Ross Douthat’s theodicy

Over at today’s New York Times, conservative author Ross Douthat is upset at Richard Dawkins’s piece on Pat Robertson, Haiti, and theodicy.

But Dawkins’ “defense” of Robertson, against the “milquetoast” Christians who rushed to disavow the televangelist’s suggestion that the Haitian earthquake victims were being singled out for divine punishment, offers an interesting illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.

How does Douthat (the name begs for puns!) harmonize the disaster in Haiti with the notion of a powerful and loving God? By quoting the words of Jesus:

I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45) . .

There’s a heavy stress on sin and the possibility of ultimate punishment here, obviously. (Plenty for Richard Dawkins to find obnoxious, in other words.) But Jesus also lays a heavy emphasis on the idea that we shouldn’t interpret the vicissitudes of this life as God’s way of picking winners and losers, or of punishing particularly egregious sinners. Until the harvest, the wheat and tares all grow together, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and those who survive natural disasters are as liable to judgment as those who perish in them. . .

In other words, everything will be equalized in the afterlife.  That’s bogus, of course.  What could happen in the afterlife to discount the suffering of children who die of leukemia, before they’ve even had a chance to sin?  Or those innocent victims of Haiti?  Do you stand a better chance of going to heaven if you’re a good person who has experienced undeserved illness, evil, or disaster, than if you’re a good person who hasn’t?  Douthat’s remedy here is the same as those who take the Bible literally:  in the end, everything is judged appropriately, although we can’t understand exactly how God is going to do it.

So is it reasonable to believe that the Gospel passages quoted above “speak more clearly” than, say, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to the question of whether Christians should interpret the events in Haiti as God’s punishment for some (spurious) 18th-century sin? I think it is. So do many theologians, ancient as well as modern, Protestant as well as Catholic, And the fact that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson both disagree tells us something, important, I think, about the symbiosis between the new atheism and fundamentalism — how deeply the new atheists are invested in the idea that a mad literalism is the truest form of any faith, and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.

I’m not sure exactly which “new atheist” has claimed that “mad literalism is the truest form of faith.”  I think people like Dawkins assert that it is a very common form of faith, and those who don’t adhere to it—who pick and choose what they want from Scripture (as Douthat does above, conveniently leaving out the Old Testament)—don’t have good reasons for their particular interpretations.

Douthat neglects the theodicy of Jews, who of course don’t accept the New Testament and so can’t invoke the conciliatory words of Jesus. But even considering Christianity alone, Doubthat still fails to address the most important question of all:  how do you harmonize an ominipotent and beneficent God with the idea of natural disasters and the horrible suffering of some innocent people?  True, some “modern” Christians don’t see the events in Haiti as God’s punishment of sinners, or of anyone else.  But these Christians still haven’t explained, at least to the satisfaction of any rational and inquisitive person, why God allows things like that to happen if He could prevent them. In that sense, Pat Robertson has a better answer than those oh-so-sophisticated modern theologians.

If Douthat was right, there would be no need for theodicy. But of course there is: it’s one of the busiest areas of modern, non-literalistic theology.

64 Comments

  1. Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “But these Christians still haven’t explained, at least to the satisfaction of any rational and inquisitive person, why God allows things like that to happen if He could prevent them. In that sense, Pat Robertson has a better answer than those oh-so-sophisticated modern theologians.”

    Yes, exactly. And the Christians who act like Robertson is a “fake” Christian, a “caricature” who just doesn’t “get it” frustrate me to no end, especially when they try to use theology to back up their points. How hard is it to understand that theology doesn’t mean anything to those of us who don’t believe in a god?

    SIGH

    Also, I posted a comment over there a few hours ago but it’s still not up. I realize that they moderate comments, but it’s been quite a while now.

    • Josh Slocum
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      Don’t feel bad, Miranda. I tried to post a comment on the Times’ “Live Blogging” (which they had the nerve to label “Live Analysis“)thread on Obama’s speech. What did I write? I begged them to put the “live blogging” in chronological order, so that when you click on the page, the first entries appear first, not the “latest” entries.

      As it stands, you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to see the earliest entries, then read up, in an unnatural, counter-intuitive fashion, to read the “latest.” I asked them if they ordinarily placed the last paragraph of a news story directly under the headline.

      Needless to say, my comment didn’t appear, and never will. If they are so feckless they can’t deal with common-sense constructive criticism about reader-friendliness, I doubt someone like Douhat will address anything substantive.

      /grump

      • Posted January 28, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

        Ugh, yes, it’s quite frustrating. I understand that they want to moderate comments, but it’s ridiculous to be SO picky and SO protective of the author. It’s not as if my comment was snarky or rude in any way.

        The Huffington Post is the worst, though, when it comes to heavy-handed moderation. I’ve tried to comment there twice and both times my comments were rejected. I have no idea why, as they weren’t impolite at all. They explicitly state that they want to protect the author, but, if you’re going to post an opinion piece online, you need to be willing to face at least some criticism/be open to all kinds of responses, as long as they’re not full of personal attacks, etc. Plus, on one of the articles I tried to comment on, half of the comments were made up of bible verses, so bible verses are acceptable, but (quite mild) criticism is not? That makes no sense to me.

    • Konradius
      Posted February 8, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      “mad literalism is the truest form of faith.”

      I havn’t read the comments, but I had to respond to this point in the post. (the comments don’t quote this)

      This quote of course is a mischaracterization of what Dawkins has said. The source is I think the idea that the fundamentalist is the most honest believer.
      If you abandon “mad literalism” to some midway position between faith and what we like to call the real world, then you will necessarily have to start cherry-picking your beliefs and your science. This will compromise your honesty.

  2. Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Bonfires of strawmen light the night sky as another apophatiquack gives it the ‘ol college try.

    Epic fail Ross.

  3. Antonio Manetti
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    [T]hese Christians still haven’t explained, at least to the satisfaction of any rational and inquisitive person, why God allows things like that to happen if He could prevent them.

    An interesting conundrum. God creates a universe in which He has to step in every now and then and rescue his favored creatures from the consequences of his creation, like plaques, earthquakes, etc.

    Some theologian (I wish I could remember who) recently suggested that theologians give up on theodicy. I can see why. It seems to create more problems for belief than it solves.

    • MadScientist
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      You might be thinking of one of the Harvard chaplains (whose name I also forget), but I don’t think he’s a theologian.

  4. stvs
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Douthat: Jesus also lays a heavy emphasis on the idea that we shouldn’t interpret the vicissitudes of this life as God’s way of picking winners and losers, or of punishing particularly egregious sinners.

    Bullshit. Bring on the Jesus quotes to point out Douthat’s highly selective quoting. Why don’t the earthquake victims simply ask Jesus for clean water, food, and miraculous healing from their wounds? John 14:14 has Jesus saying that they can ask for anything in His name, and He will do it. Why doesn’t He?

    The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. —Jesus, Matthew 13:41–42

    His master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” —Jesus, Matthew 18:34–35

    Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. —Jesus, Matthew 19:29

    Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. —Jesus, Mark 16:16–18

    You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. —Jesus, John 14:14

    • Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      I can see what you’re saying here, stvs, but that first scripture is a (probably unintentional) selective quote on your part. The verse before it (verse 40) gives clear context:

      “so shall it be in the end of this world.”

      The passage (including verses 41 and 42) is talking about the apocalypse or judgement day. Until that day occurs, nothing that happens can be interpreted as angels weeding out “all who do evil”.

  5. Kiran Derby
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Sigh. It’s simple. If you have in hand a list that looks something like this:

    A) All these statements are true messages and instructions from an omnipotent being.
    B) Don’t eat salmon.
    C) Kill people with mustaches.
    D) Violation of B or C will result in billions of years of horrific torture.

    and you used to do all of it but now ignore C and don’t really like to make definite statements in regard to D *you have some serious explaining to do.*

    From a pragmatic, secular perspective, it’s no trouble at all- your adherents got tired of killing the mustache-festooned, and their numbers were depleted by retaliatory killings, and so you sensibly compromised, as it seemed to be an unnecessary restriction without discernible benefit- and intend, as a secularist looking at said religion, it will be a choice I am glad they collectively made- for my sake and theirs, and if they wish to make more such relaxations in doctrine, I will certainly cheer them on.

    What I must do in that process, however, is point out that they are ultimately making a secular choice. You may try to dress it up with faux scholarship- “but passage E says we shouldn’t really put ourselves out, and C just seems like a hassle these days, C was actually snuck in by the devil as a test and we just figured it out, C is a translation error by a 4th century clerk, but God really does stand behind A, B, and D- at least till we hear otherwise after excommunicating some salmon-eaters, etc”- but to an outside observer it’s plain as day you are violating the internal logic of a supposedly infallible-or-something-like-it-document for purposes of trying to thrive in a world vastly different from that in which it was authored.

    It’s like the old “You’re an atheist about Neptune- I just believe in one fewer god,” except it’s “You don’t believe in half your book either- I just hacked out a few more lines.”

  6. CWD
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    But Jesus also lays a heavy emphasis on the idea that we shouldn’t interpret the vicissitudes of this life as God’s way of picking winners and losers, or of punishing particularly egregious sinners.
    So shut up and obey! Don’t question or try and make things better. God will make it all better in the afterlife so you don’t need to rock the boat in this one.
    Religion is designed to make tools of us.

    Dear Hatians,
    Sorry 200K of you have died. Too bad about that. Not much I will do about it either, but I gotcher back in the next life.
    Now I got a special message to the kiddies:
    Hey kids, sorry about your moms and dads and brothers and sisters and grandparents and houses and schools and pets and toys and stuff, but you know I kick the shit outta good and bad people alla time, just to keep you guessin. See ya when its your turn. Keep givin’ to and listin’ to those preacher men. Remember I love alla you!
    Peace, or not.
    God

  7. Drosera
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    those who survive natural disasters are as liable to judgment as those who perish in them

    This idea of a divine judgment after you die is another of those crazy notions of Christianity. Quite a few Christians don’t even agree that it is sufficient to have been a ‘good’ person in order to pass judgment. What is most essential, they say (quoting pertinent scripture if necessary), is that you have to accept Christ as your savior. That is your free ticket to Heaven. No matter what a horrible monster you have been, the moment you do this you’re off the hook (Provided you’re not just pretending, of course. The Boss would know that.)

    Evidently, the Christian god suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder of cosmic proportions. He loses sleep over the thought that even one of the glabrous apes on some forlorn planet doesn’t believe that he is the very best god in the Universe. While he watches television, or whatever he does in his spare time, his mind wanders and he says to himself: “Maybe they could use a little earthquake. That’ll teach ’em.”

    God needs a shrink, as do people like Douthat who believe in this silly stuff. Will humankind ever grow up?

  8. Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing how easily people are misinterpreting Dawkins to make him out to be a fundamentalist. So it seems these days that pointing out the consistency of another’s beliefs is tantamount to fundamentalism? If so, what does that say about “moderate” beliefs?

    • Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

      “So it seems these days that pointing out the consistency of another’s beliefs is tantamount to fundamentalism?”

      Yes, in fact, being consistent with one’s own beliefs gets one branded a “fundamentalist”.

  9. Posted January 27, 2010 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I wish these self-styled religious experts would look up what “fundamentalist” actually means.

    • CTC
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      But that would get in the way of smearing dissidents and rallying their ignorant troops! What would happen if people started, um, thinking?

      Oh, yeah – they’d end up like us.

  10. MadScientist
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “… their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing”

    That’s hilarious; Doubt-that doesn’t even realize he is talking about himself; he is so full of piousness and self-righteousness. Intellectually embarrassing? CHECK! literal-minded? CHECK! Why the hell else would he present a bible quote as any sort of evidence? Cruel? He is offering excuses for his god who had just murdered over 100,000 people in Haiti and left far more homeless, unable to earn a living, and so on. If excusing such an asshole god isn’t cruel, what the hell is?

    What blatant hypocrisy. Blame nature for the death and suffering, but praise the all-knowing all-powerful loving god for those who survived. Why didn’t that god save more? Was the all-powerful not able, or did the loving god not give a shit? Either way, what an asshole.

  11. 386sx
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    “and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.”

    So I guess it isn’t intellectually embarrassing that the mere act of quoting something out of the Bible is supposed to magically make it make sense, just because it was quoted from the Bible.

    Atheist: “Hey that doesn’t make sense.”

    Advanced theologian: “Here, let me quote it from the Bible. There, now it makes sense.”

  12. 386sx
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Oop, should have read MadScientist’s comment first. MadScientist said it way better than me.

  13. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I knew this was going to happen. I am one hundred percent with Dawkins–and you, Jerry–and all the New Atheists. But as a former fundamentalist with a degree in biblical studies from an evangelical college who worked in ministry, I know exactly what the response of faux-moderate Christian-leaning theists is going to be to something like Dawkins wrote. And I cringe. Look, I back the right, the responsibility, the privilege–however he looks at it–of Dawkins or PZ or Hitch or whoever to write whatever they want, obviously. And I love reading it. But there are a wealth of atheists out here with a great deal of biblical and theological knowledge. Would it go absolutely amiss to run some of this stuff past us from time to time, just so the responses can be anticipated and sometimes perhaps preempted? And that’s not a plug for me to do it–there are people much, much more qualified. But how about a quick email to Dan Barker, or John Loftus, or Bart Ehrman? A little input from experts might go some distance toward avoiding this sort of nonsensical pap in response to what Dawkins wrote. Just because we all agree that religions are fundamentally mistaken doesn’t mean that there’s not such a thing as expertise specifically in what those mistakes are. Please, let’s take advantage of it.

    • Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

      Better yet: start writing such essays yourself. The rest of us will catch on eventually.

    • Notagod
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Just trying to work through what your sincere suggestion would mean in practice.

      So you would like all atheists to funnel their criticism of christianity through biblical scholars for editing and/or approval?

      No that isn’t what you are suggesting. It’s more like wanting all atheists to funnel their criticism of christianity through biblical scholars so that they can make suggestions of ways to make the criticism sound better to christians? Hopefully, making it more appealing to christians? Less easily challenged?

      Sounds good but, when I envision it in practice, it seems sort of wrong, possibly dangerous in the long term as it would create a weird, possibly corruptible, atheist social structure.

      There is something inherently dishonest about the way christians use their god ideas, isn’t that the basis of what Dawkins wrote? How can that be written honestly and clearly in a way that those who use the christian god idea tool, wouldn’t conjure a way to object to it?

      • Posted January 28, 2010 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        That’s his basic message, but his specific message is that Christian tradition, theology, and scripture, gives Pat Robertson support for his claim that Haiti is receiving God’s judgment.

        Dawkins’ first great misstep in delivering that message is in citing the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. The flaw is a simple logical one: Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gomorrah were disasters and were caused by God’s wrath; Haiti’s earthquake is a disaster, therefore it was caused by God’s wrath. (My cat has four legs; my dog has four legs, therefore it’s a cat.)

        An important message of Job’s story is that, just because you’re undergoing disaster, doesn’t mean God’s mad. Jesus spelled this out plainly in Matthew 5:45: God “sendeth rain on the just _and_ on the unjust.” Christians expect to receive reward for their good works in the afterlife; in this life, they toil in a world disowned of and by God.

        Dawkins’ second great flaw is his interpretation of sin itself. He conflates sin as a transgression with sin as a state. I can think of no scripture that makes this clearer than Romans 5:12: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

        When Adam sinned, he fell from perfection, and God cursed him and the earth, so that all would be born in sin, and toiling for food. Dawkins’ quote from “the President of one theological seminary” concerns this general condition, this state of mankind. We groan under God’s judgment of Adam, not necessarily under God’s judgment of us.

        To drive the message home: according to Christian theology, the earthquake in Haiti can safely be said to have been caused by God’s judgment of Adam and general curse upon him and the earth, but cannot be traced to any specific transgression against God that may exist in Haiti’s past. Christian theologians are thus right to criticize Pat Robertson’s theology.

        To answer your question: no, there’s no trick of the pen that could help Dawkins’ message in this piece escape from its flaws. They are big, and they are basic aspects of Christian theology in every major denomination; aspects that apparently Pat Robertson is ignorant of.

      • Posted January 28, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Falter, not all Christians nor all denominations accept the “sin as [inherited/inherent] state” doctrine.

        And yes, some bits of the Bible refute the notion that troubles are God’s punishment, but others strongly endorse the notion. GJohn even says that illness comes so that God may be glorified (Geez, Jesus, that was a terrible idea, but there you go.) Which view one takes depends on some selective scripture quoting.

        In any case, thinking that earthquakes happen because of sin is just plain stupid, and everyone should say so.

      • Posted January 28, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Dawkins’ first great misstep in delivering that message is in citing the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. The flaw is a simple logical one: Noah’s flood and Sodom and Gomorrah were disasters and were caused by God’s wrath; Haiti’s earthquake is a disaster, therefore it was caused by God’s wrath.

        The problem with such statements is that it’s seeking to avoid the issue altogether by focusing on some minor flaw. Like dismissing criticism of God by saying “God is not a bearded man in the sky”. It’s pointing to a minor trivial issue to dismiss the serious criticism within.

        While it may not logically follow that because God has caused disasters in the past that all disasters are caused by God (suffers from the problem of induction), the underlying issue is trying to explain God’s nature with the problem of suffering. Whether God did cause the earthquake or failed to prevent the earthquake or was unable to prevent the earthquake or the earthquake being necessary in the greatest of possible worlds is not the issue at hand – rather it is pointing at those who try to explain away such events in the context of God at the same time as condemning those who point at them as being part of God’s nature. From what I gathered, Dawkins was arguing that Robertson’s interpretation was consistent with the biblical deity while many theologians trying to justify theodicy are not.

    • MadScientist
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      I don’t see how such whiny articles can ever be avoided. No matter what a godless person says, some believer will find something to whine about. The ancient Romans used to say not even Jupiter can please everybody, and since the godless occasionally challenge the self-righteous with no attempt whatsoever to placate them, it is hard to imagine that apologetics will not immediately follow.

    • llewelly
      Posted January 29, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:11 pm:

      Would it go absolutely amiss to run some of this stuff past us from time to time, just so the responses can be anticipated and sometimes perhaps preempted? … A little input from experts might go some distance toward avoiding this sort of nonsensical pap in response to what Dawkins wrote.

      Such expertise cannot avoid whiny responses full of nonsensical pap in general. However it can drive the apologists to create much more complicated nonsensical pap. People are usually less likely to agree with or feel comforted by something that is too complicated, so that can be useful.

  14. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if that was snark or encouragement, but I’ll take it at its face. I do what little I can, writing for local atheist publications, letters to the editor, Amazon reviews, blog posts, that sort of thing. But I have nowhere near the stature–or ability–of people I mentioned (PZ, Hitch, Richard, Jerry). I don’t want I said to be interpreted as a criticism. I am delighted by so much of what this movement has accomplished. It’s just, when I want to confront a creationist, I naturally turn to the scientists for help. Those of us who have spent our time learning about religions are eager to reciprocate in the cause of reducing superstition and nonsense. It has been said by some New Atheists that something like biblical or religious expertise is a non-starter, since there’s nothing really there to be expert in. But I disagree. And I’ve seen confident confrontations that draw specifically from biblical and theological challenges sow doubts in the minds of fundamentalists about just how right they can be. I assume that those of us who are active in confronting the more harmful forms of religion agree this is a worthy goal? If so, an ability to share expertise might help with that. And I am in no way claiming that a firm grasp of scripture is intellectually equal to a PhD in molecular genetics, and I fully understand that theology at times appears so slippery that it can be about everything and nothing. Even so, expertise is possible, and it can be effective. That’s all I was trying to indicate. Again, the last thing I wish to do is come off critical, much less cynical. I am very grateful for what Dawkins wrote, and said a loud “amen” upon reading it.

    • Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      No, I didn’t mean my comment as a snark. We just need people who know the Bible/Quran/whatever to speak up, write articles, and so forth.

      Some of the best material to combat religious nonsense and excesses comes from biblical scholars like Bart Ehrman.

      One can’t expect scientists to be expert in biblical texts, compared to people who have degrees in such things. However, my impression is that Dawkins usually is accurate with the Bible.

      Theology is another matter. I’m not sure there is any concrete there to study.

      Ray (former fundie and lay preacher)

    • Insightful Ape
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Why don’t you write a book? I read “the end of biblical studies” by Hector Avalos and it was great. If you have something useful put it in writing, and I’ll be the first to buy it.

  15. Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    “But Dawkins’ “defense” of Robertson, against the “milquetoast” Christians who rushed to disavow the televangelist’s suggestion that the Haitian earthquake victims were being singled out for divine punishment, offers an interesting illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.”

    I can’t find the words “milquetoast” or “defense” in Dawkins’ article. Is Douthat just misquoting him, deliberating misrepreseting him, or is he just making crap up?

    (Or perhaps all of the above)

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      Douthat is definitely making things up. He takes the issue of the week, finds a useful quote from scripture(and ignores the opposite quotes) and then interprets it however he feels and calls this liberal theology. It is just another form of Lying for Jesus™

  16. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Hey, Insightful. I know Hector. I really like Hector. But if you liked his book, please don’t read my review of it on Amazon.com. Hey, maybe I’m just better at being a critical bastard than I am at doing anything constructive. Something for me to think about.

    Seriously, thanks. I’ll give it some thought. I have thought for some time that a book putting the God of the Bible “on the couch” could be of some use. Jehovah and Jesus are practically checklists out of the DSM. Perhaps someday.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

      Count me in as another potential purchaser of your future tome!

  17. Eric MacDonald
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    What could happen in the afterlife to discount the suffering of children who die of leukemia, before they’ve even had a chance to sin?

    Terrifically important question. This is the one thing that most theodicies never consider, that you just can’t force people to suffer, and then somehow make it all up to them by something that happens later. It doesn’t work that way. Ask anyone who has experienced grievous suffering.

    Christians tend to use Jesus on the cross as the point of intersection between god’s love and our suffering, but there’s nothing plausible about this. First, it doesn’t help the child – or so many others (just imagine being a mother under the rubble, dying slowly, and hearing her children crying for help, and dying slowly and miserably too) – horrendously suffering. But second, Jesus didn’t suffer as much as many others have. In fact, the gospels point out that he died much more quickly than expected, only three hours or so. Some men lasted for three or four days on the cross.

    But even then, even had he lived a bit longer, Jesus never faced the horrendous suffering that so many people are forced to endure, suffering in some cases that goes on remorselessly for years. Jesus, we are told, chose his fate. Most don’t.

    But what an ass Douthat is. Let’s proof text our way back to common sense, shall we? At least blaming suffering on sin was an attempt to understand it. Not a very good one, perhaps, but it was a try. But saying that there’s really no reason at all doesn’t quite work if you want to believe in (a good) god, or hadn’t he noticed? But if we’re exchanging proof texts, I note he didn’t bother to quote the passage from John, where the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” And Jesus answered: “Neither this man or his parents sinned: he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9.2-3) Which seems to suggest quite another reason for suffering, not even as helpful as sin! As I say, the man’s an ass! Isn’t the NYT supposed to be a great newspaper?

  18. Posted January 27, 2010 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    “Isn’t the NYT supposed to be a great newspaper?”

    According to itself, certainly, but it does love its mediocrities.

  19. J.J.E.
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    It is always said in some form or another by monotheists that the evil that occurs is somehow either an illusion or a result of “free will”. Of course, when the earth is behaving just fine, and especially if it benefiting people, it is by the grace of god. If it does damage that would manifestly be evil if instigated by an intelligence, of course the reciprocal doesn’t apply.

    What true believers are left with is an incoherent definition of what evil is. This is the source of all that “mysterious ways” and ineffability of god. I say, eff the ineffable!

    In my mind, Epicurus voiced the objection to Douthat most pithily:

    “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

  20. Sigmund
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    If I were to seriously believe the notion of an eternity in heaven then I would regard all these sorts of ‘problems’ as inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.
    The theological arguments in favor of theism all have the ring of partisan posturing rather than trying to address a real point. It is simply what you are expected to say if you are on that side.

  21. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Notagod, I get that my suggestion might not be very practical. BUT…if an atheist is trying to make a specifically biblical point, as Dawkins appears to have been trying to do, it doesn’t help that his response is one that a child with three years of Daily Vacation Bible School could bat down. By analogy, if I were to make the claim that creation is refuted because of the excellent series of embryo drawings by Ernst Haeckel, we know what the response of the creationists would be. It’s not that there are not things in embryology that support evolution–some of the best support for evolution has come from evo-devo. It’s just that in picking that example, or wording the point in that way, the door is open for simple refutation and an assumption that the writer doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

    When an atheist of Dawkins’s deserved stature conflates the flood with the Haitian earthquake and makes no mention of Jesus’s response to the question about whether the people crushed by the aqueduct tower collapse “had it coming,” I can’t take it very seriously.

    I should never think that Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has sounded more reasonable and refined on such an issue than Dawkins has. And yet in this instance, I find that I did.

    Now having said that, the monstrous wiggle-room that theologians allow themselves, and the rorschach inkblot nature of the Christian scriptures make it all-but-impossible to say anything critical without someone coming up with a flocking pod of herding loopholes. It’s sort of ridiculous, like playing wack-a-mole with Jell-O moles and Twizzler wackers. But even so, we can do a better job of targeted criticism so it’s not so simple to dismiss as a misunderstanding of what most Christians think.

    Robertson represents the Pentacostal brand of Christianity that’s big into devils and spiritual warfare and all that crap. And while this brand is fairly large and powerful, it’s already so self-marginalized that it’s not much of a target. Why not go after the “best” of what the mainstream Christian theologians actually posit? Someone like Erhman would have been invaluable with this.

    Obviously, not every atheist criticism of Christianity or the bible requires this “review process.” But if one is going to make a specifically bible- based criticism–in the NYT, no less– it’s hard to understand why one would not avail oneself of what people who have dedicated their lives to thinking about such issues have to say.

    • Antonio Manetti
      Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      In my opinion, the theological issues are only part of the problem so addressing it on that level won’t make it go away.

      The “problem space” occupies the twilight zone between reason and superstition. Sure, Robertson’s theology is faulty. But what good does it do to point that out when the notion, if not the need to believe in divine retribution is so embedded in the human psyche. The only thing worse than a wrathful God is a godless, indifferent universe. Better to live in fear of divine punishment and a God who can perhaps be placated.

      Besides, any theodicy that insists on a loving and omnipotent but non-interventionist diety is a cure that’s worse than the disease.

  22. bchurch
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Of course, rain falls on both wheat and weeds before the harvest. But that’s because your average farmer is not an omniscient, omnipotent being. If you gave the farmer a choice, I’m sure he’d save the good stuff for the crops, and the fire and brimstone for the weeds.

    So really the analogy implies God is powerless before the harvest of the afterlife. Which is actually as close to empirically accurate as these guys are likely to get.

  23. Antonio Manetti
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    In “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”, Mark Twain rightfully mocks the peculiarly American belief in the afterlife as some sort of idealized Christian bible camp or revival meeting.

    The point is that even if the afterlife or God existed, neither could be posited as an extrapolation of our cognitive universe.

    The Twain story is at:
    http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext97/cptsf10h.htm

  24. KP
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    “What could happen in the afterlife to discount the suffering of children who die of leukemia, before they’ve even had a chance to sin?”

    In a comment thread elsewhere, I had a fundamentalist tell me that children are born saved and only if they reach the age where they choose to “go astray” would they be at risk of not being saved. So Jesus apparently has the children’s back until they start sinning. Nevermind that this conflicts with the Christian concept of being born with original sin…

    • Tulse
      Posted January 28, 2010 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I had a fundamentalist tell me that children are born saved and only if they reach the age where they choose to “go astray” would they be at risk of not being saved.

      I take it this fundamentalist was therefore pro-abortion? And, presumably, pro-infanticide?

      • Paul
        Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        Interestingly, it would be simple to use Pascal’s argument about infinite gains for finite expenditures to argue that the only moral action in such a case would be to commit abortion/infanticide.

        A non-zero number of babies born to Christian families never accept their parents’ God/religion. Since at worst you are only depriving your offspring of 100 years or so of life, guaranteeing them eternity easily outweighs the finite expenditure. For bonus points, as long as you repent you are guaranteed Heaven yourself.

        Although if you’re Catholic, you need to wait until the baby is actually born. Abortion gets you excommunicated, but murder is just like any other sin to seek forgiveness for.

    • Antonio Manetti
      Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      After eliminating the doctrine of Limbo, the Catholic Church’s equivocation as to the fate of unbaptized infants is to claim that it is a matter of divine mercy and justice.

      In that regard, the study below asserts that “a mother of three children could be expected to have also had approximately five spontaneous abortions. An embryo’s survival to term is the exception
      rather than the norm.”

      The issue, of course, is that if ensoulment occurs at the instant of fertilization, then, assuming such infants go to paradise, most of the heavenly population has literally never seen the light of day. What that means for the traditional concepts of personhood, sin and salvation is beyond me.

      http://www.amirrorclear.net/academic/papers/scourge.pdf

  25. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    We used to joke about having “Snipers for Christ” posted outside of evangelistic meetings to pick off the saved before they had a chance to change their minds a lose their salvation. That was before we met Calvinists who claim that one CANNOT change one’s mind…and if one does, one was never saved in the first place. I don’t know of a more annoying dogma, but at least it has the virtue of being repellant even to many Christians, who fancy themselves capable of thought and self-determination.

  26. Greg Peterson
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Of course one problem is in coming up with any statement that’s not in some way “consistent with the biblical deity.” I defy anyone to make any non-trivial claim about the “triune god” of the Bible that can’t be inferred from one verse or another. Want to argue for predestination? No problem. Free will? Equally no problem. God responsible for evil? Check. No way is God responsible for evil? Another check. It makes it very difficult to pin down anyone who has decided, for whatever non-rational reasons, that he really wants to believe.

  27. Jeremy
    Posted January 30, 2010 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    Dear Ross Douthat,

    Please criticise what Richard said, not what you wish he had said.

    Regards,

    Rational people

    P.S. Perhaps you can’t?

  28. Posted February 1, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Why is it that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne get to decide what it is appropriate for religious people to believe?

    I know you guys think that you have that power, but why do you think you have it? The status and interpretation of religious texts that you don’t believe in from the get go is for you to decide?

    If you want to criticize the condemnation of Robertson on a moral basis, feel free. But you just don’t get to tell other people what and how they ought to believe.

    Like the religious don’t get to tell you you should be happy or at worst indifferent about the earthquake as it represents natural selection in action.

    It is frankly a deeply stupid and disingenuous line of argument. (The only reason you are making it is because you want to control BOTH sides on your argument with religion.)

    Does someone here have, say, published papers on religion or the sociology of religion or the psychology of religion? Anyone here remotely qualified to judge from a rational standpoint whether Robertson or his opponents or neither or both are being consistent? Or whether that’s even a question worth asking?

    I thought not.

    • Tulse
      Posted February 1, 2010 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      Why is it that Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne get to decide what it is appropriate for religious people to believe?

      They get to state what they think it is consistent for religious people to believe, just like you do. Then we discuss and debate these positions. How is this any different than any other intellectual endeavour? Why is religious belief somehow off-limits to intellectual inquiry?

    • Greg Peterson
      Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      It’s pretty disengenuous to pretend that someone here having an advanved degree or published track record in religion would make this discussion would somehow make this discussion OK with you. But to your point, it’s not true that all of us didn’t believe in the “status and interpretation of religious texts from the get go.” As I noted, there are a great many atheists and agnostics with a biography of intense biblical study (Hector Avalos, John Loftus, Bart Ehrman, and Dan Barker, to name a few), plus former Bible students like Michael Shermer and me. I did comment that when someone like Dawkins, who is a preeminent scientist, tries to write about specifically biblical theology, it would serve him well to consult a Bible scholar to avoid too-easy dismissal of his points. Whether a large number of people with such credentials have weighed in on this particular post or not, they do exist and would make critical points similar to Dawkins’s, but with perhaps a greater level of textual sophistication. For such, I urge you to read Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem,” for example, or to visit the website of John Loftus (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com).

      • Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        I’m not talking about theology or textual study. I’m talking about studying religion from a scientific point of view.

  29. Posted February 1, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    I can’t find the words “milquetoast” or “defense” in Dawkins’ article. Is Douthat just misquoting him, deliberating misrepreseting him, or is he just making crap up?

    “defense”: Those are scare quotes–indicating that the words may not be wholly appropriate to the actual meaning. He’s being ironic. Dawkins is not interested in defending Robertson, he wants him to be representative of Christianity as a whole, and inconveniently Christians are turning against him.

    “milquetoast”: This word has been used quite a bit in this context before . . . I believe by Dawkins himself, though I haven’t found a citation. I think he’s trying to indicate this is Dawkins’ usage, though it doesn’t appear in this particular article.

  30. Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    They get to state what they think it is consistent for religious people to believe, just like you do. Then we discuss and debate these positions. How is this any different than any other intellectual endeavour? Why is religious belief somehow off-limits to intellectual inquiry?

    I don’t think I get to say what is “consistent” for other people to think when my knowledge of what any particular stance is supposed to be consistent with is completely shoddy. At least I hope I don’t.

    And it’s not off-limits to intellectual inquiry. You guys are the ones who treat it that way: religion is nothing but a pinata around here. You call that intellectual inquiry? You must be joking.

    If you want to make this sort of argument–about religious consistency–and make “intellectual inquiries” about religion, you actually have to study religion, which I doubt anyone here has any time for.

    • Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      If you want to make this sort of argument–about religious consistency–and make “intellectual inquiries” about religion, you actually have to study religion, which I doubt anyone here has any time for.

      Bollocks. How hard is it to understand that the idea of/the practice of theology is completely irrelevant unless one believes in the god who is under discussion and/or study? What does the study of religion have to do with any of this?

      The point here is that, no matter how much they may want to pretend that Pat Robertson is the loud, drunk, crazy old uncle of the Christian world and that he is just a senile nutter who “doesn’t get it,” self-styled “sophisticated” Christians cannot, without engaging in a galling level of intellectual dishonesty, escape the fact that he’s a near-perfect personification of the nasty bully of an imaginary friend that they and Robertson share.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        Quite right Miranda, his statement is equivalent to saying you can not criticize homeopathy unless you have studied it thoroughly. It is the failed argument from authority.

  31. Tulse
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I get to say what is “consistent” for other people to think when my knowledge of what any particular stance is supposed to be consistent with is completely shoddy.

    So point out the specific problems with the claims made — that’s the way actual intellectual dialogue is carried out, not by some drive-by assertions.

    If you want to make this sort of argument–about religious consistency–and make “intellectual inquiries” about religion, you actually have to study religion

    Right, because one can’t assess claims made on their face value. Presumably you can show us how the deep study of religion indicates the arguments made here are incorrect. Or are you only interested in make unsupported assertions?

    • Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Or are you only interested in make unsupported assertions?

      Why should I be different?

      Here’s something elementary from Scott Atran, who actually does study relgion:
      (1) An increasing body of scientific research on religion suggests that, contrary to Harris’s personal and scientifically uninformed intuitions about what religion consists of, the apparent invalidity of religious thought is insensitive to the kind of simple-minded disconfirmation through demonstrations of incoherence that Harris and others propose.

      So what does that mean? It means a) that it’s useless anyway to point out these inconsistencies; and b) to treat religion as a system of factual propositions about the world that you can show are somehow inconsistent with each other is to fundamentally misunderstand religion.

      That is, by doing this little logical inconsistency exercise, you demonstrate that you don’t understand what religion is.

      That doesn’t mean you can’t oppose it, but it does mean that telling the other side what they should be arguing is stupid, blindly arrogant, and unscientific.

      • Tulse
        Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        So what does that mean? It means a) that it’s useless anyway to point out these inconsistencies; and b) to treat religion as a system of factual propositions about the world that you can show are somehow inconsistent with each other is to fundamentally misunderstand religion.

        No, it is to show that religious belief is fundamentally irrational (which seems to be precisely Atran’s point).

        That is, by doing this little logical inconsistency exercise, you demonstrate that you don’t understand what religion is.

        Not at all, it demonstrates that there are some people who actually think it is important that one be rational in important beliefs about the nature of the world and moraliy, and thinks that it is useful to point out belief systems that don’t have this quality.

        That doesn’t mean you can’t oppose it, but it does mean that telling the other side what they should be arguing is stupid, blindly arrogant, and unscientific.

        “Stupid” how? In that it fails to convince anyone? I don’t think the evidence supports that. “Blindly arrogant” how? In that it is somehow arrogant to point out that people are being irrational? “Unscientific” how? In that this approach may not be the most efficient way to change attitudes of believers? Perhaps…

        Just to be clear, though, you seem to be conceding that religious belief does indeed have all the irrationality that has been claimed for it here, and are merely saying that such irrationality doesn’t bother believers.

  32. Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Bollocks. How hard is it to understand that the idea of/the practice of theology is completely irrelevant unless one believes in the god who is under discussion and/or study? What does the study of religion have to do with any of this?

    Simple: Dawkins and his supporters claim to be able to speak on behalf of religion–saying what positions are and are not consistent with it. How can you do that without actually understanding religion? What is bullocks is saying “I’ll tell you what your argument ought to be,” with no understanding whatsoever of what you are talking about.

    And for god’s sake studying religion does not equal theology. It means actually trying to figure out what it is rather than speaking out of mere prejudice. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer aren’t theologians! They aren’t talking about some sophisticated version of religion, they’re talking about how religion works generally.

    The reason why you think this is some fancy, abstracted version of religion is because you don’t actually understand religion very well. Neither does Dawkins.

  33. Tulse
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Dawkins and his supporters claim to be able to speak on behalf of religion

    Not in the slightest. They claim to speak about the intellectual foundation of religion — they certainly don’t speak on “behalf” of it.

    What is bullocks is saying “I’ll tell you what your argument ought to be,” with no understanding whatsoever of what you are talking about.

    I’m confused, because I thought the point of citing Atran was that religion doesn’t have (or value) consistent arguments.

    It means actually trying to figure out what it is rather than speaking out of mere prejudice. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer aren’t theologians! They aren’t talking about some sophisticated version of religion, they’re talking about how religion works generally.

    You keep making this point, but I don’t see its relevance. Are you saying that, contrary to the evidence of theologians and seminaries and thousands of year of discourse (not to mention wars fought over the minutiae of doctrinal points), that religion has no use for intellectual analysis? That it is purely a non-rational sociological phenomenon? First off, that is certainly contrary to what this ex-Catholic learned in parochial school, and I am certain that most religious individuals would argue strenuously that the contents of their beliefs are central to their lives (which is why, for example, many other Christians are uncomfortable with Mormons). Second, and more to the point, if your position is true it is all the worse for religion, as it undercuts any claims to moral suasion. Your position puts religion’s intellectual underpinnings on par with NASCAR or knitting (both of which are fine hobbies, but lousy ways to organize a society).

    • Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      if your position is true it is all the worse for religion, as it undercuts any claims to moral suasion.

      What do I care if it’s bad for religion? It’s true.

      And it only undercuts it claims to moral suasion if you believe all such claims must be made on a rational basis. Which is a huge and, I suspect, false, assumption.

      After all, this is how religion already IS and how it makes claims on people’s consciences already.

      That it is purely a non-rational sociological phenomenon?
      Well that takes it a lot farther than Atran does, I think. He’s saying that it is not primarily a system of propositional claims about the world and rational arguments arising from them (that is, it isn’t like science). Doesn’t mean there is no role whatsoever for rationality.

      And if we’ took the Catholics at their word about their religion, we’d be taking it as true. The guiding assumption here would seem to be that religious authority might be mistaken about what religion is, no?

  34. Tulse
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    What do I care if it’s bad for religion? It’s true.

    This seems precisely opposite of your demand to consider religion as it is believed and practiced, since I seriously doubt that most religious individuals would grant you that point.

    I think we’re going a bit in circles, so let me sum up as I see it. I will happily grant that much of religious practice is non-rational and more about feelings and culture and upbringing, and that religion as lived by many of its believers is not completely dependent upon its base of propositional claims. So sure, telling someone that their worldview is inconsistent and irrational may not always be effective in changing their beliefs. I think we all grant that.

    However, the notion of theodicy is predicated precisely on trying to intellectually reconcile those propositional claims with the state of the world. And to the extent that people like Douthat and Robertson have influence on the rank-and-file of believers, I think it is an extremely useful exercise to point out that their attempts at theodicy are not consistent with the claims they make.

    Is this the only way to attack religion? No. Is it likely to convince many believers? Maybe, maybe not, at least in the short run. But does it keep religionists intellectually honest, and force its leading defenders to explicitly address the problems of irrationality in their claims? Yes it does, and that is a worthy endeavour on its own.


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