One of the most important impacts of the “new atheists” was to break religious discussion out of its silos. Before their recent rise, it was easy for the sophisticated secularist to laugh at the Pat Robertsons because they seemed absurd caricatures of Christianity in America. It was equally irrelevant to the Catholic theologian what analytical philosophy was up to in worrying over the meaning of meaning. And Muslims largely kept to their mosques. But with the critiques of the new atheism came a new willingness to hold remarkable, frank, and intelligent discussions about religion and modern life.
Take Andrew Sullivan’s article in Newsweek that attacks a range of Christian movements within the US through the critical lens of the Jefferson Bible. Sullivan promotes the sermon-on-the-mount Jesus as a radical guru focused exclusively on love. The surrounding texts and their subsequent grafting onto church doctrines are the source of strife both within Christianity and in its interactions with other peoples down through history.
And so as Andrew Sullivan cherry picks on Jefferson’s intellectual plantation, Gary Cutting of Notre Dame points out that there is not much fruit on the vine in the New York Times:
Read alone, the Sermon on the Mount will either confuse us or merely reinforce the moral prejudices we bring to it.
The moral messaging is just too diffuse for Cutting to be able to render into a ethical road map: Should we try to maximize happiness or focus on individual rights? Is the state the proper vehicle for charity? Is democracy better than totalitarianism? These are all contemporary notions that are beside the point in the orchard of Sullivan’s love.
We can contrast this sparring with Ross Douthat at Slate in his ongoing debate cycle centered on his new book, Bad Religion, that picks at the same line of criticism as Sullivan with regard to some of the current strains of evangelism in America. In his debate, however, he descends into a familiar line of attack against the non-religious:
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?
Much of 20th Century Continental philosophy was built around trying to find a place for human striving in a world that no longer seemed to reflect the simple metaphysical certitudes of traditional life and religion. Isn’t it intellectually repugnant to not try to understand the world without recourse to that certitude?
Moreover, we can easily find justification for absolute human equality in the broader web of enlightenment and scientific reasoning and create a simple enough algorithm:
- I don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
- Those around me appear to be like me and say they don’t want to be harmed or treated unfairly.
- Don’t harm others or treat them unfairly.
We can also start to explain why using evolutionary theory and our understanding of how non-zero-sum cooperation lead to social interactions. We can also bind this all up in the enlightenment liberalism that he critiques: liberty, equality, fraternity. In other words, we get human dignity through reasoning about what others are like and what we can do to make society better. Should there be moral fervor around that? Absolutely, especially when it is driven by a belief that someone is not being treated fairly.
Now it is up to Mr. Douthat to explain why that is not enough and how not applying that algorithm to everyone (including gays) is somehow more metaphysically sound, better for society, and justified by his orchard of cherries.