The Christmas NYT: faith everywhere

If you read the New York Times yesterday and happened to glance at the op-ed section, you would have seen a surfeit of articles on religion and the power of faith. I don’t think this is due entirely to yesterday’s holiday; rather, the Times seems really soft on religion these days, publishing dozens of goddy op-eds for every secular one. Two of yesterday’s articles were particularly unctuous.

Maureen Dowd, who can’t seem to shake her Catholicism, asks the question, “Why, God?”, a question that the faithful raise again after America’s two sets of Christmas murders. (This is, of course, a question that atheists needn’t ask, since there’s nobody to answer.) But seeking answers, Dowd calls upon a family friend, Father Kevin O’Neil, who has spent his life consoling the downcast and dying. O’Neil apparently wrote the rest of the column.

After a column of agonized pondering, the good father admits he doesn’t know the answer:

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them

. . . I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

There is one response, though, that won’t fall short, although it’s inappropriate for dying believers: if you’re a nonbeliever, this stuff just happens. And yes, love can soothe broken or grieving hearts—as with the “love” that mandates lying for the dying—but what evidence is there that that love comes from God? Indeed, it doesn’t—it’s pure human love (of which O’Neil has an admirable surfeit). And if there is “no absolute bag of proof,” then where are Father O’Neil’s doubts?

Theodicy is the Achilles Heel of faith. There is no reasonable answer to the problem of gratuitous evil (i.e., the slaughter of children or mass killings by natural phenomena like tsunamis), and the will to continue believing in the face of such things truly shows the folly of faith. For those evils prove absolutely either that God is not benevolent and omnipotent, or that there is no god. (Special pleading like “we don’t know God’s mind” doesn’t wash, for the same people who say such things also claim to know that God is benevolent and omnipotent). Both nonbelief or belief in malicious or uncaring God are unacceptable to the goddy.  Ergo, any rational person who contemplates gratuitous evil must become an agnostic, an atheist, or someone who rejects the Abrahamic God. It is a touchstone of rationality.

****

Writer Ann Hood, in “A prayer at Christmas,” offers a piece whose only point seems to be that, after a lifetime of rejecting the church, she is drawn back in again. It’s a completely pointless essay—unless it’s there to show believers that others also share their silly conversations with God:

As I turned to walk to the subway, a sign caught my eye: ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. I read it again. ST. PATRICK’S IS OPEN. Although I quickly realized the sign was there because of all the scaffolding around the church, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was also there just for me.

A church that was open! I crossed the street and went inside. The grandeur of St. Patrick’s is nothing like the little stucco church of my childhood in West Warwick, R.I. And even on a Tuesday afternoon, it was crowded with tourists. But the candles flickered, and the smell of wax and incense filled me. I dipped my fingers in the holy water, and walked slowly up the long center aisle to the altar. Around me, people snapped pictures of the manger with their phones. A woman holding a baby in a Santa suit rushed past me. When I got to the front pew, I lowered the kneeler, and I knelt. I bowed my head and I prayed.

In the years since I’d done this simple act in church, I have prayed at home and in hospital waiting rooms. I have prayed for my daughter to live, for the bad news to not be true, for strength in the face of adversity. I have prayed with more desperation than a person should feel. I have prayed in vain.

This prayer, though, was different. It was a prayer from my girlhood, a prayer for peace and comfort and guidance. It was a prayer of gratitude. It was a prayer that needed to be done in church, in a place where candles flicker and statues of saints look down from on high; where sometimes, out of nowhere, the spiritually confused can still come inside and kneel and feel their words might rise up and be heard.

Hood doesn’t seem to care if anybody up there is listening.

***

At the Time‘s site The Stone, there’s a confused piece by British philosopher Simon Critchley called “The Freedom of Faith: A Christmas Sermon.” Critchley is the moderator of The Stone site, which presents the lucubrations of philosophers and is only occasionally good.  His essay doesn’t improve it.

Critchley poses a Christmas Dilemma: do we accept the “freedom” of faith or the security of obedience authority? (Actually, it’s not clear, as you’ll see below, whether the security comes from obedience to state/church authority or simply the ability to pursue material comforts.) At any rate, Critchley begins by recounting how Jesus rejected the threefold temptations of Satan, and then segues to the famous tale of “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. In that tale, you’ll recall, Dostoevsky presents a fable about Christ returning during the Spanish Inquisition.  After working a few miracles, Jesus is promptly clapped in jail, since the “freedom” he offers will disturb the authority and peace established by the Catholic Church.

. . . for the Grand Inquisitor, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature of born.” Give people the miracle of bread, and they will worship you. Remove their freedom with submission to a mystery that passeth all understanding, and they will obey your authority. They will be happy. Lord knows, they may even believe themselves to be free in such happiness.

Freedom as expressed here is not the rigorous freedom of faith, but the multiplication of desires whose rapid satisfaction equals happiness. Freedom is debased and governed by a completely instrumental, means-end rationality. Yet, to what does it lead? In the rich, it leads to the isolation of hard hedonism and spiritual suicide.

Okay, so freedom represents the satisfaction of “base” desires, the production of “hard hedonism and spiritual suicide”.  It’s not clear, of course, whether satisfying non-goddy desires equals spiritual suicide. That’s an unjustified conclusion that Doestoevsky makes and Critchley apparently endorses.  But then Critchley reconceives freedom so that, in the mind of the Grand Inquisitor, it’s also freedom of faith:

For the Grand Inquisitor, what Jesus brought into the world was freedom, specifically the freedom of faith: the truth that will free.

Which is it: freedom to get bread or to go to heaven? But what kind of “freedom” is the freedom to believe in God and Jesus—or be damned if you don’t? Critchley says that this is the “freedom of conscience”:

Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven. Jesus refuses miracle, mystery and authority in the name of a radical freedom of conscience. The problem is that this freedom places an excessive burden on human beings. It is too demanding; infinitely demanding,

But Jesus wrought miracles, and adumbrated mystery and proclaimed his own authority (remember his admonition: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me.”). Jesus doesn’t refuse that stuff!

But what about the freedom to reject faith—to abnegate those things that aren’t supported by evidence—the only course a rational person should take? Critchley ignores that kind of freedom. His essay then degenerates into a mush of tortured navel-gazing, winding up with Critchley punting completely and wishing us all a happy holiday. Such is the vocation of philosophers with too much time on their hands.

. . . And this choice conceals another, deeper one: truth or falsehood? The truth that sets free is not, as we saw, the freedom of inclination and passing desire. It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance — submission, even — to a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again. In disobeying ourselves and obeying this hard command, we may put on new selves. Faith hopes for grace. . .

To be clear, such an experience of faith is not certainty, but is only gained by going into the proverbial desert and undergoing diabolical temptation and radical doubt. On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery and authority. We have become diabolical. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

. . . .The Grand Inquisitor’s dilemma is, finally, tragic: he knows that the truth which sets us free is too demanding for us, and that the lie that grants happiness permits the greatest good of the greatest number.  But he also knows that happiness is a deception that leads ineluctably to our damnation. Is the Grand Inquisitor’s lie not a noble one?

. . . To be perfectly (or imperfectly) honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. Which should we choose: diabolical happiness or unendurable freedom? Perhaps we should spend some days and nights fasting in the desert and see what we might do. Admittedly, this is quite a difficult thing to sustain during the holiday period.

Happy Holidays!

Oy vey!  Who can be happy after such a dog’s breakfast of confusing ideas? (Perhaps I’m not savvy enough to understand Sophisticated Philosophy™.) The freedom of faith is the freedom of lunacy: the ability to believe whatever makes you feel good, no matter how silly those beliefs.  The only freedom to be found there is the freedom from rationality, from having good reasons for what you believe.

To Critchley, nonbelief is not an option. But then again, it’s Christmas, folks! To be sure, he does mention doubt, but only in a confusing way: in effect praising doubt as a “God-like position”:

To be clear, such an experience of faith is not certainty, but is only gained by going into the proverbial desert and undergoing diabolical temptation and radical doubt. On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery and authority. We have become diabolical. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

This is a noble and, indeed, God-like position. It is also what Jesus demands of us elsewhere in his teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you or persecute you.”

Certainty the enemy of faith? Shades of 1984! Here Critchley is acting more like a theologian than a philosopher, for theologians are good at turning necessities into spiritual virtues.

******

The only palliative in this lineup of faith-soaked newsprint is, surprisingly, found in an article by the ever-tedious Stanley Fish: “Religious exemptions and the liberal state: a Christmas column.” Actually, Fish doesn’t give his own opinion in the column (an uncharacteristic stance), but merely rehashes the thesis of a new book, Why Tolerate Religion? by Brian Leiter, a professor at the University of Chicago’s law school. But in the Fish stew there is one toothsome morsel:

Indeed, if there is anything special about religion, Leiter contends, it is the special danger it poses by virtue of its other chief characteristics, the categorical insistence on the obedience of believers and a declared independence of evidence and rationality as defined by common-sense and science. (Needless to say, this list of religion’s characteristics is controversial, and has often been critiqued by theologians and philosophers.) If existential consolation is what you’re looking for, you might better find it, Leiter declares, in “philosophical reflection … meditation … therapeutic treatment,” all relatively harmless compared to the “potentially harmful brew of categorical commands and insulation from evidence.”

The conclusion is inevitable: “[T]here is no apparent moral reason why states should carve out special protections that encourage individuals to structure their lives around categorical demands that are insulated from the standards of evidence and reasoning we everywhere else expect to constitute constraints on judgment and action.”

I’ve always thought this to be the greatest danger of trying to accommodate science and faith. It’s the toxic combination of absolute certainty about God’s will, combined with the willingness to believe things without evidence, that makes religion much more than just “another way of knowing.”  We don’t turn scientific findings into law (except for things that help us all, like mandatory vaccination), nor do scientists have the absolute certainty of the believer. If we think that faster-than-light neutrinos exist, we look for them. and if we don’t find them we reject them. But if we believe that God exists, and, after looking for evidence, we fail to find any, we continue to accept him. Further, thinking that we know his will, many faiths try enforce it on everyone else.

Religion is not just the enemy of rationality, but the enemy of democracy.

59 Comments

  1. Posted December 26, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I think that is the problem with the “For profit” media. One has to sell papers (subscriptions, etc.) in order to make it, and a “nod” toward “faith” is one such strategy.

    I don’t see a good way around it.

  2. Grania Spingies
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    And then there was the pope’s special Christmas Hate Speech about how gays are a threat to world peace.

  3. Robert Bray
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Only a short time after the Sandy Hook murders, some folks in the Newtown community began intoning the standard litany of Christian consolation: the children are in heaven with Jesus. It is a lie I’d be tempted to promulgate too, if faced with the breadth and depth of tragedy that befell that Connecticut village. Yet notice how it bypasses Christian theology: no judgment, no waiting; only simple and immediate translation to paradise for the murdered children. One could well hope that this belief were true. ‘Guns don’t kill people’ because god doesn’t allow people to die. But such consoling thoughts, by neutralizing the effects of a very real secular evil, tend to absolve us of the duty to safeguard society and particularly its most vulnerable members–that they may live a full life in this world, which in all probability is the only one they would have had.

    • Grania Spingies
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Which is exactly what Marx meant when he said that religion was the opium of the people.

      The rest of the quote is far more important, and it is a shame that it is not the line that is remembered:

      “Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. “

    • Mattapult
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      I’m sure there are countless priests who would be willing to console what’s left of the shooters family, “he was a troubled youth, but he is at peace now in the presence of God.”

    • Marella
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I really don’t understand how this is meant to be a consolation, IMO all it does is try to make mourning illegitimate which is no favour to anyone. I have three children and their purpose (from my perspective) is to live in this world and be a consolation and happiness here, they simply cannot do this from paradise, even if it existed. This line is just to tell you to stop wailing and being so selfish because your kids are better off dead, well even if they were I’m not better off with them dead!

      • johncozijn
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        That’s an important point we don’t make often enough: Christian theology is a life-denying, anti-human philosophy quite independent of its lack of empirical grounding.

  4. Rob
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    David Heddle, a frequent although exceptionally feeble-minded critic of yours, has an answer for the problem of evil. God can be evil at times. This is Heddle’s version Calvinism, which Heddle identifies as True Christianity.

    “But Christianity does not teach that God is omnibenevolent. There are countless examples in the bible of God acting in a manner that is anything but benevolent. Not to mention the supreme act of non-benevolence: consigning some to eternal torment.”

    http://helives.blogspot.com/2011/03/jerry-coynes-vexing-connundrum-if-you.html

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      Oh great – another thing to worry about. Not only do I have to worry if an asteroid is going to land where it’s going to affect me, but I also have to worry about whether God is sufficiently pissed off (today) to let it happen.
      Sometimes I wonder if this “Ghod” thing is worth the effort for the scant degree of comfort that it gives.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        “Sometimes I wonder if this “Ghod” thing is worth the effort for the scant degree of comfort that it gives.”

        No, of course it isn’t. Time to leave the childish thinking behind.

  5. Matt Bowman
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Correction:

    In the Dowd piece the priest’s name is Kevin O’Neil who she says is like Father Chuck O’Malley played by Bing Crosby in a movie.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Fixed that, thanks.

  6. Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    On the occasion of this holiday season, I’d just like to say “Thank you, Jerry” for your posts/essays/blog/er whatever. I read them religiously. Oops! Did I just say that?!

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      I myself read Jerry’s posts spiritually but not religiously. :)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        In my case maybe ritually but neither spiritually nor religiously. It goes well with my morning coffee.

        [Except for the jokes. But I have now evolved the practice to ingest before intake of jest.]

  7. Posted December 26, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    ‘The truest answer is: I don’t know. ‘

    Religion really is another way of knowing , isn’t it?

    Any person of faith will tell you that, (except when they are asked to answer questions)

    • Matt G
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      A priest admits he doesn’t know something? Excommunicate! Excommunicate!

      • Paul S
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        Matt,
        There goes my coffee. Reading your comment while watching Dr. Who I had a vision of a Dalek priest.

        • Matt G
          Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          Heh heh, I was thinking just that. Long are the hours I spent watching Doctor Who as a kid (in the Pertwee/Baker era).

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      It certainly is another way of not knowing.

      • Matt G
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        And we have a word for that (“belief”) and it is entirely independent of reality.

  8. Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    When a priest is described the way Maureen Dowd describes Father Kevin O’Neil, “sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift,” I always winder why, with all those skills, he doesn’t go get a respectable job instead of wasting his time with the corrupt Catholic Church

    • helen w.
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      I always wonder why women who claim to be as smart and independent-minded as Dowd claims for herself can never quite allow themselves to see through the *real* reasons why they’re allowing themselves to get so swoony over an ostensibly celibate priest.

      • Marella
        Posted December 26, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        Life long indoctrination.

  9. Mattapult
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, ‘See? You can be absolutely confident now.’ But there is no absolute bag of proof”

    Imagine a perfect being. It must exist. But the Perfect Being fails to provide convincing evidence, much less absolute proof.

    • Posted December 26, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Indeed, it’s the ultimate passive-aggressive NIGYSOB power play.

      Jesus wants you to believe in him so much he’ll let you live with him forever if you do and he’ll have you tortured forever if you don’t. And, to prove he wants you to believe in him, he made his magical mystery tour of Palestine a couple millennia ago, a tour that nobody bothered to write about until everybody alive at the time was was dotering at best and mostly just dead. And, though he then was happy to offer proof of his claims by way of letting people fondle his intestines, today we have to do with copies-of-copies of fragments of translations of faery tales.

      But, don’t you see? It has to be that way, because if he offered better evidence, you’d have no choice but to believe. And making informed decisions based upon solid evidence is apparently somehow a bad thing.

      Gah. How anybody can fall for such a transparent con game is utterly beyond me.

      b&

  10. helen w.
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    I honestly have no concern over the idea of someone’s choosing to have belief in a nonexistent deity or no, as long as they don’t attempt to manouevre secular laws to foist their private choice on others.

    But please, news media–stop treating private, individual expressions of belief as though they were items that deserve to be ranked up there and reported on as legitimate real-world news stories.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      Hey, it’s Christmas – the time for all ‘news’ organisations to go soft in the head (well, even softer than usual – like the transition from blancmange** to custard) – and run all sorts of warm fuzzy ‘stories’ as news.

      It inspires in me all sorts of uncharitable un-Christmassy sentiments.

      (**Google suggests ‘vanilla pudding’ as an equivalent for our US readers. I was going to use ‘jelly’ but I understand that means different things on opposite sides of the Atlantic)

      • Posted December 26, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        I thought a blancmange was a type of Scottish alien?

        b&

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

          Love the link! 16 minutes of Monty Python I haven’t seen before. Best Christmas present I’ve had. [Which shows how pathetic my life is ;) ]

          Thank you!

          • Posted December 27, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

            You’re welcome! Any day with new Python is a good day.

            b&

  11. Mattapult
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    “What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life”

    The day before my father-in-law died, a minister was trying to comfort my mother-in-law. The minister asked, “what are you praying for?” She replied, “That god doesn’t let him suffer so much.” the minister replied in his most compassionate voice, “but god IS with him.” how I wanted to scream! I excused myself “to go check the morphine pump.”

  12. MNb
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    At least Kevin O’Neil is honest. Kierkegaard scores.

    “feel that it was also there just for me”
    Revealing the need to feel special. This is in my eyes the ultimate failure of christianity – egocentric at one hand, condemning egecentrism at the other hand.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      It’s a Playpen Theory of Reality:

      if you’re the baby which the entire universe is focused on, then you need only focus on the idea that you’re only a BABY in order to exempt your view from a charge of narcissism.

  13. Scott near Berkeley
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Don’t know how you can withstand the pain of reading all this “inspiration” in the NYT, Jerry. I could not even read all your excerpts and commentaries. Scrolling is very effective.

    I would rather dwell on Nature and the natural scene my eyes are enjoying today. I got up early, and though it is wet and overcast, I am alive and enjoying every puddle and the drops I see falling on its surface.

    I value every lucky second I live.

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Great post but with a few caveats.

    Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox do not (repeat not) believe that you have to be a Christian to get into heaven. They think you’re judged by Jesus, but he might like many of those outside the fold. So the alleged inconsistency in Dostoevsky “But what kind of “freedom” is the freedom to believe in God and Jesus—or be damned if you don’t?” really isn’t there!! I’m not sure what Dostoevsky meant by Jesus rejecting miracle, but I believe he meant rejecting miracles as a way of eliciting faith- faith first then miracle is OK. That’s consistent with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

    Having said that I will readily agree that though Dostoevsky is very wise about human nature-(his novels have had an enormous influence on secular psychoanalysis) he is an irrationalist in holding that reason is not useful in answering “ultimate” questions about life, the answers of which he holds to be transcendent. Dosteovsky also holds human nature to be so depraved that religion is the only protection against madness. On this issue, I am less impressed by religion’s track record than he.

    Major religious opponents of theocracy (and champions of democracy) include Rhode Island founder Roger Williams who held religion is always corrupted when entangled with state- he even argued that Constantine was a worse enemy of Christianity than Nero. Williams explicitly allows that there are just governments that are not Christian.
    It seems then a stretch to argue that democracy is incompatible with Williams’ theology. Indeed an organization that showed up at Freethought Day this past October in Sacramento listed RW as a “Freethought hero”. (Ironically, ostracized high school student Jessica Alquist spoke there and her whole story was in Rhode Island- they certainly have drifted from Williams’ ideals havent’ they?)

    I entirely agree with Jerry Coyne that theodicy is the Achilles heel of faith, but I admire the religious folk who fully admit they have no answer here more than the perverse William Lane Craig.

    • Marella
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      If Dostoevsky thought humans were that depraved he can’t have known all that much about human nature.

    • Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      “I’m not sure what Dostoevsky meant by Jesus rejecting miracle, but I believe he meant rejecting miracles as a way of eliciting faith- faith first then miracle is OK.”

      You’ve confused Dostoevsky with Critchley here; that bit about Jesus and miracles comes from Critchley’s additions, not the source material.

  15. johncozijn
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve just scanned through the op-eds in Australia’s two (non-Murdoch) quality broadsheets for the past week and cannot find any that discuss either religious issues at all.

    The two Christmas editorials take a decidedly secular tack. The Sydney Morning Herald does quote Luke on the shepherds being informed of the birth of Jesus (2:9-10), immediately followed by:
    “All the fuss eventually comes down to the birth of a child. Can that be it, the real essence of Christmas, and after such a promising start to the story?”

    The moral, the SMH opines, is: “We realise that we are all members of one human family, that none of us is alone, and that all of us are here to love and to be loved in return.”

    This all rather different from the pious drivel that was habitually served up by these pillars of the establishment at Christmas when I was a kid.

    Just another measure of what post-Christian society looks like. It doesn’t so much do battle with religious tropes as reread through some kind of humanist hermaneutic.

  16. Sastra
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    They view religious faith through the wrong lens.

    “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the mastery of fear.”

    And thus they get “Faith is not the absence of doubt; it is the mastery of doubt.” You don’t entirely lose your fear/doubt. No, you keep it and still do what we need to do.

    That’s bravery. It’s a central confusion involved in theodicy.

    The problem of course is that believing that God exists and loves us is NOT “what we need to do.” What we need to do is exercise REAL courage and go where the evidence leads, refusing all the while to confuse truth-seeking with the need to find comfort and soldier on bravely.

  17. Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    To say nothing of the mindless blathering of Ross Douthat, which appears twice weekly. At least David Brooks makes sense once or twice a year. I’ve never been able to figure this out – you’ll never see Paul Krugman or Nicolas Kristoff on the op-ed page of the WSJ, does the Times give space to these clowns?

  18. Posted December 26, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Holy shit! You used the word unctuous. I totally agree that religion poisons everything. I hope that in my writing career I get to use the word unctuous at least once and not sound pretentious. Congratulations on doing that right and of course for yet another good post.

    If Friedrich Nietzsche were alive today, he’d say ‘shit happens’ but I’d bet he would like the way you wrote this.

  19. Dan
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    We’re ahead of the time. =]

  20. discettico
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    The first quote by Doestoevsky is wrong, it should be “man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that great gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.”

    • Old Rasputin
      Posted December 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      Remember, there is no “right” or “wrong” variant of the quote in English. Here’s the “right” one: “нет у человека заботы мучительнее, как найти того, кому бы передать поскорее тот дар свободы, с которым это несчастное существо рождается”

      • discettico
        Posted December 27, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        It is wrong if the translation is incoherent. Here is the offending portion of the original quote: “…to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature of born.”

        • Old Rasputin
          Posted December 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Ah, then I initially misunderstood you. The word “of” is troubling you? It’s wrong, to be sure, but surely only a typo in the truest sense. That is, a slip of the hand, rather than an “honest” mistake.

          I would not have guessed that you were taking issue with the one difference (“of”) that was simply typographical in nature and not semantic, and instead had assumed you were referring to the other differences which actually do (however slightly) alter the meaning of the quote. Changing the meaning from the original would be a more legitimate example of misquotation. We all make typos, but in my opinion, only those that are not transparent (where the intended meaning isn’t obvious) are worth calling attention to.

  21. Mark Joseph
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Jerry:

    The paragraph beginning with “Theodicy is” is sensational. Thank you!

  22. Posted December 26, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    A truly comprehensive and well-argued post. Thank you!

  23. Patrick
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 2:14 am | Permalink

    “Theodicy is the Achilles Heel of faith. There is no reasonable answer to the problem of gratuitous evil (i.e., the slaughter of children or mass killings by natural phenomena like tsunamis), and the will to continue believing in the face of such things truly shows the folly of faith.”
    The theodicy outlined below called “Theodicy from divine justice” may provide such an answer:
    (1) God’s perfect justice prevents Him from relieving people with unforgiven sins from their sufferings (see Isaiah 59,1-2).
    (2) Unlike God Christians are not perfectly just. Therefore, unlike God, they are in a position to help people with unforgiven sins. By doing this they may make those among them who haven’t yet accepted God’s salvation receptive of it (Matthew 5,16, 1 Peter 2,11-12, and 3,1-2), which in turn frees these persons from suffering in the afterlife.
    (3) The greater God’s beneficial power due to His love, the greater God’s destructive power due to His justice (see Matthew 13,27-29). Striving to prevent as much suffering as possible God can only interfere to such a degree that the beneficial effect of the interference is not neutralized by the destructive effect of it.
    (4) Someone who dies before he or she reaches the age of accountability, i.e. before he or she can distinguish between good and evil (see Genesis 2,16-17, Deuteronomy 1,39, and Isaiah 7,16) faces no punishment in the afterlife, as he or she would not have been able to commit sins. So, God may not be inclined to prevent such a person’s death.
    (5) A person’s suffering in this life may have a redeeming effect (Luke 16,25) and consequently contribute to a decrease of the respective person’s suffering in the afterlife; the amount of suffering in this life is so to speak subtracted from the amount of suffering in the afterlife. So, God may not be inclined to relieve this person’s suffering.
    (6) A person’s suffering in this life may make the person receptive of God’s salvation (Luke 15,11-21), which in turn frees this person from suffering in the afterlife.
    (7) There are degrees of punishment in the afterlife depending on one’s moral behaviour (Matthew 16,27, 2 Corinthians 5,10), one’s knowledge of God’s will (Matthew 11,20-24, Luke 12,47-48, John 15,22-25), and, as mentioned before, one’s amount of suffering in this life (Luke 16,25).
    (8) Those people who suffer more in this life than they deserve due to their way of life are compensated for it by receiving rewards in Heaven.
    (9) As for animal suffering, animals will be compensated for it on the “new earth” mentioned in Isaiah 65,17-25, 2 Peter 3,13 and Revelation 21,1.

    • johncozijn
      Posted December 27, 2012 at 4:22 am | Permalink

      Thank you for elaborating on the details of this thoroughly odious moral philosophy.
      The adherence of Christianity and Islam to this anti-human framework is part of what makes them objectively more reprehensible than most other religions.

  24. sailor1031
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    “…the good father admits he doesn’t know the answer:…”

    Correction: “…the good father won’t admit that he does know the answer:…”

    TFIFY.

  25. Richard William Posner
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    “There is no reasonable answer to the problem of gratuitous evil…”

    http://ponerology.com/

  26. Richard William Posner
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    “Belief is the death of intelligence. As soon as one believes a doctrine of any sort, or assumes certitude, one stops thinking about that aspect of existence.”
    Robert Anton Wilson

    I don’t believe in belief.

    • Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      Richard – thanks for the link re Ponerology [I like the faces they display relevant to evil], and for your ‘don’t believe in belief’ statement. I have used this often, particularly in challenging students to defend why they accept something to be true.

      • Richard William Posner
        Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        Your students are fortunate Douglas.

        Ponerology is a fascinating and important science. At least I have accepted it as such.

        I stumbled upon it while pursuing my own speculations along similar lines.

        http://chimaeraimaginarium.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/the-genetics-of-tyranny-psychopathy-parasites-and-totalitarianism/

        I have a PDF version of Political Ponerology if you’re interested. It might be small enough to send via email.

        It’s a difficult read but worth the effort.
        There are a lot more sites dedicated to it than one would imagine. Just search ponerology.

        • Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

          Richard – I did search political ponerology, and for the time being, I have enough material to mull. Thanks for the PDF offer, and for your thoughts on your blog.

  27. Posted December 28, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    A beautiful Harvard piece. I wander why man has not evolved into something of a higher state all the years. A beautiful denial that God exists and that He is the creator of all things — man, animal, etc.

  28. Nate Thomas
    Posted December 29, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    “Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my lifespan.” ― Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30,049 other followers

%d bloggers like this: