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Illustration of a maiden gesturing to a unicorn. To state the obvious, unicorns don’t exist, even though many people like to believe they do. (Helen, Flickr, Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, is a poster child for the power of faith to enthrall and delude even really smart people.

To wit, his recent opinion piece titled “A Guide to Finding Faith,” in which he described “many highly educated people who hover at the doorway” of a place of worship, indecisive about passing through.

“They relate to religion on a communal or philosophical level. They want to pass on a clear ethical inheritance to their children. They find certain God-haunted writers interesting or inspiring, and the biblical cadences of the civil rights era more moving than secular defenses of equality or liberty.

“Yet they struggle to make the leap of faith, to reach a state where the supernatural parts become believable and the grace to accept the impossible is bestowed.[boldface mine for emphasis]

“For some, this struggle just leads back to unbelief. For others, it can be a spur to act as if they believe, to pray and practice, to sing the hymns or keep kosher and wait for God to grant them faith in full. This is often the advice they get from religious friends: Treat piety as an act of the will undertaken in defiance of the reasoning faculties, and see what happens next.” [boldface mine]

This attitude is a version of the theme of a famous pithy and irrational quote long attributed to St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033/4-1109), an influential medieval Benedictine monk and philosopher:

“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe that unless I believe I shall not understand.”

What he was trying to explain is that to access the divine one must first — without material corroborating experience or evidence — admit that it exists. In other words, he recommended putting the cart before the horse — arranging things in illogical order.

And he wasn’t the first or only “church father” to recommend this “fake it ’til you make it” approach.

For instance, firebrand German cleric Martin Luther (1483-1546), who ushered in the earthshaking 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe, was quoted as saying:

“… Faith brings the person to God. …”

Rather than the other way around.

Which is a form of self-delusion, especially in the face of mounting evidence then and overwhelming evidence now that no such being in all probability exists. Only reason brings a person to any objectively true understanding, at least as far as anyone can convincingly demonstrate.

Douthat, however, suggests “another way to approach religious belief”:

“Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.

“The ‘new atheist’ philosopher Daniel Dennett once wrote a book called ‘Breaking the Spell,’ whose title implies that religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly. But what if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?”

This is manifest nonsense.

Such thinking steals a page from so-called “post-modernist” mumbo-jumbo that holds virtually everything we perceive with our senses to be illusory and self-deceptive, when in fact our senses bring us the most concrete, trustworthy evidence of reality. Not perfect, but as close as we can realistically get.

When I slam into an actual wall, I like to say, is when I truly believe.

What “evidence” is Douthat talking about that supposedly obscures from atheists the presumed “reality” of supernatural agents?

In fact, that’s what being an atheist means — simply that no evidence exists for supernatural realms and beings. How can invisible things untethered from material reality — unlike gravity, for instance, which is created by substantive mass — be evidence of anything real?

Douthat dismisses what he presumes are the “materialist defaults in secular culture” represented by the title of Dennett’s book — “Breaking the Spell.” The “spell” is the millennia-long thrall of human religiosity. Referring to these supposed “material defaults” of secularism, Douthat writes:

They’re like a spell that’s been cast over modern minds, and the fastest way to become religious is to break it.”

Make no mistake. What’s he’s recommending is the purposeful degradation of reason to privilege and promote religion. And keep in mind that this is from an extraordinarily bright and skilled writer and public intellectual. Which is what makes it so disconcerting.

Such a bogus concept was a travesty in Anselm’s and Luther’s days, as it remains. Indeed, reason is the crowning glory of humanity, in my view, and religion is among our most irrational and virulent compulsions.

Douthat writes that 21st-century paranormal experiences “like hauntings and possessions” (as in prior centuries) have become so frequent in the 21st century “that even the intelligentsia can’t completely ignore them.” Really?

“You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker, Douthat writes.

“You could see this resilience in the 19th century when Protestant belief weakened but séances and mediums came rushing in. You can see it today where institutional Catholicism is weakening but the demand for exorcisms is going up.”

This is not evidence that should prove supernatural things exist but that fearful human beings behave foolishly in every epoch, especially when things are culturally and politically chaotic and unstable (as they are at the moment in the United States.). And it’s evidence that media pander to human frailty and irrationality, not that there’s anything to what they’re pandering with.

Then Douthat added this:

Of course, religion could be the exception: a desire with no real object, a set of experiences with no correlate outside the mind, sustained by a combination of wishful thinking, the desire of mortal creatures to believe in the imperishable and the inevitability of what debunkers of supernatural fraud sometimes call ‘residua,’ the slice of strange events that lie outside our current scope of explanation.”

Exactly. He should have stopped — and, ideally, also started — there. Just because some phenomena “lie outside our current scope of explanation,” it does not follow that credulous entertainment of supernatural “answers” is the default next step.

Nonetheless, it’s a lovely passage of objective, fluid prose.

Unfortunately, the crux of Mr. Douthat’s Times essay, though beguilingly fluid, is anything but objective.

I second San Franciscan David Bonowitz’ New York Times letter to the editor dismissing Douthat’s piece. He wrote:

“On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States [the Taliban in Afghanistan], and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease [Covid-19], 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.”


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...