Ross Douthat on whether I should believe in God

by on July 6, 2017 at 7:55 pm in Philosophy, Religion | Permalink

He has written a…dare I call it awesomelong dialogue, based on my earlier post on why I do not believe in God.  Any paragraph would make an excellent excerpt, it is hard to choose, here is just one set of observations:

Instead, what I think you are looking for is a kind of black swan among revelations…

And, no surprise here, I think the combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is the darkest swan in the sea of religious stories — the compendium of stories, histories, poems and prophecies and parables and eyewitness accounts that most suggests an actual unfolding of divine revelation, and whose unlikely but overwhelming role as a history-shaping force endures even in what is supposed to be our oh-so-disenchanted world.

Ross also considers that if he were to play a kind of Bayesian game on reported personal revelations, treating all revelations equally (please read his whole discussion and don’t quote him out of context, as he is not actually advocating treating all revelations equally), he comes up with 45 percent for classical theism, “the pantheistic big tent” at 40 percent, gnosticism (hurrah!) at 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism at 4 percent, dualism at 3 percent, and finally “Which still leaves that two percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.”

There is much much more at the link, self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

P.s. Ross says yes, I should believe in God.

1 rayward July 6, 2017 at 8:09 pm

“gnosticism (hurrah!) at 6 percent,” I can’t forget Cowen and Thiel, in their dialogue, one mentioning gnosticism, and both looking at each other, well, knowingly. Hurrah! Is Cowen nuts?

2 Delos Fall July 6, 2017 at 8:18 pm

Transhumanism (to which Thiel ascribes) has some parallels to gnosticism, arguably: the denigration of the body, the veneration of esoteric knowledge, the asceticism.

3 Ray Lopez July 6, 2017 at 9:38 pm

+1 to Delos Fall: Not to mention uploading your brain (spirit?) trapped in your mortal body to an “EM” (brain emulation) like the early Gnostics suggested.

As for Bayesian logic, it is powerful but flawed: it puts too much emphasis on path-dependence (unlike a more frequentest approach) . For example, history to date has shown that most inventors invent not for the money (they only make a fraction of the worth of an invention to society, to the extent they even try and commercialize it) but for the love of inventing. Using Bayesian logic, you would conclude, quite wrongly IMO, that people do NOT respond to incentives in the field of inventing. But this ignores the alternative universe where with better patent laws you would have incentive to innovate and more inventions would take place (more nerds going to work for science rather than Wall Street for example). Likewise, the fact that Christianity ‘caught on’ ignores the alternate universe where more people are animists, or deists, or polytheists, and so forth rather than Christians (it changes the percentages), though I cannot imagine, except in universities, a population of entirely atheists.

Another analogy that some of you may relate to better: I’m reading a book by Peter Lindert (2004) that argues the rise of the nanny state from almost zero percent of GDP to 40-60% as today, did not harm GDP growth, citing path-dependent (i.e., Bayesian) statistics. But in an alternative universe where government was very limited, I could see even greater GDP growth than has happened historically to date. It’s just difficult to prove.

4 J. Ott July 6, 2017 at 8:13 pm

But has anyone updated their priors?

5 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:21 am

It happens all the time. Some people stop believing in God; others start.

6 Smh July 6, 2017 at 8:18 pm

no god(s) have existed but what we’ve created in our minds. can’t wait for the next era.

7 Anon July 6, 2017 at 8:30 pm

It is simply human nature to believe that some higher intelligence created all that we see and know. If somehow all humans lost their belief in god it would take weeks to months before it was revived/recreated and the end result would be much as we see religion today with different factions believing different things and disagreeing sometimes violently about it. None of this makes it true it only makes it understandable why people believe in a god.

8 Smh July 6, 2017 at 11:28 pm

Let the ponzis continue? I believe in evolution

9 Rich Berger July 7, 2017 at 6:53 am

So how do you explain the belief in random Darwinian evolution?

10 GoneWithTheWind July 7, 2017 at 11:21 am


11 anon July 7, 2017 at 7:34 pm

No way… Religious practices follow trends that are many generations long, rather than months. Europe for example has become drastically less religious than decades ago. The trend is gradual because the religion already existed. People gradually lose old habits and beliefs… they don’t do so in a flash.

12 Thiago Ribeiro July 6, 2017 at 8:35 pm

1) Brazil’s Constitution’s Preamble says God exists. If God does not exist, our Constitution is wrong. If our Constitution is wrong, everything is permitted.
2) Prophet Bandarra said God exists.
3) Father Vieira, a Portuguese priest, the greatest writer in Brazilian history and a strong proponent of Prophet Bandarra’s teachings, said God exists, Protestants are wrong and Brazil was founded by Saint Thomas. If God (and consequently) Saint Thomas never existed, how can Brazil exist? It didn’t form ex nihlo. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Quidquid Latine dictum sit altum videtur.

13 Pensans July 6, 2017 at 11:41 pm

Latinum, non? Why the vocative?

14 Thiago Ribeiro July 7, 2017 at 5:34 am

But it is an adverb, the equal of the prepositive locution (it is what we call in Portuguese anyway) “in latin” .

15 joel rich July 6, 2017 at 8:39 pm

I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims.
Ok, but then on what basis do you decide what is prohibited or permitted and why should anyone else be expected to adhere to the same list?

16 Will Barrett July 10, 2017 at 9:33 am

I always enjoy my business partner’s perspective on why other’s should be expected to adhere to the same list. As a lapsed Irish catholic and eternal pessimist — he doesn’t believe in God, heaven or a specific theology. But he does believe in hell !

17 Justin July 6, 2017 at 9:08 pm

To add on to a point that Ross makes (that anthropomorphism might partially “represent the ways in which supernatural realities are made accessible to human perception”), I’d like to add something about the genetic transmission of religious belief. If ‘reality’ is not something humans perceive objectively but is in fact something heavily mediated by the human doing the perceiving, then it seems like it would follow that there would be some interplay between our perception of reality and the narrative framework of the anthropomorphism that we’ve received.

Meaning- the stories that we tell our children about God and angels and demons and heaven will likely have some effect on their perception of the supernatural by supplying ready-made frameworks and narratives for how we interpret and discuss those experiences. This wouldn’t so much invalidate all of those experiences as much as situate them- we might all “see through a glass darkly”, and it seems likely the glass we’re looking through carries some tint based on its manufacture.

18 Mr. Econotarian July 6, 2017 at 9:16 pm

I find believers talking to atheists about the glory of god a bit like a heterosexual guy talking to a homosexual man about the glory of sex with women.

19 Peter M July 6, 2017 at 10:42 pm

haha — I’m with you

20 Mrs. Economist July 6, 2017 at 11:09 pm

“I find believers talking to atheists about the glory of god a bit like a capitalist man talking to a socialist man about the glory of free-trade with women.”


21 NatashaRostova July 7, 2017 at 1:43 am

Are you calling me gay? I get with willing hotties all the time. Totally into sex, with women.

22 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:24 am

Cute, but not apt. Why isn’t it more like economists talking to the uneducated about the disadvantages of price controls? It’s not a matter of desires, but of truth.

23 charlies July 6, 2017 at 9:43 pm

I found the most interesting part of this to be how seriously Douthat takes the fact that Pope Francis appears to have the political/moral sensibilities of the modal NYU sophomore. There are decent reasons why Francis’ opinions on those topics are not relevant to belief in the catholic church (there have been some much more embarrassing popes before), and Douthat is smart enough to be able to latch onto those arguments if he wanted to, but he doesn’t.

24 Ricardo July 7, 2017 at 10:36 am

Pretty hyperbolic statement. What are Pope Francis’s views on abortion, gay marriage, and contraception outside the context of a married couple with children? Now, what are the “modal NYU sophomore’s” views on these?

25 Randall Plant July 6, 2017 at 9:46 pm

The incredible discoveries being made by physicists regarding the origin and the nature of the universe are far more wonderful and awe-inspiring than anything contained in any of the thousands of religions and thousands of gods that have been conjured up.

26 David P. Carleton July 6, 2017 at 11:08 pm

The thought occurs that the 19th Psalm begins with the words: “The heavens declare the glory of God”. Perhaps that is telling us that we are supposed to be following the incredible discoveries being made regarding the origin and nature of the universe, and that we should expect the truth revealed by such a process of discovery to be wonderful and awe inspiring.

27 UncleMartyPants July 7, 2017 at 1:48 am


28 Sebastiaan July 7, 2017 at 5:03 am

Or the psalmist just thought the stars looked really nice.

29 Will Barrett July 10, 2017 at 9:41 am

Please recommend any books or articles suitable for interested non-scientists!

30 Anon July 6, 2017 at 10:11 pm

Who knows and who can here tell
“Whence it all came, whence is this creation?
The gods came later to this world.
So who knows whence it came?

Whence this creation came,
Whether he made it or not,
The overseer of it in the highest heaven,
Only he knows it. Or he doesn’t know?”

(The Hymn of Creation- Rig Veda 10:129)

31 y81 July 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

The best part of Douthat’s piece was pointing out how thoroughly culture-bound Cowen is on these issues (as on many others). It really makes Cowen’s criticism of others for leading the unexamined life rather laughable.

32 efim polenov July 6, 2017 at 11:27 pm

If Shakespeare is the Shakespeare described by the academic gnostic Harold Bloom (as opposed to the Shakespeare described by Boswell’s Johnson, I guess) then Shakespeare too led a mostly unexamined life. The only talented writers I can without effort think of who were flat out atheist were Lucretius and Shelley, and 2 millennia later nobody who knows Latin well thinks Lucretius was better at Latin – which he grew up speaking, imagine that – than Manilius or 20 or 30 other poets whose works have survived (Bayesian negative for atheists). Well, as for Shelley, a gnostic favorite, he died young, and he never really loved anybody all that much, which is just about the most negative thing one can say about a real poet (which he was). As for gnostics, they have had access to a lot more money than the rest of us for 7 or 8 generations now, and what do they have to show for it? A few novels that are only read after the better novels in those languages have been read (Bayesian negative for gnostics). But enough of literature (of which atheism and gnosticism are, for all any of us knows, nothing more than a sub-region) (the previous sentences could have focused on math or chess instead of literature but the allusions would have been even more distant and over the hills and far away – still true, of course, but more distant and over the hills and far away). All, and I mean all, of us who have spent even an hour reading real poetry have real friends in the real world: that is where the Bayesianist extrapolations should start. In my world the extrapolations have led to a deep Christian faith: but my world is not your world, and I realize that is not an argument. Well I do not argue, at least not on “the internet”: in fact, I sometimes imagine that the one or two thousand real words I or any one else have left on the internet are little more than what one would find in some sad old urban library that had “comment books” on then-contemporary, now dusty, “topics of interest” (my familiarity with the 40s and 50s is showing through) (I have seen something like that at smaller museums at the exit of the exhibits, and the Russian poet Pushkin – whose name I am bringing up for historical,not poetical, purposes in this context – used to write in books like that, which were called something, I forget the word – but they were things like high school yearbooks without pictures, young ladies left them out for the guests to sign at the end of aristocratic soirees or weekends). (Up until the 1890s – when many of our grandparents were adults – the ladies who had been the young women who people like Pushkin had left epigrams for, in those notebooks, still pulled them out, periodically, and read them with a tear in their eye and a sigh in their heart). ” Cor ad cor loquitur ” is as true today as it was during the Battle of the Somme (most people in the Battle of the Somme survived, so I am not talking about some kind of century old through and through apocalypse, merely about a very very bad time). Joy in the morning, Summer Lightning, “the cat gave the dog a rose”. Douthat had a bad year last year, I hope this year is better. Veritas praevalebit.

33 efim polenov July 6, 2017 at 11:45 pm

“the cat gave the dog a rose” is not an inside joke: it is an English phrase that is ridiculously easy for the beginner to translate into Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and every European language. The ridiculous easiness of it is the point: “My way is easy my burden is light”. Joy in the Morning is a quote from Wodehouse – who used to live 4 or 5 train stations away from me – quoting, in turn, the Bible. Summer Lightning is what is it is; it can mean fireflies or sudden romances on the beach (in our day or our grandparents’ day) as well as light from heaven.

34 efim polenov July 7, 2017 at 12:08 am

if you are one of the two or three people who read the last couple of hundreds of words (thanks for reading), and are thinking “too many allusions, too many quotes”: real friends in the real world is where easy Bayesianisam extrapolations on any important issues can start. I knew enough to say that, so cut me some slack. And I can say this, can you?: when I give a homeless person a dollar they give me a look as if wondering if I am gonna want that dollar back some day. I don’t dress badly or look poor but maybe there is a look I have that they recognize. A friend of mine once explained to me that most of the time that is not the sort of look one gets from homeless people when giving them a greenback. I didn’t know that. The opposite of arrogance: veritas praevalebit. Chebere amigas chebere amigos (it is amazing how much Spanish you can learn without learning the grammar). “The cat gave the dog a rose”. Imagine that.

35 A clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:13 am

Once tyler cowan liked my tweet: theodicy, gnosis, thematicism, gershom scholem’s kenoma, flannery Oconnor’s blue figure.

Harold Bloom called Hazel Motes journey to self destruction as the preacher of a the church without christ, a gnostic one. Ultimately (spoiler alert) Hazel (not bloom) fills his eyes with lime wash and goes blind. The objects in the story, the mummified object, the animals at the zoo, even his car (his home), are shunned by Hazel. But let’s not forgot the most important object he comes across, at the very beginning, his mother’s chifforobe.

John Wesley, the character in her short story and also the preacher are both Arminians. So how was it that John Wesley was against slavery but a loyalist to Britain during the revolution? Wise Blood is not about Gnosticism at all. The Heart of Darkness does not exist to a Gnostic.

Anderson suffered the breakdown that has remained paramount in the “myth”[60] or “legend”[61][62] of Sherwood Anderson’s life. Umberto Eco compares Joyce to the ancient episcopi vagantes (wandering bishops) in the Middle Ages. They left a discipline, not a cultural heritage or a way of thinking. Like them, the writer retains the sense of blasphemy held as a liturgical ritual. In response to witnessing a lynching in 1893, Dreiser wrote the short story, “Nigger Jeff” (1901). In 1947, when he was four years old, Morrison allegedly witnessed a car accident in the desert, during which a truck overturned and some Native Americans were lying injured at the side of the road. Rousseau had a fantasy that he was a military veteran. Melville found inspiration in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, particularly “The Transcendentalist” which shows parallels to “Bartleby”.[6] The 1850 case Brown v. Kendall, three years before the story’s publication, was important in establishing the “reasonable man” standard in the United States, and emphasized the positive action required to avoid negligence.

36 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:31 am

Yes but imagine all these people (if they are Americans) having gone to high school with each other (or if they are not Americans having done what the fortunate young people of every other country do, ceteris paribus), or having spent their first jobs with each other, or having met each other during unemployed years at coffee houses where the food was, to tell the truth, not all that good (I am not a good person, in the true definition of the phrase, and I do not give up much for Lent, preferring to reflect on the hardships my younger self went through, but even still I know how sad it is to be young and to be denied almost all the good things in this sublunar (not a word I would use except for the fact that it might make you happy to see that even I could use such a word) world : nobody prefers coffee houses to real houses with real food prepared with love – everybody knows that. Some people are raised in a world where God is not their imaginary friend but their real friend, the rest of us can rejoice in “not having seen but having believed”. We sacrifice for each other, we rejoice to see each other understand. I have a friend who had a near-death experience, the usual short post-concussion and excessive-blood-loss passionate conversations with the Mother of God (didn’t you know I was watching over you every moment) and the usual short repartee with two or three angels (ok lets do this!, let’s climb this road with the expected silver glow and the unexpected details on the side of the road, of butterfly blue and vintage honey orange) and that friend says the most important thing was that in the ambulance, bleeding to death, he made the paramedics smile, in the emergency room he made the doctors and nurses laugh; and in the ICU, after the emergency room, with the memory of what he saw still fresh in his memory, he learned how to talk to the people who never had a friend in this world. The cat gave the dog a rose.

37 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:33 am

Every insult is forgiven. All 12 of the apostles cared. And all the Hebrew women – and all but one or two of the non-Hebrew women – named in all the Gospels cared. FWIW.

38 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:34 am

if you read all that and didn’t like it I am truly sorry. The cat gave the dog a rose.

39 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:41 am

Also there are no Gnostics.

40 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:50 am

Thx for not replying! 30 A.D. – good times!

41 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:54 am

in not replying, clockwork my young friend, you are showing respect for those who never had a friend in this world. How gentle is the rain falling softly on the meadow …

42 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 12:56 am

13 September 1972

43 efim polenov anonymous reply to clockwork orange July 7, 2017 at 1:13 am

Thanks. There is hope for all of us. Repent, as we all repented. Longer ago than one could imagine. Care about other people.

44 A Titanic Clockwork Toy July 7, 2017 at 1:28 am

The cat gave the dog a rose. It’s all so you’re better, the cat Saturn said, the cat of old age.

Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one’s sleep under so
many lids. – Rilke

From Mauve to Tea Rose – Nabakov

Rose Chafer – Kafka

The Ibos Rose – Toni Morrison

Gnostics do not understand their own narcissus. They cannot plot a heart of darkness. They are, in no way, radical. They seek to con science and lack a conscience.

45 e. p. a. r. t. a. t. c. t. July 7, 2017 at 1:41 am

let us not let jealousy and resentment rule in our hearts! what strange memories we all have! God loves us all: sure some of us need to repent more than others, but that makes no difference, it is not your fault, take my word for it, so go ahead and repent! the truth is easy! (even on the roadside, in the ambulance, the emergency room, the ICU – one day we learn that we should never take ourselves too seriously, silver glow, butterfly blue glow, vintage honey orange, I remember) Other people cared about us before we cared about them with few exceptions, care about other people, on and off any spectrum: how gentle is the rain falling softly on the meadow. Feel free to delete: the person I want to have read this, has read this. I remember 1972 whether I was there or not.

46 e. p. a. r. t. a. t. c. t. July 7, 2017 at 1:45 am

it is no small thing to make unhappy people laugh or to see a look of friendship in the eyes of someone who has never had a friend in this world. The cat gave the dog a rose

47 e. p. a. r. t. a. t. c. t. July 7, 2017 at 1:48 am

not a small thing at all. Thanks for the bandwidth.

48 efim polenov July 7, 2017 at 2:04 am

feel free to delete after you read this: I know how many people are praying for you, day after day. That is why I argue with bots. Others are more eloquent. Cats do not generally give dogs roses: but 1972 was and is real, as are and were fireflies, lightnings, ICUs, near-death experiences, Hebrew women of the Bible, the 12 apostles, coffee houses, real food, and a God who watches over us every moment. I know how few seconds of attention the words on this obscure corner of the internet will be met with (don’t take that the wrong way, every corner of the internet is obscure, even the best sonnets of Shakespeare are obscure, we live in an amazing world that makes our greatest gifts a source of joy but not a source of joy that is not, in the dreamtime we live in, something that is not obscure) but having said what I want to have said I will have said I know how many people are praying for you. (Efim Polenov is a fictional character from a book that was published when my grandparents were children). There is hope for all of us.

49 efim polenov July 7, 2017 at 2:15 am

“it is no small thing to see a look of friendship in the eyes of someone who has never had a friend in this world”. Delete the rest but don’t delete that.

50 efim polenov July 8, 2017 at 12:15 am

for the record: I actually remember – the dog would not have been surprised at all if the cat had given the dog a rose. That, at least, was always true: magna est veritas. The only miracle is the miracle we see when we care about each other. All the rest – the Caltech discoveries in quantum chromodynamics, the cool chess moves after millions of chess games had been played, the great chord progressions of people who did not even like music all that much – all the rest – fades into insignificance unless viewed in light of the fact that the only miracles we ever see are the miracles we see (after years and years of loneliness and pain, sometimes, albeit not always) when we understand how much we care about each other, after all. I am not sure why it works that way but it does. Philippians had lots of good quotes with insight into this. I don’ t pretend that I do. I have noticed how these things work but that is not that unusual. I have had more good years than I ever would have guessed and I have no idea why I know these things. Maybe I did something nice for someone half a century ago and they have never stopped returning the favor. God loves us all and wants us to repent because that is what friends do for each other. It is easier than “you” think (unless “you” already knew that!!!).

51 Stormy Dragon July 6, 2017 at 11:03 pm

then within Western monotheism, Judaism alone seems to me much less likely than does Christianity and Judaism together

This is down right logically fallacious. P(A union B) cannot be greater than P(A).

52 Stormy Dragon July 6, 2017 at 11:04 pm

P (A intersection B), even.

53 Fergus Newton July 6, 2017 at 11:57 pm

Indeed. His arguments are awful…

54 y81 July 7, 2017 at 7:27 am

Sure it can, if you interpret Douthat’s phrase “Judaism alone” as meaning “Judaism and not Christianity,” which is surely what he means.

If Judaism is .6/.4 true/false, and Christianity is .9/.1 true/false (and the probabilities are independent, which is probably a bad assumption), then Judaism alone is .06, Christianity alone (aka Marcionism) is .36, both true is .54 (more likely than not), and neither is .04.

55 hello July 7, 2017 at 11:08 am

Nope. You’re thinking of the intersection. The following is always true: P(A) <= P(A union B).

56 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:31 am

Think of it this way.

Newtonian physics alone is less likely true than Newtonian plus 20th century physics.

This is exactly analogous. “true” here is not being taken as binary—true vs. false— but in the ordinary way we use the word for complex statements or collections of statements— correct to some continuous degree between 100% false and 100% true.

Thus, if you say “Newtonian physics is false”, you are being misleading, because only a small fraction of it is false. On the other hand, without an explanation for radiation and such things, Newtonian physics would be obviously flawed in ways we didn’t understand, and so its entire fabric would be open to doubt.

57 entirelyuseless July 8, 2017 at 12:54 pm

That is not what he meant; he meant “Judaism is true and Christianity is true” is more probable than “Judaism is true and Christianity is false.” There is nothing logically fallacious about that; it is perfectly possible.

58 Jeff July 9, 2017 at 2:56 pm

No, it is not. Christianity and Judaism have several key, diametrically opposed tenents, most particularly the deity (or lack thereof) of Jesus. It is logically impossible for both religions to be true in their entirety.

59 Anon For This Thread July 6, 2017 at 11:10 pm

The most obvious retort to a Bayesian argument is that there are, to a rounding error, *zero* people who have ever accepted a religion that both existed and was unknown in their region of the world at the time, and there are also *substantially* more people who during their lives convert to non-religion from religion, taking the religious base rates as our prior.

Further, given the logical impossibility of believing in more than one religion – my apologies to the Bahai’s – believing in any one religion, even the most globally popular one, means you believe 80+% of the planet at present, and a greater number of those who have ever lived, were wholly mistaken in their beliefs. Combined with the first paragraph, if you are like 99% of believers, you have to believe this is true while simultaneously believing that the religion of your parents happens to be correct despite the wrong beliefs, strongly and equally held to be correct, possessed by the vast majority of other humans in history.

That is all the say, the Bayesian argument is not compelling.

60 Preach! July 7, 2017 at 4:44 pm

This statement is one of the key reasons I am unable to commit to one religion: “believing in any one religion, even the most globally popular one, means you believe 80+% of the planet at present, and a greater number of those who have ever lived, were wholly mistaken in their beliefs. Combined with the first paragraph, if you are like 99% of believers, you have to believe this is true while simultaneously believing that the religion of your parents happens to be correct despite the wrong beliefs, strongly and equally held to be correct, possessed by the vast majority of other humans in history.”

There are a few other reasons that I struggle with religion, but the statement above is something that I believe every religion person must contend with, but most never even consider that concept.

61 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:35 am

How can you believe that? At one time there were zero Christians and zero Muslims anywhere in the world. Now there are lots. Almost all nowadays grew up in that religion, of course, but it had to start somewhere. And new religions are being created all the time, on a small scale.

62 Dune July 7, 2017 at 12:16 am

After 10 pages of critique, Douthat has a single and incredibly vague paragraph explaining why his religion is the “correct” one. A dark swan of poems and parables? What is that and why does it recommend the Catholic religion over any other? And why do Christians always ignore the Old Testament?

Sounds like a case of motivated reasoning from a person who inherited his faith and is comfortable with his own religious complacency.

63 Butler T. Reynolds July 7, 2017 at 8:48 am

“And why do Christians always ignore the Old Testament?”

Unlike the movies, Part II is much better.

64 entirelyuseless July 8, 2017 at 12:56 pm

Douthat is a convert to Catholicism. He did not inherit his faith.

65 Tom Bri July 9, 2017 at 2:53 am

Christians ignore the OT? Generally we have a reading from the OT, followed by a NT reading at every service. The same is true in most churches I have attended. Much of Sunday school is spent on OT stories. Besides the OT is simply fun.

66 Nick July 7, 2017 at 2:32 am

“But that’s not my take; instead, I think the fact that religion has net practical benefits (with some variance as you say!), and not only practical in some strict utilitarian sense but also aesthetic (that religiously-infused societies produce better art and architecture is of course technically a de gustibus issue but come on, it’s true), is itself suggestive evidence for the claim that religious beliefs point to something real.”

If being inspired by something to the point of making great art is evidence of existence, LSD must also be a conduit to the divine, or perhaps LSD is God itself, like the Eucharist, a piece of the literal Flesh of God.

This is reductio ad silly, and for a purpose– what argument is Douthat actually making? That the world is mysterious and we don’t fully understand everything… something something… therefore Catholicism? That Godjuice makes good artists… something something.. therefore God? I particularly like this bit:

“There’s a commonality at the level of the ineffable, where mystics Western and Eastern, Christian and Sufi tend to sound somewhat alike in their descriptions of what they can’t describe…”

People who try to think complexly about the topic of X can’t really describe what X is… therefore X?

Put succinctly: Wtf is he on about?

67 ChrisA July 7, 2017 at 3:38 am

+1, if this confusing mess is supposed to be an argument for religious belief, then the case is even weaker than I supposed.

The only argument for religion is a conservative one – your ancestors believed in this stuff and their descendants are the ones still around. So you should believe otherwise society etc won’t work.

68 Thiago Ribeiro July 7, 2017 at 5:45 am

“So you should believe otherwise society etc won’t work.”
I don’t think so. England changed from Catholicism to Protestantism and things got better. Would the West really collapse if we accepted Moses or Confuncius in our hearts.

69 CM July 7, 2017 at 9:27 am

Douthat has a decent critique of the heuristics that lead TC to agnosticism but his arguments seem directed at persons who are struggling with their pre-existing belief in God (i.e., the reasons for skepticism/agnosticism outlined by TC should not compel anyone to abandon their faith). He does, however, not offer any affirmative case for those of us who lack faith and are not troubled by its absence. FWIW, I think this is as it should be. Faith (as I understand it) should not make sense and should not be built on rationalism. It should be a miraculous gift from God that abides in spite of evidence to the contrary. Those who argue against atheism / agnosticism / skepticism should not be telling us non-believers that God is proven by logic. They should be encouraging us to remain open to religious experience so that if God, in his unknowable wisdom, chooses to grant us some quantum of faith we are capable of recognizing it, accepting it, and building on it. I think that Douthat’s arguments are aimed in this direction even if he thinks that he is making a logical case for God.

70 joel rich July 7, 2017 at 9:36 am

Understood and agree that really that’s the most a believer can ask for from a modern non-believer. I’m interested though in for you, what is the organizing principle of your life (or as I asked Tyler above-what basis do you decide what is prohibited or permitted and why should anyone else be expected to adhere to the same list?) ty

71 Thiago Ribeiro July 7, 2017 at 10:03 am

The same can be asked about any organized ideology. Why shouldn’t Protestants follow the pope or why shouldn’t Jews accept Jesus? Catholics and Protestants spent a few centuries killing each other even while they shared most of the Bible. Trotskytes and Stalinists kept fighting even while they share everyrhing fro Marx to Lenin.

72 joel rich July 7, 2017 at 10:39 am

I agree with you- so what is the answer that a non-believer would provide? (i.e. why doesn’t individual autonomy trump)

73 CM July 7, 2017 at 11:01 am

I don’t have a single organizing principle, much less one that is rationally derived. I have a set of convictions that strike me as true in the Cartesian sense. I do not think they are “true” in a supernatural or purely logical sense or that my convictions are the result of a rational process. But through my education and life experience I have become convinced of their correctness. One could perform a history of my convictions and locate precursors for them in various cultural, religious, intellectual, historical traditions, in the particulars of my life and psychology, or in my/our DNA. This historicity / determinism does not trouble me either. Most of my convictions are basic norms that are highly conventional and deeply ingrained (i.e., care for other people and be honest). It sometimes requires work to embody these norms but it does not require much conscious life organization. I expect that others share these basic norms and am disappointed/disgusted/angry when they do not. I think affirming these norms, following them, both with a kind heart and recognition of human fallibility (both my own fallibility and the fallibility of others), is the best way to inspire others to follow them. I think its very hard to convince anyone who does not, at some level, accept basic norms that they are, in fact, correct. Rational argument, listening and empathy are useful for showing people that they may be in error in how they apply basic norms. Its also useful for me to learn how I might be in error.

74 Eric Rasmusen July 7, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Faith should indeed make sense; it is just that at some point a leap is required where logic fails to answer important questions. Did Jesus rise from the dead? There is reason to think He did, and reason to think He didn’t. Either conclusion is rational. You need to make a leap of faith either way. Moreover, you cannot really refrain from answering the question, because the answer determines how you live your life. If you say, “I don’t know” and then live your life as if He did not, then you have in effect answered that He did not. Since we have to conduct our lives one way or the other, we need to have faith one way or the other.
This is rel

75 Eric Rasmusen July 7, 2017 at 3:26 pm

Sorry–hit a wrong key.

This is related to Professor Cowen’s Bayesianism point. A Bayesian will make a decision one way or the other. Observing his behavior, you may well not be able to tell whether he has 100% belief that Jesus rose from the dead, or 10% (but that’s enough for him given Pascal’s Wager). A lot of decisions are bang-bang— it is better to choose A or B rather than something mushy in between. If you are Bayesian, though, then new information could cause a drastic shift from A to B, possibly even if the new information is very small.

The real importance of evangelism is, I think not to persuade people that Jesus rose from the dead, but just to bug them so they stop postponing thinking about it (and thereby stop conducting themselve as if the answer were “100% sure He did not”).

76 CM July 7, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Thousands of years of human experience and the laws of physics and biology tell us that dead people stay dead. It requires a very tiny amount of faith to credit this body of experience and conclude that the historical Jesus was not raised from the dead. Its like having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow. By contrast, it requires a huge amount of faith to believe that an exception to this body of experience occurred. That a supernatural miracle raised Jesus from the dead. That’s why the resurrection story is a story about a miracle. It is an inexplicable and unlikely event that would have occurred only because of divine intervention. One belief is not like the other.

I don’t think Bayes is very much help for believers. The fact that people believe in many different religions provides evidence for the truth of many different religions. But the existence of many conflicting religions is evidence that most religious beliefs are false. How does a Bayesian pick which one to believe? The oldest religion, the one with the most followers, the one with the most logical theology, the one with the best poetry? Should the Bayesian change his faith if any of those priors change? This applies to Pascal’s Wager too. How do you know which one to bet one? Why is Christianity a better bet than Islam or Hinduism or Scientology? And how do you minimize the risk that you will choose wrong and alienate the actual powers-that-be?

For what its worth, I agree that faith should make internal sense. It should be part of a coherent world view. However, I don’t think you can calculate or reason your way to faith. Faith should be a miracle.

77 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:44 am

But LSD has *not* inspired any great art.

That part of Douthat’s argument is that if belief X results in good effects, that is some evidence that X is true. It is a bit like the argument that if a scientific theory can predict well, it has some truth to it even if we cannot justify its assumptions. Note that this is different from Milton Friedman’s simpler idea that if a theory can predict well, it is a good theory because prediction is our goal— the Douthat argument would be that the theory could not predict well unless it had some truth to its assumptions.

Douthat’s argument is strongest when it comes to High Art. There, we cannot explain why it has its effect on us. Its strong tie to belief in God (or to pagan spirituality) suggests that that belief is real. Or, alternatvely, it suggests that we innately have a strong tendency to believe in God (whose origin might be evolutionary, or might be God Himself).

78 dearieme July 7, 2017 at 3:10 am

“the compendium of stories, histories, poems and prophecies and parables and eyewitness accounts”

Damn few eyewitness accounts, as far as I know. What did he have in mind?

79 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 10:50 am

The New Testament is a more direct, multi-sourced, account of ancient history than anything else that exists, as far as I can recall. Most of ancient history is from biased sources written long after the events and under potential persecution from the authorities if their bias is wrong. (The New Testament writers were under potential persecution too, or course, but persecution for writing what they *did* write, which makes their testimony all the stronger.) Compare with what we know of the life of Socrates (Plato, Xenophon, and Aristophanes–tho persecution is not relevant there) or Caesar (Caesar himself, Plutarch, Suetonius, who else?), or Nero.

80 Thanatos Savehn July 7, 2017 at 3:40 am

Materialism is demonstrably false. There. What did I win? A tiny, metal P-51 in my CrackerJacks? Already got one (if you get the point). Thanks.

81 Rich Berger July 7, 2017 at 6:58 am

You’re showing your age. Move aside, old dude, the young people are awesome.

82 dearieme July 7, 2017 at 8:44 am

As usual, any American discussion that purports to be about whether there is a god is actually about the old Hebrew fascist in the sky. And that’s somewhat unfair to Mussolini.

83 Tony July 7, 2017 at 10:12 am

“It seems to me that by those premises you should narrow your confidence in that agnosticism, and give religious commitment a slightly longer look…”

What the hell is “confidence in agnosticism”?

84 john July 7, 2017 at 10:37 am

I cannot help but continue thinking all this “others should believe” in my version of god is more about the limitations and needs of man than god so cannot really inform on the question of god. Afterall, if we’re really talking about God then what’s to stop that entity from being both singular and multiple or even purely natural? It’s God so th entire concept of “mutually exclusive” simply doesn’t apply as that suggest a lack of omnipitance. Now, if you want to drop the all powerful, can do anything it wants view of god then where are we in the discussion?

85 Eric Rasmusen July 7, 2017 at 3:17 pm

Mr Douthat’s reply is too general. It is most useful to reduce the problem to asking not “Does God exist?” but to something more specific such as “Did Jesus Christ rise from the dead?” If that is answered “Yes”, we’re pretty much done; if it is answered “No”, we can go on to ask questions such as “Does some powerful supernatural being affect what happens in the world?” or “Did Mohammed receive a revelation from a divine being or did he just make up the Koran?” or “Do miracles happen?”.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all well suited to this sort of analysis, because all three are based on claims for supernatural historical events that either happened or didn’t happen. (Liberal versions of all three are not, but the liberal versions are so vague that they are interchangeable and should be counted as a separate religion entirely, better called “liberal monotheism” than using labels of traditional religions).

86 Cjones1 July 7, 2017 at 6:03 pm

I keep tabs on the daily mass readings of the Catholic Church and this week a reading recounted the incident where Jesus suddenly appears to doubting Thomas and to the other Apostles inside their locked room and tells Thomas to touch the holes in his hands and the entry wound in his chest. I wondered what the spin was in this story as a metamorphosis from Boson to Fermion state occurred obviously. That’s impossible right!
Humankind has certainly mixed up the message and tried to go it alone in creating utopian societies without God using Marxist-leninist themes that resulted in the imprisonment, enslavement, and slaughter of tens of millions. Like the one Herod fellow – when we consider ourselves equal to God, bad things happen. I get the feeling the AGW folks have also overestimated how great man art!

87 Millian July 8, 2017 at 1:22 pm

I don’t understand why Mr Douthat’s argument excludes Islam. If Jewish + Christian is more likely than Jewish, surely J+C+I is more likely than J+C.

88 edwardtbabinski July 8, 2017 at 5:01 pm

My complete, re-edited response to Ross’s classical theism arguments

89 Jeff July 9, 2017 at 2:49 pm

I would like to commend Cowen for so graciously praising and recommending Douthat’s piece even though he obviously disagrees with it. There’s entirely too little of that these days, especially when it comes to hot-button topics like religion.

90 MPS July 10, 2017 at 10:30 am

These numbers are way off. We should judge theories not only by how well they describe the data, but also by their complexity (the information it takes to describe them and make predictions).

We normally do this instinctively. For example, the theory that the world was created yesterday, with everything (including our memories) put in place to make it look like it was created earlier, is totally consistent with reality. However we instinctively reject it because to establish the correlations between our brain states and the state of the world to make our memories coherent requires an enormous amount of unnecessary complexity in describing the “initial” state.

The practical value of this has been observed. In Machine Learning, you can usually better explain a training data set by invoking a more complicated model. To get the best performance against new data, you should punish your model by at least the *exponential* of additional free parameters you need to set.

In the discussion of science vs religion, revelations and scriptures are not a comparative challenge for science to explain. Since there are inconsistent revelations and scriptures, every religion needs baked into it the idea that these things can come about due to quirks in human nature. Any religion that presupposes a personal god, however, needs to bake in the complexity of that god (and in particular its personality) into the theory of the world. This is not necessary for science. This is an enormous amount of additional complexity that should make the theory extremely unlikely.

Consider as a point of comparison that a personality would seem to be at least as information intensive as, say, a watch. Now imagine you find a watch in the forest. Do you think that watch came about the same way as all other watches came about (i.e. built by humans), vs how likely do you think it is that this particular watch is special and has been around since the beginning of the world waiting to be discovered.

91 Eric Rasmusen July 8, 2017 at 12:12 pm

“Thousands of years of human experience and the laws of physics and biology tell us that dead people stay dead. It requires a very tiny amount of faith to credit this body of experience and conclude that the historical Jesus was not raised from the dead. Its like having faith that the sun will rise tomorrow.”

Bad analogy. Christians agree that dead people stay dead–in general. That’s why the Resurrection is a big deal. The two alternatives are, roughly: “99% of people are not raised from the dead, but Jesus was,” vs. “99% of people are not raised from the dead, and Jesus was not either. ” It’s like “99% of the time the Law of Conservation of Energy applies, but 1% of the time you need to think about how Matter can be turned into Energy” vs. “100% of the time the Law of Conservation of Energy applies”.

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