Ross Douthat promotes myth about religious basis of morality

Ross Douthat, who inexplicably has job as a columnist at the New York Times, is doing an exchange with William Saletan at Slate that looks to be full ‘o all kinds of fail, but this entry (HT: Julian Sanchez) especially caught my eye:

Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all. No ideal of universal human rights without Jesus’ radical upending of social hierarchies (including his death alongside common criminals on the cross). No separation of church and state without the gospels’ “render unto Caesar” and St. Augustine’s two cities. No liberal confidence about the march of historical progress without the Judeo-Christian interpretation of history as an unfolding story rather than an endlessly repeating wheel.


And the more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual “skyhooks,” suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

Ugh. Here’s the reality: Augustine advocated dealing with heretics (a word Douthat is fond of) with torture and imprisonment. Giving him credit for the idea of separation of church and state is like giving Stalin credit for the idea of the right to a fair trial. And the Stoics were preaching the universal brotherhood of man before Jesus was born.

Nor is it true that “moral fervor” was originally justified by revelation. The Greeks had little notion of revealed religion, but read Plato’s dialogs or Xenophon’s account of the life of Socrates, and you’ll see many of them took notions like justice quite seriously. It seems that every bit of metaphysics in Plato’s dialogs was Plato putting words in Socrates’ mouth, and therefore Socrates saw no need to have “a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe” to justify caring about the things he cared about. Even in Plato, metaphysics only illuminates moral concepts we have before ever doing metaphysics.

(It occurs to me: one definite benefit of studying philosophy, at least ancient philosophy, is that it makes you realize that all good things did not come from Christianity. And on the other hand, the mistakes of ancient philosophers are good way to see how far we’ve come.)

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