Will The Intelligentsia Reclaim Religion?

Will The Intelligentsia Reclaim Religion? April 15, 2021

By Linda LaScola, Editor

This past Sunday, the NY Times featured an op-ed by Ross Douthat, one of their regular columnists who is known for being religious – specifically Roman Catholic.

I always read his columns, because while I usually disagree with him, I appreciate his intelligence and marvel at what a single-minded, devout believer he is.   This week’s column was titled “Can the Meritocracy find God?” with the sub-title: “The secularization of America probably won’t reverse unless the intelligentsia gets religion.”

I’d say that his sub-title is accurate and that the answer to his question is a resounding NO!  The meritocracy, which can be defined broadly as college-educated people in professional positions, is getting less and less religious as it becomes more educated.  Besides, you don’t need an advanced education to see the dangers or the illogic of fundamentalist religion or to understand how science and supernaturalism religion do not mix well.  As many members of the Clergy Project can tell you, it was deep reading of the Bible and repeatedly seeing prayers not answered, that eventually drove them away from religion and their livelihood.  As I said in Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind,

“They [Clergy] had felt a calling; they had made a commitment. They had a mindset of faith, dedication to a cause and an expectation of a lifelong vocation.”

If clergy can pull themselves away from all that, imagine how much easier it must be for other thoughtful members of “the intelligentsia” to leave religion.  They can keep their source of income and their respectability.  Plus they get their Sunday mornings back!  What a deal!

And thanks to the “new atheists” (especially Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, who made a splash a few years ago with their books straightforwardly espousing non-belief),

being non-religious has become perfectly acceptable.  People these days are much less likely to pretend they believe.   Instead, they actively identify themselves as “nothing in particular” when it comes to religion.

Back to Douthat’s column – I was eager to check out some of the reader comments. All the ones I read were negative.  Most seemed to be written by highly educated, cosmopolitan non-believers who wanted nothing to do with the author’s desire to enlist the intelligentsia in a movement back to religion.

Comments on Times articles are not open to anyone who wants to say something.   Comments go first to a moderator who checks them for civility before posting them online.  Then the moderator separates the comments into three categories: NYT Picks, Reader Picks and All.  Some people who frequently make the Picks sections have become renowned in their own right for their pithy, intelligent responses.

In this instance, I was looking for a response from “ChristineMcM” whom I knew from past reading was religious, in a very educated, liberal, NY Times reader kind of way.  I was eager to see how she responded to Douthat’s thoughts.

I found her! She started by quoting Douthat and ended by rebuffing him. Here’s what she had to say:

“…the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life.” I don’t even know what this sentence means. I think Ross Douthat has set up a black and white situation that doesn’t allow for any shades of gray. Example: he lumps all intelligentsia as being de facto nonreligious, and totally secular. I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. I know many highly educated people, myself included, who are devout believers. As for self-determination and living the good life, well, God did give us free will–did He not, Ross?–so that we could choose the better path. And what if the “good life” includes a healthy dose of spirituality? Please don’t paint people with one brush. I’m not that distressed that America is less religious, but I am distressed that religion has become more political. Why not focus on that, and the 1st Amendment, for a change?”

Her last lines impressed me the most, so I’ll repeat them here:

“I’m not that distressed that America is less religious, but I am distressed that religion has become more political. Why not focus on that, and the 1st Amendment, for a change?”

Here we have what seems to be a truly religious person – someone who probably doesn’t get involved in dogma, but who feels religion deep within her — someone who “knows” there is a god but doesn’t need other people to know it too.  Plus, she has something in common with non-believers: she doesn’t like religion spilling over into government.

Douthat, in contrast, seems to see religion spilling over into everything.  I know from reading many of his columns that he is avidly anti-Trump.  His call for the intelligentsia to return to religion is because he is distressed that fewer thinking people are religious these days.  He seems to have difficulty accepting that people who are intellectual and religious (like him) do not share his feelings that what is needed is more people like Ross Douthat to turn the tide back to a reasonable, non-Trumpy Christianity.   In fact, I could find no commenters who shared his feelings.  Instead, he was blasted for being such an obvious Christian apologist.

The Christine McM’s of the world probably make as little sense to him as the Christian fundamentalists.  He sees only people like himself as leading the US — and clearly he believes that there are plenty of them, that is, non-religious or formerly religious people who could easily be converted to the intelligent Christianity which he perceives himself to represent.

Let’s hope that he is as wrong as the many religious and non-religious “elite” commenters think he is.

**Editor’s Question** How do you think the current decline in religious believers juxtaposed with the increased influence of evangelical Christianity in government is going to affect the US?


Bio:  Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2015) and “Preachers who are not Believers”(2010). They are also co-producers of a play in development, “Adam Mann – Not his Real Name” written by Marin Gazzaniga, that is based on their research.  Linda lives in Washington, D.C and holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America.  She is a co-founder of The Clergy Project and Editor of the Rational Doubt blog.

>>>>>> Photo Credits: By The original uploader was Cardsplayer4life at Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by FastilyClone using MTC!., GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52494916 ; “Four Horsemen” by DIREKTOR,  Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Four_Horsemen.jpg#/media/File:Four_Horsemen.jpg

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