Ross Douthat’s dumb Easter theodicy: what is the “meaning” of the pandemic?

April 12, 2020 • 11:00 am

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.

h/t: Bruce

37 thoughts on “Ross Douthat’s dumb Easter theodicy: what is the “meaning” of the pandemic?

  1. The ‘meaning’ you find in events is the ‘meaning’ you bring to them. Unfortunately god or gods do not provide very useful meanings.

  2. I don’t bother torturing myself reading Mr. ** (I have my own nickname for him). His Catholic apologetics dominates all of his writing, even when he pretends it doesn’t.

  3. I wonder why does the paper find it so fascinating to observe the believer struggling with his g*d in times of tragedy? I think if all the atheist leave the building during this struggle the believer will still be having it. He can have the struggle with us if he wants but the problem is still his.

  4. Perhaps Mr. Douthat is a Cathar, who believed that Satan was in charge here below —thus neatly solving the problem of Evil. If Mr. Douthat thus aligns himself with the Cathar heresy, wiped out by Holy Mother Church in the 1200s, he ought to beware of the Holy Office: it might still be prepared to scourge him—for the good of his soul.

    1. Jon Gallant: a LONG time ago, I lived in Toulouse for a year, and made a point of seeing all of the Cathar castles and ruins–Carcassonne of course, but also Quéribus, Peyrepertuse, and the rest. Some nice photos here:

      An absolutely fascinating (if predictably gory) history, what with Simon de Montfort, Pope Innocent III, and the whole saga of the Albigensian Crusades.

      I thank you for bringing it to mind.

  5. Explaining a mystery with an even bigger mystery. You don’t find that intellectually satisfying? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?

  6. Of all the times I have read Douthat, I have disagreed or shook my head in disgust every time but one. That was on a minor, common sense issue. I don’t understand why anyone publishes the drivel that comes from him.

  7. Dear Mr. Douthat. The “meaning” of the pandemic is simple. A spike virus evolved (probably by natural selection) spikes which allow it to easily latch on to the ACE-2 receptor proteins that reside on the surface of human respiratory cells. There the virus reproduces itself and exits the lung in breath and infects others. There is no other meaning. Why do you think there should be?

    1. Well that’s an explanation of *how* it does it. I don’t think that explains *why* it does it (which is closer to the ‘meaning’ of it, I think). Has anybody asked the virus why it does it? (‘Because it can’?)

      TL:DR version – there is no meaning. As you said, why should there be?


      1. I was meaning to say that the “meaning” is “the process of evolution made the virus do it”, but I am sure Douthat is looking for something more cosmic.

  8. Dear PCC,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to grace us with an absolutely spectacular homily on this special day in religious buffoonery. I’ve shared it with everyone of sound mind that I know.

  9. “It’s the generally accepted privilege of theologians to stretch the Scriptures, like tanners with hide.” (Desiderius Erasmus)

  10. It’s the usual perspective on the Deity:

    God deserves all the credit for anything good that happens and none of the blame when evil strikes.

  11. It’s the usual perspective on the Deity:

    God deserves all the credit for anything good that happens and none of the blame when evil strikes.

  12. When I was young I used to worry because I never pondered the meaning behind these types of events. I thought maybe it meant that I was a shallow person. Now I realize I just wasn’t that silly.

  13. The word religion means to reread … and humans have this ability to believe anything that they hear or read enough times. That is memory … ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa’ becomes ‘Yes, anyone, your name is ______’.So even the supposed great theologians will believe anything that they hear, read or preach enough times. Memory functions in the brain thus also explain religion, philosophy, language, culture … even why dead people don’t write anymore … but their writings are still around!

    1. Many naïve, young children initially embrace the idea of Santa Claus. Inevitably, however, as the child grows older, he begins to question the existence of Santa Claus. He asks himself, “How could reindeer actually fly? And even if reindeer could fly, how could Santa get to all the houses in the world in one night? And even if he could, how would he fit down a chimney? And what about the houses that don’t even have a chimney?!” The answers provided by adults inevitably involve claims of magic and/or the admonition that “you just have to believe” – answers that are not wholly satisfying. Then, one day, someone admits to the child that there is no Santa Claus. “Of course!” the child tells himself, “What an incredibly simple and obvious answer! All that impossible stuff doesn’t make sense because it’s simply not true!” And so it is with the issue of the existence of god.

      1. The naievity comes from the adults who try to instill the santa story as fact. I’ve witnessed some parental meltdowns when enlightened kindergartners tell their less enlightened classmates that santa and his reindeer are mere myth. Often it is difficult to distinguish the adult from the child. Must have something to do with faith.

  14. I’m not sure why religious people continue to worship God if they believe Satan is so omnipresent. I mean really – the only evidence of God we hear about is the occasional Bible that survives a house fire or single christian who survives a natural disaster (created by Satan) amid the bodies of the less fortunate,

    All the while Satan is out there creating pandemics, earthquakes, the democratic party, and hit HBO series.

    God’s absentee rate should be causing more problems that it seems to be,

  15. 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.

    L Ron Hubbard, prior to founding Scientology, was reported to have said at a meeting that “the only way to make a million dollars was to form your own religion.” Somehow I think someone could make a few more millions founding a religion based on appeasing a God who’s a jerk. It looks like a relatively untapped market.

  16. The explanations for why there is evil, all are equivalent to atheism and the lack of any purpose or moral slant to the universe. The only escape from the dilemma is, in fact, to accept that God is evil, which is just fine philosophically if that’s what you’re led to. But of course, the religious insist on having God both ways. He just has to be benevolent, yet he’s also a sadistic ass hole with obscure schemes. This means only one thing. Whatever God is, he’s pretty much the same whether he exists or not. So, what’s the point?

  17. I think you can use the word “meaningful” in a way that it renders it meaningless. If a large meteorite hits the earth and we all suffocate and die in a few days, can that be meaningful? I suppose the answer is “yes” if you’re a theologian.

  18. The only theodicy that seems remotely acceptable to me is that viral pandemics and other natural ‘evils’ are the price we must pay for having the kind of world that we value. There can be no natural wonders, such as the Himalayas, without also the natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc) that accompany the processes that create these wonders. All other theodicies seem like desperate and childish excuses.

    1. YF,

      That theodicy can’t make sense in light of God being All Powerful and All Knowing.

      God, being all powerful, is purportedly able to create any logically possible state of affairs. So long as it isn’t a logical contradiction, God can bring it about.

      So anything in the natural world that causes suffering has to be defended as somehow being *necessary.* But it’s clear much of the way the world works is contingent, not logically necessary.

      In other words: Sunlight nourishes and is necessary for our flourishing, but the compromise is that it also causes cancer.

      The proposition “A light/heat source that does not cause cancer” doesn’t contain logical self-contradiction. It’s only a contingent fact that this is how things happen to work. So God could have made a light/heat source that does not have the compromise of causing cancer.

      A Perfect Being would, by definition, not have to create a natural world with the kind of trade-offs we see. A Perfect Being doesn’t need to deal with “compromises.” Compromises happen when you have limited powers.

  19. “Why would God allow Satan to do this?” The Book of Job has an explanation: Satan talked God into allowing it. Satan told God that his followers, [such as Job] only loved Him when their lives were good. If things went bad, they would turn against Him. God says, “Oh yeah? Go ahead and abuse Job! Do your worst! We’ll see if he rejects me!”

    In other words, Satan tempted God and God fell for it. This I know, because the Bible tells me so.

    1. And, obviously, this debate between God and Satan has continued ever since with no resolution.

      Are there God(s)for non-humans such as bats, bacteria and viruses?

      If the God of humans is the only God, and humans are his/her only or primary concern, why do we have all those other life forms that God doesn’t take care of?

      However, when viruses can evolve to live on humans as well as bats, they are preserving and extending their life forms. One would think this is how their God would do it, if there were such a God.

  20. Oh THANK YOU for calling out and taking down “Ayatollah Ross’s” latest journalistic abortion. I hate-read his odious, idiotic column each week and am usually startled by its stupidity. He also pops up, all obese and jowly on Bill Maher’s show as the ‘freak” guest of his panel.
    Douthert, btw, sends his kids to an anti-vax “crunchy” school outside NYC. Faaaaith, y’see.
    And Pinker took him down in (either a lecture or Enlightenment Now) lately.
    Thanks, D.A., J.D., NYC

  21. “The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.”

    Ohmigawd, I’ve rarely seen a more concentrated distillation of BS as that sentence.

    What ‘purpose’ does suffering have? None. Or any that you care to invent, I suppose. Suffering is a Bad Thing. You ask me to explain why it happens, I’ll just say Shit Happens.

    ‘The search for meaning is obligatory’? Really? Obligatory for who? Only for those who are obsessed with teleology. It’s a natural human instinct, but no more necessary or beneficial than other human instincts like jealousy or paranoia. One can understand it without wishing to encourage it.


  22. I will admit to being the person who brought this to PCC-E’s attention. I will also admit that, like other commenters, that I couldn’t bring myself to read all the way through it. Thanks to Jerry for doing so and eviscerating it.

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