NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

August 21, 2021 • 1:15 pm

The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.

But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat.  There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.

To the Editor:

On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.

David Bonowitz
San Francisco


To the Editor:

Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.

First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,” which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.

Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.

It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.

Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

h/t: Barry

33 thoughts on “NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

  1. Tangent, but my belief in God got a boost this morning. I had to talk to my (US) insurance company, and if there were no God, I would not be able to imagine insurance companies and their minions burning in hell for eternity. I don’t know if I could live with that.

  2. The readers comments on Douthat’s article (arranged by “Readers Picks”) are mostly withering, enlightening, and supportive of the idea that Douthat’s ideas are asshat ideas.

    1. Andrew, every other day, I find that folks with whom I disagree have asshat ideas. The remaining days, I realize mine meet that same definition. Hate that.

  3. ” . . . one misguided soul supports Douthat.”

    That reader is a teacher who intends “to share [Douthat’s article] with my very intelligent 11th- and 12th-grade students and to explore its linked sources.” I wonder if she is a private school teacher, and whether she will provide links opposing her apparent world view.

    She further says: “It’s hard to posit divine cosmology and religious pluralism in this toxic, anti-intellectual age . . . .”

    As if religion is the opposite of anti-intellectualism.

  4. I always liked Michael Grant, who wrote books dealing with the early days of Christianity and about the Jews of the Roman Empire. I couldn’t tell if he was a “Believer” or not, which I took as a sign of his objectivity, if not neutrality. His summary conclusion about our conception of God (as I understood him) was that it’s a cross between the ancient Hebrew concoction of a judgmental but paternalistic Creator with the ancient Greek notion of a First Cause. I think he was right – that’s how we think God must be, but that in no way is proof that such a thing as God exists. That would be as weak as the Ontological argument for the existence of God. Having said this, the most honorable and benevolent people that I’ve encountered in life, on average and with exceptions, have been religious people, but not including fanatics or people who were religious by rote.

  5. As an unbeliever (as opposed to a nonbeliever), I say that if a person chooses to have faith and believe in a God, so what? Why make a federal case of it and mock them with pretentious and arrogant remarks.

    1. Why? Because religion misguides so many people in the world. Look at what’s happening in Afghanistan. The Taliban use their made-up beliefs to oppress woman among many other things and use God to justify it. In the US, many use God as an excuse not to get vaccinated, harming everyone else.

      1. Point taken. Perhaps I should have been more specific. I was referring to Christianity, not Islam; certainly I agree with you about the Taliban and others of that ilk. In terms of the vax debate, condemn the messenger who misguidedly (to use your word) spouts his or her particular aversion to being vaxxed, not the message, i.e. the message of Christ. As I say, I speak not as a believer but as an enquiring mind.

        1. If a person chooses to have faith and believe in a god, as you put it, well, fine. But many believers don’t stop there: they insist on laws, regulations, social conventions, behaviour, clothing and even opinions being subject to what they think their Invisible Magic Friend has told them. That is what is unacceptable.

          Religion should be an activity for consenting adults in private.

          1. As a non-religious un-believer (I’m sure you see the distinction between un- and non-believer, but I do stress non-religious), religious fanatics who insist on certain laws (do you mean politicians, who whatever religion are the lowest forms of life?) and behavior etc can and should be ignored, as in, screw ‘em.

          2. Thanks for responding. No, I wasn’t thinking especially of politicians (screw ’em, as you say), but those who play the religious card to exert undeserved influence over politicians. In the US, for instance, those who are agitating to overthrow Roe vs. Wade.

            On this side of the pond, we have a second Parliamentary chamber that has a guaranteed 26 seats for Church of England Bishops (the only Parliament in the world with built-in religious representation, except for that of Iran). As recently as 2013, they tried to use that block vote to stop the passage of the Gay Marriage Bill that had already been approved by the Commons.

            Religious interference in social and democratic institutions is still all too pervasive. (Don’t get me started on schools in the UK). It needs to be resisted and removed.

          3. … religious fanatics who insist on certain laws … can and should be ignored …

            Hard to ignore them when they are passing laws across the nation that essentially foreclose women from obtaining abortions, when the constitutionality of those laws is pending in a case to be heard next term by SCOTUS, when there are seven Catholics on the Court, six of whom are opposed to abortion and five of whom appear poised to overrule Roe v. Wade in its entirety.

            And that’s just one among many reasons it’s hard to ignore them.

          4. Where I live in the South of the US, the ruling party is impossible to ignore because they keep passing religiously-based laws, from restrictions to abortion to what can be taught in schools to who can use which restroom. The state I live in named the bible as the official state book, which is completely symbolic while also being oppressive. So no, I can’t just ignore them.

          5. Well, yeah, no way to ignore that — the Bible as the official state book, hell — that’s why I wouldn’t live in a Bible Belt state. Obviously I am not well informed so I’ll shut up now.

    2. Yes, let them believe just as those who are unbelievers… but by not calling it out and demanding truths of how the universe really works the earth would still be the center of our little solar system. Thereby designating all humans to stupidity without knowing it…!!!! Eh possibly not Copernicus.

      1. You’re implying that people who believe in a God are incapable of also believing in an evolving universe. Clearly many fundamental Christians see the Bible, including the preposterous Old Testament as the Only Truth, but give the majority of Christians some credit for being able to believe in both a God and a naturally evolved and evolving universe.

        1. I am not saying they are not capable I’m saying had they not been challenged by a factual hypothesis (as it turned out to be) we would be still wallowing in a lie. Something had to give as information, conjecture and criticism became to hard to refute. Have your faith but don’t expect it to be ignored especially about claims that don’t make sense in an evolving culture.

          1. I think you’ve answered your own question: “Had they not been challenged…” Well they have been challenged and we (most of us) are no longer “wallowing in a lie.” The problem is not that difficult. Evolution is a fact and “God” by no measure is a fact, more likely a myth, a dream, a hope, a fervent prayer… whatever, I don’t see why the two — evolution and faith (forget about God) can’t co-exist in an intelligent mind.

          2. Sure but don’t you think it’s a bit twisted, faith and fact on a equal footing. Dragging one foot behind… but so be it. Intelligence can also help one fool oneself so no guarantee there.

    3. I must admit I found this exchange including the replies a little bizarre
      Just a few observations on the proceedings.
      1) I found the semantics around unbelief and nonbelief confusing. For me they are synonymous, and are to be contrasted with disbelief.
      2) Not all flavours of Christianity are harmless. Take Mother Theresa for example, however well meaning the harm could have been lessened from her beliefs.
      3) I don’t find I choose my beliefs … I find I just have them.

      But I take your point. Some of the Sophisticated Theologies I find to be less harmful to some of the more nonsensical beliefs in Christendom. Perhaps a useful a stepping stone … eg Gretta Vosper.

      1. This whole debate — which I don’t usually engage in — reminds me that religion is more trouble than it’s worth — and as you say, is a source of harm and pain, most notably of course all the wars that have been waged in the name of religion.

        1. Religion a source of wars … well religion is a proximate cause of wars. But wars are more of a product of the universe unfolding.

  6. Douthat and others like him insist that there be evidence for their faith, but if there is evidence, it’s not faith. Then it becomes recognition.

    (The spell was broken for me when I kept on trying to talk to god and the main reply I got was to cut my hair and stop listening to rock music. I’m not saying that god spoke as directly to me as I did to him, but through intermediaries.)

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