I don’t know if I should be grateful or annoyed that Ezra linked this post by Ross Douthat. One one hand, it’s the most annoyingly pretentious thing I’ve read in at least a week. On the other hand, it’s the most entertainingly pretentious thing I’ve read in at least a week. In a way, it’s hard to blame the hardcore believers, especially those whose attachment to Christianity is rooted in a need to project their own misogyny onto a god so they don’t have to take responsibility, because pretentiousness is all you’ve got when logic has failed to come through for you. It’s really a fascinating post, in that his main argument—that the ideas of Christianity have a substantial impact and if you could somehow disprove them in a way that made believers actually give up belief, that would change a lot of things—is correct, but everything else about it is so wrong. For instance, he wrote the post because he’s taking a swipe at Christopher Hitchens for being right about something (atheism), and so he misrepresents what Hitchens is trying to say. Hitchens is making the benign observation that the Big Questions are bigger than Christianity or Islam, and that the absence of one specific faith wouldn’t change those. Douthat wants to be right-er about something, because he’s wrong about the important thing (whether or not there really is a god), so he splits hairs and points out that Christianity is too important!!11!!!!1!!1!!! So important that even you atheists need it! So there!
Beware: There is unnecessarily flowery language ahead times ten. You may want to have your stomach treatment of choice on hand.
Consider, for instance, the way in which the dominance of the Christian story has actually sharpened one of the best arrows in the anti-theist’s quiver. In Western society, especially, the oft-heard claim that the world is too cruel a place for a good omnipotence to have created derives a great deal of its power, whether implicitly or explicitly, from the person of Christ himself. The God of the New Testament seems more immediate, more personal, and more invested in his creation than He had heretofore revealed Himself to be. But this arguably makes Him seem more culpable for the world’s suffering as well. Paradoxically, the God who addresses Job out of the whirlwind is far less vulnerable to complaints about the world’s injustice than the God who suffers on the Cross – or the human God who cries in the manger.
He’s not wrong in this argument, but the implication—that Christianity is that awesome—is laughable. Many atheists from a Christian background will be the first in line to tell you that the Christian god is especially hard to believe in, and that the problem of evil requires you to either believe in a malevolent or at least indifferent god, or that there’s multiple gods competing for power. Or you could believe in no gods at all, which makes the most sense. I’m impressed that someone can realize this about the concept of a loving god, and yet won’t allow enough intellectual honesty to kick in and go the next step, which is to abandon the incoherent religious belief. It’s clear to me that if you accept that the Christian god is impossible, then you’re on tap to change religions or, hopefully, become an atheist.
But of course, the implications of atheism are too much for some people to bear, and I’ve not hidden in any way that I think one of the implications of an atheist worldview is that you have to accept that women are equal and that using their ability to get pregnant as an excuse to hurt and control them is a human decision, not something that’s done by humans at god’s bidding. You also have to accept that marriage is a decision between two people, not an institution blessed by god, and you have to accept that the morality of being gay should be measured by the harm done (no more than being straight does) instead of by your irrational judgments that you pretend are god’s. For the Ross Douthats of the world, god is the ultimate scapegoat—you can put all of your sexism and homophobia and anal retentiveness on god, claim that’s what he wants, and that it’s not up to you. So you get your ugly cake and you get to eat it without responsibility, too.