One problem with Bari Weiss and some of her acolytes is that they’re religious. I don’t hold that too strongly against them, but a journalist believing in religious dictates is a journalist who doesn’t care about evidence. It’s a journalist who falls prey to the bane of journalism—confirmation bias.
But a secular case for Christianity? Why not a secular case for Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? It turns out that you could make a similar argument for all religions, but it’s an argument that involves gutting Christianity of everything that characterizes it: in particular, the belief that Jesus came to earth as God/The Son of God, was crucified and resurrected, and this story, taken as true, affords all who believe it the chance for eternal life. Author Tim DeRoche, instead, makes the “little people” argument for Christianity: he avers that even if the story isn’t true, the myth is good for the well being of yourself and society.
Click to read (if you subscribe; it may be paywalled otherwise):
DeRoche is described on the site this way:
Tim DeRoche is the bestselling author of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the LA River. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. His third book publishes in 2022.
I won’t dwell on his piece very long. DeRoche was brought up religious, drifted away from Christianity, and then returned to the faith when he married a “devout Christian”. That got him thinking about the religion and whether he was, indeed a true Christian, especially because that he didn’t fully buy into the Christian myths of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. But he was married to a Christian and going to church. What could he do?
He joined online communities that call themselves Christians, but not because they accept the Christian mythology. Rather, they are “Christian” for three reasons:
a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life. I won’t deny that this is true for many; it’s just that I prefer to find meaning without relying on stories whose veracity I doubt. And of course there are the downsides of religion, too numerous to mention.
This community is where you’ll find the parkour artist Rafe Kelley, an avowed rationalist, interviewing Jonathan Pageau, an Orthodox icon carver, talking about “bridging the mythological and scientific worldviews.”
It’s where Paul Vander Klay, the pastor of a dwindling Dutch Reform congregation in Sacramento, amassed over 20,000 YouTube subscribers by doing hours and hours of commentary on the biblical lectures of nonbeliever Jordan Peterson—much to the chagrin of some leaders of his denomination.
It’s where the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron engages with the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke on the failure of our institutions—including our Catholic ones—to help people find meaning in their lives.
Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.
But the root causes of our current discontent are secular ones. It’s not clear to me how Christianity (or faith itself) can deal with those “root causes”, much less the discontent they produce. It might make you forget them, or, as Marx posited, help the desperate and downtrodden find solace in the presence of a heavenly father and the promise of better life to come (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). But if, like DeRoche, you don’t believe in that stuff—in heaven or maybe not even in God—what solace do you get?
b.) Christianity helps you live a better life.
Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.
Two responses: The Bible also contains a lot of stuff that would worsen life: like the need to leave one’s family to follow Christ, or about how not to strike your slaves the wrong way, or about how women should not speak. To pick and choose the “wisdom” you use to lead a better life requires a winnowing process that, as we all know, presupposes a non-Biblical and secular point of view.
Second: secular humanism contains a lot more wisdom about how to life a good life and build a healthy society. If you want to do those things, don’t read the Bible, read the great secular ethical philosophers of the past and present, whose views are based not on superstition but cogitation and reason.
I needn’t point out the divisiveness of Christianity or of other religions, for DeRoche does that above. The question is whether the world would be better off now had religions never existed. I can’t prove that it would be—though that’s what I think—but neither can DeRoche prove that it wouldn’t be.
c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world.
And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.
Of course, the spread of the “Islamic meme” over the last 1500 years has also been correlated with moral improvement, though most of that moral improvement, as Steve Pinker documents, has actually taken place in the last couple centuries.
But do I really have to inform DeRoche that correlation is not causation, and a lot of things have happened in the last several millennia? The rise of rationality, science, transportation, commerce, democracy, and communication have also been correlated with moral improvement, an indeed, those features might indicate a genuine causal relationship. This is the case that Steve Pinker makes in his two books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. (For a short read on his case for reason and secularism as pivotal in morality’s advance, go here or here.) Pinker makes the opposite case from DeRoche, and Steve actually has data and arguments, not just correlations.
I won’t go on, but I will say that I’d love to hear Pinker debate DeRoche on the subject: “Resolved: Christianity is the main cause of moral improvement in humanity.”