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.