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.

[snip]

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.)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Is this Douthat guy just stupid, or is his brain actually damaged?

    Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all.

    Um…ever heard of a place called Greece? A city called Athens? Is any of this ringing a bell?

    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”…

    As a former Christian, raised by well-educated Christians, who fully appreciates the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, I gotta say this moron just contradicted himself from one sentence to the next. Did Jesus “radically upend” the social hierarchy of his time, or did he explicitly say “render unto Caesar…” and flatly refuse to advocate any overt revolution? (Hint: it’s the latter — as “his death alongside common criminals on the cross” pretty strongly implies.)

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Quote-mining the Bible for a few bits that support your prejudices, while ignoring the overwhelming mass of quotes that contradict them, is bad enough. Making shit up without even trying to be internally consistent is even worse.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Oh look, the Clever Demon of Targeted Ads is offering us “the perfect Bible for our journey.” Do they do custom rewrites? ‘Cause Douthat would probably pay good money for a Bible that supports his magical mystery journey…

  • http://alysonmiers.wordpress.com Alyson Miers

    So, basically it’s an argument from lack of imagination. “I can’t imagine why I should care about not persecuting people who aren’t like me if God isn’t breathing down my neck, therefore secular liberals are wrong.”

    This is from a guy who argues against marriage equality and reproductive freedom. Maybe he doesn’t understand from whence we derive our liberal values because he’s invested in illiberal values.

  • eric

    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.

    Somewhat of a digression from the main point, but…Douthat is following Dennett in using ‘skyhook’ as a perjorative, meaning that Hitch’s ‘liberalism’ is not grounded (leaving aside that Hitchens was fairly conservative on a lot of issues).

    Ironically, skyhooks (1) can arise naturally and (2) are stable. When they do arise naturally, we call them “moons.” Our moon, for example, is a body suspended halfway between our earth and the heavens. Its spherial instead of linear/cylindrical, that’s about the only difference.

    A body in stable orbit may in fact be a very good metaphor for humanist moral ideas – while they appear to hang magically in the air, ungrounded, they are actually the natural outcome of rational and well understood processes.

  • Charlesbartley

    Note, this was in Slate, not Salon.

    • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ Lou Doench

      Yeah, it was on the front page of the iPad app. I got maybe halfway through it. Yuck.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      Yeah, Salon has their own problems with their article on NDEs

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Fix’d

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Ironically, skyhooks (1) can arise naturally and (2) are stable. When they do arise naturally, we call them “moons.”

    And when we build one ourselves, it’ll be called a “space elevator.” (And when the Douthat crowd take one look at the blueprints, they’ll scream “Tower of Babel!” But that’s another matter.)

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    I once commented on the history of my ideas of social justice. When I was a liberal Christian, I had a difficult time coming up with a satisfying argument for the struggle because the judging god would allegedly even things out in the afterlife, hence all social injustice was vanishingly brief in the big picture. It insidiously encouraged a view that injustice was supposed to be endured, not fought.

    I’m not sure what factors might be responsible, but belief in a “fair” afterlife somehow didn’t stop my passion for the good fight. I didn’t have a well-articulated argument at the time, but my gut told me that it was important to fix the world’s problems, heavenly reward or not. I got enraged over racism, church imposing on state, tyrannical governments, censorship, and so on. Seeing atheists making the same principled stands against injustice made a lot of sense to me. Standing up for justice and equality makes a hell of a lot more sense when you’ve got time limits and no divine beings covering for you.

  • josh

    Everybody is clearly on board already but I can’t resist adding my 2 cents. Ross Douthat, what a tool.

    “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.”

    No. In the absence of Christianity, nothing is obvious. You simply can’t say how world history would have unfolded minus the influence of 2000 years of a controlling religious system that took over Europe which in turn substantially took over the world. Even beyond that, Douthat is spouting nonsense here. Jesus didn’t upend social hierarchies, he died like a common criminal because that is exactly what his social station was in the eyes of the society around him. No concept of universal human rights followed his life or death, the world remained largely a collection of warring authoritarian states, caste systems and tribal loyalties with Christianity explicitly incorporated into the oppression where it took root.

    Church and state became if anything more entwined with the rise of Christianity. “Render unto Ceasar” meant “submit to God’s chosen earthly authority” to centuries of peasants and the City of God is a call to ignore ‘earthly’ concerns (like the rights of minorities) in favor of establishing a religious society. It wasn’t until a millenium and a half later that we see the emergence (or re-emergence) of democratic ideals, universal rights, church-state seperation, etc. during the Enlightenment, following on the Renaissance and the rise of a prosperous merchant class.

    The ‘unfolding of history’ was of course not unique or original to Christianity, nor was a cyclical view of the universe universal. I don’t know that most liberals view human progress as some kind of inevitable advance, but if anything, the Christian view was that mankind was in an ineluctable state of decline, awaiting Christ’s return at Judgement day to save the faithful few and burn the rest, then set up a static kingdom to echo their incorrect cosmology.

    Oh, and nice to know that not treating gay people like shit is an “almost supernatural respect”.

    • josh

      Shorter me: Ross Douthat packs wrong into a paragraph like 50′s college students into a phonebooth.

  • BKsea

    I am willing to concede that Christianity played at least a significant role in the development of modern moral views. However, I see the following problems: 1) after 2000 years I doubt there is much left to learn; 2) religion is at best neutral in its ability to teach morality with numerous immoral tenets rejected by our current areligious morality; and 3) this has nor bearing on the truth of Christianity and a false doctrine is hardly a good starting point for a discussion of morality.

    In other words, thanks Christianity, but we’ll take it from here…

  • mnb0

    “absent the Christian faith, there would be no liberalism at all.”

    Such a pile of manure. Should we really remember Douthat that christendom dominated western and southern Europe for at least 1200 years, with no single trace of liberalism in sight?
    According to christians like them everything good stems from christianity with hindsight. A bit of foresight, like worldwide abandoning slavery, might impress.

    “all good things did not come from Christianity”
    Try the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

  • timberwoof

    Complaining that homosexuality is undignified does not convince me that Christianity is the fount of Liberalism.

  • http://thewrongmonkey.blogspot.com/ Steven Bollinger

    “Ross Douthat, who inexplicably has job as a columnist at the New York Times[...]”

    What’s inexplicable to me is how the Times still has such a rep for greatness after 161 years’ worth of proof to the contrary.


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