that we all have them: weightless moieties without substance that somehow make us all equal.
But what are they? Are they the immaterial aspects of our being conveyed by God? If so (even though that’s hooey), how, exactly, do they make us all equal? And equal how? In the eyes of God, or equal in the eyes of the law, or in each other’s eyes? And even in the eyes of God, are our souls all equal? I don’t think Calvinists, or others who accept “the elect”, would agree. Brooks is using an unsubstantiated concept to make an unsubstantiated assertion.
And if we didn’t have souls, would we be unequal? I don’t have a soul, or at least I have no evidence for one, so I guess I can be treated differently.
No, if you’re going to ground human equality in something, it’s better to use reason rather than superstition. Now you can’t prove that people should be treated equally under both the law and in society, but you can make rational arguments for it, be they based on the overall good of society, on a Rawlsian “curtain of ignorance”, or on deontology rather than consequentialism. (To me, you can’t just assert things like “discrimination against gays is just wrong”; rather, you have to have an argument why it’s wrong to counteract those who mandate inequality based on religious grounds.)
Now perhaps by “souls” Brooks means, “Members of the species Homo sapiens.” If that’s the case, then he should have said it rather than dabbling in the numinous.
A fairly recent New Yorker piece by Benjamin Wallace-Wells does imply that, if Brooks isn’t a believer, he certainly comes close:
One morning, passing through Penn Station at rush hour, Brooks was overcome by the feeling that he was moving in a sea of souls—not the hair and legs and sneakers but the moral part. “It was like suddenly everything was illuminated, and I became aware of an infinite depth on each of these thousands of people. They were living souls,” Brooks writes in his new book, “The Second Mountain.” “Suddenly it seemed like the most vivid part of reality was this: Souls waking up in the morning. Souls riding the train to work. Souls yearning for goodness. Souls wounded by earlier traumas. With that came a feeling that I was connected by radio waves to all of them—some underlying soul of which we were all a piece.” Brooks’s spiritual momentum was quickening. While attending the Aspen Ideas Festival, he hiked to the edge of American Lake, pulled out a book of Puritan prayers, and had a transcendent experience buttressed by the appearance of a “little brown creature who looked like a badger.”
. . . He relates the moment in Penn Station when he suddenly saw all the commuters as souls, and the one in Aspen, when he felt a sensation “like the sound of a really nice car door gently closing.” It’s “fair to ask, Did I convert?” Brooks writes. Not exactly. His religious awakening made him “feel more Jewish than ever before,” the cultural feeling now undergirded by a spiritual one. But, “On the other hand, I can’t unread Matthew.” Here the secret and interesting book, the memoir of conversion, slides into the advertised, pedantic one, about the importance of virtue. Brooks writes, “Jesus is the person who shows us what giving yourself away looks like.”
That, of course, assumes that Jesus was a real person. And maybe you can’t unread Matthew, but you can read it as fiction.