I see it’s time for Ross Douthat’s Christmas folly. Once again, we get that casual assumption that his personal freaky weird favorite religious myth is utterly true and significant, while reality is a fringe occupation. I wish I knew how that guy got to be a NYT columnist. I suspect we all wonder at the parade of wackaloons who get prime real estate on the esteemed Times’ opinion page.
He’s writing about the Jesus story, of course. The theme of his little essay is that there are three worldviews used to interpret Christmas. There’s the Biblical view, that’s all about the complete picture: gods, angels, people, the whole shebang.
Because that’s what the Christmas story really is — an entire worldview in a compact narrative, a depiction of how human beings relate to the universe and to one another. It’s about the vertical link between God and man — the angels, the star, the creator stooping to enter his creation. But it’s also about the horizontal relationships of society, because it locates transcendence in the ordinary, the commonplace, the low.
And then there’s the waffly vague non-Catholic spiritual picture, which doesn’t try to claim that the details are real.
This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.
And then there are those damned atheists.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
Guess which one he’s going to argue is the right and proper one?
Oh, he tries to put up the illusion of even-handedness. The spiritual view is more flexible, he says, and notice that he acknowledges that atheists can be egalitarian; he also notes that the Biblical view has the problem of “how to remain loyal to biblical ethics in a commercial, sexually liberated society” (Really? That’s the Bible’s big problem? How about why we should believe in its nonsensical stories at all?)
But ultimately, his goal is to snipe at non-Catholic interpretations of the Christmas story. The spiritual New Age version lacks the Bible’s “resources and rigor”, at which point I just about fell off my chair laughing. Rigor? In biblical theology? That word does not mean what you think it means. Both are just arcane rationalizations for whatever they want their religion to mean.
But here’s what you want to see: how does Ross Douthat dismiss godlessness?
The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.
In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.
I can be fair-minded too. Part of that is actually accurate: atheism does propose “a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory.” That’s our reality. That’s what science tells us about our history and the nature of our existence. We are contingent products of chance events, shaped by necessity, alone (so far) in our universe, with no supernatural agents telling us what to do with our lives. We have had millennia of evidence, of people crying out for help to their imagined heavenly saviors, and they never answer, they never give aid, they never ever do anything that isn’t better explained by natural causes. The concepts of gods and angels fail to harmonize with the reality of human experience, and therefore cannot support any rationale for moral behavior.
The desperate rope-flinging is all done by believers. When confronted with pain and suffering, with our limitations, with our mortality, they’re the ones who conjure up ridiculous rationalizations to try and reconcile reality with their fantasy of a purposeful and benign universe. They look up to a sky where a thin film of atmosphere separates us from a vast, cold, and barren void and invent a grandfatherly puppetmaster to fill the terrifying emptiness.
Atheists turn to one another — our hope lies in substance and reality, not wishful thinking and delusion, and what we know exists are our fellow human beings, our world, and that ultimately we must rely on our interactions with what is, rather than what isn’t, to find happiness and survival. We don’t have absolute answers on how to do that, and we do have to continue to struggle to work out principles to promote that essential cooperation, but it’s absurd for someone to accuse us of absolutism (comparing us to religious advocates, no less, with no sense of irony) while arguing for a literal interpretation of an Iron Age god-myth. And further, to argue that our reliance on human values rather than theological ones is tantamount to trying to bridge a chasm with failed hopes.
You know, we’re not the ones even trying to bridge a chasm separating us from an invisible fantasy-land on the other side at all. We’re here on our side, with each other, trying to build a society that fosters equality right here.