Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ross Douthat Jumps the Shark

I’ve been trying to ignore Karen Armstrong’s new book, The Case for God, for the same reasons I yawned over the Robert Wright's "brilliant" "enthralling" masterpiece, The Evolution of God.

As I wrote on Sep. 8,

Mr. Wright is one of those stereotypical "kumbaya guys" who plead for believers and materialists to come together, make peace, and put their differences aside - which - in practice - means that believers can keep some vague concept of "God" plus the ethics of altruism ("Love thy neighbor," etc.) but they MUST accept Darwinism and materialism.

Needless to say, this is bad a deal for believers. And it's also intellectual sloppiness of the highest order.

From what I saw in the media, Ms. Armstrong's book is another boring effort to pump new life into the "Kumbaya" tradition. And for that reason, I was content to ignore it.

However, on Oct. 4, Ross Douthat, the new columnist for The New York Times, published a warm review of Ms. Armstrong's book in his piece, Perpetual Revelations.

Douthat is an intriguing character. Earlier this year, I wrote...

I like Ross Douthat... I also read his book, Grand New Party. But in this article on I.D. he reveals what could be his fatal weakness: an eagerness to abandon conservative principles to curry favor at cocktail parties (in that case, he would be following in the footsteps of his mentor, David Brooks).

Yes, and in light of this week's book review, I think it's safe to report that Mr. Douthat has joined his mentor in the intellectual abyss.

Let's dissect Douthat's column, shall we?

Douthat sets the scene...

Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike…

Both modern believers and modern atheists, Armstrong contends, have come to understand religion primarily as a set of propositions to be assented to, or a catalog of specific facts about the nature of God, the world and human life.

Fine, so far so good. But who, pray tell, is to blame for this tragic situation? Well, the Theists, of course!

Religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy… Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God. Convinced that “the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God’s providential care,” Western Christians abandoned the apophatic, mythic approach to faith in favor of a pseudo­scientific rigor — and then had nowhere to turn when Darwin’s theory of evolution arrived on the scene.

Yes, the problem in contemporary society is that Christians are too rational and scientific in their approach to religious practice (rolling eyes). And those well-meaning atheists – bless their hearts – had no choice but to react negatively to this development (rolling eyes again).

An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution.

Really? No wait, really?

But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day. To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life.

Huh? We shouldn’t judge religion by its “truth or falsehood?” That’s a new one!

The leading lights of premodern Christianity…were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.”

Yes, that is correct. They were quite “fearless and confident” in defending their faith. So maybe Aquinas, Augustine, and the gang WOULD have been opposed to Darwinism, after all?

It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.

Yes, exactly. Douthat's view of faith is unfulfilling for most Christians and would lead to its demise. So what’s Douthat’s point? What’s Armstrong’s point? My brain hurts.

On Mar. 19, I wrote...

If Douthat wants to be one of the stars of the next generation of conservative leaders, he needs to care less about the opinions of people who live on the Upper East Side, Harvard Yard, and Chevy Chase, and tap into the soul of the "Real America." I still have confidence that he can do that.

Obviously, that confidence was misplaced. By displaying such sloppy thinking about a very important subject, the conclusion is clear: Young conservatives can do better than Ross Douthat.

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