David Brooks does secular theodicy

March 27, 2020 • 10:00 am

When I read this NYT op-ed by David Brooks, after gagging at the title (how can a plague have a “moral meaning” in itself?), I suspected he might be religious. For the entire article is marinated in the idea that the plague not only has a “higher meaning”, but also that that meaning is instantiated by inspiring good acts by those suffering from the threat. In other words, it’s like Christianity, but without God.  After I read it, I looked up Brooks in Wikipedia and found that he “is Jewish but rarely attends synagogue.”

In other words, he’s probably a secular Jew like me. So why is his piece infused with Christian tropes like “redemption” and “the soul”?  I can only suppose that he can’t live with the idea that we’d be so afflicted as a result of natural selection and other purely naturalistic processes, and has to find “higher meaning” in the pandemic. I have no objection to people trying to leaven our group distress by pointing out good stuff. The selfless acts of first responders and healthcare providers, for example, are heartening. That is true biological altruism: risking your lives for those who aren’t related to you.

And, to be technical, “plague” doesn’t refer to a viral pandemic but only to the “Black Death”: the disease caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. “Plague” refers specifically to that disease, not to a spreading infectious disease in general. (The New York Times doesn’t seem to be fact-checking this issue, as in another op-ed there, Alain de Botton referred to the black plague in Camus’s La Peste as caused by a “virus”). If you’re reading this, Carl Zimmer, could you send a note to your newspaper? Virus and bacteria are completely different organisms.

But never mind the biological quibbling. Here we have another mindless waste of electrons and trees as Brooks trawls for the silver lining in the pandemic. Click on the screenshot:

It turns out that what Brooks sees as “moral meaning of the plague” isn’t that at all: it’s the responses, altruistic or otherwise, that people are showing during this pandemic. He lists only the good ones, but doesn’t mention the hoarding, the blathering of religious people that the virus is a punishment for sin, the refusal of college kids to stop crowding on beaches or in parks,  and the heartless calls for old people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Disaster brings out both good and bad, but we prefer to read about the good, and, truthfully, I see both sides of this. Taking Brooks’s viewpoint, you could say that any disaster, like the 9-11 attacks or a big plane crash, have a “moral meaning”—the same one as does this plague.

But somehow Brooks manages to infuse this whole disaster with a “moral meaning”, using the language of faith (read all the quotes, which are indented).

It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams.

Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over.

This mind-set is the temptation of the hour — but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.

Yes, here Camus was right: it is meaningless in that there is no higher power in charge here. And yes, it’s a biological phenomenon involving mutation and causing apparently arbitrary deaths (not really: there are characteristics that make one prone to death or survival). Selfishness has taken over to some extent (have you been to a pharmacy or grocery store lately?), but not completely, thank Ceiling Cat.

But “the most meaningful periods of our lives”? Well, maybe the most stressful period of our lives, but, truth be told, I’d prefer to do without the meaning and bring back the lives of the thousands who died. Would their families and loved ones see this as a “meaningful” period? How callous can one get?

What makes this period “meaningful” to Brooks are these behaviors (note: it’s human behavior, not the plague itself that has “moral meaning”):

1.) “The plague brings forth our creativity”. He refers to the great organizations of the future being spawned during economic and social depressions. Maybe sometimes, but again, do we need these bad periods to get the good stuff? I suspect that the relatives of the dead would beg to differ.

2.) “A new energy [is] coming into the world.” He refers to people singing and dancing together “across distance.” This is creativity, but it’s not moral meaning. It’s the behavior of a social species forced to deal with a lack of social togetherness.

3.) A “shift of values”. Brooks mentions “keeping up our human connections.” Again, this is not a moral meaning, but a response of a social species. See #2.

4.) “New action coming into the world”. Brooks refers to people growing vegetables for their neighbors and putting up holiday lights.  This is altruism, which in some is activated by crisis. And those people are admirable, but again, there’s no “moral meaning” in the plague itself, or even in the response. Some people are good, others bad, and these traits are exacerbated in times of crisis. And, Mr. Brooks, we already know about this stuff without your pious blathering.

5.) “There’s a new introspection coming into the world.”  Brooks says that people are having deeper conversations, and, as examples, mentions people pondering their mortality, their actions in the crisis, and confronting their own fear.”  Yes, you get the same thing when you’re sentenced to death and execution approaches, or when you’re diagnosed with a terminal disease or have a death scare. But is impending death a good thing because it makes you ponder your mortality and, like some healthcare workers, revise their wills?  I admit that one’s priorities can be shifted by these terrible events, but how many of us would wish recurrent epidemics on society as a way of helping us periodically recalibrate our values? Again, Brooks is making virtues of necessities, and completely neglecting the bad things people are doing.

What I most object to, since the stuff above is just pious blather, is Brooks’s use of religious language to make us think that, all in all, the pandemic is a pretty good thing. Is that what he’s really saying? If not, why does he talk repeatedly about “moral meaning”, using quasi-religious language like the following:

. . . .I’ve had a pit of fear in my stomach since this started that hasn’t gone away. But gradually you discover that you have the resources to cope as you fight the fear with conversation and direct action. A stronger self emerges out of the death throes of the anxiety.

Suffering can be redemptive. We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.

So, yes, this is a meaningful moment. And it is this very meaning that will inspire us and hold us together as things get worse. In situations like this, meaning is a vital medication for the soul.

Thanks for the vital dose of medication, Mr. Brooks, and for your spoonful of puerile journalistic sugar to help it go down.  The trope “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is, as we all know, palpably false. I am not “redeemed” by the suffering of myself or others in this situation, and, if I had my choice, I’d rather not get the virus, and I’d wish the pandemic never struck. As for the “redemption” of society, well, this might teach us to be better prepared next time, but I strongly suspect that the “lessons” of inequality will be forgotten as soon as the plague abates.

Am I wrong, or is Brooks being like Mother Teresa here, arguing that suffering is actually good? This brings to mind an anecdote about the old charlatan related by Christopher Hitchens:

[Mother Teresa] described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told this terminal patient: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer’s reply: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”

Give me less suffering; I’ll live with the lessened “redemption.”

h/t: Jeff

28 thoughts on “David Brooks does secular theodicy

  1. Brooks was born to Jewish parents, married a gentile, divorced her, married a Modern Orthodox Jew, tried out practicing Judaism, did not work for him, divorced his wife, and is now experimenting with Christianity. Mid-life crisis to the max:-)

  2. Brooks seems to be very confused as to whether he is a Jew or a Christian. He still calls himself a Jew, but it seems that most of his life has been spent interacting with and being influenced by the Christian world. I would not call him a secular Jew. This Washington Post article goes into some depth discussing Brooks’ religious journey.


    1. I don’t know about Brooks, but I hereby invite anyone to join my own group, Kosher Goyim, a Christian Faith Fellowship based upon approaching the mysteries of the Holy Trinity through Jewish food. To our friends in the evangelical churches, we say: “one smeck of our kugel, and you will be born again, again.”
      Full account at:

  3. I agree with your take completely. It’s certainly worthwhile to try to accentuate the positive and stick close to the affirmative while we work to eliminate the negative, and to learn all that we can from this situation, and try to improve ourselves and our societies so that in future we do better, I think we’d all be better off without it. There’s certainly no external meaning beyond what we make of it for ourselves.

    As you note (or imply) that which doesn’t kill us often makes us weaker…and sometimes it’s just killing us slowly.

  4. I am always astonished when people argue this point. So god is allowing some people suffer and/or die to teach them, other people a lesson, or test their faith? How does one get to be in the latter category and not in the former? Is it praying, giving money to religious organizations, having faith? None of those things seem to matter because those who believe are just as likely to fall into either category as those who don’t do those things. If that is the case why try to conform at all?

    Furthermore, no matter what is done, it never seems to be enough; if only I prayed more, if only gays weren’t allowed to marry, etc., things would be different. Nothing anyone does it seems, is enough.

    I am similarly amazed when when someone says they are blessed. SO god likes them better than those who aren’t blessed? This is especially true for famous people saying they are blessed and are giving thanks. You are rewarded with fame, fortune, talent and are seemingly being rewarded as opposed to those who are poor and not famous? Are they somehow more worthy than those who aren’t?

    Ahem, stepping off soapbox now to go back to trying to help students do a virtual shark dissection.

    1. As you note, logic has never been a strong point of Christian doctrine, dogma and theology. Some of my fundamentalist relatives argue that COVID 19 is just another lesson that supposedly John 9 teaches – if the man had not been born blind, how could have Jesus healed him??

  5. Brooks has been putting out these kinds of feel good, religiously inspired pieces for a while now. I’m glad you take the time to critique them for the vapid appeals to faith that they are. I certainly welcome any good news about people coming together and working collaboratively to deal with the crisis. But no one should be fooled about the gross incompetence from Trump and other officials (in the U.S. and elsewhere) that have worsened the pandemic. But that is just wishful thinking on my part. No one should be fooled, but far too many are.

  6. If you expect that all there is is cause and effect in a natural (material) universe then belief in gods, Free Will, and grand purposes are illusions. Useful fictions perhaps and ‘real’ in the sense that peoples’ actions are affected by their beliefs, but ultimately illusions.

    So David Brooks seeks comfort in his illusions. It’s almost a shame to enlighten him.

  7. Not only is D Brooks annoying, tiresome, preachy,piously solemn while announcing truisms, soppy, smug – he is avoided by me. If media must give a nod to sentimental religion in print, couldn’t it please find someone more interesting? Yes, Mother T is an apt comparison. Time spent reading Brooks can be way better spent reading -or watching- C Hitchens, for one.

  8. … I looked up Brooks in Wikipedia and found that he “is Jewish but rarely attends synagogue.”

    According to this piece in The New Yorker, Brooks began “exploring” Christianity after divorcing his wife of 27 years (who had converted to Judaism for their marriage) to marry his 23-years-his-junior shiksa research assistant.

    At the time, Brooks — who’s made a career of preaching virtue and morality as the path of righteousness for the lower classes — was writing a book entitled The Road to Character.

  9. Attila The Hun was The Scourge Of God, but don’t forget that this meant that he was the instrument used by God to Scourge humanity, it didn’t mean that he was Scourging God.

    Christianists and the like have been saying this sort of thing since their theology was invented.

  10. I have often thought that the only hope for other species on this planet is for our species to be decimated by a pandemic. Already there was a temporary break in air pollution in China, and perhaps a few pieces of coral in Hawaii will avoid being trampled on this year. It’s a start.

  11. If Brooks had stuck with the the idea we should salute those who are working to save others and be grateful for the positive deeds around us during a crisis, that would have made a useful contribution.

  12. You have a battle between the heroic mode and homo economicus, which you could view as the Bourgeois mode. Peace, health, prosperity and high returns on capital investment is the ideal for many.

    Frankly, Brook’s fondness for the pandemic is a nice balance between the two, as it is the doctor risking his life to save the patient, and there will be plenty of overpriced billing for emergency services, rather than the Spartans laying down their lives to keep the Persians out of Greece.

    Its true, heroism involves a collective existential threat, and a collective existential threat generally means someone is going to die, and more are going to suffer. But since everyone is going to die, and everyone is going to suffer any ways, why not through a collective form of peril that invites heroism?

  13. “As for the “redemption” of society, well, this might teach us to be better prepared next time, but I strongly suspect that the “lessons” of inequality will be forgotten as soon as the plague abates.”

    I tend to agree. Although many are arguing this will change society fundamentally, I don’t think it will.

    Remember the previous Great World Crisis: the Financial Meltdown 2008? Has much ‘fundamentally’ changed?

    One last point and a suggestion. Just how bad do people expect this pandemic to be? The flu pandemics of 1957/1968 had deaths at US: 100,000, W/W: 1 million. Pops have doubled or more since then and care is better. So, what to expect? My own guess (it’s little more than that and I reserve the right to change it!) is, US: less than 200,000; W/W: less than 2 million.

    Our host has the capacity to carry out a survey along these lines. It may be an interesting exercise.

    1. A worthwhile exercise. A Jewish friend of mine made the comment, “this (quasi-quarantining in the US) must have been what our families felt like, waiting for the Nazis to take them away”. I asked myself, will there be 6mn deaths in the US? I say no. My worst case estimate, with all the layman caveats, is 200K-300K as well. Just in the US. I hope it’s much fewer. We’ll see.

      1. ‘A Jewish friend of mine made the comment, “this (quasi-quarantining in the US) must have been what our families felt like, waiting for the Nazis to take them away”.’

        I can easily enough understand why he would feel this way. That said, does your friend disagree with any measures thus far taken and, if so, why, and what are his alternative recommendations?

      2. Italy is the worst case so far with a death rate of 151/million. Only Spain, so far, approaches that. This translates to:

        W/W (7.5 billion): 1.13 million
        US (320 million): 48,000

        So I’ve multiplied by 2 the worst D/R so far. We will see!

    2. How high the moon? US just passed 100K cases, only 3 weeks after logging the first hundred. Cumulative cases here follow a perfect log plot — 1K after 7 days, 10K after 14, 100 K after 21 days. All the other worst-hit countries showed some inflection in total cases between 2 and 3 weeks — even Italy. Only Iran showed a log phase with shorter doubling time, and that seems to have declined. [Always remembering that there is temptation to massage data for political ends.]

      SOcial distancing should work — evidently the Washington state data may be slowing. But, even in more competent hands, we will probably have millions or tens of millions of cases, and mortality on the order of a million.

  14. Frankly, I prefer Mel Brooks over David Brooks. Here is Mel on his jewish identity:

    “I’m rather secular. I’m basically Jewish. But I think I’m Jewish not because of the Jewish religion at all. I think it’s the relationship with the people and the pride I have. The tribe surviving so many misfortunes, and being so brave and contributing so much knowledge to the world and showing courage.”

  15. Cheers Jerry, keep it up with the ducks. And FIIINALLY…. why does everybody make Such. A. Big. Deal about Alain de Botton? He is so underwhelming, boring and lacking in absolutely anything insightful to say.
    -AOC is having a tantrum but I don’t think she’s a narcissist – maybe an ideologue and virtue signaler though.

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