Ross Douthat laments the “elite’s” loss of faith

April 11, 2021 • 9:45 am

The answer to Ross Douthat’s title question below is, of course, “no”: the meritocracy, which I suppose one can define as either the rich or the educated, are increasingly giving up religion. And, if history be any guide, they’re unlikely to go back to it. Click on the screenshot below to read Douthat’s elegy for the loss of religion among America’s elite, his reasons why it’s happening, and his straw-grasping about how the meritocracy might come back to God. (Douthat is, of course, a staunch Catholic.)

Last year, by even Douthat’s admission, only 47% of Americans belonged to a church, mosque, or synagogue.  Two years ago, in an article called “In U.S., decline of Christianity continues at rapid pace,” the Pew Research Center presented the following graphs. As American Christianity has declined quickly, the proportion of “nones”—those who see themselves as agnostics, atheists, or holding “no religion in particular”—is growing apace. (remember, this is over only a dozen years).

The fall in religiosity has been faster among the younger than the older, among Democrats than among Republicans, and among those with more education rather than less.

Douthat calls these data “grim.” Here’s his worry:

A key piece of this weakness is religion’s extreme marginalization with the American intelligentsia — meaning not just would-be intellectuals but the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or “knowledge workers,” the “professional-managerial class.”

Most of these people — my people, by tribe and education — would be unlikely models of holiness in any dispensation, given their ambitions and their worldliness. But Jesus endorsed the wisdom of serpents as well as the innocence of doves, and religious communities no less than secular ones rely on talent and ambition. So the deep secularization of the meritocracy means that people who would once have become priests and ministers and rabbis become psychologists or social workers or professors, people who might once have run missions go to work for NGOs instead, and guilt-ridden moguls who might once have funded religious charities salve their consciences by starting secular foundations.

But this all sounds good to me! Isn’t it better to have more psychologists, social workers, and professors instead of more clerics? At least the secular workers are trained to do their job, and don’t have a brief to proselytize or inculcate children with fairy tales.

But no, not to Douthat. Implicit in his column is the worry that without religion, America would be less moral. (He doesn’t state this outright, but absent that belief his column makes no sense. Unless, that is, he’s interested in saving souls for Jesus.)

As a Christian inhabitant of this world, I often try to imagine what it would take for the meritocracy to get religion. There are certain ways in which its conversion doesn’t seem unimaginable. A lot of progressive ideas about social justice still make more sense as part of a biblical framework, which among other things might temper the movement’s prosecutorial style with forgiveness and with hope. Meanwhile on the meritocracy’s rightward wing — meaning not-so-woke liberals and Silicon Valley libertarians — you can see people who might have been new atheists 15 years ago taking a somewhat more sympathetic look at the older religions, out of fear of the vacuum their decline has left.

You can also see the concern with morality as Douthat proffers two reasons why, he thinks, the elite are prevented from hurrying back to Jesus, Moses, or Muhammad:

One problem is that whatever its internal divisions, the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The tension between this worldview and the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion can be bridged only with difficulty — especially because the American emphasis on authenticity makes it hard for people to simply live with certain hypocrisies and self-contradictions, or embrace a church that judges their self-affirming choices on any level, however distant or abstract.

Again, I’m baffled about why Douthat sees religiously-based morality, particularly of the Catholic variety, as superior to humanistic morality. After all, only religious “morality” prescribes how and with whom you can have sex, the supposed “role” of women as breeders and subservient partners, the demonization of gays, the criminality of abortion, the desirability of the death penalty, and the immorality of assisted dying.  What kind of morality do you expect to get by following the dictates of a bunch of superstitious people from two millennia ago, people who had to posit an angry god to explain what they didn’t understand about the cosmos? You get the brand of religion that Douthat wants us all to have! For he sees religiously deontological morality as better than think-for-yourself morality: the “the thou-shalt-not, death-of-self commandments of biblical religion.”

And it’s clear, as Douthat continues his risible lament for the loss of faith, that he sees no contradiction between rationality and superstition, though the conflict between them, and the increasing hegemony of science in explaining stuff previously within God’s bailiwick, is what is driving the educated to give up their faith:

A second obstacle [to the elite regaining faith] is the meritocracy’s anti-supernaturalism: The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.

There are two misconceptions in two paragraphs. The first is that professors indoctrinate students with the belief that there is no God—we are training them in atheism, materialism, and scientism. But we don’t do that: the students give up God because, as they learn more, they also grasp that, as Laplace supposedly replied to Napoleon, we “have no need of that hypothesis.” If there were actual evidence for miracles and a theistic god, people wouldn’t abandon their faith.

Further, although some of the “nones” are spiritual in the sense of embracing stuff like astrology or crystal therapy, I see no evidence of a rise in embracing of woo as profound as the decline in religiosity.  The example of Scandinavia, which converted from religiosity to atheism in about 250 years, shows not only that religion isn’t needed to create a moral, caring society (indeed, it shows that religion is inimical to this), but also that religion needn’t be replaced by other forms of woo. As far as I know, the Danes and Swedes aren’t fondling their crystals with alacrity.

Nothing will shake Douthat’s faith in God, nor his faith in faith as an essential part of society—in this he resembles his co-religionist Andrew Sullivan—but he does adhere to a form of intelligent design held by those sentient people who are still religious:

Yes, science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty. But our supposedly “disenchanted” world remains the kind of world that inspired religious belief in the first place: a miraculously ordered and lawbound system that generates conscious beings who can mysteriously unlock its secrets, who display godlike powers in miniature and also a strong demonic streak, and whose lives are constantly buffeted by hard-to-explain encounters and intimations of transcendence. To be dropped into such a world and not be persistently open to religious possibilities seems much more like prejudice than rationality.

I don’t seem to have had those hard-to-explain encounters or intimations of transcendence. I must be missing my sensus divinitatis! What Douthat takes as evidence for God, like the tendency of humans to be clever but sometimes nasty, can be understood by a combination of our evolutionary heritage and our cultural overlay. The same holds for “a system that generates conscious beings.” It’s evolution, Jake!

In the end, Douthat is as baffled by we secularists’ rejection of God as I am by his credulous acceptance of the supernatural as the only plausible explanation for the Universe:

And my anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Like Pascal contemplating his wager, it always seems to me that if you concede that religious questions are plausible you should concede that they are urgent, or that if you feel the supernatural brush you, your spiritual curiosity should be radically enhanced.

Well, as a scientist one must always give a degree of plausibility to any hypothesis, but when that degree is close to zero on the confidence scale, we need consider it no further. Based on the evidence, the notion of a god is as implausible as notions of fairies, leprechauns, or other such creatures.  And if the plausibility is close to zero, then so is the urgency.  And even if the questions are urgent, which I don’t believe since the world’s well being doesn’t depend on them, they are also unanswerable, making them even less urgent. Would Douthat care to tell me why he thinks the Catholic god is the right one rather than the pantheon of Hindu gods, including the elephant-headed Ganesha? Isn’t it urgent to decide which set of beliefs is right?

But maybe it’s because I never felt the supernatural brush me.



h/t: Bruce

49 thoughts on “Ross Douthat laments the “elite’s” loss of faith

  1. Jerry, did you ever try LSD or psilocybin, I thought there was mention of one or both in your book? Supposedly the resulting visions produced “transcendent” feelings. And you were of the right vintage at Harvard to have been immersed in that culture.

    1. HAHAHA! I was JUST thinking that! I researched and have written professionally about psychedelics for, oh, 30 years now. (After I retired from being a boring lawyer.)
      Now THAT’S transcendence.
      With LSD there’s no magic, no god involved — just a temporary adjustment of Serotonin 5H2A and its receptors with a few other neurochemical tricks to do with alpha waves. All physics and chemistry.
      And behold, it is beautiful!

      D.A., J.D.
      “Walk into splintered sunlight – its your way through dead dreams to another land….” (Grateful Dead) 🙂

  2. Out of all the columns written by Douthat that I have read over the years, he has been wrong every time but once. So he is still batting 0.001

  3. Dear Ross Douthat:

    No, America hasn’t given up on religion. Rather, religion has given up on America.

    The churches should be out there fighting against the kind of thing that happened to George Floyd. The churches should be out there fighting against exploitation by rich corporations. The churches should be out there fighting against the restrictions voting that we see being enacted in a number of states.

    That’s why the churches are dying.

  4. What does supernatural mean?

    Supernatural includes phenomena that are not subject to the laws of nature. magic, telekinesis, levitation, precognition, telepathy, and non-physical entities such as angels, demons, gods, etc.

    It was enough for me to read about the so-called telepathy, what a ridiculous thing! How can people in the 21st century believe in telepathy?

      1. Cambridge dictionary describes telepathy as “the ability to know what is in someone else’s mind, or to communicate with someone mentally, without using words or other physical signals”.

        So no, that is nothing like any of the things you mentioned.

    1. Same here, alway liked Ganesh.
      Elephants were a successful group, dozens of species, spread to all continents (save Antarctica) . They went mostly extinct with the arrival of humans. There is good evidence it was not the ‘ice ages’ that did them in, but our ancestors.

        1. It is as sad as this urban legend about ants that died out along with the elephant, because only on its back they could wander and cross large spaces.

  5. I wonder how the statistics would look if QAnon and Wokeism were considered organized religions? While going to church on weekends may have gone down, my guess is that the belief in loonery is still as robust as ever, if not getting worse. I’ve lived in the US for many decades and my gut is that the population is not really getting more rational.

    Douthat, like Sullivan, needs to start dealing directly with their religiosity. They tell everyone how valuable religion is in their lives, and suggest vaguely how the world would be so much better if more people embraced religion, but they aren’t willing to deal with its inevitable conflicts with rational, intelligent thinking. They’ve compartmentalized their wooish thinking.

    1. At least Douthat acknowledges the centrality of supernaturalism. A lot of this stuff, including from Sullivan, implies that it’s beside the point. Which, of course, it is not. Supernaturalism pays the bills.

    2. Paul, as I’ve liked to say these past five years, Trumpism is Steve Allen’s “Dumbth” triumphant. I think we’re seeing a bifurcation of humanity in these times, to wit, more humans moving to rationality and irreligion at the same time a sizable remnant descends deeper into superstitions. It remains to be seen which population will become the majority, the rational or the superstitious. This is a crucial time in human history. I, for one, am pulling hopefully with and for the rational and irreligious.

    3. > “if QAnon and Wokeism were considered organized religions?”

      Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a kind of Laffer curve for organized religion. Too much and you get the ayatollah telling you how long you beard must be, too little and you instead get a hundred freelance cults, optimising the hell out of how best to exploit human psychology in whatever the current environment is.

      The fairly domesticated organized religion that I think many of us grew up around, and rebelled against, is somewhere in between. Unlike either extreme it was so secure it could handle being gently mocked on TV. It had out-groups, and it had (still has!) conflicts with science & clear thinking, but the level of vitriol involved seems nothing like what these fresh new faiths can muster (against different out-groups, and over different conflicts with science & clear thinking).

  6. Another reason for “meritocracy” turning away from religion may be that religion has been taken hostage by self-serving people across the globe. Many have begun to see religion as a great divider and a cause of conflict rather than a source of solace and comfort.

    1. Nothing new here. Religion has been used as a weapon over the centuries to take over countries. The Romans did not use religion to conquer other nations (they accepted any religion they encountered) , but emperor Constantine gave in to Christian pressure to impose Roman power. Also the conquering wars a few centuries later by Mohamed were driven by a religion he invented, as did the Crusades, driven by the Christians during the Middle Ages. Religion remained an important tool for political aims in England during the civil wars in subsequent centuries, and also in France, where it was the support of royalty until the French Revolution put an end to this nonsense.

  7. Critical thinking is always helpful, but it really doesn’t take that much when evaluating religious claims. All that’s required is a modicum of the skepticism you might have when talking to a used car salesman. Nobody wants to buy a clunker.

    1. am currently lobbying with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to have Ganesha included in our theology.

      Right at the path junction between the Beer Volcano and the Vodka Showers ; straight on to the wallows. Just follow the choruses of “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud!”

  8. Religion is essentially an animistic scam. There is no invisible friend interested in hearing the pleas of humans.

  9. Everytime I hear a believer express anxiety about the decline in religious observance I celebrate. 47% of Americans are believers? That means 53% are agnostics or atheists or just too lazy to bother. This is amazing, in this country, though standard in Europe. it does give us some hope. But as one commenter noted, the growth in irrationality is demonstrable and unfortunately has intruded onto the political process and fueled the culture wars. incidentally, let’s remind ourselves that there are many educated liberals who dont worship but still wont call themselves agnostic or atheist, indicating that there is a grain of mysticism remaining. These are, I believe, the ones who are the loudest in condemning atheists as “strident” and “intolerant”. Sort of Pascal’s Wager I guess; they dont want to be associated with Dawkins or Harris but also dont want to be considered deniers or anti-reason. The New Agers are substantially responsible for this and for the abysmal understanding of science on the part of liberals. Now the radical left has joined them in calling for abolition of STEM. Never overestimate the intelligence of Americans, I always say.

  10. The same issue of the NYT carries an article “Satanic Mania Lit a Powder Keg of American Anxieties” about religious mania of the 1980s. I would like to think that as more people turn away from the superstition involved in Douthat’s view of religion, manias like Satan-inspired sexual abuse of children would be less likely. Then I remember QAnon and their whole pedophilia shtick. There is considerable evidence linking QAnon and evangelical Christianity and, as Douthat asserts, evangelical Christianity is one branch that remains strong, so perhaps a core of believers will remain susceptible to such conspiracies. I shouldn’t think Douthat would take comfort in that.

  11. God spent the last 3000 years performing silly miracles and communicating with us using human language. He wrote the Ten Commandments, preached in person in Palestine, and dictated the Quran. What is stopping him from opening a Twitter account and talk to us directly?

        1. Simple – stop having children. Within less than 0.0002 Myr, “evil” will be a historical concept.
          “Historical concept” will also be a historical concept, which it isn’t at the moment. So that would make the world a better place, all other things being equal.

    1. What is stopping him from opening a Twitter account and talk to us directly?

      Having read the Bible, I suspect the answer is “Twitter’s Terms & Conditions of Use”.

  12. Rats. I finished my comment to the column, copied it to submit it there, and found the comments section closed. This is what I had written:

    The columnist thinks that the increasing secularity in the US is a problem. It is uncomfortable for him that other people do not have the same supernatural beliefs that he has, but it is not a problem for society that fewer people have beliefs in supernaturality – there is no empirical evidence that religious belief results in more of a benefit to society than non-belief. (Conversely, data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons shows that a great majority of those convicted of crimes self-identify as followers of major religions). Wishing that more people share your beliefs in supernatural explanations and prescriptions is merely a personal problem.

  13. Awful as the woke are, I would still take them over a truly Christian society. Over the past 60 years America has become a much freer country. Thank goodness large religious groups like the Legion of Decency no longer dictate what movies we see or how we live our lives.

    Douthat’s hope for a religious revival are delusional: traditional religion increasingly makes less and less sense to more and more people in the modern world. America is moving toward Western Europe’s attitudes, even if occasionally stumbles along the way.

    Positive changes in material conditions, such a decrease in economic inequality, will likely decrease wokism, which is largely about privileged people protecting their privilege by finding others to blame. A religious revival would only happen under a drastic decrease in material conditions, and that is not on the horizon (so far).

  14. I tried to conjure up a demon once when I was 11-12. A few of my friends and I read every comic book we could find on demons, witches and conjuring, and recounted every Twilight Zone and Hitchcock Presents and movie we had ever seen on the subject. We had confidence!

    So, on one warm October night under a full moon we set out in my backyard to open our demon portal. Pentagram on the ground with charcoal, candles, our most sacred personal items (mine a ring from Andre the Giant I got at the State Fair. Still have that prized possession!), a rabbit’s foot, some quartz crystals and we had a Ouija board. We chanted, mumbled, cheated with the Ouija board until we had scared ourselves silly but the spell was broken when Mom yelled from the back door, “Y’all put that fire out and come on in, now.”

    We were >that< close.

    1. I tried to conjure up a demon once when I was 11-12. […] some quartz crystals

      Laevo-rotatory, or dextro-rotatory? It matters. (That’s “widdershins” versus “turnwise”, as eny fule nose.)

  15. Seems to me even ol’ Ross has pretty much given up on tryin’ to make chicken salad outta chicken shit.

    And it seems to me that’s because he has no intellectually tenable case to make on religion’s behalf. All he’s left with are his own intuitive religious sentiments and some numinous experiences he’s otherwise unable to explain.

  16. Suppose that those who regularly worship are happier, live longer, and are more likely to be involved in community. Suppose further that many worshipers pretend–do not truly believe in religious dogma. Suppose some are scientists. In generally, worshipers are not less rational (despite the irrationality of religious dogma in which they are steeped) than average. Suppose ritual, regularity, listening, and song calm and renew. Still oppose religion?

    1. I’d be less opposed to these religions than to religions like Islam, Judaism, Evangelical Christianity, and Islam, but you are describing non-religious religions that are really forms of secular humanism, as nobody believes in the religious dogmas they pretend to believe, like the existence of gods. The kind of religion you describe doesn’t really exist much (Quakerism may qualify), so this hypothetical question is pretty meaningless. It’s like asking me if I’d be a Republican if “Republicans” really embraced the tenets of the Democratic party.

    2. Sentence (1) contains extremely uncertain propositions claimed as definitely true. I include in my accounting one Mumbai slum-dwelling believer along with every member of your church and the others you were thinking of. Do you have an argument for not including them?
      Sentence (2) is untestable and doesn’t seem to have any consequence to your argument anyway.
      Sentence (3) likewise.
      Sentence (4) – is self-contradictory.
      Sentence (5) isn’t actually a sentence, but seems to describe a group of humanists playing Dungeons and Dragons, so I still don’t see the relevance to your argument.

      Keep on presenting argumentation at that competence and you’re not helping your (apparent) case.

    3. Well, Steve, suppose that those who regularly worship are less happy, live shorter lives, and are less likely to be involved in furthering the wellbeing of humanity in general. Suppose further that many worshipers lie about what they believe, to themselves and to others. Suppose most believers have poor critical thinking skills. Suppose ritual has no affect on the universe beyond the illusions felt by the worshipers. Suppose religious faith is use to justify the most heinous behavior for century after century. Still support religion?

      One can go all over the place once one relies on “suppose” as the main argument.

  17. Here I’ve read more Douthat in a day than in the past several years (and I still pay for the privilege of reading NYT online). Seems he’s no longer trying to persuade anyone other than himself.

  18. OY! Don’t knock Catholic Ayatollah Ross Dotard* – without him I wouldn’t have my usual weekend morning vomit. I read his column and am able to vomit on the ceiling, off the balcony, all over the dog.

    Dotard is a chubby, high priest of Wrong, the Paul McCartney of Wrong. (and sends his kids to an anti-vax crunchie school outside the city, btw)

    But my doctor won’t let me comment after his articles: “Your blood pressure, Dave.”


    *Credit to North Korea for bringing “Dotard” as a word back. 😉

    1. without him I wouldn’t have my usual weekend morning vomit.

      Try ayahuasca – all the vomiting you want with less toxic religiosity. Well, as long as you avoid the shamen.

  19. I would offer Mr. “Doubt that” the words of Austin Dacey:

    “True, secular values can turn a civilization inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education and hopelessly low rates of violent crime.” –Austin Dacey, NYT, 2006-02-03

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