A confused paean to faith in the New York Times

On many liberal sites these days, including the New York Times, we see an increasing coddling of religion—exactly the opposite of what should be happening as secularism in the U.S. increases. I’m not sure why this is; perhaps it’s a spillover from the Leftist reluctance to criticize Islam (and perforce to praise all faiths), or perhaps it’s a pushback against the death of religion in the West. Regardless, much of this kind of writing is either irrational or, as in the case of the new piece below, makes no sense whatsoever.

Click on the screenshot to read this confused, space-wasting op-ed:

First, the author. The NYT describes Jennifer Finney Boylan as “a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of the novel “Long Black Veil.” Her Twitter description says she is the author of “15 Books. [JAC: the list is here] NYTimes op/ed writer. Trustee, PEN America; former Co-chair of the Board, GLAAD. Professor of English, Barnard/Columbia.” She’s a transgender woman, the first to head up GLAAD (a gay media-monitoring institute), and her website is here.

What the article seems to describe (it’s hard to tell because it’s both poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with overemotionality) is an aging transgender woman who lost her faith when she was young, and then recaptured it in some form a few years ago. But did she? The “agony” she describes appears to be her reluctance to go into a church, which seemed to have salubrious results. The “I didn’t get it until I was older” is unclear because it’s uncertain what she “gets” (she doesn’t really seem to become a believer), and as for “belief doesn’t come easy”, well, it’s not clear that even now she has any religious belief. What the piece conveys is the trite observation that it’s great to have loving friends, and that for Boylan, Jesus prompted that feeling. But read it for yourself.

Here are a few excerpts following Boylan’s initial description of Balaam’s talking donkey in Numbers—one of the things that caused her to reject the reliability of Scripture:

Back then, I thought that doubt (also known as “common sense”) was my roadblock to a spiritual life. Now, these many years later, I have come to believe that doubt is, in fact, the drive wheel of faith, not its obstacle.

She doesn’t describe how doubt drives faith, and that sentence is simply left hanging.

One Sunday morning a few years ago, I wandered out of my apartment in New York without having a clear sense of where I was going. The next thing I knew I had pulled into a nearby church, where I looked around suspiciously, and thought, “Please, God, don’t make me do it.” I sat in a pew.

The sermon that day was not about talking donkeys. It was about feeding the hungry. It was about working for equality. It was about justice for minorities, and gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans people. It was about giving refuge to people — including immigrants and refugees — who do not have a home.

It was, in the end, about only one thing: the necessity of loving one another.

Well, Jesus, I thought. I could get behind that.

What we see, then, is that Boylan was fighting any exposure to religious faith (is that the “agony” she describes? I don’t think so, as it’s the agony of faith, not unbelief). Then she hears a sermon about social justice, and suddenly she is infused with love.

That’s fine, of course; there’s no doubt that religion has prompted some good acts. (I’m not agreeing, however, that in the net religion has been a good social force.) But just because it does that doesn’t say anything about the factuality of Scripture. In fact, Christian scripture has also led people to hate: to hate gays, to hate women, to hate blacks, to hate Jews (millions were murdered on the claim that they killed Christ), and so on. Boylan seems simply to have been ready to love people more, and in this case a church visit was the catalyst.

But she’s clearly softened on Christianity.  In the end, her church experience—and I don’t know if it’s continuing—simply infuses her with feelings of love. What this has to do with vindicating faith or prompting “belief” that’s “worth it” remains mysterious:

We have had hard lives, my old friends and I, in some ways. Since we first met in 1970, there have been all kinds of misfortunes. There have been car accidents and job losses, divorces and heartbreaks, newborn babies whose lives were endangered. One of us is in a wheelchair now.

But here we all are, on the threshold of 60, and still deeply connected to one another. That day in New Jersey, as I sat there with these precious souls at the shore — can I call them anything but old men now? — it occurred to me that I have seen things a lot more improbable than talking donkeys turn out to be true. What greater miracle could there be than friendships that last a lifetime?

The next morning, my friend Kenny and I were up early enough to see the sun rise over the Atlantic, standing on the same beach where we had stood, nearly half a century before, as teenage boys. Thirty years ago, before I came out as trans, he’d been my best man.

He is still my best man.

Listen: I do not know if an actual person named Jesus rose from the dead. I hope that this is true, but I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

I know this though: On Sunday morning I stood on a beach with the friend of my youth, our arms around each other’s shoulders. The rising sun burst over the ocean, and the light shone on our faces.

And the donkeys talked! This is simply breathy, overblown, and just plain bad writing.  What was the country’s best newspaper doing when it accepted this piece?

What is the point of Boylan’s purple prose? If it’s that religion makes some people do good, why didn’t she just say that?  But of course lots of people do good and don’t need religion as the catalyst. Music, for instance, is another such catalyst, and perhaps Boylan could have skipped her agony by listening to James Taylor (see also here):

62 Comments

  1. phoffman56
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    “…I have seen things a lot more improbable than talking donkeys turn out to be true. What greater miracle could there be than friendships that last a lifetime?”

    Is it possible to be stupider than to assert that having a lifelong friendship is less likely than the existence of a talking donkey?

    One (nastily metaphorical) talking donkey is the author herself, but the donkey above isn’t homo sapiens in the ‘good’ book.

    • glen1davidson
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s a major sideshow attraction, people who have had lifelong friendships.

      How do they do that?

      Glen Davidson

      • busterggi
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Its not easy or often but its great when it happens.

        And it happens a lot more often than talking donkeys.

  2. busterggi
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    “Please, God, don’t make me do it.”

    That doesn’t sound like something a doubter/skeptic would say. IMO she just needed a few decades to find a church that wouldn’t immediately call for her to be burned at the stake.

  3. Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I really don’t understand why anyone would be surprised. Religion, like liberalism, is essentially faith-based. Atheism is the red pill.

    • Historian
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      “Religion, like liberalism, is essentially faith-based.”

      Your statement makes as much sense as saying “Religion, like conservatism, is essentially faith-based. Ask any evangelical.”

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but he tossed in the shibboleth “red pill,” so that changes everything.

        • Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          For native English speakers, maybe. I still have no idea what he is talking about. And I have a suspicion that it is not worth bothering Google.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted March 29, 2018 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

            I was being sarcastic, Maya. “Red Pill” is a code word (derived from the movie The Matrix) popular in the men’s-rights blogosphere.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:11 am | Permalink

              Whether ‘mens rights’ have usurped it or not, (and I was certainly unaware of it) “red pill” has a meaning quite independent of that.

              Basically it means recognising the truth, the actual facts, not swallowing the cover story. That’s what I took it to mean. Bugger the mens rights blogosphere, they don’t own it.

              cr

  4. GBJames
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    “…why didn’t she just say that?”

    Religious expression is largely a matter of poorly articulating inarticulate thought. It is a rare religious sentiment that is clearly stated.

  5. John Black
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I think it’s in our nature to feel sorry for the religious hold-outs (who are largely good, moral and kind people), who cling to their faith despite the social movement away from religion. The more they are seen as underdogs, the more people will want to treat them gently in op-eds like these. I agree the NYT isn’t doing science any favors by publishing this pablum, but sentimentality is a strong force in us.

    • busterggi
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      Not in my nature.

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I doubt there is much sympathy. NYT is a business and their model is about readership. Religion makes sheep like no other ideology. And sheep follow.

  6. PORKUT
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    More of the endless evidence of the stupid among us.

  7. Historian
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    My take on people who were religious when young, then reject religion, and finally return to it when they are older is that they desperately need the sense of community that religion provides. Atheism does not provide a sense of meaning and higher purpose in life (however they define it). They don’t seem particularly concerned whether the theology is “true.” I think for many people atheism is a long and lonely road to walk, particularly for those who belonged to a religious community as youths. For those who rejoin a church, reason gives way to emotion, even if their religious beliefs remain fuzzy. Boylan seems to fall in this category.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      I’m guessing, although I don’t know for sure, that most of the folk who leave and then return didn’t leave as a matter of conscious rejection of faith as much as leave as a matter of habitual attendance. I doubt than many of them (any, really?) would have called themselves atheists, or even agnostics, in their period of absence. I doubt they have thought about it much at all.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        That’s my opinion too. A lot of people drift away from religion after childhood, but don’t do the thinking that requires a conscious decision to atheism. The religious like to portray those people as former atheists if they return to religion, but they were really just lapsed.

        This writer just seems to have found a church that shares her Enlightenment values. That’s nice for her, but says nothing about all the things the article purports to be about. I feel like she got her article published via her CV/reputation because imo Jerry’s right – it’s very poorly written.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    “The Agony of Faith” — Always knew religion and psoriasis had somethin’ in common.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      No, it’s “heartbreak.”

      That old commercial got a lot of people laughing at what is in fact a damned nasty and uncomfortable medical condition.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        You’re right; there was, however, a doctor who wrote of the “agony of psoriasis.” I didn’t mean to gainsay the suffering caused by the disease.

        As between religion and psoriasis, one’s a nasty, long-lasting autoimmune disorder; the other’s psoriasis.

  9. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I think she is just saying that she is suspending disbelief and taking the feel good stuff now. It’s kind of what I do when I watch super hero movies.

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      Yes. There’s a trilogy I really enjoyed and recommended to friends, always with the caveat “the premise is impossible; just accepted it and read on, and you may like it too.”

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Don’t hold out! What trilogy? 🙂

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

        Oh. From your comment further down you likely are referring to Earthsea

        • Posted March 29, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          Well, I just finished Earthsea. I enjoyed it. However, I was referring to S. M. Stirling’s trilogy with Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and Meeting in Corvallis. (I’m from Corvallis, which is why I read it.) Electricity, firearms, and other such “artificial” uses of power fail. Physically impossible, but interesting to read of the consequences.

          I can’t say the trilogy is well written, and yet it kind of pulls you in, makes you want to see what happens next.

          The trilogy kept growing. I think it’s up to 14 books now, but I stopped after three.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

            OSU – nice area I bet – with 50% more rain than my Birmingham UK [I like rain]

            Thank you for the books info

            • Posted March 29, 2018 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

              Part of one of the books is set in England. (Incentive?)

              Lots of rain in winter (which may last into June) but dry summers that usually aren’t excessively hot.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 30, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

        🙂

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    … loaded to the gunwales with overemotionality …

    Nice to see a nautical flourish, boss. Does that mark a stylistic sea change of sorts? 🙂

  11. Sastra
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the point of the article is to strengthen one of religion’s most powerful weapons: equivocation.

    Hoping for God is like hoping for love. The struggle to believe in talking donkeys is just like the struggle to overcome life’s obstacles. Each capacity therefore reinforces the other. It’s all glorious irrationality. Exercise resilience and gratitude despite the odds and you’re on the path towards religious faith. Work on those hard-to-credit tenets of religion and you’ll become stronger and happier. Broken people seeking to heal. All the same. All one. All human, and coming home.

    Slide that mush together, dammit.

    Then look askance at any pettifogging killjoy who tries to clarify the issue and tease apart disparate elements because THAT’S NOT HEALING ANYTHING. Love isn’t rational. And no, I don’t want to hear the proper definition of ‘rationality.’ Life ought to be poetry; don’t destroy the art of living.

    *Sigh*

  12. Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “. . . why didn’t she just say that?”

    One of the interesting things I found when doing my considerable reading of religion and myth (same thing, really) is that just saying [whatever] doesn’t have the same effect as hinting at something so that the reader figures it out for herself. Or figures out something for herself — it may not be quite what the writer intended.

    For example, the story of the good Samaritan has power that “be good to other people, even people who belong to groups you despise” just doesn’t have.

    The same is often true in fiction. (Faulkner, anybody? Or the set of Le Guin stories I just finished?)

    It’s like the stories reach past our cortex and grab hold of our lizard brain, so tuned to examples, and makes us pay attention. (A metaphor I would not care to defend as biological.)

    Not to say that this is good religion-related writing. Just that in its context, the choice to be less than totally clear may not be wrong.

    (This can be difficult for those of us in science, because for us clear writing is absolutely essential.)

    • James Walker
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s part of the way that we retain things in memory. Learning through experience (or, in the case of stories, vicarious experience) is a more effective way of remembering something than just a recitation of facts.

  13. glen1davidson
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I clicked on the article on the home page and got the spider video.

    I clicked on it when I was at this specific article, and I couldn’t access it because I don’t pay for NYT and have had my two articles this month already (probably more than two, but it’s very few).

    Glen Davidson

    • GBJames
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      Use a different browser to access the page. (IOW, if you normally use Firefox, use Chrome for the page.)

      • glen1davidson
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        Oh yeah, thanks for the suggestion.

        I’m not sure this one is worth that minor bother, though.

        Glen Davidson

        • GBJames
          Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          Probably not. It’s a dull one.

    • Brujo Feo
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      There’s an easy work-around for that. The way that the NYT and WaPo and others count your freebies is by setting cookies. When you run out, yes, you can switch to another browser. Or, you can just RIGHT-click the link, and tell it “Open link in incognito window.” (That’s Chrome-speak; in Firefox it’s “Open in a New Private Window,” and most browsers have something similar.) Private browsing windows don’t set cookies, so you’re always golden.

      Notice that this does NOT work at the WSJ, or any other site that actually has you sign in as a subscriber to read anything.

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      If they keep publishing crap like this, maybe fewer people will be willing to pay them.

  14. glen1davidson
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Judging from the excerpts, apparently she had a warm feeling.

    Yay, that means, oh, uh, what?

    Glen Davidson

    • busterggi
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      Usually it means that someone didn’t get to the bathroom in time.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:16 am | Permalink

        Pffffttt!

        You beat me to it!

        😎

        cr

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    What with all the sweating professor’s “belief doesn’t come easy” talk, it seems Ringo might also have provided an apt musical accompaniment:

  16. Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Gag.

  17. Brujo Feo
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    “Belief doesn’t come easy. But it’s worth it.”

    I have a conceptual difficulty with this. It seems to say that there is something–*any*-thing–volitional about faith. Is that even possible? I understand that there is such a thing as brainwashing, but can one intentionally brainwash oneself?

    It seems to me that faith is something that you either have or don’t. (And whether you consider it a cancer or a cure is completely irrelevant.) If you don’t have the affliction, you can no more “work” to get it than you can wish yourself to be seven feet tall. Am I missing something?

    • busterggi
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      Yes, you are missing the believers ability to claim they have faith & belief while really deep inside they know they don’t and it terrifies them.

  18. Robert Bray
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    ‘. . . doubt is the DRIVE WHEEL of faith. . . .’ Yes, a good listen to James Taylor is in order. Maybe also Tom Rush’s ‘I feel like some old engine, done lost my drivin’ wheel.’ The Age of Steam(Punk). J. S. Bach’s little Baroque engine that could. And on and on she puffs, black coal smoke from the stack, white steam from the piston. ‘Trouble ahead, trouble behind. . . .’ We be dead.

  19. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Does this mean that dopey, mushy op-ed pieces appear now and then in the blessed NYT? I am shocked, SHOCKED.

    As for the case at hand, the key to the author’s sentiments is this sentence about the sermon: “It was about justice for minorities, and gay and lesbian and bisexual and trans people.” Given that, the author would have undoubtedly swooned if the worship involved were of Baal, Moloch, Satan, or the flying spaghetti monster.

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    “poorly written” — I dunno. It lacks a valid point, but it’s written in perfectly serviceable English prose, I think.

    • Flamadiddle
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. It’s the overt sentimentality that sticks in the craw.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 29, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, it pushes the red line on the emotimeter. 🙂

    • Liz
      Posted March 29, 2018 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      I can picture a high school English teacher crossing out “ensuing” with a red pen so that it reads, “and over the years.” The last sentence of the paragraph about the struggles they all faced together throughout their lives left me wondering if its purpose was to give more background or to drive the point home. It missed the mark for me if it was supposed to drive the point home. I sort of enjoyed the story anyway. I respect the courage it must take to transition like that. I didn’t understand, though, why she questioned stories when she was a kid but doesn’t question what she was taught about Jesus with the same level of scrutiny.

  21. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Well, if you start assuming that faith is generally a good thing, then I can get that doubt is the driving wheel of faith.
    But sometimes faith is a source of arrogance and blindness.

    There are (at least) two Christianities in America, one which accepts gays and ethnic minorities and regards Jesus more or less as a shock-absorber for all the evil (bad karma) in the world through his mystical universal empathy, and the other Christianity which regards Jesus as the fellow who paid the price for the sins you were born with as a substitutionary sacrifice because you were born bad and everyone is damned by default through descent from Adam and Eve and this latter Christianity frequently has overtones of colonialist superiority.

    Faith which motivates acceptance of people-not altogether bad.
    Faith which motivates denialism of science, anger at humanists, thinks salvation is achieved through a weird bargain made on the cross, and makes you needlessly depressed over your sinfulness- not so much.

    Virtually all my church-going friends subscribe to what I would call the wiser, more authentically virtuous style of Christianity, but I lived long enough in both the MidWest and the South to know the dark side of conservative Evangelicalism.

  22. alexandra Moffat
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Would you ever write an op-ed for the NYT? You write so well and so lucidly and so oppositely to that woman, it would be a dose of of rational expression and literate style for NYT readers.
    What IS wrong with that newspaper!! It has to be all things to all people so doesn’t dare risk offending anyone?

  23. Posted March 29, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Somehow I am reminded of the scene in _Agora_ where someone comes into a church and asks to see a miracle and is shown the poor and hungry being fed.

    That’s *not* a miracle, that’s humans helping humans!

  24. Posted March 29, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I was raised in an evangelical Christian church. Most of that time was spent trying to believe, trying to belong, trying not to ask forbidden questions. It took a long time, but I finally left.

    However, there are times in life when one can, almost without volition, fall back into the pattern of prayer, if people you love are in danger of dying. I have been known to pray for them without stopping to consider that I never truly believed in the efficacy of prayer and hadn’t believed in God for many, many years.

    The following is a poem I wrote many years ago about prayer, even if I backslide once in a great while, as mentioned above.

    PRAYER: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

    Please attend this supplicant
    who no longer believes.
    Prayers lie lifeless about my head,
    a congregation of desiccated words,
    shorn of faith they are powerless
    to wend their way anywhere.
    An urge to kneel chokes me with fear
    that one more word will bury me
    in years of stillborn prayers.
    Leave me in peace to journey on alone.
    Amen

    There has been no coherence,uniformity of belief, “Catholicism”, in what has become known as the Christian Church since the origin or ever after. Belief among a supposedly coherent group of believers is likely to be as diverse as beliefs of any other group, if asked, and if honest.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted March 30, 2018 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      Ms. Kitchen,
      Thanks. And a poem for a poem, this one from one who was never a believer, merely a social Christian at my mother’s behest.

      instantiation

      profession of faith in things unseen
      as if the book of nature were unwritten
      debars the dance of instants in between

      unbeings

      a bible algorithm
      reckons up long ledger columns of sins

      juice of joyous inebriation
      sweet concupiscence of lovers and friends
      each clear morning’s new instantiation
      of bacchus and eros as both means and ends

      red happiness

      likerous sins like these
      believers also sin
      but then
      run backward from the acts
      as if to delete erase wipe out
      that what they did and felt were facts

      not toward the next

      as we lost ones do when racing time
      to the top of the hill and over the horizon
      panting for one last taste of nature’s rhyme

  25. Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Yup, I’ve always opted for the ‘easy’ way – reason and facts.

    rz

  26. Zetopan
    Posted April 1, 2018 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    My theory (which is mine) is that the NYT and *many* other publications receive complaints about not representing conservatives equally relative to liberals, or something similar (e.g. religious belief vs informed skepticism).

    So to present “both sides” they feel that they have to print what remarkably stupid people write as well as what rational informed people write. This tactic seems to exist *everywhere*.

    I have even seen technical journals publish the ravings of their in house writers supporting idiot perpetual motion peddlers, anti-gravity drives, and other counterfactual lunacy that no informed person should ever fall for, given the marvelous lack of any supporting evidence.

    This appears to be a sort of zero sum game that they play. For every lucid explanation they must also present “the other side”, no matter how moronic.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted April 2, 2018 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    “I know this though: On Sunday morning I stood on a beach with the friend of my youth, our arms around each other’s shoulders. The rising sun burst over the ocean, and the light shone on our faces.
    And we dedicated our lives to the Fuehrer.

    … what? Okay, I added the last line.

    The point is, that’s such a generic feel-good dose of the warm fuzzies, you could follow it with anything at all and it would fit. It’s just essentially meaningless.

    cr


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