More “Something-of-the-gaps” arguments: Ross Douthat uses spiritual experiences to argue for God

Ross Douthat is, of course, a young (37) conservative op-ed writer for the New York Times, and a devout Catholic. In his Christmas column—which went along with Nicholas Kristof’s frenetic attempts to remain a card-carrying Christian in his interview with evangelical pastor Timothy Keller—Douthat makes his own pitch for God. In his short piece, “Varieties of Religious Experience” (named after William James’s book), Douthat gives a number of anecdotes about intense spiritual experiences of nonreligious people. His rationale is this:

One of my hobbies is collecting what you might call nonconversion stories — stories about secular moderns who have supernatural-seeming experiences without being propelled into any specific religious faith. In some ways these stories are more intriguing than mystical experiences that confirm or inspire strong religious belief, because they come to us unmediated by any theological apparatus. They are more like raw data, raw material, the stuff that shows how spiritual experiences would continue if every institutional faith disappeared tomorrow.

These include near-death experiences (NDEs), like that of A. J. Ayer, cases of “spiritual rapture,” like that of Barbara Ehrenreich, and even being freaked out by an exorcism, like this person:

William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” had never seen an exorcism when he made his famous film. A professed agnostic, he decided recently to “complete the circle” and spent some time shadowing the Vatican exorcist Father Gabriele Amorth, just before Amorth’s passing at the age of 91. Friedkin recounted his experience in Vanity Fair this fall; it did not make him a Catholic believer, but it did seem to scare the Hades out of him.

Now note that despite the largely secular nature of these experiences—others are given, too—Douthat still used the word “religious” in his title, for he wants to suggest that these experiences suggest that there’s Something Numinous Out there. That Something, of course, is his God.

The refutation of these experiences as evidence for the divine is that you can see all kinds of “spiritual” experiences induced by meditation, drugs, wonder at beauty, listening to lovely music, and so on, and these are simply what happens to some people’s brains when they’re transformed by chemicals or external stimuli. If you give someone LSD and they have a spiritual experience—and believe me, I had plenty of those in my twenties—nobody claims that’s evidence for God. As for NDEs, we still don’t understand what’s happening neurologically and physiologically in a person near death, but there are plenty of scientific alternatives to the God Hypothesis (see here, here, here, and here, for example). When faced with perceptual phenomena we don’t yet understand, what’s a better strategy—to argue that they prove God, or to study them scientifically? The history of science shows that the latter strategy is more productive, and in fact the links above show the kind of progress that’s being made.

Despite that, Douthat simply denies the naturalistic program and plumps for a theistic God, though at first he pretends that’s not what he’s doing:

Sometimes at Christmas I’ll write a column that gently tweaks the sterner sort of atheist, whose theories seem ill-matched with the empirics of the universe and the stuff of human life. (I suspect many of them know it; hence the zeal for ever-zanier God-substitutes. Yesterday, the multiverse; today, the universe-as-simulation; tomorrow, some terrifying omnicompetent A.I.)

But the implausibility of hard materialism doesn’t mean the cosmos obviously confirms a Judeo-Christian paradigm. And the supernatural experiences of the irreligious — cosmic beatitude, ghostly enigmas, unclassifiable encounters and straight-up demons — don’t point toward any single theology or world-picture.

First of all, hard materialism (I prefer “naturalism”) is not implausible; in fact, it’s the only research program that has led us to the truths about the Universe. Theology and religion, on the other hand, haven’t given us a single verifiable truth about reality. To see that, just consider the number of conflicting and irreconcilable claims made by different religions. How many gods are there? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the divine son of God? Or was Muhammad the true Prophet? Is there an afterlife? What morality does God want us to obey? Is evolution true? Can women be priests? Do you go to Heaven by works or by faith? The list is endless.

Further, although I don’t know many serious scientists who think we’re living in the Matrix, multiverse theory is far from zany. It remains a serious (albeit hard to test) possibility, and came not out of the desire of physicists to find a substitute for the religious “fine-tuning” argument, but out of the theories of physics itself.

It’s odd that someone who claims to be rational would consider materialism implausible but yet see the existence of God, pondered intellectually, as something about which one can be confident. Thus, Douthat’s uncertainty about what these experiences mean are inevitably built into a buttress for his theistic Catholicism (my emphasis):

. . . I might reach for polytheism or pantheism to explain the variety and diversity of what reaches through the veil.

And not necessarily comforting forms of polytheism or pantheism. As a strictly intellectual matter, I am very confident that God exists. In dark times, though — and this has been a dark year in many ways — I wonder if the Absolute relates to us in the way that my church teaches, if he will really wipe away every tear and make all things that we love new.

This is the wager that Christmas offers us, year in and year out. It isn’t Pascal’s famous bet on God’s very existence; rather, it’s a bet on God’s love for us, a wager that all the varieties of religious experience, wonderful and terrifying and inscrutable, should be interpreted in the light of one specific history-altering experience: a divine incarnation, a baby crying beneath a pulsing star.

And so, in the end, despite the Doubts of Douthat, he finds refuge in the story of Baby Jesus. Douthat’s putting his money on the goodness of God, despite the absence of any evidence for Him.

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Douthat in the House of God


  1. chris moffatt
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    “…cases of “spiritual rapture,” like that of Barbara Ehrenreich…” – simple endorphin overload; same thing as those ecstasies experienced by the religiously devout (my mother among them) and those blinding satori experiences of buddhists. If you poke your brain long enough you too can have this experience; but afterwards the laundry is still waiting. As Sakyamuni said “these experiences are not the reason we meditate”.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      If you poke your brain long enough you too can have this experience; but afterwards the laundry is still waiting.

      Nooooo! I’ve been doing it all wrong for decades. I’ve been praying for a mystical revelation, when as a novice I should have merely been praying for the laundry to be done. Woe is me!

    • DiscoveredJoys
      Posted December 27, 2016 at 7:40 am | Permalink

      simple endorphin overload

      …perhaps causing, caused by, or correlated with transient hypofrontality.

      Spirituality – a socially acceptable explanation for the experience of an unusual brain state.

  2. GBJames
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I don’t find that Douthat has much to offer when it comes to social and political insight. Turns out his theology contributes equally.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    So Douthat confirms or reinforces his delusions and religious beliefs by collecting near death experiences of atheists. Too bad he only discovers that atheists can be just as neurotic as his religious friends. Maybe he has discovered a new religion. We’ll call it the near death religion.

  4. Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I propose “douthat” be used as a noun meaning intellectualized nonsense, as in “The theologian was spouting pure douthat.”

    • charlize
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Yep, i also saw what the prof did there: “the Doubts of Douthat”.

  5. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    That numinous feeling we all get from time to time is more likely our minds’ way of filling a gap, much like how we form pareidolia. He might as well claim that my d*g has inexplicable spiritual experiences when he hears a tree branch scrape our house.
    Too bad he does not mention the numerous cases where the religious have anti-spiritual experiences, where they reach out for a sign… a feeling… and find doubt & blind, pitiless indifference. Mother Teresa comes to mind as an example.

    • chris moffatt
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      Pitiless indifference. Called by Jean de la Croix, an endorphin junkie if there ever was, “the dark night of the soul”. But not to worry; if you continue to torture your brain it will eventually succumb and provide you with those wonderful transcending experiences that just prove doG is there. If you don’t die first in despair (a mortal sin).

  6. jaxkayaker
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    It must be nice to be overpaid and overexposed for one’s delusional, irrational, ignorant scribbling, and at such a young age.

    Why is the NY Times considered a high quality newspaper?

    • CJColucci
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Lack of alternatives?

  7. Sshort
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Yes.. he said any ALL religious (peak, ecstatic, spiritual, mysterious, ineffable) experience needs be parsed against the meaning and validity of the mythical god baby.

    Oh, and peace on earth good will to all you other deluded m’f’ers.

    Thanks for that, Ross. Very christian of you.

  8. Sastra
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    One of the easiest and most simplistic ways of dismissing an otherwise reasonable idea is by positioning it onto the “extreme ” side. The implicit assumption is that an extreme is wrong because it is extreme, unbalanced, insufficient, and lacking in depth and thoughtful nuances. Atheists don’t believe in any gods or supernatural things. Not ANY. None, nada, zilch. How extreme.

    Now all the moderate theist has to do is mention some extremist religious position which the average audience at large thinks extreme and small, and they’re done. The moderate theist is moderate. They’re reasonable, balanced, sufficient, and full of depth and thoughtful nuances. It’s the Argument from the Golden Middle.

    Douthat doesn’t have to seriously entertain the idea that atheists having numinous experiences points solely to brain states rather than something out there because that’s not the middle position. Holding an extreme position is what extremists do. So so much for that.

    • Posted December 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Thing is, atheism isn’t an extreme position. Atheism isn’t the “opposite” of religious faith — it’s a position of neutrality. And that means that only an atheist is capable of studying “spiritual” experiences from an unbiased perspective.

  9. Peter
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Okay, according the Douthat, Christmas offers us a bet on God’s love for us. This isn’t any more plausible than Pascal’s wager because wagering on something just because it is possible (that is, we cannot assign a probability of exactly zero to it), does not make sense. For an explanation of this point see here:
    Believe in Pascal’s wager? Have I got a deal for you!

    Also very relevant (a short reminder of the unsolved theodicy problem) by philospher Peter Singer: The God of Suffering?

    The “Evil God Challenge” by Stephen Law
    In this video Law summarizes his article: The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies. Volume 46, Issue 03, September 2010, pp 353-373

  10. tubby
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    “Look at all these experiences that are pure, unsullied by being passed through a theological lens… let me fix that.”

    • Sshort
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink


      • Sshort
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink


  11. Roger
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    How is he even a thing? Nobody could possibly want to read what he writes.

  12. Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    The central premise of James’s (I can’t speak for Douthat’s) “Varieties of Religious Experience” is that what we know about anything is determined by the way we encounter it—i.e., by our experience of it—and that, therefore, we would never assume that our knowledge of anything is more than partial. Human experience is the central factor here. We can never “prove” our experiences, we can only bear witness to them. Given the “variety” of those experiences, religious or otherwise, they are not things about which we we are ever going to arrive at consensus—nor should we even try to. Can Jerry’s experience that Karen Carpenter is the greatest female vocalist of our time be objectively verified? Obviously not, and yet he sees this as “something about which one can be confident.” Should he abandon his confidence or deny his experience because of “conflicting and irreconcilable claims” by other listeners? Personally, I don’t think so but others, and perhaps even Jerry, may disagree.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      William James acknowledged that some religious experiences led you astray, though less in the way of metaphysical propositions as it was the takeaway about the nature of good and evil and human nature.

      He discusses “twice-born”, “morbid”, and other types of religious experiences and considers some of them to result in unbalanced views of ethics and spirituality.

      Frankly, I think rationalists could learn a lot from his psychological insights even if they would not embrace the fideistic assumptions of his famous essay “The Will to Believe”.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      The problem though is that what it is to “experience ” something is ambiguous –and religion trades on this ambiguity.

      Jerry could not objectively “prove” his subjective experience of pleasure from hearing Karen Carpenter, he could not objectively “prove” his subjective experience of evaluating her as a great vocalist, but would we extend that subjectivity to his subjective experience of hearing Karen Carpenter, or his subjective experience of seeing her perform? What about a consensus of subjective experiences that Karen Carpenter exists or existed?

      If that’s the case, then the entire concept of “objective proof” is meaningless. Emotional reactions are placed on the same level as what we are reacting TO.

  13. Jacob
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Too bad. Douhat is pretty cogent on many things, including free speech. Can’t win them all, I guess.

  14. Posted December 26, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Michael Shermer talks about these experiences in Why People Believe Weird Things. He cites hypotheses for which their is actual evidence, unlike Doithat’s coin flip about whether an unseen super being is Sithrak or Yahweh.

  15. Christopher
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    When I was 18 I had surgery on my jaw. While recovering I watched movies like Help!, Blazing Saddles, and The Doors (w/ Val Kilmer). One night, under the numbing effects of seriously strong pain medications, I awoke to hear John Lennon and Jim Morrison speaking to me from outside my basement window. Thus I can only conclude that John Lennon and Jim Morrison are gods.

    Unfortunately, I have forgotten what they said and must rely on Strange Days and Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as my scripture. The good news is that the gods loved the world so much that they gave the world their many begotten LP’s. Glory be to Lennon, in John’s name, Rock on.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      “Thus I can only conclude that John Lennon and Jim Morrison are gods.”

      I think you were mistaken about Jim Morrison. 😉

      • Christopher
        Posted December 26, 2016 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Fine, he can be the devil, an imp, or some sort of djinn. I’m not a fundamentalist.

  16. Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    “pulsing star”? and again we get the mythic nonsense, and an idiot whose argument is “I want something really powerful to take care of me.”

    • Sshort
      Posted December 26, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Excellent point.

  17. Marilee Lovit
    Posted December 26, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m rather fond of hard materialism, myself.

  18. Posted December 27, 2016 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    “I’m rather fond of hard materialism, myself.”

    Yep, walk into a tree. Or trip over a root and bang your head that way to remind yourself what is real.

    And that what was on your mind was not real, at the moment when you tripped because you were not paying attention to the real world.

    Two philosophers, Nancy Cartwright and Ian Hacking, have developed “entity realism” as a way of understanding the material world, in contrast to theories that explain the real world.

    • Marilee Lovit
      Posted December 27, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

      never heard of entity realism, but I do try to pay attention to trees when I walk in the woods, and ferns…

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