An Anglican priest pushes more religious palaver at the NYT

September 12, 2021 • 10:45 am

I’m sure Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, is a very nice person, but she’s put herself in the line of fire when the New York Times hired her to osculate the rump of religion once a week in their opinion section. I’ve beefed about this osculation before, and it’s continued this week with her anodyne column on the pandemic, which ends with an outright lie (or delusion; take your pick). The thing about these nice, liberal clergy who publish in mainstream media is that you’re so taken in by their niceness—though I find her boring and predictable—that they manage to slip in some outrageous stuff about religion before you know it.

Well, Jesus wept, and you might too if you read her piece. But you can read it only if you’re a NYT subscriber, so there is no link. (If you want to subscribe, go here.) I receive each column in an email because I’m a masochist.

Here is her thesis:

a. The pandemic should be over now. But it isn’t and Pastor Harrison and her family, like many, have “had it.” She’s fatigued. She doesn’t like the emotional roller coaster of the last 18 months, which reminds her of the emotional roller coast that the captive Israelites had in Egypt, who were freed (yay!) and then had to wander in the desert for decades (boo!). No matter that that entire story is pure fiction.

b. We may not know how the pandemic will end, but we should simply trust in God, for all will be well. Why? Because the Bible tells us so. Jesus is coming back!

After her boilerplate kvetching about how she and her family have suffered during the pandemic, and yet the uncertainty is still not over, she looks heavenward and finds solace. This is her ending:

. . . . But each of our lives is locked in the present tense. We can’t skip ahead in our own stories.

It has become a cliché, a bumper-sticker pat answer, to say “Let go and let God.” But why should we? What evidence is there that trusting God is such a great idea?

Again and again, the church has answered: because we have been given the gift of knowing how the story ends.

Christians see Moses as prefiguring Christ. Jesus, like Moses, delivered his people. Through his resurrection, we were rescued from the oppression of sin and power of death. The end of the story is that Jesus makes, as the Book of Revelation says, “all things new.” The church proclaims that in the resurrection, we have glimpsed the Promised Land. We have seen that God has defeated death. We cannot know the path ahead for any of our individual lives, but we can read the big story of redemption back into our particular life and our particular moment.

In this new phase of the pandemic, we sit poised between celebration and continued suffering. We aren’t sure how to feel. We aren’t sure when — or if — things will go back to normal.

So what must we do? We grieve. We admit we are worn out. We do what we can to help (which for most of us is simply to continue to wear masks and get vaccinated). And we take up the practices of patience and perseverance amid uncertainty. Perseverance isn’t simply a “grin and bear it” stoicism, much less a call to deny our frustration, disappointment or anxiety about what lies ahead.

Instead the Book of James presents perseverance as an artist, with our own souls as its medium. Perseverance, James writes, must “finish its work in us” that we might become “mature and complete.” It forms and shapes a kind of wholeness in us that comes as a gift: We don’t know what the next hour brings, but God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story. So now, in the present tense, with all its grief and frustrations, we can bear whatever comes to us, even if it lasts longer than we’d hoped.

This is the kind of thing you read in an evangelical tract, not in the New York Times!

And what makes Pastor Warren think that her church has the right answer, or that any church has the right answer? Many faiths don’t promise us that the divine being will “defeat death”: give us eternal life.  No, we do not know how the story ends, except in a heat death of the Earth five billion years from now. The Bible is a work of human confection, Jesus was not the Son of God, and he ain’t coming back. There is no Promised land of Heaven.

Yes, I’m an antitheist, because, really, look at the pabulum that Warren is dishing into our bowls: “God can be trusted because we’ve glimpsed the end of the story.” First of all, that’s not even logical. Yes, God has told us that in the end everything will be fine when Jesus (aka God) returns. But that doesn’t mean we can trust him for everything else! Remember, Jesus (who is God in human form) promised before he died that he’d return before some of those who watched the Crucifixion passed away. In other words, he said, “Hey, folks, I’ll be back within 80 years”. That was a lie! God lied!

And, after all, didn’t God allow the virus to ravage all of humanity, killing 4.6 million people already? And believe me, they weren’t all sinners. How is that supposed to engender trust?

All Warren is saying here—in fancy words and in the pages of the Paper of Record—is that we can lean on the promise of Jesus in hard times to make things right.  I think Marx had a quotation about that, with the famous part (usually taken out of context) put in bold by moi:

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I remain baffled why the NYT purveys delusions like Warren’s to their readers.

***********

UPDATE: I found this on FB, and you can verify the quote here.

Correction: Harvard’s “Chief Chaplain” may be an exaggerated title

August 29, 2021 • 8:45 am

I’m not writing this to diss atheist Greg Epstein, Harvard’s newly elected “chief chaplain” whom I wrote about a few days ago. By all accounts he’s a terrific guy who does a great job. But I have to issue a correction, as a reader who works at Harvard has characterized the New York Times article on Epstein (and hence my post, which drew from that article) as “misleading.” Apparently Harvard does have its own chaplain, who is religious (the NYT didn’t mention that), and Epstein was elected as a leader of the group of unpaid chaplains who deal with people from forty-odd faiths.

Here’s what the reader said, by way of correction:

The NYT article on Greg Epstein is somewhat misleading. It is true that Epstein is a widely admired chaplain within Harvard’s system, but he is not really the “chief chaplain.” Harvard has a two-tier structure of campus ministry. The university directly pays the staff of its Memorial Church, which is led by the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, Matthew Ichihashi Potts. Potts is an Episcopalian priest; his predecessors Jonathan Walton and Peter Gomes were both Baptist ministers. None are/were atheists! Potts is in effect the university chaplain, responsible for the pastoral care of the whole university community and for various ceremonial functions. At the same time, Harvard provides office space but not salaries to about thirty tradition-specific chaplains who are supported in various ways by their respective traditions. Epstein is the humanist chaplain within this structure, and he is also the elected chair of the group—which, as the article explains, gives him the authority to represent the group to the university’s leadership.

Harvard’s head chaplain is now an atheist

August 26, 2021 • 1:15 pm

Well, I’ll be! There are over 40 university chaplains at Harvard and, according to this new article in the New York Times, they elected as their chief . . . an atheist! Click to read the news, which actually doesn’t surprise me:

Harvard has had a humanist chaplain for a long time, but several of the earlier ones were rather unctuous accommodationists. Nevertheless, the idea that there would be a chaplain who could serve the needs of the “nones”—people who don’t have a formal religion but could either be spiritual or believe in some divinity—is heartening. It’s not as good as an atheist chaplain, mind you, but it’s better than nothing. And, in fact, the new boss, Greg Epstein, raised Jewish, is an atheist, and has written a book about humanist morality: Good Without GodHere’s the Amazon blurb, which is a little too accommodationist for me, but I’m an antitheist and there is no chance that an antitheist could be a humanist chaplain at Harvard. After all, Epstein, who has a reputation as a good guy, has to deal with the problems of atheists and theists.

A provocative and positive response to Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other New Atheists, Good Without God makes a bold claim for what nonbelievers do share and believe. Author Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, offers a world view for nonbelievers that dispenses with the hostility and intolerance of religion prevalent in national bestsellers like God is Not Great and The God Delusion. Epstein’s Good Without God provides a constructive, challenging response to these manifestos by getting to the heart of Humanism and its positive belief in tolerance, community, morality, and good without having to rely on the guidance of a higher being.

So be it. You really don’t want a Richard Dawkins trying to give psychological or spiritual aid to someone who has a penchant for the numinous. And electing someone who could minister to nearly everybody, including nones and atheists, is a savvy move for Harvard’s chaplains, who elected Epstein unanimously. By doing this, no defined religion has privilege over the rest, with all faiths are on the same plane. The hope, probably misguided, is also that Epstein can bring different faiths together. (Remember, they’re still “faiths”!) His election is also a recognition of the rise of the nones, who now make up over 20% of Americans, surely more than the percentage of students adhering to most of the 40+ “real” religions with Harvard chaplains. Further, as the article notes, a survey of Harvard’s class of 2019 by the Harvard Crimson (the student newspaper) found that those students were twice as likely to identify as atheists or agnostics compared to their age peers in the American population as a whole. In other words, I bet about 50% of Harvard students are “nones.”

Which reminds me: the definition of “spiritual” in this article is unclear. It clearly could include God, but could also include me, since in some ways all of us could be seen as “spiritual people”. There should be a “spiritual spectrum” corresponding to Dawkins’s “God spectrum”. It would range at one end to those who are besotted with the divine, to those at the other end who are simply moved by great art and music (that would be me).

At any rate, here’s how Epstein operated at Harvard:

Mr. Epstein, 44, author of the book “Good Without God,” is a seemingly unusual choice for the role. He will coordinate the activities of more than 40 university chaplains, who lead the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious communities on campus. Yet many Harvard students — some raised in families of faith, others never quite certain how to label their religious identities — attest to the influence that Mr. Epstein has had on their spiritual lives.

“There is a rising group of people who no longer identify with any religious tradition but still experience a real need for conversation and support around what it means to be a good human and live an ethical life,” said Mr. Epstein, who was raised in a Jewish household and has been Harvard’s humanist chaplain since 2005, teaching students about the progressive movement that centers people’s relationships with one another instead of with God.

. . .To Mr. Epstein, becoming the organization’s head, especially as it gains more recognition from the university, comes as affirmation of a yearslong effort, started by his predecessor, to teach a campus with traditional religious roots about humanism.

“We don’t look to a god for answers,” Mr. Epstein said. “We are each other’s answers.”

Mr. Epstein’s work includes hosting dinners for undergraduates where conversation goes deep: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? He previously ran a congregation of Boston-area humanists and atheists who met in Harvard Square for weekly services that centered on secular sermons. In 2018 he closed that down to focus his time on building campus relationships, including at M.I.T., where he is also a chaplain. Mr. Epstein frequently meets individually with students who are struggling with issues both personal and theological, counseling them on managing anxiety about summer jobs, family feuds, the pressures of social media and the turbulence endemic to college life.

“Greg is irreverent and good at diffusing pressure,” Ms. Nickerson [a Harvard student who transitioned from Catholicism to humanism] said, recalling a time he joked that if her summer internship got too stressful she could always get fired — then she would have a good story to share.

Yes, there are woo-sters in Epstein’s  flock, as well as deists, but there are also atheists, humanists, and those questioning religion in general. Epstein will listen to them, but not give them answers, which they must find for themselves. And that’s the way it should be.

Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!

 

There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Unbelievable osculation of religion at the New York Times

August 24, 2021 • 9:30 am

As John McWhorter begins his biweekly “Newsletter” for the New York Times (and there are some newsletters by others that look good), we also see the onset of one that promises to be much more dire. Author Tish Harrison Warren, according to her online bio, is truly washed in the blood in the lamb, and with bona fides like these, why wouldn’t the NYT hire her to to write every Sunday about “matters of faith in public live and private discourse”?

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was Christianity Today’s 2018 Book of the Year, and the forthcoming Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep (IVP 2021). She has worked in ministry settings for over a decade as a campus minister with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries, as an associate rector, with addicts and those in poverty through various churches and non-profit organizations, and, most recently, as the writer-in-residence at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is a monthly columnist with Christianity Today, and her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Comment Magazine, The Point Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project and a Senior Fellow with the Trinity Forum. She lives with her husband and three children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

What you have to ask yourself is this: do you really want to read about matters of faith from a true believer? Aren’t there tons of websites that already contain such stuff?

Well, the first sample is below. Read and weep—have a pack of hankies on hand.

I can find nothing substantive in this newsletter, nor do I think that liberal religionists will, either. These are the points Warren makes:

a. The priest’s first words in each week’s sermon are about God, not the congregation or “a mention of the weather or how nice everyone looks this week”. She finds that strange. I don’t.

Each Sunday in my Anglican church in Austin, Texas, the priest leading the service takes his or her place in front of the congregation and begins by saying the opening acclamation, usually, “Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

What has surprised me since I first attended an Anglican service just over a decade ago is that we begin not with welcoming anyone in the pews but with a direct announcement about God.

. . . Part of why I find this moment strange is that I’m habituated by my daily life and our broader culture to focus on the “horizontal” or immanent, aspects of life — those things we can observe and measure without reference to God, mystery or transcendence. This can affect my spiritual life, flattening faith into solely the stuff of relationships, life hacks, sociology or politics.

But each week, as a church, the first words we say publicly directly address the “vertical,” transcendent dimension of life. We do not have just an urbane, abstracted conversation about religion, but we speak as if God’s presence is relevant — the orienting fact of our gathering.

b. Faith intersects with the secular world. (SURPRISE!)

Karl Barth, a 20th-century Swiss theologian, is credited with saying that Christians must live our lives with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Barth, who was a leader of a group of Christians in Germany resisting Hitler, understood that faith is not a pious, protective bubble shielding us from the urgent needs of the world. It is the very impetus that leads us into active engagement with society. People of faith must immerse ourselves in messy questions of how to live faithfully in a particular moment with particular headlines calling for particular attention and particular responses.

c. We need to keep discussing faith and the secular world even when religion is on the wane. 

Membership in a house of worship has declined steadily in the United States over the past eight decades and, according to a Gallup poll, dropped below 50 percent this year.

So we must ask: Is faith worth discussing anymore? In the vast world of subjects that one could read about, from architecture to Zumba, why make space for a newsletter about faith and spiritual practice?

The answer to her last two questions are, respectively, “no” and “no good reason.”

But Warren has a reason, though I doubt it applies widely to NYT readers. It’s because those who are already religious want to read about religion, and they need religion to answer The Big Questions:

As a pastor, I see again and again that in defining moments of people’s lives — the birth of children, struggles in marriage, deep loss and disappointment, moral crossroads, facing death — they talk about God and the spiritual life. In these most tender moments, even those who aren’t sure what exactly they believe cannot avoid big questions of meaning: who we are, what we are here for, why we believe what we believe, why beauty and horror exist.

These questions bubble up in all of us, often unbidden. Even when we hum through a mundane week — not consciously thinking about God or life’s meaning or death — we are still motivated in our depths by ultimate questions and assumptions about what’s right and wrong, what’s true or false and what makes for a good life.

Clearly, and literally, this column is meant to preach to the choir. And just as clearly, Warren’s column is meant to emphasize our need to reach out to the divine, though any secularist with two neurons to rub together knows that we make our own meaning, and we can ponder what’s true and false and how to live without invoking gods. In fact, it’s better not to invoke a deity for which there’s no evidence when trying to find “meaning” or discern truth. Has Warren ever heard of secular humanism?

The rest is palaver, words without meaning, except to tell you to expect more of the same:

This newsletter, like our opening acclamation, acknowledges the presence of God in the world, believing that God, faith and spirituality remain a relevant part of our public and private lives. In it, I will talk about the habits and practices that shape our lives, the beliefs that drive our imaginations, the commitments that guide our souls.

So here’s my opening acclamation. Let’s discuss our deepest questions, longings and loves and the rituals and habits that form who we are and the way we walk through the world, week in and week out.

I have a better idea: let’s not.

Now I’m sure that Pastor Warren is a nice lady, but that doesn’t mean that her lucubrations deserve column inches in the Times every Sunday. Nor do I have to say, “This column is a valuable addition to media discourse.”  Rather, I ask myself WHY ARE THEY PUBLISHING THIS STUFF?  The Times is increasingly osculating not just faith, but also woo like dowsing and astrology. What explains this? I have no answer.

Wouldn’t it be better—wouldn’t it go ahead of the curve—to have a weekly (or at least a semi-regular) column on secularism and nonbelief? There are plenty of people who could write such a piece, and they wouldn’t have to purvey mindless platitudes to do so.

But, Ceiling Cat help me, I have subscribed. I feel like I’ve just bought a hair shirt or a cilice that will cause me constant irritation.

Pastor Warren

h/t: Barry

Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy

August 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As we’ve seen, the once-respectable journal Scientific American is circling the drain, with an increasing surfeit of articles pushing a particular ideological point of view—a woke one. Well, this article, by writer Allison Hopper, has a bit of science in it, but it’s mixed with politics in such a toxic way that it’s almost funny. It’s full of unsupported assumptions and false claims, is based on no logic at all, and is false in its main claim for two reasons.  Those of you who still subscribe to this rag may want to either write the editor, Laura Helmuth, or cancel your subscription.

Laura had a distinguished career before she took over this journal (she has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in neuroscience and has edited or written for Science, The Washington Post, and Smithsonian). I have no idea why she lets this kind of tripe into her magazine. But she’s less to blame than the author, who doesn’t even have a coherent argument. All Hopper wants to do is show that American creationism has nothing to do with religion, but that white supremacy, not belief in God, is at the core of creationism.

Read and weep: this is a this is a three-hankie article:

Now over the last 12 years I’ve given plenty of evidence that creationism stems from religious belief: belief in the Bible for conservative Jews and Christians, and belief in the Qur’an for Muslims, with both books having their own creation stories. For one thing, I’ve never met a creationist who wasn’t motivated by religion, and all creationist organizations, including the Discovery Institute, are at bottom manifestations of religious belief, regarding evolution as inimical to belief in God. This is so obvious that only someone with a bizarre agenda could deny it.

Well, Hopper does deny it.  She says that the roots of creationism really lie in white supremacy and not religion. Here’s the logical connection that leads her to that conclusion.

a. If two falsities are in the Bible, they can be connected as causal.
b. Two falsities that Hopper deals with are Biblical creationism as limned in Genesis, and the claim that humans started out with white skin and then God, marking the descendants of Cain, made them black.
c.  The supposedly black descendants of Cain have been historically portrayed as bad people, and then as black people, as the “mark” given to those descendants is said to be black skin.
d.  Therefore the Bible evinces white supremacy, since humans, made in God’s image, started out white, but a bad subset of them were turned black.
e.  In reality, human ancestors were black, so even the Bible story is wrong.
f.  The white supremacy story comes from Genesis (4:15), a book that also tells the creation story.
g.   Ergo, creationism stems from white supremacy.

(Note, as I say below, the white supremacy argument is itself based on religion!)

You’ve already noted a number of fallacies in this argument. One is that if two bad things are in the Bible, particularly in the same part of the Bible, they can be connected, and one can assert that one bad part gave rise to the other. Well, there are a number of mass killings in Genesis: beyond the extirpation of humanity by the Flood, there’s also the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah. And of course the Old Testament itself is full of genocide. By this logic, one could say that creationism stems from an impulse to murder. (Indeed, Hopper connects creationism with “lethal effects” on black people!).

The other bit of “evidence” Hopper adduces to draw creationism out of white supremacy is this (I am not making it up):

In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s.

Well that’s a strong proof, right? No matter that a lot of people who didn’t support the Klan still went after evolution in the 1920s and before.

And that’s all the evidence that Hopper has. She makes no case that creationism comes from a desire of whites to be on top save the occasional depiction of our African ancestors as white people (and, because they’re often men, this shows misogyny as well). But that claim really argues that our view of evolution comes from white supremacy!

Do you think I’m kidding? Here are a few sentences from Hopper’s article:

I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.

. . . At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, white skin was created in God’s image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story goes, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin. Historically, many congregations in the U.S. pointed to this story of Cain as evidence that Black skin was created as a punishment.

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

One bit of advice for Ms. Hopper: besides the obvious one that you’re wrong about where creationism comes from, PLEASE stop using the term “black bodies” for “black people”. Yes, I know the phrase is au courant, but it dehumanizes black people in the same way that “slaves” dehumanizes “enslaved people.”  You are using racist language. And what, by the way, are the lethal effects of creationism on black people? Is Hopper speaking metaphorically or literally here?

But I digress.

Hopper is right that the Genesis account of the Bible is creationist, and says that Adam was made in God’s image. But does it say what color Adam was? I don’t think so. It’s just assumed that he was white, but on this point Scripture is silent. In fact, we don’t know, though Hopper asserts it confidently, that the earliest human ancestors were black, though humans certainly split from our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimps, in Africa, and evolved black pigmentation at some point. This is because humans probably evolved from chimplike primates (as “naked apes,” we’re outliers), and chimps happen to have white skin. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

Chimpanzees are covered by a coat of brown or black hair, but their faces are bare except for a short white beard. Skin colour is generally white except for the face, hands, and feet, which are black. The faces of younger animals may be pinkish or whitish. Among older males and females, the forehead often becomes bald and the back becomes gray.

Here’s a photo from Forbes, but you can find lots of photos like this.

Old and young chimps from NBC News:

It’s entirely possible that the first members of the hominin lineage after it split from the chimp lineage had light skin, and darker skin evolved later via natural selection. If this is the case, Hopper’s argument falls apart. But it doesn’t matter, because, really, who cares besides evolutionists and anthropologists—and energetic anti-racists like Hopper—about the skin color of the earliest hominins? I’m not claiming that the earliest members of the hominin lineage were white, and I’m certainly not making a case for white supremacy, for our later hominin ancestors were surely much darker. All I’m saying is that these early hominins could have been white or gray. Hopper has no way to be sure, and in that case she has no argument.

It is likely that after several million years, hominins in Africa did evolve dark skin, and that those hominins were the ones that gave us fire, tools, and other rudiments of culture. But I don’t see how that buttresses Hopper’s argument. Even if it did, her big fallacy is not assuming that the first hominins were black, but connecting white supremacy supported by some religionists with creationism, with the former giving rise to the latter.

Why does Hopper make this argument? Because she has a goal:

My hope is that if we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will provide more ammunition to get science into the classroom—and into our culture at large.

Good luck with that!  Because creationism really comes from religion, and accepting evolution would overturn the faith of many Biblical literalists (about 40% of Americans), you’re not going to change their minds by telling them: “Hey! Your creationism is really a manifestation of white supremacy because the story of Adam and Eve is a tale of white supremacy!”

But were Cain’s descendants really black? Hopper assumes that they were, and that’s how many people have interpreted the story, but let’s read what the Good Book says (King James version; Genesis 4:15).

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

This is a “mark”, not dark skin, and I can’t find any scholar who interprets the Hebrew as meaning “dark skin”. Furthermore, the “mark” placed on Cain was not to identify him and his descendants as miscreants, but to protect them.  Here, from the King James Bible again, are verses 9-16 from Genesis 4:

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

The “mark” is clearly given by God to protect Cain, so even if it were dark skin, for which there’s no evidence, it means that dark skin marked Cain and his descendants as people protected by God. How does that comport with Hopper’s narrative?

I’ve already gone on too long picking additional in Hopper’s Swiss cheese of a narrative, but I have one more bit of evidence that tells against her risible theory.  And that is this: historically, in the United States black people have been far more creationist than whites. If creationism draws from white supremacy, then haven’t black people heard the news?

Here are some data from a Pew Study in 2015: see bars 4-6 from the top:

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: an insupportable argument, weakly based on erroneous science, and gracing the pages of what was once America’s premier science magazine. How low the mighty have fallen!

All I want to add in closing is that Hopper is dead wrong in claiming that the roots of creationism are not in religion, but in white supremacy. And, as the supreme irony in her argument, the “white supremacy” argument is rooted in, yes, the Bible! So even her main thesis is wrong. Yes, no matter how you slice it, even Hopper’s way, creationism is an outgrowth of religion.

In case they ditch this article, I’ve archived it here.

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

and:

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

Christianity and religion in general are dying in America, especially among Hispanics

July 18, 2021 • 11:15 am

A religious organization has collected some new data showing that Christianity in America is waning even faster than I thought, especially among Hispanics who are abandoning Catholicism like a sinking ship. A precis of the data is published on the Rosa Rubicondior site (“RR”; first screenshot below), which graphically distills the data from a five-page study released by the Barna Group (screenshot below that one), a group headed by a religious man and hosted by Arizona Christian University.

If the Barna group raises red flags about the decline of religion in America, you can bet they’re not making it up. Their survey was based on 2,000 American adults surveyed in February. And it shows what I’ve long maintained—this is not my theory that is mine but the conclusion of many people—that Christianity, and religion in general, is dying in America. (The exceptions are an increase in Islam, probably due to immigration, and in Buddhism, a basically godless religion.) The decline is due largely to a loss of faith among young people, as we’ve seen several times before. Religion wanes one corpse at a time.

The Rosa Rubicondior summary:

And a pdf of the original Barna survey (five pages):

Here are the main findings taken from the study itself:

The latest findings from the American Worldview Inventory 2021 identify a number of major shifts in the U.S. religious landscape, including:

• dramatic changes in the faith of American Hispanics, with a decrease in the number of Hispanic Catholics, accompanied by a sharp increase in Hispanic “Don’ts”—those who don’t believe, don’t know, or don’t care if God exists;

• fast growth in Islamic, as well as Eastern and New Age religions;

• a consistent 30-year decline in both Christianity and confidence in religion;

• a breathtaking drop in four critical spiritual indicators: belief in God, belief in the Bible, recognition of salvation through Jesus Christ, and possession of a biblical worldview;

• and a surprising increase in belief in reincarnation, even among Christians.

Rosa Rubicondior has made graphs, which show the data very nicely. All of them shown below come from the RR site, and when I quote I’ll give which of the two sources I use.

First, we have a rise of what both pieces call the “don’ts” in America, a term roughly equivalent to the “nones.” These are, according to Barna, “people who say they don’t know, don’t care, or don’t believe that God exists.” This proportion rose from 10% of all Americans in 1991 to 34% this year. There was a big jump in the last decade.  Here’s the chart:

As Barna notes, this is due to the young:

The expansion of the Don’ts among Hispanics is indicative of how rapidly that segment is growing across America. While one out of 10 U.S. adults qualified for that category in 1991 and again in 2001, the segment nudged up by just a couple more percentage points by 2011. That means the incredible growth of that category has taken place in the past decade, with the number of Don’ts nationwide nearly tripling from 12% in 2011 to 34% in 2021.

Who is responsible for that rapid and substantial growth? One of the leading segments is the Millennial generation (currently ages 18 through 36). The American Worldview Inventory 2021, an annual survey of Americans’ worldview conducted by the Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, reveals that 43% of Millennials are Don’ts—the highest of any adult generation in the country.

I was surprised to see this paralleled by a loss of Catholicism among Hispanics, doubtlessly due to both acculturation and the secular Zeitgeist. The proportion of Hispanic-Americans identifying as Catholic has more than halved since 1991:

And we see the rise of the “Don’ts” among Hispanic-Americans as well, which has increased elevenfold since 1991:

Most of the loss of faith among Hispanics has occurred among Catholics, but it hasn’t been picked up by other religions—except for the “Don’ts”:

There are two “outlier facts” here.  First, as I said, Islam and Buddhism are the exceptions to the general loss of faith. From the Barna survey:

But the American Worldview Inventory 2021 also identified two other rapidly growing faith segments. One of those is Islam. While the Muslim faith had virtually no presence in the United States prior to the early 1990s (less than one-half of one percent of adults affiliated with Islam in 1991), that proportion has jumped in the past decade to nearly 3%. While that percentage is still small in comparison to several other faiths, the growth rate of Islam in America has exceeded even that of the Don’ts during the last decade.

In addition, Eastern religions (such as Buddhism and Hinduism) have also experienced resurgence in recent years. Presently, nearly 5% of adults associate with an Eastern or New Age religion. While that is more than double the proportion measured a decade ago, it is also indicative of the current search for alternatives to Christianity. Some that increase is also attributable to the continued expansion of the Asian population in America, now estimated to exceed 5% of the aggregate population.

The other is a rise in belief in reincarnation, which may be part of the same tendency that has led to an increase in Buddhism and Hinduism. (While Buddhism is a godless faith, it is not a “scientific” faith. Despite the Dalai Lama’s profession that science and Buddhism are completely compatible, he’s wrong. The concept of reincarnation and karma, both of which I think the Dalai Lama accepts, are profoundly unscientific. And of course Hinduism is a long way from secularism. )

From RR:

Also growing appears to be a contradictory belief of many Christians, in reincarnation. 24% of self-identified ‘born again’ Christians who profess to believe they face an eternity in God’s presence if they confess their sins and accept Jesus, with the alternative of hellfire if they don’t, also believe they may be reincarnated. Clearly both can’t be true.

Finally, we can break down faith into four separate propositions. Each of these (save belief that one will go to heaven) has decreased pretty steadily over the years. General belief in an “orthodox biblical view of God” has shown a particularly striking decrease. Only 2% of Americans accept the idea of a Hell, and that figure hasn’t changed much in 40 years. Sheer wish-thinking, especially when you consider that 30% of Americans think that they themselves will go to Heaven.

Now the head of the Barna Group, George Barna, is deeply concerned at these results, for he’s a religious man. First he limns how he sees America changing:

Barna explained, “This new America we see emerging is radically different—demographically, politically, relationally and spiritually. It is a young, non-white, mobile population. This group is largely indifferent to the United States, and is demonstrably skeptical of the nation’s history, foundations, traditions, and ways of life. They are technologically advanced, sexually unrestrained, emotionally unpredictable, and a spiritual hybrid. Christian ministry as practiced for the last five decades will not be effective with this unique population.”

No kidding!

Barna suggested some new avenues for ministry to pursue. “Because a worldview is developed when people are young, it is imperative that churches focus on and invest most heavily in reaching children and equipping their parents,” he said.

“Because the Bible is increasingly rejected as a trustworthy and relevant document of life principles, we must re-establish the reasons for its value and reliability.”

Good luck with that, George! Get the children when they’re young, and Barna will show you the (brainwashed) adults.

Barna continued, “Given that most young Americans view success as whatever produces happiness or satisfaction, we will have to address the emptiness and inadequacies of a life devoted to self and our fluid emotions. And without a solid foundation of truth upon which choices can be made, a society is doomed to hardships, failures, and conflict. In the person of Jesus Christ and through the pages of the Bible, absolute moral truths are knowable and can be applied to facilitate a successful and meaningful life.”

The Arizona Christian University professor also explained that many of the approaches now relied upon by Christian ministries—and especially by churches—may be inadequate to impact the new population that needs to be reached with God’s truths and principles.

“Typical church services and programs are not likely to minister to people in the way they did in the past,” he cautioned. “Reconsidering what it takes to facilitate disciples in such a different environment is a necessary step in the reimagining process.”

What Barna doesn’t see here is that even if you convince people that their lives are “empty and inadequate” if they pursue their own self-interest, that won’t necessarily drive people back to religion. There are many ways to reach out beyond oneself and help others without dragging the supernatural into it. And what Barna doesn’t realize, despite the strength of his very own data, is that America, like most of the West, is engaged in a wholesale loss of religion in favor of seculariam. Unless Jesus comes back or the Four Horsemen ride in, I don’t think this trend can be stopped, except perhaps for a slight increase of Islam in America. As well-being and secular morality increase in the West, religion will be discarded—just as children discard the toys they no longer need.

h/t: Barry

Scientific American: religious or “spiritual” treatment of mental illness produces better outcomes

June 19, 2021 • 11:00 am

Scientific American continues to circle the drain, even after it retracted an anti-Semitic op-ed this week. Several readers have commented that they’ve canceled their subscriptions, and I’ve never had one.  Perhaps the old-fashioned Sci Am that we knew and loved is no longer sustainable in a world where people want their science as short, click-baity pieces.

The latest dire piece is not an op-ed but an article, appearing in the “Mind” section under “mental health”. It’s a justification for including religious and spiritual therapy in mental health treatment, and could be taken as, in part, a defense of the value of religion. Indeed, it may be the case that for believers—though I haven’t checked the references; readers are invited to—some kind of god-infused therapy might ameliorate mental illness. The author gives references supposedly showing this. After all, if you’re already religious, you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and so buttressing the comforting bits of what you already believe might make you feel better. After all, that’s what a lot of church is about.

But there are a few problems with Rosmarin’s thesis. First, religious therapy enables religious belief, i.e., faith. Part of what is said to “cure” you involves reinforcing falsehoods rather than facing real or potential truths. I don’t object to that so much, though, as an antitheist, I don’t like it. Second, although “spiritual” therapy is mentioned many times, and is said to help even nonbelievers, the author never tells us what spiritual therapy really is. Given how broad the boundaries of the concept “spiritual” extend, almost any therapy that helps could be said to include a “spiritual” element. For example, one could tell a secular patient  to learn to accept both good and bad as inevitable parts of life. That is the doctrine of many Buddhists, and could be said to be “spiritual”.

Importantly, there’s no mention of religion actually exacerbating or instigating mental illness, and I have no doubt that it does. Martin Luther is a famous example, but think as well of the many children who have been terrified by thoughts of heaven or hell, the people who do horrible stuff because they think God told them to, or the priests who, formally prevented from having sex, become pedophiles. I could go on, but will refrain. But there’s not a word about any of this.

Finally, why on earth is Scientific American publishing stuff like this? I suppose you could include it in the ambit of “popular science”, but barely. They might as well be writing about the value of acupuncture in helping physical ailments. Like acupuncture, religion is a regimen based on false assumptions, and its use encourages a naive reliance on faith: on stuff that is either untested or palpably false.

Rosmarin is a Ph.D. psychologist identified as “director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.”

Here’s the evidence adduced by Rosmain:

  • His own SPIRIT program “suggests that spiritual psychotherapy is not only feasible but highly desired by patients”
  • During the last pandemic year, religious people were “the only group to see improvements in mental health”
  • Spirituality, says Rosmarin, is woefully lacking in most forms of therapy, as psychiatrists are the least religious among all medical specialties.
  • As Rosmarin says,

My own research has demonstrated that a belief in God is associated with significantly better treatment outcomes for acute psychiatric patients. And other laboratories have shown a connection between religious belief and the thickness of the brain’s cortex, which may help protect against depression. Of course, belief in God is not a prescription. But these compelling findings warrant further scientific exploration, and patients in distress should certainly have the option to include spirituality in their treatment.

You can check the references for yourself. They may show what he says they do. But I still would be wary of religious treatment, since it uses falsehoods and belief in falsities to help people get better. I don’t necessarily oppose that, but I would have liked to have seen a mention of how religion causes or exacerabates mental illness. It using religion any different from telling patients that acupuncture in their ears could help them, or that everybody really likes them?

Rosmarin winds up giving a few anecdotes as evidence for the efficacy of “spiritual” therapy (I suspect that a lot of the “spirituality” is old-fashioned religion), and asserts that the biggest group of patients who come to his SPIRIT counseling are individuals “with no religious affiliation at all.” These are, of course, the “nones,” but nones may be religious, and simply not affiliated with an established church or sect. Only a minority of “nones” would consider themselves atheists.

When I read this article, the words of Marx kept coming back to me—words from a famous passage usually (and unfairly) truncated to just the last sentence, implying pure religion-dissing. What’s left out is the first sentence in which Marx asserts that religion is often embraced because its the only form of help available to people in bad situations like poverty, illness, lack of social support, and so on.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

I doubt that Scientific American will ever get back to the format that attracted many of us to the magazine in the first place. Just have a look at its contents these days, which have become more overtly political with a good dose of fluff.

h/t: Will

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.

Amen.

 

h/t: Bruce