January 22, 2014 Ideas From a Manger

By Ross Douthat                                               Ideas From a Manger                                                  Click here for a pdf version

PAUSE for a moment, in the last leg of your holiday shopping, to glance at one of the manger scenes you pass along the way. Cast your eyes across the shepherds and animals, the infant and the kings. Then try to see the scene this way: not just as a pious set-piece, but as a complete world picture — intimate, miniature and comprehensive.

Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.

It’s easy in our own democratic era to forget how revolutionary the latter idea was. But the biblical narrative, the great critic Erich Auerbach wrote, depicted “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life.”

And because that egalitarian idea is so powerful today, one useful — and seasonally appropriate — way to look at our divided culture’s competing worldviews is to see what each one takes from the crèche in Bethlehem.

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

As these world pictures jostle and compete, their strengths and weaknesses emerge. The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

So there are two interesting religious questions that will probably face Americans for many Christmases to come. The first is whether biblical religion can regain some of the ground it has lost, or whether the spiritual worldview will continue to carry all before it.

The second is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star. — ————–

Richard Luettgen New Jersey

The reality of human interaction is a very complex set of obligations existing in all directions. An individual has obligations, legal as well as ethical, to spouses, children, friends and acquaintances, to employers, to society at large; and in turn expects that others respect the same obligations owed him, as an individual or as part of a greater community.

But that network of interdependency starts and stops with humans. Any connection to deity is one that is overlaid onto an existing network that has been around, growing ever more complex, since BEFORE we came out of the trees (between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago, according to some). It’s a construct of either faith born of need or simply of our imaginations. It may be true, but … it may not.

When I see a manger scene, despite having grown up in a VERY Christian home, I wonder how off-putting it is to Jews, Muslims and the workaday agnostic or even atheist — Americans all, embedded as they are in their own workaday networks of very human interdependencies.

I spent a lot of time arguing, when young, with Jesuits who professed that the source of all morality was religion — and, not coincidentally, theirs. Always seemed like a self-serving argument. To me, the source of morality isn’t religion, or manger as symbol, but an awareness and acceptance of that network of very human interdependency, as the primary premise justifying civilization.

All that said, a very Merry Christmas to many, and a happy holiday to all. Iconoclast1956 Columbus, OH

I find this column rather inscrutable. Ross seems to be suggesting that the equality of the human race derives from the Christmas story. That doesn’t sound right to me. Rather, I believe the democratic ethos derives from many thinkers and writers acting over a long period of time. Ross also seems to have overlooked that Jesus advised slaves to obey their masters, per the New Testament. That doesn’t jibe with an “all people are equal” ethos well.

My agnosticism derives mainly two sources: doubts about the accuracy and credibility of events that supposedly happened two thousand years ago or more, as recorded in the Bible; and the excellent track record of science vis-a-vis religion in explaining the universe. Leonard Mlodinow said, in so many words, that astrophysicists can now explain that it’s possible for the universe to have originated from nothing. Under such circumstances, it’s hard for me to believe there is any meaning at all in the Christmas story.

Carl Sollee Atlanta

A fascinating Christmas meditation. Douthat does a great job describing these spiritual or secular types. I have friends that fit into each. As Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama argue, in their different styles and words, the ideological differences Douthat points to can be at least partially bridged by pursuing the “good” together: Helping the poor and downtrodden, the old and lonely, the young and vulnerable, practicing courtesy and ethics in our lives, a race to virtues if you will, is the best way to bridge the ideological differences among these spiritual and philosophic types. Too many of us, whether we are nominally atheist or religious (or spiritual but not religious) are simply too hedonistic. We can better!

George Kvidera Cudahy, WI

I’d like to make 2 points:

1) The “Darwinian justifications for altruism,” as I recall from what Darwin wrote in one of his letters, probably stem from when early humans looked upon other human beings and realized that they were all pretty much the same. Buddha echoed this sentiment when he said – “If you see yourself in others, then what harm can you do?” Jesus essentially said the same thing and added that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is to love God. Anyway, it’s a simple and natural concept that most everyone believes in.

2) One doesn’t have to view the Christmas story as an historical event to feel its power. There’s a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that always gets me: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I know it’s meant to apply to the birth of Christ, but I can’t help but feel that it’s true for every child born into the world. We fear for them, but there’s always hope that they will make the world a better place than we did.

— —
New Republic 12-26-13
Ross Douthat Is On Another Erroneous Rampage Against Secularism BY JERRY A. COYNE

Are there any conservative columnists who aren’t either wooly-brained, filled with unrighteous anger, or both? Even George Will occasionally got it right, but Ross Douthat? Nope. And he writes for The New York Times, the best newspaper in America. Can’t they do better? I would actually want to read a good conservative columnist, for it’s bad to become complacent and it’s salubrious to have your views challenged. But Douthat isn’t a contender.

Take his column from December 21, “Ideas from a manger.” The theme is Douthat’s musings on the religiosity of America, inspired, of course, by the Christmas season. While gazing at a manger scene, his heart racing as he sees the baby Jesus, Douthat gets an idea: American religious worldviews fall into three categories, one of which is deeply problematic (guess which one!). I’ll list the categories and show what he finds dubious about each (Douthat’s words are indented).

1. Biblical literalism.

The view:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

The same God? You mean the one that sends Christians and Jews to hell if he’s Allah, and Muslims to hell if he’s the Christian God? How can that be the same God?

Douthat’s problem:

The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

Really? The problem is how to keep being a fundamentalist in a “commercial, sexually liberated society?” Curious that Douthat doesn’t mention that literalism is also insupportably

wrong. Curious, too, that Douthat doesn’t mention the disparities between adherents of “the same God” who for some reason find their dogmas in irresolvable conflict.

2. The “spiritual” take. The view:

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene— the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight—but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our ‘God bless America’ civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone —including you.

I’m curious what the “spiritual version” of a visitation from an angel really is. Douthat’s problem:

The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

One senses that Douthat doesn’t really like this point of view: the “New Age bath” seems pejorative. If I were to guess, I’d put his own view somewhere between #1 and #2. But what really irks him is #3:

3. The secular view. The view:

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message—the common person as the center of creation’s drama—remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, save for the idea that atheism is dominant within the “intelligentsia” (it’s not, even among scientists), and secularists’ supposed view that “the common person is the center of creation’s drama,” which isn’t true, either. If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all. There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig. Nevertheless, Douthat hates secularism:

Douthat’s problem:

“The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm—the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism—tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

First, I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says “cosmology does not harmonize at all” with the moral picture of secularism. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only lifeNor do all atheists insist on moral and political absolutes. Most of the savvy ones, at least, approach their politics and ethics, like we approach our science, provisionally. Take ethics. Sam Harris, an atheist, wrote a book proposing a scientific view of ethics that, he said, was objective. Many atheists didn’t agree, and the arguments went back and forth. Is it okay to torture people if there’s a possibility to saves lives by doing so? Is it ever ethical to lie? It is atheists who argue most often about such things, for religiously-based ethics is either fixed or malleable only by the hammer of secularism. Secularists like Harris and Peter Singer argue about what’s right and wrong using reason, while Christians like William Lane Craig are the Biblical absolutists.

But the worst part is Douthat’s characterization of the effects of secularism:

… the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

Talk about rope bridges! What is Christianity but a giant rope bridge flung across the Chasm of Hope? And we see nothing on the other side.

Utilitarianism may not be a perfect ethical system, but what, pray tell, is Douthat’s? If it’s Biblical, does he give away all his possessions and abandon his family to follow Jesus, as the Bible commands? Does he think that those who gather sticks on the Sabbath, curse their

parents, or commit adultery should be killed? If not, why not? It’s what the Bible says! If he doesn’t believe in that kind of morality, then he’s adhering to a secular, extra-Biblical view of ethics, which he then must justify.

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

I have run on too long, but I want to show Douthat’s penultimate paragraphs, which are even more misleading:

The second [religious question] is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism—the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing—will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

Check out those two links. The first is to Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, which decries evolution as insufficient to explain life’s diversity and posits, without any evidence, some non-Goddy but teleological force driving the process. It’s a bad book and has been roundly trounced by Nagel’s fellow philosophers (see here, for instance). It’s not a crack, but a crackpot book.

The second link is to a nice article by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, “Physics: what we do and don’t know.” It’s a succinct summary of the state of the art of both cosmology and particle physics, highlighting the mysteries that beset those fields, including dark matter, dark energy, string theory, how to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces, and whether there might be multiple universes. We don’t know the answers, but what is science without unsolved problems?

And it’s those unsolved problems that Douthat sees as “cracks.” Presumably 200 years ago he would have seen cracks in the unexplained “designlike” features of organisms, in the origin of the universe, and in the unknown constituents of matter. These “cracks” have now been filled. In the unanswered questions that remain, Douthat sees gaps that, he thinks, can be filled only with God. But it’s always been a losing strategy to argue that scientific puzzles presage the death of naturalism and the arrival of Jesus.

Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.

——
January 6, 2014, NYTimes Website

The Confidence of Jerry Coyne Ross Douthat

One of the problems with belonging to a faction that’s convinced it’s on the winning side of intellectual history is that it becomes easy to persuade oneself that one’s own worldview has no weak points whatsoever, no internal contradictions or ragged edges, no cracks through which a critic’s wedge could end up driven. This kind of overconfidence has been displayed, at various points in the human story, by everyone from millenarians to Marxists, inquisitors to eugenicists. But right now its vices are often found in a certain type of atheistic polemicist, and in a style of anti-religious argument that’s characterized by a peculiar, almost-willed ignorance of why reasonable people might doubt the scientific-materialist worldview.

A case in point: The University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne’s response, republished by The New Republic, to my Christmas column on the various modern American world-pictures and what each one owes to the scene in Bethlehem. That column took a concluding dig at secular naturalism, for which Coyne is a prominent evangelist, suggesting that its view of the cosmos — a purposeless, purely physical universe, in which human life is accidental, human history directionless, and human consciousness probably an illusion — is at odds with its general political and moral posture (liberal, egalitarian, right-based, progressive) in ways that make the entire world-picture ripe for reassessment or renovation. So it’s entirely fair that Coyne took the opportunity to deliver some body blows to theism and Christianity in return.

What’s striking about his response, though, is the extent to which its own account of the secular, materialist world-picture actually illustrates precisely the problems and tensions that I was talking about, in ways that even a casual reader should find obvious but which Coyne apparently did not. He can see the weak points in a religious argument, but the weaknesses of his own side of the debate are sufficiently invisible to him that his rebuttal flirts with self- caricature.

Let me offer two examples. First, to the idea that the materialist’s purposeless cosmos poses some problems for the liberal view (or any view) of moral and political purpose in human affairs, Coyne responds:

I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says “cosmology does not harmonize at all” with the moral picture of secularism. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one.

Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book I’m writing, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Soon I’ll be teaching biology to graduate students. Those are real purposes, not the illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

So Coyne’s vision for humanity here is heroic, promethean, quasi-existentialist: Precisely because the cosmos has no architect or plan or underlying purpose, we are free to “forge” our own purposes, to “make” meaning for ourselves, to create an ethics worthy of a free species, to seize responsibility for our own lives and codes and goals rather than punting the issue to some imaginary skygod. (Ayn Rand could not have put it better.) And these self- created purposes have the great advantage of being really, truly real, whereas the purposes suggested by religion are by definition “illusory.”

Well and good. But then halfway through this peroration, we have as an aside the confession that yes, okay, it’s quite possible given materialist premises that “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all? The theme of his argument is the crucial importance of human agency under eliminative materialism, but if under materialist premises the actual agent is quite possibly a fiction, then who exactly is this I who “reads” and “learns” and “teaches,” and why in the universe’s name should my illusory self believe Coyne’s bold proclamation that his illusory self’s purposes are somehow “real” and worthy of devotion and pursuit? (Let alone that they’re morally significant: But more on that below.) Prometheus cannot be at once unbound and unreal; the human will cannot be simultaneously triumphant and imaginary.

It’s true that even if the conscious self is an illusion, human beings would still have purposes in the sense that any organism has purposes, and our movements — all that travel and reading and dining, in Coyne’s case — wouldn’t just be random or indeterminate. But just as nobody would describe a tree growing toward the sun or a bee returning to the hive as “forging their own purposes” in life, so too Coyne’s promethean language about human agency implies a much higher conception of what a human being IS — both in terms of the reality of consciousness and the freedom afforded to it — than his world-picture will allow.

Obviously the foregoing is not the end of the argument: There are many talented philosophers who have spent their careers trying to iron out this particular kink in the eliminative- materialist fabric, or explaining why it’s not actually a major kink at all, and there’s no

reason why you should take a newspaper columnist’s side against their formidable qualifications. But the point is that if you’re going to argue about this, with a newspaper columnist or anyone, you have to actually make the argument; you can’t just blithely assert what looks like contradiction and claim to be defending science and reason against the obscurantism of religion. Or rather, you can – but you won’t make your side look particularly good.

Then further down, here’s Coyne on the morals of a materialist:

As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it. I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, and, as a selfish motive, that being altruistic gains you more respect. None of this justification has anything to do with God.

Again, if this is the scientific-materialist’s justification for morality, then the worldview has even more problems than I suggested. Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)

The third at least seems to have some kind of Darwinian-ish, quasi-scientific logic, but among other difficulties it’s an argument that only holds so long as the altruistic choice comes at a relatively low cost: If you’re a white Southerner debating whether to speak out against a lynching party or a Dutch family contemplating whether to hide your Jewish neighbors from the SS, the respect factor isn’t really in play — as, indeed, it rarely is in any moral dilemma worthy of the name. (And of course, depending on your ideas about harmony and stability, Coyne’s “harmonious society” argument might also seem like a case against opposing Jim Crow or anti-Semitism — because why rock the boat on behalf of a persecuted minority when stability and order are the greater goods?)

The point that critics make against eliminative-materialism, which Coyne seems not to grasp, is that it makes a kind of hard-and-fast moral realism logically impossible — because if the only real thing is matter in motion, and the only legitimate method of discernment the scientific method, you’ll never get to an absolute “thou shalt not murder” (or “thou shalt risk your life on behalf of your Jewish neighbor”) now matter how cleverly you think and argue. This is not necessarily a theistic objection — it’s one of the issues raised in Thomas Nagel’s controversy-generating book, which explicitly keeps religious ideas at arm’s length — and for that matter there are forms of theism that need not imply moral realism, and Euthyphro-style objections to the union of the two. But I don’t think those of us who still embrace the traditional Western idea of God are crazy to suggest that our cosmology has at least a surface compatibility with moral realism that the materialist conception of the universe’s (nonexistent) purposes seems to lack.

So if you’re going to defend both materialism and modern rights-based liberalism, you have to actually address this point head-on. Make a case for a more limited, non-metaphysical form of

moral realism, make a more thoroughgoing attempt to discern some sort of moral teleology in the Darwinian story (though of course Coyne has denounced efforts along these lines as “creationism for liberals”), go full relativist and make a purely aesthetic case for cosmopolitanism, I don’t care what — but give me something that doesn’t either beg the question (“we should help people because it helps people!”) or pretend that there are actually solid selfish reasons for the most costly, heroic, and plainly self-sacrificial forms of non-self-interested behavior.

Finally, I enjoyed Coyne’s parting sally:

Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.

For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up. For my part, I don’t make any pretense to know what ideas will be au courant a hundred years from now, and as I said in the column, I think there are all kinds of worldviews that could gain ground — at the expense of my own Catholicism and secular materialism alike. (Right now, the territory around pantheism and panpsychism seems ripe for further population, but that’s just a guess.) But I suppose it’s a testament to my own childish faith in the “neuronal illusion” that is the human intellect that I can’t imagine a permanent intellectual victory for a worldview as ill-served by its popularizers as atheism is by Jerry Coyne.

— —

gemli Boston

I have blind spots that will forever prevent me from understanding things at which others excel, but I do have a natural aptitude for the sciences, and evolution is one of the things that I understand. While I will never write with the breadth and depth of a Ross Douthat, I’m convinced that he will never be able to understand what evolution is, how it created the diversity of life from inanimate materials, and how a bunch of neurons could create our sense of self.

I can imagine a group of people who have been isolated from all technology suddenly encountering a tape recorder, and hearing the recorded voice of their dead leader. Should we entertain their likely argument that the spirit of the person is inside the machine? No matter how smart and resourceful they are, they would simply be wrong. This is why it’s impossible to construct any secular argument that would convince Mr. Douthat. It’s not a question of intelligence, but of a blind spot that he’s not aware he has.

Coyne makes perfect sense to me. Morality evolved because those behaviors favored reproduction of our species. Our brains are large neural networks that cause us to think and

feel. Even very simple neural networks that you can build with parts from Radio Shack can behave in ways that defy understanding. Only someone unfamiliar with the science could claim that a supernatural explanation was required. There is none so blind as those who will not see.

John Hartford

“This kind of overconfidence has been displayed, at various points in the human story, by everyone from millenarians to Marxists, inquisitors to eugenicists.”

Not to mention conservatives and members of the Republican party? Although not a believer in the supernatural, as apparently Douhat is, I have no problem in co-existing with or even admiring and enjoying aspects such beliefs. Singing some of those wonderful Episcopalian hymns is not very different from enjoying the odd pagan survivals like kissing under the mistletoe. Hence I’m not particularly supportive of aggressive atheism any more than I’m supportive of aggressive Catholicism or Islam. That said it’s hard to argue that philosophically Coyne doesn’t have the better case. Many if not most participants in organized religion do so for tribalistic reasons and religion remains what it has always been a source of strife from unrest in the middle east to genocide in the Balkans. And in this country we’re seeing militant religious fundamentalists of one denomination or another attempting to impose their views on others or even infiltrate the political system. The founding fathers of this country who were almost all atheists or agnostics (whatever the social climate at the time compelled them to say) and recognized that religion was fundamentally divisive. They thus ensured it was excluded from the political system. It needs to stay that way.

James Wilson Colorado

Find a parent whose child is in serious trouble and you will see the driving force. God did not teach that parent to strive with every ounce of their being to help their child. That does not come from any commandment nor can it be learned or taught. The parent can not predict their behavior until they experience the situation. It is a trivial example of the life force that we do not control and did not invent. Darwinism does not pretend to explain the origin of that life force, but it does a decent job of describing its impact on the organisms and ecosystems of our world. Nobody we know created this universe. We will die without knowing its extent, but we will do everything we can to see that our offspring thrive.

Many enthusiasts for ultimate explanations cheerfully kill and destroy everything that stands opposed to their Church or Party. Better to be uncertain about the meaning of it all than to savage the planet and its inhabitants in the name of a religion or an ideology. The last century teaches us that ideology is wrong, not that the wrong ideas must be killed.

Keeping their fingers off the button should be our first agenda item. Getting rid of the button should be our second. We are unimaginably fortunate to exist at all. And given the failings of or species, there is no reason to believe we will survive the ideologues and religionists who control nuclear weapons and carbon emissions. But we can do small fixes and bungle through, one day at a time.

Richard Bozeman

Douthat, for all his intelligence and writing acumen, tends to make political and emotional arguments. Douthat gleefully leaps on Coyne’s acknowledgment that perhaps “our sense of self is a neuronal illusion”, declaring “the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because … Jerry Coyne, as I understand him … quite possibly does not actually exist at all” Here is the rub. Even if our sense of self is an illusion (and I believe this), it does NOT imply that the entity “Jerry Coyne” is an illusion! Nor does it imply that this debate is an illusion. Coyne is honest enough to even doubt his own beliefs. Douthat has a profound emotional need for a supernatural and impossible cosmos.

Matt S NYC

I’m sorry, but I have to laugh at Douthat’s arguments that empathy and altruism come from a magic god rather than from naturally selected processes which advance life and species. Look at the history of living organisms for such evidence.

The first cell could “eat,” could grow, could replicate, had little use for other cells. Indeed, other cells were competition for resources. However, cells that did work together found more efficient and effective ways of using resources, or surviving when conditions changed or resources grew scarce. They formed colonies, and in time these colonies led to multicellular life forms. Nature had selected cooperation.

And it continued to do so. Living things that worked in concert tended to survive and thrive, while those that didn’t often fell below on the evolutionary scale, and at times died out.

Look at the neanderthals. They had more powerful bodies and even larger brains (though they may not have translated to greater brainpower). And yet we survived because of our communal sense. Humans made advancements and taught those advancements to other humans, spreading that advantage quickly. Neanderthals, like our other primate cousins, evidence suggest did not.

Eduardo Los Angeles

This is an area of human endeavor that becomes so overcomplicated that the obvious is simply missed. We are ill-equipped to recognize and comprehend how long life has had to develop and evolve, and how that very process self-generates purpose — but not purpose in the goal-setting mentality of human thought and emotion.

Survival and reproduction are the most fundamental assets necessary to have the long-term prospect of greater complexity. But complexity is not a purpose or a goal. There is no designer, no greater power, no omniscient deity. Mice have the same will to live (survive) that humans do, but not the means to contemplate what that means or why it exists.

Humans assume that having this ability means there are answers, but that’s just an assumption. Superstition and mysticism, and then religion, exist only to answer questions that have no “answers.” The only answer is that life is about living, and to do this, survival is essential, which includes reproduction. Too simple and obvious, perhaps.

Religion is less about functional answers than about social control and the human penchant for power and wealth. Having “answers” includes rules and obedience that foster and sustain that penchant.

So, really, despite all the efforts to deduce the purpose of life and its persistence, they are all human fabrications. Thus, it’s easily just as plausible that the meaning of life truly is 42.

Eclectic Pragmatist — http://eclectic-pragmatist.tumblr.com/ John F. McBride Seattle

Why is this argument always presented in emotionally laden language chosen by two sides who don’t appear to even understand that fact, let alone escape it?

What, or who, is “God” Ross or Jerry? Unless you know of some way of getting out of your heads that “being” or “state of existence” without traditional language, to which you attribute the name ‘god’ and then proceed to vest belief in, or denial of ‘it,’ this discussion is immediately pointless.

I’ve been reading a collection of biblical scholars’ essays regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the impressions I’ve formed is how “formless” ‘God’ in this. Individuals use that name as if it means what it meant to individuals in the time that the Mishna was put down on scrolls with no way of knowing that.

All that can intellectually honestly be asserted, regardless of the amount of reading and consideration done is that there is may be function outside self and society and that individually or collectively there’s no success in quite describing it in language, or science.

Why Christianity? Why not Budhism or Hinduism or Judaism?

Mr. Coyne is disingenuous, too, since he apparently is aware of the puzzle that Uncertainty poses with its spooky science and yet asserts absolutely “there is no ‘god.’

The arguments here are intellectually pretty but neither strikes me as seeking to achieve what amounts to “a proof” let alone a paradigm shift. I suggest you get together, share a beer and start with a clean sheet of paper.

gemli Boston @John F. McBride,

Thanks for the reply. There may indeed be something going on behind these processes. After all, our whole conception of the universe changed in the 20th century. Mysteries still abound, but everything we know today was once a mystery. The scientific method that looks closely and systematically at the world did a far better job than religions did at finding not only the answers to many of those mysteries, but in revealing new mysteries that we were unaware of. Asking the right questions is as important as finding the right answers.

It’s not that science has all the answers, but that religions make many claims about the world that are either not true, or are impossible to verify. If god both is and is not, what are we to

do with that? Coyne says that we can get a reasonable explanation of the universe and our place within it without invoking a god: life can arise from non-living things, evolution explains how complexity emerges from simplicity, and complex neural nets can think and feel.

Douthat says there’s something more. Well of course there’s something more. But that something is very unlikely to be superstition and magic that only appears in ancient texts, that can’t be verified, and that is wrong whenever it makes a definite claim. If language limits what we say, imagine how much more limiting it is when we’re speaking in tongues!

serban Miller Place

The question that Douthat should think about is whether God is necessary to justify moral precepts. Or to be more precise, do humans need a God to justify their actions? I fail to see what difference it makes what the existence or non-existence of a real as opposed to an imagined God makes to our every day existence and to our behavior. Most people, whether religious or not, do not even know what it is that they mean by God, any attempt at definition inevitably ends up with some vague nebulous entity. Furthermore why would such entity care whether we believe or not in its existence? To me the most preposterous believers are those who survive some catastrophe that killed thousands and thank God for sparing them.

Matt S NYC

I don’t find Coyne’s view of the direction of history so silly. Take for example the fact that we once asserted (and some gullibly believed) that God selected all monarchs, and thus their rule was always just thanks to God. We certainly don’t govern that way now. Would Douthat assert that Obama was appointed by god, that god guided the vote in his infinite wisdom?

What of trial by combat? Would Douthat have us try George Zimmerman by pitting him against an African American marksman? Why the trouble and expense of evidence-based trials when we could let God choose the victor and dispense justice, as was done in the past?

Icon Chicago

Douthat clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of the scientific evidence. This piece is full of obtuse misinterpretation. He desperately stumbles over the neuroscience, setting up a straw man of his own misconceptions, fails to grasp basic regression and gleefully jumps on perceived claims that he feels he can refute with logically flawed argument. I am sad that I read this piece and that the Times printed it. Not understanding reality is not proof for the existence of pink unicorns, but Douthat claims on his own faith that it is, and there is no working around such nonsense.

Jan. 8, 2014 at 6:16 p.m. Reply
Koyote The Great Plains

I’m not really interested in these wordy dissections. Got enough of that in grad school.

There is scant physical evidence to support theism, and overwhelming evidence to support the scientific (biology, chemistry, astronomy) view of the world and cosmos. Given that most religious believers think all other religions (other than their own) are wrong, and given that all religions require belief in essentially the same supernatural phenomena, theists are inconsistent – religion boils down to a choice to believe in one crazy narrative over other crazy narratives.

John F. McBride Seattle

I admire the way you’ve put this Gemli. Your argument makes sense to me, including for me by extrapolation the extension of guantum behaviors to nearly a physical level.

But intellectually I can’t completely rule out a “something” going on in all of these processes, even if I’m completely able to conclude as mistaken what ancient humanity, for instance Judaism and then Christianity, described in what is traditionally Wesern religious language as a human like supreme being.

Coyne and Douthat are both very accomplished writers and have and own the theater in which to stage this drama. But neither of them seems capable to me of stepping back and accepting that language itself limits how and what we say, and certainly biases in the mind of the “hearer” the content.

I’ll retreat to my usual ancient Taoist, Hindu and Greek position of god both is and is not, neither is nor is not, because ‘god’ is simply a word bantered around as the accepted name for what is yet not known.

whim New York, NY

There is no need at all for an atheist, or a materialist, to be an ‘eliminativist’, relegating all talk of mentality and values to unreality.

If Ross Douthat exists, and his attempts at reasoning exist, and his passions exist, and everything that exists is matter in motion, then Ross Douthat and his attempts at reasoning and his passions are matter in motion, or properties thereof. That does not imply that Ross and his thinkings and his wantings are unreal.

That an adequate description or explanation of everything can be given in terms from physics is obviously false–we need not reach the mental or the normative to see this, the biological will do nicely. Adequate explanations in biology rely on the notion of function, which is not a term from physics.’Neuronal network’ is not a term from physics. Nor is a neural network composed of anything non-physical.

Human beings are required by their circumstances to choose what to go for, what to believe, what to do. Justification is an ineliminable feature of our lives. Douthat and Coyne share understandings of how arguments are to be evaluated. Rationality, rather than divinity, accounts for this. And rationality is a far cry, as giving warrant to our choosings and valuings, from any arbitrary existential choice ex nihilo.

Coyne’s speaking of an “illusory” self is charitably understood as the claim that we are not what many of us take ourselves to be, not that we do not exist–an incoherent claim for anyone to make.

Scott Butler Newport News, VA

Over-confidence would seem to apply to advocates of all systems of thought, including Mr. Douthat’s Catholicism. Mr. Douthat more or less presents Mr. Coyne as a representative of all “secularists,” although he calls him “a certain type of atheistic polemicist.” This stereotyping of secularists as arrogant and irrational is a way of not fully engaging the obvious objection to a religious perspective that Mr. Coyne makes: no evidence. If the universe is a manifestation of divinity, that divinity doesn’t appear to be the loving, just, and merciful God of traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least not as revealed in the indifferent interplay of natural forces. Cosmology clearly does not have a “surface compatibility with moral realism.” Where does morality come from, then? Us. Does that cut it off from ultimate meaning? Not from ultimate human meaning, I think. We are our own work in progress, whether we admit it or not. Are we “neuronal illusions,” as Mr. Coyne proposes? I don’t know, but the universe is a profound mystery that religion tends to explain too glibly and to trivialize.

EB AZ
Douthat says that for secular naturalists, human consciousness is “probably an illusion.”

Is that the claim, though? I am aware of the claim that the self is an illusion, but that’s not the same thing.

If I stare at a green spot and then turn my gaze to a white surface, I may see something red there. The red spot is an illusion. My eyes are giving me an erroneous message. But my eyesight is not an illusion.

The same thing with the self and consciousness. The message that my consciousness gives me, that I have a self, is arguably erroneous. But that is not to say that my consciousness itself is an illusion.

mmwhite San Diego, CA

“For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up. ”

He probably did what scientists do – looked at the data he had available (the record of human history to date) and projected a trend. While history has been erratic, there has been a general trend towards increasing respect for and tolerance of people who are “other” – other races, other beliefs, other genders, etc. This shows up most clearly in how we treat others (so we no longer torture and kill those who believe differently, we have given the same rights to women as to men, to the descendants of slaves as to the descendants of the wealthy, to those with physical and mental handicaps as to the robustly healthy). And in treating these “others” as worthy of decency, we have learned there are other ways of viewing the world, which may

be at least as correct as our own (I notice Mr. Douthat does not consider any of the myriad of non-Abrahamic religions – don’t they count?)

There has also been a trend to using information supplied by careful observation of the world and logical thought about it to determine what things mean and how they should be done. I don’t think it’s to difficult to put these together to project a trend to a secular, science- (or at least reason-) based society.

“Purposeless” doesn’t mean “utterly random with no connection to what has gone on before”. Luke Grand Rapids MI

How ironic that Douthat criticizes naturalism for having relativistic morality in contrast to.,…. western theism? is he joking? Show me how Yaweh demonstrated a consistent understanding of “thou shalt not kill”. Does that include Amalekites? the babies in Jericho? slaves? Job’s family? Isaac? Materialism in contrast renders morality objective in many instances. I can defend “thou shalt not kill” on the principle of non-contradiction: its wrong to commit a course of action that you would not want done to yourself. There you go: objective.

From a purely empirical level, Douthat also has problems. Why are atheists moral then if they shouldn’t have any objective basis. He mentions the hiding of Jews from Nazis. According to Oliner and Oliner’s study of rescuers, religion was not a predictor. Or rather, it was a curved relationship: those who were both highly religious as well as completely nonreligious were most likely to rescue with the middle of religiosity least likely. Again i ask: what is this evidence that religion in this case provided an objective moral basis that materialism did not?

CastleMan Colorado

What difference does your personal world view make, in terms of what’s actually real? Evolution has happened on Earth, and will keep happening, regardless of whether you think it is real or imagined. As Professor Coyne notes, we are, as far as we know, the only intelligent beings in a cold, dark, and brutally cold universe. We have no proof at all that any god, whether the Christian one or any other, exists. The logical conclusion is that we must derive purpose from our existence; no other force that could create one, or did create one, has done it for us. Again, whether you believe in a god, or God, has nothing to do with what we KNOW. Yes, it’s obvious that we don’t know all about the universe or even about the history of life on this planet, but what we do know indicates pretty clearly that religion is a form of mythology and not a reflection of reality.

Arthur UWS, NYC

” At which point the entire edifice suddenly looks terribly wobbly — because who, exactly, is doing all of this forging and shaping and purpose-creating if Jerry Coyne, as I understand him (and I assume he understands himself) quite possibly does not actually exist at all?”-Douthat

I suggest that Douthat kick Jerry Coyne, as Dr. Johnson kicked a rock to refute Bishop Berkely, assertion of the non-existence of matter. Alternately, Jerry Coyne thinks, as does Douthat, therefore he exist, as per Blaise Pascal. If one has to posit a religion to accept existence, then

the argument becomes an argument pitting one world view against another, with no possibility of resolution.

I read Douthat’s Christmas column and found it unfathomable, in part, because we do share the same world views. I will grant that the creche glorifies family, an important social institution or construct, but I could not see how the creche supported democracy. In fact, I take the creche as just as much the glorification of a mother goddess, although a peculiar one.

John F. McBride Seattle gemli°Boston

I agree with your assessment of the retreat of religion and the advance of science; when I began the process of withdrawing from religion decades ago a major factor was its unwillingness to surrender positions, for instance in the forced recantation of Galileo, that were factually disproven.

I don’t possess the expectation for science to have all the answers, and in that I include the works of great sociologists and psychologists, such as Ernest Becker (Denial of Death, The Birth and Death of Meaning), as well as the hard sciences.

But their explanations, and attempts to find further, research underwritten explanations, make more sense to me than a bishop in Rome asserting the sinfulness of birth control in the face of humanity’s problems and basing that “sin” on…. ? What exactly?

Still, I don’t expect, let alone demand, the unconditional withdrawal and surrender of religion; and without attempting to attribute any personal description to the phenomenon of “existence,” there is a quantum aspect of coming into that existence, and “measuring into specific behaviors in reaction to experience” [nuerophysiologically we select in experience from openness to wide ranges of sounds, etc. into specific language, culture, etc) that fascinates me and that leaves open in my mind “phenomenon” ( de Chardin) that lies outside experience and measurement, and therefore religion and science.

Therein is a great conversation, and not one exhibited in this column. Brad Foley Los Angeles, CA

I feel very little sympathy for Coyne as a human being (either in his old role as a serious scientist, or his new role as self-anointed apostle of atheism). But despite his interpersonal failings, he’s more often than not right. And this case seems to be no exception. To respond to Douthat’s confusion about the atheistic foundation of morality – there’s a perfectly acceptable evolutionary logic underlying Coyne’s claims here. It’s possible he didn’t feel the need to belabor it in the particular post at question, because it’s a very well known argument.

First: our nature has been shaped by evolution (you can interject your favourite blind/cold/ nihilistic adjective here).

Second: Humans have evolved in groups, and in groups the most cooperative, “moral”, individuals prospered. (This is not an article of faith, this is an experimentally tractable premise).

Third: Many of our most deep-seated moral instincts and preferences are thus the product of evolution. Not ‘right’ in any cosmic sense, but real nonetheless (like our predilection for sweets, or bacon).

If we innately enjoy being in cooperative groups, and thrive in these groups, it’s perfectly logical to claim this is a foundation for morality. Much the same way we can say, if we like food, farming is a great thing to encourage in our society. Shifting the explanation from “evolution made us this way” to “God made us this way” really gains us nothing in logical power.

JPalkki South Range

Purpose? Morals? We made them, whether they are in the religious texts or in our own minds. We each interpret them according to own thinking or we defer to someone else’s purpose or morals.

If Mr. Douthat is incapable of coming to his own version then I would say he has become the one of the sheep following someone else’s versions and really should not criticize a person like Mr. Coyne. At least Mr. Coyne invested some time thinking about it.

Lambert McLaurin Pittsboro, NC 25312

Ross appears to have done his job as columnist very well. I am certainly not smart enough to wade into this discussion, but it is one of the better conversations I have read in a long time. His writing seems to have both stimulated people to think and to write clearly. I learned so much from actually reading the postings. I am not sure that any of this information will change my own views, but they have given me

David Appell Salem, OR

Ross doesn’t get it: Some of us think we can’t believe in any “gods” while, at the same time, being intellectually honest with ourselves.

We are scientific materialists because there is no other honest choice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *