If you knew that Ross Douthat was religious, or even that his faith was Christian, but didn’t know what brand, you’d know by the end of his new column that he was Catholic. And indeed he is, for at the end he invokes the Hornéd One, aka Beelzebub. In other words. . . SATAN.
After going through all the reasons why we’re having a pandemic, even under the watch of a benevolent and powerful God, at the end Douthat defaults to Old Nick. Such belief in Satan as a real “being” is inherent in Catholicism. Even the supposedly liberal Pope Francis accepts Satan—and the driving out of his demons via exorcism.
It is pathetic that a paper like the New York Times publishes this kind of drivel, ridden with explicit acceptance of supernatural beings. And now. . . SATAN? Yes, the paper strives to publish all points of view, but why so many op-eds expressing the point of view of deluded religionists lacking evidence for their beliefs? Where are the columns by “nones” and atheists? After all, we’re now about 25% of the population, so for every three religious columns there should be one expressing nonbelief.
But I digress. Read Douthat in one of his wonkier pieces, dilating on theodicy and meaning-making:
The point of the piece, of course, is how to reconcile the pandemic with Douthat’s Catholicism. Now we have familiar answers to this kind of theodicy: free will (for moral evil), balancing the scales in the afterlife, testing people, and so on. But none of these deal adequately with the issue of physical evil, like the pandemic or earthquakes, in which good people meet their ends. Nor do they explain why people who have never had the opportunity to sin, like small children, often suffer horribly: getting cancers and other diseases and, in poorer parts of the world, malaria, eye diseases, and starvation. The unanswerable question for believers is this: why would a powerful and loving God allow this to happen? It is in fact the inability to answer that question that cost Bart Ehrman his faith.
Douthat runs through the usual litany of answers for “sophisticated believers”:
1.) There is an explanation, but we don’t understand it. That doesn’t wash because the same people who say that seem to understand a whole lot about God.
2.) The “ministry of healing” of Jesus, as well as of those who care for the sick, show us that God is “loving” and tells us “where to find his presence today”. That’s hogwash as well, for if one concludes anything from pandemics and the pervasiveness of suffering (in animals, too), God isn’t loving at all but either indifferent or sporadically cruel. Further, because you don’t have to be religious to help people (most scientists racing to find vaccines and medicines are nonbelievers), finding helping behavior doesn’t say anything about God’s presence.
3.) “It is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” If that’s the case, who would want such a vocation? I thought that the major benefit of religion was it’s ability to provide people with explanatory schemes.
4.) “Suffering may be a gift to the righteous, given because their goodness means that they can bear more of its hard medicine, its refining fire.” Is that the “gift” of the Holocaust? What a stupid thing to think!
No, the existence of things like this pandemic testifies, if you’re religious but honest (an oxymoron?), to the idea that God is pretty much of a jerk. And the responses of god-enablers to show why He isn’t forms a sad commentary on the willingness of people to be duped. In fact, to many nonbelievers, this kind of suffering is clearly a result of natural selection—in this case on the virus to propagate its genes. Earthquakes? The result of plate tectonics. The nonbeliever, in fact, is in a much better position than the believer to understand suffering, for we have credible explanations.
But none of those explanations have an extrinsic “meaning”. Christopher Hitchens exemplified this when he got throat cancer, and briefly pondered the reason. And then he said this:
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?”
Douthat, though, argues that even atheists must make meaning out of these tragedies.
This need is powerful enough that even people who officially believe that the universe is godless and random will find themselves telling stories about how their own suffering played some crucial role in the pattern of their life, how some important good came from some grave evil. And it’s a need that religious believers must respect and answer: We can acknowledge the mystery, with Martin and Wright, while also insisting that in their own lives people should be looking for glimpses of a pattern, for signs of what a particular trial might mean.
And indeed, we are meaning-making beings, and many of us try to find some good in the pandemic. And there is good in people’s responses and behaviors—so much good that it often brings me to tears. Every time I see a nurse or doctor decked out in full anti-virus regalia, my eyes get moist. For I am seeing true biological altruism: people risking their own lives without hope of reproductive gain.
But for atheists there is no “mystery”. The pandemic is here because of biology and evolution. If there is a “meaning” to the tragedy, it’s one we confect ourselves post facto. And who among us would argue that the world is better off with the pandemic than without it? Did we need this “trial”? We can surely learn lessons from the pandemic about how to prepare for the next one, and perhaps there is a calculus somewhere that, in the end, tells us that fewer lives will be lost with the pandemic than without it. I have not heard that argument, but even if it were true that is not the “meaning” of the pandemic—it’s the result. And surely you can’t say that about all physical evils. What is the “meaning” of earthquakes that kill so many people? That now we can prevent them? What is the meaning of the Holocaust? So we can prepare and stave off the next one? For that we lost ten million people?
Douthat believes we have an “obligation” to discern and interpret the meaning of the present moment—of this pandemic. Agreeing with the Dominican theologian Thomas Joseph White, Douthat believes that we must figure out what the pandemic tells us “about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice.” (Of course he never entertains the idea that perhaps there is no God, and that everything would make a lot more sense under that hypothesis.) And so the hapless Catholic comes up with his Easter Message in the time of the virus:
Asking these questions does not imply crude or simple answers, or answers that any human being can hold with certainty. But we should still seek after them, because if there is any message Christians can carry from Good Friday and Easter to a world darkened by a plague, it’s that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.
I’ve read the last sentence several times, and am not quite sure what the sweating columist means. It’s pretty clear that he does believe in Satan, but it’s not clear what Satan’s role is. You could say that physical evil is the product of Satan, and it’s then the goal of believers to find the good side, and the meaning, of that evil. (But why would God allow Satan to do stuff like this?)
Alternatively, you could say that physical evil is part of God’s enigmatic plan, and Satan is delighted if we can’t make sense of it, and so, like Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry, we must “counteract the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.” That is, we vanquish Satan by finding meaning.
To make his own meaning out of the pandemic, Douthat must not only accept the existence of God and his alter ego Jesus, but must also drag Lucifer into the mess. How much easier to dispose of that whole mythology and see suffering as the inevitable result of a materialistic world—one in which suffering is often an inevitable outcome of natural selection! Yes, we must, as humans, try to find some good in the bad, but that doesn’t mean finding some pre-existing, externally imposed “meaning” to suffering that, in the end, it would be better to have avoided.
Atheists don’t have to go through the mental contortions of believers like Douthat. But then our own answers—which happen to be the right ones—don’t get published in the New York Times.