Douthat on the rampage against secularism, gets it all wrong

Are there any conservative columnists who aren’t either mush-brained, filled with unrighteous anger, or both? Even George Will occasionally got it right, but Ross Douthat? Nope. And he writes for the New York Times, which is supposedly the best newspaper in America. Can’t they do better? I would actually want to read a good conservative columnist, just because it’s good not to be complacent and it’s salubrious to have your views challenged. But Douthat ain’t no contender.

Take his column from yesterday, “Ideas from a manger.” The scene is Douthat’s musings on the religiosity of America, inspired, of course, by the ******mas season.  While gazing at a manger scene, his heart palpitating as he sees the baby Jesus, Douthat has an idea: American religious worldviews fall into three categories, one of which is deeply problematic (guess!). I’ll list the categories and what he finds dubious about each (Douthat’s words are indented).

1. Biblical literalism.

The view:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

The same God? You mean the one that sends Christians to hell if he’s Allah, and Muslims to hell if he’s the Christian God? How can that be the same God?

Douthat’s problem:

The biblical picture has the weight of tradition going for it, the glory of centuries of Western art, the richness of millenniums’ worth of theological speculation. But its specificity creates specific problems: how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society.

Really? The problem is how to keep being a fundamentalist in a “commercial, sexually liberated society?” Curious that Douthat doesn’t mention that literalism is also insupportably wrong. Curious, too, that Douthat doesn’t mention the disparities between adherents of “the same God” who for some reason find their dogmas in conflict.

2. The “spiritual” take.

The view:

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

I’m curious what the “spiritual version” of a visitation an angel really is.

Douthat’s problem:

The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

One senses that Douthat doesn’t really like this point of view: the “New Age bath” seems pejorative. If I were to guess, I’d put him somewhere between #1 and #2. But what really irks him is #3:

3. The secular view.

The view

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, save for the idea that atheism is dominant within the “intelligentsia” (it’s not, even in scientists), and our supposed view that “the common person is the center of creation’s drama,” which isn’t true, either. If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all.  There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig.  Neverthelss, Doubthat hates secularism:

Douthat’s problem

The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

First, I’m not sure what the man means when he says “cosmology does not harmonize at all” with the moral picture of secularism. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is bleak, uninhabitable, and cold.  In fact such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.

Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion.  But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem nihilistic and dark.  But we make our own purposes, and they’re real. Right now my purpose is to write this piece, and then I’ll work on a book, and later I’ll have dinner with a friend. Soon I’ll go to Poland to visit more friends. Maybe later I’ll read a nice book and learn something. Those are real purposes, not illusory purposes to which Douthat wants us to devote our only life.

Nor do all atheists insist on moral and political absolutes. Most of the savvy ones, at least, approach their politics and ethics provisionally.  Take ethics.  Sam Harris, an atheist, wrote a book proposing a scientific view of ethics that, he said, was objective. Many atheists objected, and the arguments went back and forth.  Is it okay to torture people if there’s a possibility to saves lives? Is it ever ethical to lie? It is the atheists who argue about such things, not the Christians, whose sense of ethics is either fixed or malleable from the hammer of secularism.  Secularists like Harris and Peter Singer argue about what’s right and wrong using reason, while people like Joel Osteen, William Lane Craig, and other Christians are the absolutists.

But the worst part is this: Douthat’s characterization of secularism as:

. . .the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

Talk about rope bridges!  What is Christianity but a giant rope bridge flung across the Chasm of Hope. And there’s nothing on the other side.

Utilitarianism may not be a perfect ethical system, but what, pray tell, is Douthat’s? If it’s Biblical, does he give away all his money to follow Jesus, as the Bible commands? Does he think that those who gather sticks on the sabbath, or curse their parents, or commit adultery, should be killed? If not, why not? It’s what the Bible says!  If he doesn’t believe those, then he’s adhering to a secular, extra-Biblical view of ethics, and must then justify it. As for where altruism comes from, who knows? My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural, but what’s important is that we feel it and can justify it.  I can justify it on several grounds, including that altruism makes for a more harmonious society, helps those in need, which makes a better world, and as a selfish motive, being altruistic makes you better liked.  None of that justification has anything to do with God.

I have run on too long, but I want to give Douthat’s penultimate paragraphs, which are even more misleading:

The second [religious question] is whether the intelligentsia’s fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing — will eventually crack up and give way to something new.

The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty.

Check out the two links he gives. The first is to Tom Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos, which decries evolution as insufficient and posits, without any evidence at all, some non-Goddy teleological force driving the universe. It’s a bad book (I’ve read it), and it’s been roundly trounced by his fellow philosophers (see here, for instance). It’s not a crack, but a crackpot book.

The second link goes to a nice article by Steven Weinberg in the New York Review of Books, “Physics: what we do and don’t know.” It’s a succinct summary of the state of the art of both cosmology and particle physics, highlighting the mysteries that beset those fields, including dark matter, dark energy, string theory, how to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces, and whether there might be multiple universes. We don’t know the answers, but what is science without unsolved problems?

And it’s those unsolved problems that Douthat sees as “cracks.” Presumably 200 years ago he would have seen cracks in the unexplained “designlike” features of organisms, in the origin of the universe, and in the unknown constituents of matter.  These “cracks” are the gaps that Douthat fills with God, trying to persuade the reader that unanswered questions somehow presage the death of naturalism.

He’s wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As Douthat should know if he reads his own paper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day we’ll look back on people like Douthat, shake our heads, and wonder why they couldn’t put away their childish things.

68 Comments

  1. francis
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    //

  2. Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    Why is it always about “morality” with these people?

    Is it because they think that is all they have left? Science has answered/dealt with all the other motivations for religion. Do they somehow think that morality is unanswerable? They really need to take a closer look at their own house before they start talking about the difference in morals between atheists and the religious.

  3. Paul
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    The same God? You mean the one that sends Christians to hell if he’s Allah, and Muslims to hell if he’s the Christian God? How can that be the same God?

    Logically, this means he sends everyone to hell.

    I think he’s trolling us.

    • Dave
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m betting on a multiple personality disorder. Only thing that explains it (to my satisfaction!)

  4. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    This bit, which I suspect Douthat finds particularly clever, doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

    . . .the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

    The fact that we have emotions that prevent us from becoming too logical and over thinking every single decision (imagine buying socks or toothpaste) and in those emotions a sense of guilt for doing a wrong turn as well as empathy for understanding what that wrong turn meant to the receiver, provides us plenty of ethics before we take the time to codify them into laws or religions.

    I suppose it would bother Douthat that these ethics arise through brain activity and that damaged brains lack such things (for example: sociopaths lack empathy, those with damage to the prefrontal cortex lack the ability to control their impulses and still other damage to other parts of the brain stifle emotions and paralyze the ability to function in society and cooperate well with others) but his repugnance won’t change the fact that we don’t need religion to be “good” or get along with one another or find awe and beauty in the universe and our lives.

    His whole bridge analogy is just a poetic turn of phrase which when analyzed further reveals it’s true nature as a deepity.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

      Forgive me apostrophe faux pas.

      • gbjames
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Domini, Domini, Domini. All is forgiven.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          :)

    • Sastra
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      The phrase “rope bridges thrown across a chasm” represent all of philosophy, ethics, and science. Right. Apparently those are hasty and inadequate fixes for the proper and true nature of things, flimsy attempts to compensate for a universe which is supposed to have the essential nature of Morality as a basic property. It just IS moral.

      How and why and in what way would that work? Don’t ask: leap across those questions and just try to do what you’re told.

      Douthat is also confusing an explanation for why we ARE moral animals with what the best moral choice is or ought to be — and why we ought to choose to follow that. As usual. Big Lump O’ Morality vs. thinking hard and carefully.

  5. Dermot C
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Douthat’s style reminds me of Eagleton and Giles Fraser; all 3 of them evidently love the frisson of cosying up to slightly archaic biblical demotic, of the casual denigration of science and of the oxymoronic and purple poetic phrase to define for the nth time the numinous, transcendent, my awe, your philistinism – the old rope pay-off line.

    Tiresome and patronising.

    Slaínte.

  6. Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    God of the cracks … 

    /@

    • gravityfly
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Good one!

  7. Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    From Douthat:

    But the biblical narrative, the great critic Erich Auerbach wrote, depicted “something which neither the poets nor the historians of antiquity ever set out to portray: the birth of a spiritual movement in the depths of the common people, from within the everyday occurrences of contemporary life.”

    Oh, what utter and complete bullshit. Purest Christian liar-for-Jesus propaganda, of the Hitlerian Big Lie variety.

    It falls flat on its face in every conceivable way from every possible perspective.

    From a Biblical literalist perspective, Christianity is the institutionalization of Jesus’s teachings during the time that he came down from Heaven in order to instruct humanity in the proper way to live life. Jesus was not a common person; he was the Eternal Co-Creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything. And he inserted himself into the community, by way of a virgin’s womb, from the ultimate outside realm of Heaven. And his biography is the ultimate expression of uncommon occurrences — what else are miracles?

    From an historical Christian perspective, we see the earliest Christian apologists, starting with Justin Martyr himself, vigorously and unambiguously arguing that Christianity closely parallels its pagan contemporaries, and that the reason for this is that evil demons with the power of foresight knew Jesus was coming and so planted false religions ahead of time in order to lead honest men astray and convince them that it was Jesus who was the unoriginal knockoff. Indeed, the substance of the early Christian arguments is as easy to verify as the explanation is to dismiss: not a single bullet point of Jesus’s biography is without pagan precedent, and Christian philosophy is lifted wholesale from that of Philo, who himself grafted Hellenism onto Judaism.

    And that, of course, points to the rational objective perspective: that Christianity was just another pagan death / rebirth mystery cult, indistinguishable from all its contemporaries, save for an accident of history that left it as the popular one in favor at the time of the Fall of Rome and this its successor and inheritor. There is nothing novel in Christianity, unless you’re the type to consider the plot to Kiss Me Kate innovative.

    But, of course, Christians want to perceive themselves as special, unique, fresh snowflakes, which is why they make up these sorts of lies to comfort themselves with. Gah! Gag me with a spoon. Please!

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      Exactly. It’s as if they think the basic story-line of “humble little person turns out to be very important after all and amazes everyone” (or its flip-side of “powerful person goes undercover as humble and then reveals all to the amazed”) originated 2,000 years ago. There’s just no accounting for it otherwise! No prior history, no cross-cultural tendencies to think this way or like this sort of story! Unprecedented and totally unique!

      It reminds me of that book someone wrote a few years back, about how the Jews changed the world because Abraham was the very first person in the whole history of humankind who decided to move — and people told other people about it. Really. It makes you wonder just what planet the religious live on and if they think the millions of years of our ancestors’ history was enacted by shadowy cartoon figures who just bumbled around without interacting any personal or group dramas.

      • Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        It boggles my mind, too…until I remember that these are the same people — or, at least, their close intellectual cousins — who think that Abraham was a real person who lived just a few generations after Noah schlepped the entire biosphere around on a wooden life raft for a month and a half following a global flood — and that all this happened during the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty.

        When you get to degrees of stupid that comprehensive and hopeless…well, the resulting insanity is as undefinable as division by zero.

        <sigh />

        b&

        • Sastra
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          The only way you can justify Hell as righteous and moral is to be capable of seeing great swaths of humanity as one-dimensional Bad Guys. Mysticism itself rests on mentally creating enlightened insiders like you … and defective outsiders like the people you don’t like thinking about.

          • Posted December 23, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

            I think that’s probably the ultimate form of the evil that religion takes. It’s the ultimate expression of xenophobia, of us-versus-them — and it cannot even in theory be any more ultimate, because the all-good all-powerful all-knowing all-loving Creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything is on our side, and all those not with him are by definition against him.

            And it’s a perfectly logical conclusion from the premises, too. A god that controls the wind and the rain is more powerful than one that just controls the rain; that leads to god-inflation such that the all-powerful ultimate overlord who watches over every sparrow is inevitable. And you have to have picked the right ultimate god because there can be only one. If you’re right, then all the others must be not just mistraken, but actively evil — what else could possibly explain those who fail to understand something so obvious?

            Now, once somebody has so easily gotten himself wedged into such an unsupportable position…the only way out can easily involve unravelling everything, all the way back to the god that just controls the rain. And, thanks to cognitive dissonance, many too many people aren’t willing to back down from those sorts of positions.

            That’s why hope is mostly for the younger generations — and why ridicule is so important and effective a tool against the insanity. Kids might fall for the pageantry of the Mass, but they’re not going to be interested in explaining why they think zombies and talking animals and magic wands are really real.

            Cheers,

            b&

  8. NewEnglandBob
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I can’t stomach Douthat’s columns enough to get through an entire one any longer. He is always wrong in the most egregious way.

    Even George Will gets one right occasionally like today’s column on fusion research needing more funding.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

      I haven’t read Will’s column…but fusion is a non-starter, if you’ll pardon the pun.

      Fusion power, by its very nature, will always be big and industrial and therefore expensive. Never mind that the raw materials for the fuel is essentially free; coal is similarly almost essentially free — anywhere from $10 / ton to $70 / ton, depending on source.

      In contrast, utility-scale solar is already price-competitive with other forms of peak production, and solar is almost entirely up-front capital costs with almost no operating and maintenance costs — just what you’d need for anything with that much electricity flowing through it. Solar scales up and down just fine. And the US alone has more than enough existing rooftop square footage to power the entire planet’s electricity needs.

      What we need to solve both our energy and pollution problems is to invest in the capital for solar, just the same way that we invested in infrastructure in the WPA, or the post-WWII reconstruction of Germany and Japan. (That, and we need to reverse human population growth until we’re at least back below the billion mark.)

      And, yes — solar only makes energy when the Sun is shining. But there’s far more than enough to even do expensive things like convert atmospheric CO2 into hydrocarbon fuels to be burned overnight and in vehicle engines.

      With a fusion plant like the Sun operating a mere hundred million miles away, there’s no point in building our own, ever. It’ll aways — always be more economical to convert power from the Sun into some more convenient form than to go to the bother of inducing fusion ourselves.

      Even in the unimaginably-distant future, it’ll make more sense to put collectors in close solar orbit and use the energy to manufacture antimatter fuel than it will to run fusion plants.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        “solar only makes energy when the Sun is shining”

        A British Gas engineer who visited us recently noted that even on an overcast day, commercially available solar systems would exceed the needs of our household electronics.

        /@

        • Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          And he’d be right.

          I have maybe a third of my roof’s total square footage covered in solar panels. Most of the southern half is covered, but there’s a fair amount of borders, and the north half of the roof (including a fair amount of covered patio space) is a lot bigger.

          Granted, I’m in Arizona, but I annually generate about half again as much as I use. Enough, in fact, that, when I finally get an electric vehicle, I’ll be able to charge it for free with my excess.

          The worst place for solar in the US, the Olympia region of Washington State, would need less than twice as much surface area to match my generation capacity.

          Even now, in the dead of winter, on our cloudiest and rainiest and coldest days, I don’t even run a double-digit KWh net daily deficit. And, of course, on days like today when it’s cold but clear, I’m going to generate a double-digit surplus.

          For the most part, household solar installations repay themselves in roughly several years. If you remember the Rule of 70, that works out to about a 10% annual rate of return on your investment, and it’s guaranteed better than any other. Why financial advisers aren’t telling their clients to first invest in personal rooftop solar before real estate or the markets can only be explained by ignorance and / or commissions.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Chris
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            F***ing invisible wavelengths, how do they work?

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        I don’t see why they are mutually exclusive. Attempt both and see which one(s) get there.

        The big problem is trying to get the funding.

        • Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

          Well, in a very real sense, we’ve done exactly that. And solar is rapidly passing everything else that had a huge head start while fusion hasn’t even gotten out of the starting blocks.

          Plus…fusion requires huge amounts of funding just to see whether or not we can make it work, while investments in solar are investments in actual production power-producing units. That four billion or so spent on the NIF alone so far could build a PV plant bigger than any nuclear plant in North America and for less upfront capital — or, it could put rooftop solar on a quarter to an half a million homes.

          The sunk cost fallacy is really starting to come into play with fusion. Fusion is definitely a well worthy field of scientific research…but, as a commercial energy-producing enterprise, it’s one of the biggest white elephants in modern history. Much better to put the money into the SSC or NASA.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • gluonspring
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

            But fusion is so cool. Just imagine a power plant that transfers heat from it’s core with rivers of liquid metal! Now that’s manly power American can get behind.

            • gluonspring
              Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

              an American

            • Posted December 23, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

              Oh, there’s absolutely a lot of hot coolness about fusion power.

              But, believe me, I can make a much more effective pitch for the power of the Sun…a glowing ball of plasma half a million miles around, four billion years old and not even close to running out, converting over four million tons of matter into energy every second at a rate of hundreds of yottawatts, consuming an Earth-sized mass every few score millennia….

              Cheers,

              b&

              • gluonspring
                Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:17 am | Permalink

                Just in case it wasn’t clear, I was trying to be funny (manly power). Though I think there is a grain of truth to it insofar as that’s how people react to solar power: as something weak and unserious, the power of unrealistic dreamers and hippie flower children. If memory serves me, the 24/7/365 average solar energy on a square meter in the U.S. is about 200W, which is at least 20W of recoverable solar power with old tech. It is easy from there to calculate how much area we’d have to cover to generate all energy needed. I used to worry about running out of fossil fuels and not having enough energy for civilization until I did this calculation once and determined that we could easily get all our energy from the sun. I think it worked out that covering a sizable fraction of Nevada with low tech solar cells would do it. Might sound like a lot to some, but we’re talking about the foundation of civilization here so… no. I’ve never been too concerned about nigh time usage. With enough excess peak input there are a lot of things we could do for that. In the worst case we could make hydrogen from the hydrolysis of water and burn that at night, or a hundred other things that are all straightforward engineering. So now I’m just concerned that we won’t do it until it’s too late.

              • Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

                I think it worked out that covering a sizable fraction of Nevada with low tech solar cells would do it.

                Close…but the right calculation isn’t total area, but percentage of extant rooftop area. Why rip up some of the most beautiful land on earth when you can generate the power right where you’ll use it?

                (And, yes, Nevada is amazingly beautiful…once you’re on your feet in the middle of that nowhere. From 30,000 feet or at 70 mph on the freeway, it’s blah, sure. But that’s no way to experience true beauty!)

                When I last did the calculation, the total residential rooftop area in the US was enough to meet the electrical needs of the whole planet. Expand that past residential rooftops and outside US borders, and you’ve trivially got enough rooftop area to provide all energy for every use for everybody.

                Also, you might want to check your figures. That 200W, I’m pretty sure, already takes into account efficiency losses. The standard ballpark figure for total insolation is 1 KW / m^2.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • gluonspring
                Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the average daytime solar power at the surface is about 1000 W/m^2. That’s a standard figure you see everywhere. ~200W is averaged across night-time and takes into account the changing incidence angle of the sun and it’s absence at night (that’s what I meant by 24/7/365 average). Something in the 200W range, maybe 250W, is probably the right figure for estimating what power you will actually have available in North America if you were able to capture and store all of it. Of course, solar cell efficiency is somewhere in the 10-20% range depending on the tech, so net you’ll have something more like 20-40W/m^2. And you will lose some more when you try to store it for night time. But if you’re just trying to get rough idea how much area it’d take to equal our current power consumption, that’s probably a decent figure to use. If you’re building a solar panel for your home and trying to figure out when you’ll break even, you’d need a completely different and more detailed calculation.

                The main point is that no matter how conservative you are there is plenty of solar power, and even if you were arguing (I’m not) that most roofs are poorly placed and so on so that you have to build it out in a clear desert somewhere, there would still physically be enough space for it all. That is, there is absolutely no reason we should have to give up on civilization, so long as we have the will to address this problem before we are on the bad side of an energy availability curve (e.g. not enough fossil fuel to bootstrap the switch).

              • Posted December 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                You prompted me to go to a source I’ve found reliable for these sorts of things: Tom Murphy’s now-defunct blog (presumably, defunct because it’s a blog and not a Web site).

                Here’s a page with lots of relevant data:

                http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/12/wind-fights-solar/

                If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see a chart that suggests that a good back-of-the-envelope rough average number to use for insolation for the US is 5 kWh / m^2 / day. Assume 15% PV efficiency; that puts us at 0.75 kWh / m^2 / day. Google says the American average per-capita electricity consumption is about 37 kWh / day (a mind-boggling huge number, but whatever), so you’d need, on average 50 m^2 / person / household for electricity. That’s about 500 square feet. If you figure 1500 square feet for a typical suburban home (the Census puts the average at over half again as much for new construction) and with three people living therein, cover the roof with panels and you’ve got 100% offset.

                That 37 kWh / day / person figure is so much bigger than what I’d expect that I strongly suspect it includes industrial, not just household usage. And that would be in line with my earlier estimates of just needing to cover residential rooftops in order to meet total electricity demand. My own experience is that you need a lot less than complete roof coverage to offset personal electricity needs.

                As another rough guesstimate, half our energy consumption is electric, so double those figures to get total energy needs. Expand off residential rooftops to commercial rooftops and, especially, parking lots, and you’re done.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted December 24, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                Why do you say, “now defunct”?

                Tom posted just last week…

                /@

              • Posted December 24, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, I just saw…first post since September, though. Three months between posts is pretty much defunct in the Internet age.

                b&

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        We will need both decentralized and concentrated power sources in intelligent power grids.

        The advantage with nuclears (don’t forget fission!) is that they scale up nicely and are efficient vs land use et cetera. With renewable power sources you take the best spots cheap, then it becomes expensive and crowding other land use.

        “It’ll aways — always be more economical to convert power from the Sun into some more convenient form than to go to the bother of inducing fusion ourselves.”

        Claim in need of reference.

        “use the energy to manufacture antimatter fuel”.

        The problem with antimatter is that it has always been ‘the fuel for 500 years from now’. =D

        • Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

          We will need both decentralized and concentrated power sources in intelligent power grids.

          Yes, but we already have all the concentrated power infrastructure built. Our baseload capacity (at least, here in the States) is just fine; it’s the peak production that’s most in need of expansion.

          By the time renewables have been built out enough to start to cut into baseload generation capacity, they’ll also have been built out enough for storage to be economical. That can be in many forms, from pumped hydro to compressed air in caverns to electric vehicle batteries to liquid hydrocarbons. (The Nazis used the Fischer-Tropsch process when they got desperate at the end of the War; it’s an economical equation, not a technological one. And solar-powered hydrocarbon production is cheaper than some forms of tar sands recovery, so those lines on the cost-benefit graph are going to cross sooner than you might think.)

          The advantage with nuclears (dont forget fission!) is that they scale up nicely and are efficient vs land use et cetera. With renewable power sources you take the best spots cheap, then it becomes expensive and crowding other land use.

          Not true with solar! Almost every rooftop in the US is economical for solar. Yes, it’s true for hyrdo (with all the good spots long since taken) and somewhat true for wind (though cropland and wind can cohabit swimmingly, and farmers can make a nice and predictable profit as energy producers on top of their other land uses). But solar works great almost anywhere except for extreme latitudes, and there aren’t all that many people or much industry in such places. Perfect, enemy, good, and all that.

          Itll aways always be more economical to convert power from the Sun into some more convenient form than to go to the bother of inducing fusion ourselves.

          Claim in need of reference.

          I do believe you provided one, yourself, in your previous post. If fusion is a half a century in the future, and solar is not just practical but cheap today, it seems unlikely in the extreme that fusion can even hope of catching up. We’ll either have switched away from petroleum in half a century or civilization will be in dire economic collapse. Only solar has the raw numbers to compete, even if it’s a lot more expensive than sticking giant straws in the ground. But when those straws suck dry, you’re left with expensive or nothing….

          use the energy to manufacture antimatter fuel

          The problem with antimatter is that it has always been the fuel for 500 years from now. =D

          Oh, more than that, I should think. I don’t think the numbers even make sense for commercial operations until you can run major industrial operations inside of Mercury’s orbit — and, by “major,” I mean, “utterly dwarfing anything humanity has ever seriously contemplated.”

          But…right now, today, a talented and well-funded student could make a science fair project that made internal-combustion-compatible hydrocarbon fuel with solar photovoltaics and atmospheric CO2. Compare that with a Farnsworth Fusor, and you might understand why I make the comparisons….

          Cheers,

          b&

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

          Agreed. There is always a need for reliable, concentrated power generation, either for industrial processes or urban centers.

          It’s also silly to imagine that fusion researchers can’t see past the coolness to the “fact” of solar power’s inevitable and obvious “victory”. Certainly the siren song of a completely decentralized power system has a coolness factor all its own for many people.

          Lastly, we need to get off carbon fuels as quickly as possible, and we have all the resources we need to pursue multiple viable options. IMHO, it’s pointless to get bent out of shape about one particular option when that basic question is the real crisis.

          An appropriate carbon tax would not only reduce carbon fuel consumption but provide more than sufficient for every promising energy research program.

        • gluonspring
          Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:03 am | Permalink

          I’ve flown over Nevada. We’ve got land. ;-)

      • Posted January 2, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

        Probably no one is paying attention to this thread any more, but I just happened upon it and the comment that fusion is inherently unworkable. I certainly don’t know what I’m talking about with respect to fusion power, but I was really impressed by this Lockheed-Martin Skunkworks project. I don’t know if they can do what they think they can do, but one thing I do know: they are serious legitimate scientists and aren’t cranks. Watch this video from Google’s “Solve for X”:

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      For more than 50 years, fusion has been ‘the energy source for 50 years from now’. We are far closer to viable energy storage solutions that will take renewables from a ‘40% of all energy’ source to something much closer to 100% of all energy.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        It used to be ’40 years’ I believe, and that was speculation up until around -00. At that time fusion scientists knew enough to formulate a detailed plan. Yes, it is still “40 years”, but they can also tell us how much longer it will take without the optimum funding. (They haven’t got that, so it’s more like 60 years to commercial plants now.)

        • Timothy Hughbanks
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

          Taking your word for it, 40 years to commercial plants means, what, 60 years before fusion can be producing a as much fission nukes do now?

          • Latverian Diplomat
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

            Hopefully they can do better than that. One of the mistakes made with fission power is that every plant was a fairly unique artifact.

            The goal of ITER is a standard design that can be replicated relatively easily. Partly because this is the design goal of the project, and partly because many of the elaborate and expensive containment and safety features of a pressurized water fission reactor are not needed.

            Given that standard design, the hope is that you have a drop in replacement for a typically sized coal burning power plant, and we can replace those plants as they wear out, if not faster.

        • Latverian Diplomat
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          The website slashdot did a community interview with a group of MIT fusion researchers a year and a half ago. Granted, that site is a mixed, but this particular effort was very good, and had a good comment on the “always 40 years away” problem:

          “This seems like a long time, and it is, but it’s important to understand that this is not the only possible path. You might say that we’re not a certain number of years away from a working fusion power plant, but rather about $80-billion away (in worldwide funding)… there are other experiments that could be done in parallel with ITER that would certainly speed up the goal of a demonstration power plant, if there were the money for it.”

          There is also a graph that puts the current fusion research funding in rather grim perspective with what’s possible with more aggressive funding. The graph is here:

          http://imgur.com/sjH5r

          The full article is here:

          http://slashdot.org/story/167399

  9. Merilee
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    David Brooks ( also NYT) is my favorite Conservative; he’s generally very reasonable. I did read somewhere, though, that his xtian wife converted to Judaism and has caused him to be more observant than before.

    Douthat is very hard to stomach.

    • George
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Brooks is at best not as horrible as Douthat. Charles Pierce did a wonderful job of taking apart a recent column from Brooks.

      http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/david-brooks-emerges-from-book-leave-120313

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Brooks is just more soft-spoken – he is more politely vicious. I hadn’t read his tripe for quite a while, but some time ago I heard him on NPR doing the “Brooks and Shields” bit and he reminded me why I stopped reading him. He seriously claimed that Scott Walker’s having outspent his opponent 8 to 1 wasn’t the reason for Walker’s survival (and Shields is too fossilized to ask why Walker spent all that money then – you know, since he didn’t need to?)

        • Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          Mom calls them Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber. I’m not sure which is which.

          b&

    • mcirvin14
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Some of the writers at The American Conservative are worth reading – particularly Daniel Larison. The very infrequently updated blog SecularRight is sometimes interesting as well. I used to be fascinated by the self-proclaimed neo-reactionaries that surrounded the late Lawrence Auster. At times both illuminating and disgusting.

  10. Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “These ‘cracks’ are the gaps that Douthat fills with God.”

    Or the psychostimulant that must be smoked to make such fabrications tenable.

  11. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Too bad his noggin doesn’t take a clue from his name.

  12. George
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why anyone takes Douthat seriously. He is a nothing – brought up by a wacky, seeking mother who kept changing religions until she – and her family – became Catholic when Ross was 17. Mother Jones had a great profile on him when he got the NYT job.
    Ross Douthat’s Fantasy World
    The New York Times’ wunderkind columnist is on a quest to save intellectual conservatism.

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/01/ross-douthat-new-york-times-conservatism

    He has the strident tone of a convert. The worst kind of catholic. I was raised catholic – and had 12 years of “catholic education”. I was an atheist for the last six years of that struggle.

    You get a different view of Douthat’s beloved catholic church when you see it from the belly of the beast. It is a corrupt, venal institution led by very weird, immature, socially maladroit men. No one should be surprised by the sex abuse scandals. Everyone knew what was going on with the priests. Most were not diddling with boys. There were more drunks. And many more “ministering to the widows of the parish.” Yet Douthat, in his convert’s zeal, thinks this stinking carcass is ready for moral leadership.

    • gluonspring
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      I’m unfamiliar with the guy, but if he is that bad perhaps the NYT didn’t really want to present the best face of conservatism? Maybe he’s like the weak-kneed liberals that Fox News employs.

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    “Are there any conservative columnists who aren’t either mush-brained”

    Given that today’s conservatism requires the denial of well-established facts, the answer is “No”.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      That’s just it, of course.

      American conservatives used to have honest-but-misguided ideas about the proper roles of public and private enterprise.

      Modern conservatives either use adolescent Randian libertarian fantasies as cover for unabashed plutocracy or are campaigning for a Christian theocracy.

      There’s a great deal to criticize American Democrats for, as well, of course…about the only positive thing to say in their favor is that they’re not as batshit fucking insane as the Republicans….

      b&

  14. gravityfly
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    That post was a tour de force, Jerry! And the last paragraph was a beaut!

  15. Sastra
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    The spiritual picture lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.

    Yeah, but at least the spiritual picture agrees with the Biblical picture on the essential thing: better not be an atheist. Faith is a special, precious, beautiful thing which leads us to Truth — if you get it right. Which the secular view won’t.

    I find it amusing when Christians want to lump atheists with New Agers.

    In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher.

    Fallacy of Division: if the whole doesn’t have a property then none of the parts can have it either — because obvious. Morals can only come from a moral source which comes from a moral source so that it’s made out of morals all the way down or it doesn’t count. Douthat thinks like a 3 year old who assumes right and wrong depend on a Parent making it so and telling them.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      Fallacy of Division: if the whole doesnt have a property then none of the parts can have it either because obvious. Morals can only come from a moral source which comes from a moral source so that its made out of morals all the way down or it doesnt count.

      …helped, to be sure, by a heaping side order of Platonic Idealism….

      b&

  16. lamacher
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Outstanding piece, Jerry, and the commentary – for the most part – is outstanding, too.

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Yule always brings out the worst in religion:

    We don’t know the answers, but what is science without unsolved problems?

    And it’s those unsolved problems that Douthat sees as “cracks.” Presumably 200 years ago he would have seen cracks in the unexplained “designlike” features of organisms, in the origin of the universe, and in the unknown constituents of matter. These “cracks” are the gaps that Douthat fills with God, trying to persuade the reader that unanswered questions somehow presage the death of naturalism.

    And importantly, as Sean Carroll describes, the deep unanswered questions are now removed from everyday physics. Chemistry and biology, in conflict with bulk of “the biblical picture”, are well validated and solid on all their scales from quantum mechanics and up.

    Moreover, it has become apparent in that process that both quantum mechanics at large and effective field theories in particular happen to have firewalls against outside interaction. (E.g. no hidden variables, valid energy ranges.) Making those purported ‘powerful’ magical agencies shy beasts.

    He’s wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith.

    Religion, now in the crack spot!

  18. Dermot C
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Douthat’s – or any – biblical literalism category doesn’t really make sense. The NT is made up of 27 books written by at least 10 different authors over about 60 years in genres ranging from theological narrative, epistle, seriously naïve historical narrative and apocalyptical jeremiad.

    The idea of their all being ‘literally’ true in every word could only arise from an over-arching theological perspective; it is simply nonsensical to entertain the idea that it could all be true from either a literary-critical or historical perspective. And it’s the same case, only much more so, for the OT.

    The terrain of Literalism and the Bible is a category error. I think we should point out that the pitch is unplayable.

    Slaínte.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      And in this season it’s especially important to remember that the two gospels that mention the story of the baby Jesus have different, and essentially incompatible, versions…

      • Dermot C
        Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Several points on that: the only time the NT possibly references Jesus’ date of birth is Luke’s shepherds in the field (2:8). They were pastured in first century Palestine between March and November: the NT makes the claim that Jesus couldn’t have been born in December. Matthew’s star and the Magi story simply doesn’t work for lots of reasons.

        Luke also alleges the empire-wide census: there wasn’t one. He confuses it with the census of Quirinius, the governor of Judea, 10 years later, after Herod the Great’s death. There would also be no reason for Joseph to register for that census: Galilee was not a Roman province – it was ruled by the client ruler Herod Antipas, who, as long as he paid his dues to Rome, was free to govern as he wished.

        Jesus didn’t actually live in a Roman province.

        Matthew’s post-birth Egyptian exodus establishes Jesus’ Moses-in-reverse theme. Both Matthew and Luke were obviously accounting for the Nazarene’s birth in Bethlehem because of their fetish for prophecy – that the Messiah would could from Bethlehem – and everyone knew that Jesus was from Nazareth.

        But, the Nativity stories are barely mentioned in the first two hundred years of Christianity, and not at all in the rest of the NT; for the earliest Christians, they weren’t that big a deal. Marcion in the middle of the second century is said by the proto-orthodox to have deleted Luke’s nativity tale: this makes you wonder whether it was there in the first place, but I have never seen a proposal that it was an interpolation as late as CE 170.

        Slaínte.

  19. Larry Cook
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant response to an inane and mean spirited column.

  20. Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Brooks is a boob too in my opinion. Completely worthless to read. There hasn’t been a decent conservative columnist since William Safire. Now HE was fun to disagree with, and could write (and reason) persuasively.

  21. ToddP
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not.

    He’s quite right. The alternative is completely invisible. So invisible, in fact, that it almost seems as if it doesn’t even exist.

    Excellent piece, Jerry! They keep pitching you fastballs right down the middle.

  22. TFBW
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t.

    If the sense of self is a neuronal illusion, as you say, then surely any sense of purpose that the self has must be doubly illusory? What is “purpose” such that a life can have it, even given a purposeless universe, and how can it be something other than an illusion?

  23. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    The same God? You mean the one that sends Christians to hell if he’s Allah, and Muslims to hell if he’s the Christian God? How can that be the same God?

    Either (1) the god in question is a deranged psychopath capable of believing multiple mutually exclusive things at the same time.
    Or, (2) multiple personality diagnosis is a credible alternative diagnosis – Sundays she is the god of the Christly Jews ; Fridays the god of the Mohammedly Jews ; and Saturdays she’s on to the Original Jews (do some of the Reform Jews take other Holy Days? Or the Mormonly Jews? I don’t know ; not my problem). [I am treating all the monotheisms I can think of with a distended belly ; polytheisms don't have a fundamental problem here.]
    Or (3), to mis-quote Cromwell, “Send them all to Hell and let Satan sort them out.”
    I suspect these are not cheering thought to the religiously-afflicted. “Tough.” is my response.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      “multiple personality disorder”, not “diagnosis” ; too much blood in the belly, not the braincell. Post-prandial lipaemia.


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