In his New York Times column, Ross Douthat mourns a recent Gallop poll result: the so-called “meritocracy” has abandoned organized religion in the United States in larger numbers than ever before. More wistful reverie than argument, Douthat’s comments offer a glimpse into a right-leaning Catholic’s nostalgia for what used to be, although he does not tell his readers what he believes has been lost.
He does not make a single personal, social, historical, or theological point for why “institutional faith,” as he calls it, is valuable. There is an argument to be made that collective life has deteriorated in this country since the 1970s with the rise of the neo-liberal creed and its bid to privatize everything, an ideology that relies heavily on an atomized society of passive, isolated, consuming monads. Stable institutions—civic societies, political groups, unions, cultural organizations, but also churches, synagogues, and mosques—might be seen as bulwarks of communal life against the scourge of loneliness and the meaninglessness that so often accompanies it. But that is not Douthat’s position. He believes the church is superior to secular organizations but for unspoken reasons. The black church in this country led by highly educated people has played a crucial role in solidifying communities and mobilizing them to fight for freedom, equality, and justice, but Douthat is clearly not addressing that history. He is writing about those he refers to as “my people, by tribe and education,” presumably white elites. He claims religion among them must thrive in order to reverse secularization, but again, he does not tell us why he thinks this.
Douthat recognizes that religious “scandal” has damaged faith in organized religion but does not name the crimes involved. We can guess he means the Catholic priests who over many decades sexually intimidated, molested, and raped their parishioners. Then again, he may be thinking of the long line of Evangelical ministers who were felled by their own greed, theft, adultery, and hypocrisy. The columnist acknowledges that church “bigotry” might alienate some people and that women and gays might be treated “unfairly.” He does not address the misogyny and homophobia endemic to the teaching of many religious institutions. Are these merely dogmatic irritants? The pain suffered by human beings who have been victims of these “scandals” or by those who have been regarded as inferior (half the human population—women) or as sexual sinners (all those who do not conform to heterosexual norms) for centuries appears to occupy our tepid columnist less than the fact that these scandals and prejudices keep nice, upper-crust, educated types outside the church and rather than fund “religious charities,” instead direct their cash at “secular foundations.” Again, shouldn’t we be told why good works performed under a secular umbrella are less than those under a religious one?
Douthat seems dumbfounded that the secularly inclined cannot see the “rationality” of religion but offers no reasons to sway his readers. He does not repair to the exacting rabbinical commentaries on the Torah, or to Augustine and Aquinas in his own tradition, or to Kant’s elaborate arguments, which in the end come to land on belief in a deity. Instead, the columnist offers a version of “design.” We live in a lawful, orderly universe. To date the laws of physics have not inspired mass conversion. There are philosophers (Charles Sanders Peirce) and physicists (John Wheeler, Lee Smolin) who have proposed that the laws of physics may change, that the assumption of fixity may well be false. In biology there are no laws, only regularities, but exactly why an orderly or perhaps just regular natural world should lead us directly to God Douthat does not clarify.
Finally, he is puzzled that transcendent, “mystical” experiences are not embraced as evidence of the supernatural by his secular friends. As a migraineur with a lifetime of such experiences behind me, I wonder at the man’s naïveté. No human experience can be reduced to the quirks of the nervous system. Every experience exists in a context, which is inherent to the experience itself and to its meaning. William James argued persuasively that to explain away Saint Theresa as a hysteric was reductive nonsense, but he didn’t believe her nervous system should be ignored either. There is a vast scientific and philosophical literature on varieties of mystical experience that might begin to explain why some of us interpret our experiences in ways that are not in line with Douthat’s. Does he engage with this material? No.
What are we actually reading? Speculation is in order because Douthat does not tell us. Is he anxious about a cultural shift that positions him in the minority of his peers rather than in the majority? There are plenty of fervent Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other religious groups in the United States, but he is worried that there are fewer and fewer among them who belong to his “tribe.” Doesn’t this reveal an unarticulated prejudice about who really matters? Is this a disguised version of the intense right-wing fear that myriad Others will seize the reigns of power and rob whites of their inborn status? What does it mean to say his “people” don’t understand the merits of institutional faith, have turned to science, sports, and wellness rituals for spiritual succor, and on top of that, have the gall to interpret their own mystical experiences incorrectly? He makes no attempt to argue for the rightness of his view or even to proselytize from a position of passionate conviction. He ends with the verbs seek, knock, and ask, but there is no evidence of any such actions in his column. Is he revealing more than a flaccid intellect?
Douthat was no doubt hired by the Times to occupy a conservative Catholic spot on the op-ed page that wouldn’t discomfit its readers all that much. He may believe that his job is simply to manufacture columns from his point of view without explication, pieces that will slide down tribal gullets easily, dressed up with an “intellectual” reference or two, which his readers will recognize, and then provide them with links to easily digestible journalism of the same ilk.
Ross Douthat is blind to his own context and that of his “people,” a blindness that afflicts countless men in this country, especially white men of the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes who attended elite colleges and who by reason of cultural inflation believe their declarations on the page should be afforded a special gravity, even when they are weightless effusions that evaporate so quickly one can hardly tell what one has actually read.