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Arguing With Ross Douthat About Religion Again
I can't seem to quit this
The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), likely the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible
Before getting into actual argument, I want to preface by saying that I am very, very glad that Ross Douthat is using his access to the pages of The New York Times to talk about religion as a thing in itself, and not as a purely psychological or sociological phenomenon. He’s working an old vein that has been repeatedly declared exhausted over the past hundred and fifty to two hundred years, and I think it is always worthwhile to go back and dig in those sorts of places every now and again. And Douthat is just about the best public intellectual today to do it.
Now, to his actual argument. In broad strokes, he articulates three classic reasons to embrace religious belief: that the world is law-bound and therefore appears to be created; that we are endowed with a consciousness that seems to set us apart from nature in some important way; and that we (some of us, anyway) encounter the supernatural in our daily lives fairly regularly. These reasons, he then goes on to say, are just as valid now as they were a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Darwin may have explained how random variation plus natural selection could lead to evolution, but the laws that make the universe as a whole what it is are still remarkably well-tuned to allow that evolutionary process to begin, and we have no explanation for why that might be. We may know much more than we did about how our brain works and how our personalities function, but the “hard problem” of consciousness remains as hard as ever. And people still do encounter the numinous and inexplicable, in large numbers, all over the world.
As it happens, I agree wholeheartedly with the first two claims. Being a deist still feels way more respectable to me than believing in the anthropic principle, or the multiverse, or the notion that we are in a simulation, inasmuch as it only requires taking reality at face value. Anyway, all of those notions are unfalsifiable and hence unscientific, and plenty of them are actually religious ideas cloaked in modern terminology: the multiverse fits snugly into Hindu accounts of creation, and the Gnostics were way ahead of simulation fans in deciding that the physical universe is just a trick of a demiurgic pseudo-god. As for the hard problem of consciousness, it has led plenty of scientists who look at it honestly to posit a deep connection between our minds and the universe at large, though again this tends to send them in directions other than the Abrahamic account of that relationship. Regardless, from a purely philosophical perspective, I don’t think there’s any reason to be cowed by the New Atheists, even if I think the advances of science pose far more serious problems for Christianity than they do for other religious traditions, particularly subcontinental ones.
I’ll try to give a nuanced response to Douthat’s third point, about the persistence of the supernatural in human experience. I have an instinctive aversion to taking the kind of thing he’s talking about here—encounters with ghosts, exorcisms, near-death experiences, etc.—at anything like face value, and I really don’t want to argue from personal prejudice. But Douthat is right to put so much stress here, because in terms of the history of religion, I think it’s the point that really matters. Indeed, in a very important sense, the first two, more philosophical bases for belief are less props for religious experience than way-stations on the road to modernity.
I’m cribbing here from Marcel Gauchet among others is saying so, and perhaps that presumptively disqualifies my argument, but I continue to find the “disenchantment” thesis persuasive because it accords so well with the historical record. Encounters with the numinous, and rituals around such encounters, or to facilitate such encounters, substantially predate anything that we moderns would recognize as “religion” in a systematic sense. For example, the text that is pictured at the top of this piece, a portion of the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15, is likely the oldest portion of the Hebrew Bible, and if it is taken at face value is a response to a collective experience of the miraculous, specifically: the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea after the Israelites were able to cross safely. That text antedates almost everything that we think of as distinctively innovative about Israelite religion, including monotheism and certainly including the idea of an incorporeal deity (which the imagery of the poem directly undermines, something that rabbinic commentators struggled with). Go back further, and the world only gets more enchanted, but also less systematic in understanding the meaning of that enchantment.
What that means is that religion as we understand it is less an outgrowth of that experience of enchantment than (among other things) a way of taming that experience, of yoking it to a larger project. But in doing that, religious systems wind up in a rather analogous place to modern materialist theories. I don’t want to be too much of a Foucaultian—perhaps it would be better to say I’m being a Kierkegaardian—but to my mind, there’s an important similarity between the inquisitors of the church declaring Jean d’Arc to be a heretic for listening to demons and a modern psychiatrist declaring her to be delusional for listening to phantom voices—in both cases, they’re responding to a genuine encounter with the uncanny that felt totally real to the woman having the experience, and telling her that her experience isn’t what she thinks it is, and that she has to conform to their understanding to avoid punishment. Miracles and revelations are what religions are founded on; once they are established, they become at least as much a problem to be managed as a potential spur to orthodox belief and practice. Throw out that taming function, and you wind up with what Douthat would call Bad Religion and Harold Bloom would call American Religion.
In any event, it strikes me as entirely plausible that the Israelites did experience something extraordinary in conjunction with the Exodus—but I see no reason not to search for materialist explanations for those events, such as the eruption at Santorini. I feel similarly about all the other experiences Douthat describes. That they are persistent proves that they are enduring parts of human experience. But what that experience actually consists of is a perfectly valid question for science to investigate. Religion has a very poor track record of going head-to-head with science in the explanations game. It’s not where I would place my bets.