My Conversation with Ross Douthat

by on January 17, 2018 at 11:10 am in Books, Current Affairs, Education, Film, History, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Television, The Arts, Uncategorized, Web/Tech | Permalink

I think Ross, along with Steven Pinker, received the hardest (though never hostile) questions from me, but of course that is a measure of respect.  Plus serious questions about God are difficult by their nature.  Here is how the summarizers described the ground covered:

…Douthat’s views on religion and theology, but then moves on to more earth-bound concerns, such as his stance on cats, The Wire vs The Sopranos, why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics, eating tofu before it was cool, journalism as a trade, why he’s open to weird ideas, the importance of Sam’s Club Republicans, the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.

Not to mention Reformicons, CRISPR, Thiel/Girard, Godwin’s Law, euthanasia, what Ross learned his mother, and the dangers of too much smart phone use.  Ross responded in fine form, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

DOUTHAT: I suppose that I’m drawn to the idea that the truth about human existence lies in what can seem like paradoxical formulations, and this is of course very Catholic in certain ways. Certainly a G. K. Chestertonian idea, so I’m just stealing it from other people. But the idea that various heresies of Christianity, Calvinism included — with apologies to my Calvinist friends — tend to take one particular element of you that’s supposed to be in synthesis and possibly in tension, and run with it. And therefore the truth about things lies in a place that may seem slightly contradictory.

And I think this is borne out in many ways in everyday experience. This both-and experience of human existence. The idea that you can’t split up grace and works in any kind of meaningful way. It’s connected to larger facts about the nature of human existence. The tension between determinism and free will that persists in any philosophical system. You can get rid of God and stop having these Jansenist Jesuit arguments about predestination and so on, but you’re still stuck with the free will–determinism debate. That debate doesn’t go away.

So, yeah, there’s a point at the intersection of different ideas that is as close to the truth as our limited minds can get and in Christian thought, we call that point orthodoxy. Now, how that is connected to my political views is a really good question.


COWEN: We all know the Marcionite heresy: the view, from early Christianity, that the Old Testament should be abandoned. At times, even Paul seems to subscribe to what later was called the Marcionite heresy. Why is it a heresy? Why is it wrong?

DOUTHAT: It’s wrong because it takes the form . . . It’s wrong for any number of reasons, but in the context of the conversation we’re having, it’s wrong because it tries to basically take one of the things that Christianity is trying to hold in synthesis and run with it to the exclusion of everything else, and essentially to solve problems by cutting things away.

The Marcionite thesis is, basically, if you read the New Testament, Jesus offers you a portrait of God that seems different from the portrait of God offered in Deuteronomy; therefore, these things are in contradiction. Therefore, if you believe that Jesus’s portrait of God is correct, then the Deuteronomic portrait of God must be false; therefore, the God of the Old Testament must be a wicked demiurge, etc., etc. And the next thing you know, you’re ascribing to, again, a kind of . . . What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?

And so the orthodox Christian says, “No, any seeming tension between the Old Testament and the New, any seeming contradiction, is actually suggesting that we need to look for a kind of synthesis between them, and for a sense in which there is not contradiction, but fulfillment in some way, which —

COWEN: Bringing us back to Hegelian Douthat.

DOUTHAT: Yes, yes.


I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.


COWEN: When you see how much behavior Islam or some forms of Islam motivate, do you envy it? Do you think, “Well, gee, what is it that they have that we don’t? What do we need to learn from them?” What’s your gut emotional reaction?

On another topic:

I’ve been always disappointed that there hasn’t been a kind of sustained Watership Down revival because it’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

Strongly recommended, and I do thank Ross for putting up with me.  Do read or listen to the whole thing.

And I very much enjoyed reading Ross’s forthcoming book To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, which I found totally engrossing.

1 JWatts January 17, 2018 at 11:19 am

That sounds like a very interesting discussion.

“… the specter of a Buterlian Jihad, and more.” That’s just different terminology for a Terminator war. Granted, it assumes a Terminator war across an interstellar human community. But it’s the same concept. And humanity would be very lucky to survive it.

I like Isaac Asimov’s version better. The AI decides to remove its self from human society, voluntarily.

2 Adam R January 17, 2018 at 11:59 am

I’m starting to find Tyler’s conversations more of a vehicle for him to trip up his guests. It doesn’t seem like he wants a rich and interesting conversation but the opportunity to say “hey, look at how much homework I’ve done. See how I caught you off guard. Doesn’t it impress you!”

3 dude January 17, 2018 at 1:29 pm

We all have our faults, so i don’t want to seem too harsh, but Cowen does seem like he is often trying to impress rather than educate, entertain, or learn.

4 Oderus Urungus January 17, 2018 at 10:09 pm

You’re just now noticing this?

5 Student January 17, 2018 at 4:34 pm

I must admit I was rather disappointed with this discussion. I can’t really pinpoint why but probably because my expectations were so higher and yet with all those words, I really came away with nothing new.

The most interesting part was with respect to the AI topic and how AI consciousness would change theology. That is very interesting (it would be huge actually because I don’t think many theologians can even suggest this is even possible) but it flew by rather quickly with little being addressed.

Not to dig Ross because I like to read him, but it would have been much more informative if Tyler were talking Catholicism with Father Robert Spitzer, Father Pacwa, Bishop Robert Barron, Scott Hahn or some other more knowledgeable Catholic public figure like that.

I love Douthat but he isn’t an authority on Catholicism so when faced with gotchas he road the fence and so deprived us of the main course.

6 Beefcake the Mighty January 17, 2018 at 9:57 pm

It actually sounds like two douchebags giving each other hand-jobs.

7 Anonymous January 17, 2018 at 11:20 am

It was interesting. At the sort of midpoint, where the “locality” of “Christian conservatism” was discussed, it did crystallize a thought that had been building for me .. that I think a moral philosophy is better if it can be universal .. or at least as far as “humans on earth” go.

But then I am a fairly agnostic moralist thinking that ..

8 FredR January 17, 2018 at 11:28 am

The question I would like to ask him is what convinces him of Christ’s divinity.

9 msgkings January 17, 2018 at 5:45 pm

It comes down to faith. It’s not logical, and adherents are just fine with that.

10 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 11:32 am

Interesting discussion. Quickly gleaned.

Thanks for asking my question on particularism and Christian conservatism. It’s interesting that he acknowledged the inherent radicalism of Christianity. This is a problem conservatives in the West have to wrestle with. They live in a world where the dominant religion is a force for change and equality and explicitly anti-tradition. Eg : Ancestor worship is greatly discouraged in Christianity. This goes contrary to the Burkean conservative idea of society being a contract between the past, the present and the future.

11 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 17, 2018 at 11:36 am

Holey smokes, I guess we both got questions answered.

12 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 12:02 pm

No, it doesn’t. One doesn’t need to worship humans to be able to respect he past and learn from it. We don’t need to deify Patton as a god of war or Pasteur a some kind of Asclepius. The same way we don’t need to believe the ghosts of the departed are haunting us and must be appeased by offerings and sacrifices.

13 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 17, 2018 at 12:04 pm

That might be a bit narrow and literal.

Think about how liberals think of solar and conservatives think of nukes. At some very obvious level they are the same.

14 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 12:28 pm

But one can not worship pople, alive or dead. It is superstition and sacrilege.

15 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ January 17, 2018 at 12:34 pm

We are on different wavelengths. I think shrikanthk is on to something with: “They live in a world where the dominant religion is a force for change and equality and explicitly anti-tradition.”

That’s true, or mostly true (throwing out coal mine versions of MAGA). For the most part everyone in America wants a Tomorrow-land future, and is just arguing about how to get there. We get there by freeing Uber! No, we get there by funding NREL!

Dudes, you are all trying to get there. You don’t have a static worldview, or a simple spring planting fall harvest cyclical view of the world.

16 P Burgos January 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm

Orthodox Christianity is a mixture of radicalism and conservatism. Tradition is very important in the Orthodox churches, and there are a lot of church teaches that haven’t changed much at all in a couple of thousand years. So conservatism isn’t really contrary to Christianity, as Christians view themselves as members of the body of Christ, and hence part of a social contract between the past, present and future.

17 msgkings January 17, 2018 at 5:46 pm

Polar bear, no one is on Thiago’s wavelength, thankfully.

18 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 5:52 pm

Orthodox ‘Christianity’ is a not Christian, it is worshipping the Slavic state. Its Russian version gladly served the czars and Stalin.

19 P Burgos January 17, 2018 at 10:17 pm

Is Charbes Protestant? I may have mistakenly capitalized orthodox, but the Roman Catholic Church considers the Orthodox and Anglican churches to be orthodox ( as opposed to the Protestant churches that are heterodox). That is to say, the orthodox churches still practice traditional Christianity.

20 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 12:09 pm

By worship, I didn’t mean constructing a temple for an ancestor. But setting aside time to remember them and honor them. That’s very much a tradition that existed in the classical world. Christianity put an end to that.

When every man is unto himself and has no real connection with the past or future, why would you ever make an investment in kids or make decisions keeping in mind the future generations. Why would you ever attempt to conserve habits or ways of living?

Outside of the Abrahamic world, to this day, the tradition of honoring ancestors exists. It exists in a big way in India. In Japan. And to a lesser extent probably in China as well. In India, the death ceremonies of one’s parents is performed every year by most communities. And this bond with the past is what keeps the cultural continuity going. True in Japan as well.

21 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 12:21 pm

“When every man is unto himself and has no real connection with the past or future, why would you ever make an investment in kids or make decisions keeping in mind the future generations. Why would you ever attempt to conserve habits or ways of living?”

Except of course that Christians have done all that for two thousand years (so had the Jews, who are againt worshipping the dead, too). If one doesn’t see reasons to keep his culture going, I doubt that superstistions will help.

“And this bond with the past is what keeps the cultural continuity going. True in Japan as well.”
Yet, the Japanese can not even keep the population from dwindling. Again, thinking ghosts are haunting you and must be placated by voodu doesn’t give you connection with the past, only with your imagination. By banishing the ghosts, Christianity made science and development possible while heathens either stagnate or imitate Christianity.

22 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 12:36 pm

In facy science and technology declined in western Europe unabatedly for some 1000 years after the rise of christianity

23 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 1:17 pm

Doubtful. The Classical Antiquity have nothing like modern science, and the decline of technology a product of the breaking up of the Roman Empire. But while heathens spent thousands of years stagnating, the Christian West invented modern science and technology. Heathens try to copy them, but it is useless because they can’t copy the spirity of inquiry that comes from not believing the ghosts of your grandparents want wine or any other silly tale like that.

24 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 1:29 pm

There was little scientific or intellectual progress outside of theology in the West between 300AD and 1200/1300AD. This is a universally acknowledged fact.

The re-invigoration of a scientific tradition was partly triggered by the revival of classical ideas thanks to a few influential medieval Muslim scholars, and also partly triggered by the borrowing of Oriental mathematical ideas (mostly from Hindu India) through the Arabs. Neither of these sources, be it Greco Roman or Hindu/Buddhist, were Christian.

The scientific tradition undoubtedly boomed post 14th century, first in Southern Europe, and later in Northern Europe during the 17th / 18th century Enlightenment. In both cases the inspiration came from a renewed interest in classical antiquity (yes, heathen antiquity) (Think of Petrarch), and to a much lesser extent from the Protestant reformation (which was essentially a critique of Christianity at one level).

25 Jeff R January 17, 2018 at 1:36 pm

It’s not like the pagans invented the steam engine or discovered vaccines during that time, either, though. I still think the decline of the Roman Empire is the main story here.

26 dude January 17, 2018 at 1:39 pm

There was hardly and scientific progress among the (proto) Goths, Vandals, or what have you from 700 BC to 300 AD. There was certainly some progress among these groups from 300 AD to 1300 AD, accelerating greatly after each group adopted orthodox Christianity respectively. This is a universally acknowledged scientific fact.

27 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 1:42 pm

“Neither of these sources, be it Greco Roman or Hindu/Buddhist, were Christian.”

Neiher of those sources led to anything outside Christian Civilization. Ultimately, heathens were forced to swallow thir devilish pride and imitate Christian schools, universities, hospitals, states. The last millenium clearly showed the moral superiority of Christianity and demontrated that only a Christian Civilization can do real science and put its fruits t service of peace and general well-being.

28 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 1:44 pm

The Goths and Vandals weren’t civilized by Christianity. But were civilized by the classical culture of Southern Europe, which Christianity piggybacked on. Christianity was a mere vehicle. The civilizing agent was Latin and Roman culture. (which is heathen). Not Christianity.

29 dude January 17, 2018 at 1:55 pm

The Germans were civilized by St. Benedict who taught them that working to cultivate the land was an intrinsically good act. Even the best of the classical pagans (Aristotle) believed that this was a necessary evil. Valuing labor became one of the quintessential characteristics of western civilization, which has repeatedly been threatened by the reemergence of classical attitudes toward labor, slavery and usury.

30 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 2:07 pm

You are missing my point.

What held back the Goths and Vandals was not their paganism. Heck, even Plato was pagan. So was Pythogoras, Virgil, Sophocles, Cicero, Aristotle, Ptolemy. I can go on.

What held them back was their extreme individualism and love of freedom which had to be tempered by a superior civilization. Rome represented that civilization. Christianity is merely incidental here.

To assess the impact of Christianity per se, one has to examine the fortunes of the Greco Roman world between 300AD and 1200AD. It is one long tale of decline there.

31 dude January 17, 2018 at 2:32 pm

You are missing my point. The Germans were not civilized by the Roman empire, they were civilized by a particularly Christian form of social organization. One that explicitly in both word and practice rejected much of Roman pagan civilization. On the other Christianity obviously built upon classical intellectual foundations.

300 AD-1200AD was not a period of decline in western Europe. It was a period of death and rebirth, punctuated by all kinds of historical circumstance. What do you think Western Europe was like around 300AD, anyway?

32 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 2:39 pm

You are trying to force a narrative in favor of Christianity.

Plain and simple, ask yourself –

Rome, Greece, North Africa (in short the Mediterranean) : 200AD vs 1000AD.

Do you see much intellectual / scientific / cultural / economic progress? No. It’s 800 years of stagnation.

Let’s forget the rest of Western Europe as the base there was too low to begin with. Focus on the Mediterranean. What you find is 800 years of stagnation at best and decline at worst.

33 JonFraz January 17, 2018 at 2:55 pm

Actually there was little scientific or technological progress in the West after about 200 BC. The Romans were great engineers. They were not great scientists or inventors. The Hellenistic Age saw a major spurt of science and invention, some of well ahead of its time– and then it just petered out well before the days of Caesar or Christ. Also, it was not just the Arabs who transmitted the classical works to western Europe; much of it also came from Byzantium.

34 JWatts January 17, 2018 at 3:11 pm

“Actually there was little scientific or technological progress in the West after about 200 BC. The Romans were great engineers. They were not great scientists or inventors. ”

That’s obviously wrong.

“Astronomers like Hipparchus (c. 190 – c. 120 BC) built upon the measurements of the Babylonian astronomers before him, to measure the precession of the Earth.”

“The level of Hellenistic achievement in astronomy and engineering is impressively shown by the Antikythera mechanism (150–100 BC).”

“Of especial importance is the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder published in 77 AD, one of the most extensive compilations of the natural world that survived the Dark Ages.”

“Claudius Ptolemy(AD 100 – c. 170) was a Greco-Roman[3] mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology.[”

“Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus (129 AD – c. 200/c. 216), was a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire.[2][3][4] Arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy,[5] physiology, pathology,[6] pharmacology,[7] and neurology, as well as philosophy[8] and logic.”

Also, classifying great engineers as not being ‘scientists or inventors’, is literally a long running joke on “The Big Bang Theory”.

35 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 5:52 pm

Engineers apply what scientists discovered.

36 Hoosier January 17, 2018 at 6:35 pm

Christianity profoundly changed the Roman empire- that ought to be the key to this discussion.

37 Sure January 17, 2018 at 7:52 pm

Well this is bogus. In my own field the middle ages saw the rise of such technological improvements as:
1. Eyeglasses (which happened to spawn the first mass lens grinding industry that was necessary before we could make microscopes and telescopes)
2. Wound cleaning (the use of wine for cleansing being massively better than pus retention favored by Galen)
3. Fractional distillation (a necessary precursor for most chemistry and all early modern medicine)
4. Anesthesia for surgery
5. Systemic anatomy, including anatomical pathology
6. Quarantine
7. Commercial pharmacy (with quality culture and reproducible medications)

And let us recall that medicine was one of those disciplines that had significant pushback in the era. The biggest things of the middle ages, like increased mechanical power, monasticism & literacy, and separate religious and secular spheres were far more important for lasting development.

38 JonFraz January 18, 2018 at 1:37 pm

The Roman Empire was already profoundly changed when it embraced Christianity (which was not the cause of those changes.) Historians generally divide the empire up into three periods: the Principiate, which was Rome at its height, the Crisis of the 3rd Century (which changed the Empire in major ways), and the Dominate (which was an attempt, successful for a few generations, to restore unity to an aging empire).

39 JonFraz January 17, 2018 at 2:50 pm

In Orthodox Christianity we regularly hold Memorials for our deceased kin. The point of course is not to venerate them, but to pray for their souls. In doing so however we do remember them. I held a memorial of this sort for my parents in 2016. They died when I was young and I commemorated the 40th and 25th anniversaries of their passing, and among my larger kin list I included the names of my grandparents too, and even my great-great-grandfather who was killed in the Civil War (he was a Union cavalryman, and I have his picture, and the letter announcing his death to his widow). This sort of deep remembrance is not at all unusual in my church.

40 dude January 17, 2018 at 1:32 pm

We certainly reverence and ask Saints for penitential prayers. We also believe that Saints are not entirely impartial between all of the various goods in the universe. Your ancestors may be particularly interested in your good. Only God is owed worship, but we are hardly indifferent to our ancestors.

41 JonFraz January 17, 2018 at 2:44 pm

Re: They live in a world where the dominant religion is a force for change and equality and explicitly anti-tradition.

You may be thinking of American Protestasntism, which like most American cultural movements is hostile to claims of traditions. Certainly the older forms of Christianity, Catholicism and Orthodoxy, know no such hostility and indeed tradition is one of the primary arguments. (I do agree with you that there is a strain of radical egalitarianism in Christianity that is never quite suppressed no matter how much the clergy identify with the secular elites and are drawn from among them)

42 JWatts January 17, 2018 at 3:13 pm


43 Hoosier January 17, 2018 at 6:25 pm

But Jesus was a radical, whether we like it or not. He called for massive changes in how we do things (this point is particularly driven home in the new David Bentley Hart bible translation I believe). The new testament is basically all about Christians rebelling against the current order of the day.

Now, once Christianity became mainstream it lost it’s radical edge, but I guess the question is then, which is the correct path?

Christianity was extremely radical at first, then became quite conservative later on, and has vacillated between the two extremes ever since.

44 rayward January 17, 2018 at 12:21 pm

My favorite contributors at the NYT are Douthat and Bret Stephens. I give credit/blame to reading this blog for my unlikely appreciation of the two. As for Douthat, like Douthat, I’m Catholic, but not Roman Catholic; unlike Douthat, I have always been – Douthat in his early life was a fundamentalist Protestant. Since Cowen mentions Marcion, antisemitism is the recurring theme in the canonical gospels, and in Paul’s letters, so why would Marcion’s rejection of the Jewish Bible be considered heresy. Indeed, that Jesus and His apostles, all observant Jews, would be the inspiration for a new religion, an antisemitic one at that, is so preposterous as to be a miracle. Of course, it was Paul who took the faith to Gentiles, and it is Paul who is the real father of the Gentile religion we know as Christianity. Why did Paul reject his own religion (Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee no less)? Likely for the same reason as Luther and Calvin rejected the Roman Catholic Church: Paul refused to accept a secondary role to the leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem (Peter, James, and John, who were Jesus’s closest apostles, unlike Paul, who never even met Jesus), and Luther and Calvin refused to accept a secondary role to the Catholic hierarchy in Rome. For those who don’t know, Paul taught justification (Christians are justified by faith alone not works of the Law), the same justification that was the inspiration for Luther and Calvin; indeed, Paul taught that if Gentiles observed Jewish Law, they would be denied Grace. The Catholic Church today is more like Judaism than Protestantism since Catholicism and Judaism both require more than faith alone. And if one identifies as a conservative, it is Catholicism and Judaism that emphasize order and stability. It’s so confusing as to turn one to religion for an understanding of it all.

45 dude January 17, 2018 at 1:49 pm

Anti-Judaism, not anti-semitism (which is racial). The term “Jew” takes on a theological meaning by the end of the Gospel of John implicitly referring only to those who rejected Jesus. The orthodox understanding is the Christianity *just is* the continuation of the Abrahamic religion and Judaism is a sort of heretical sect (““If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham…”

46 JonFraz January 17, 2018 at 3:00 pm

It’s weird to consider Paul an antisemite when he was Jewish himself. And in fact ancient Christianity was not antisemitic (that charge is ridiculous since Jesus himself was a Jew), but was rather opposed to the Jewish establishment of the Pharisees and the Temple priesthood– a critique of class not of ethnicity.

47 rayward January 17, 2018 at 3:04 pm

Reading is an acquired taste.

48 anonymous reply to Rayward January 17, 2018 at 10:52 pm

Paul never had a bad word to say about Gamaliel.

One can study the naval battles of WWII – there were only about 24 months or so where those battles were fought between roughly equal forces – and one can read about them, again and again, but only with a supreme effort of imagination can one understand what the Japanese and American commanders lived through in those 24 months when the forces were in rough equipoise. (Interestingly, while all the ship captains from that period of naval history have long since passed over the bar, as Tennyson used to like to say, there are still a few ship’s XOs from that conflict who are still alive and compos mentis. Word. If any of you XO guys are reading this – I remember when you were young).

The early days of Christianity were much more intense than the most intense days of WWII – after all, how easy can it be to spread a message to other people that you personally were one of thousands who saw a man who had been dead for a couple days after he had come back to life, and on top of that he had explained (both before dying, in a rather spectacularly distressing way, and after rising from the dead and before he rose to Heaven either before your very eyes or before the eyes of people whom you completely trusted as being truthful) – and on top of that he had explained, as I was saying, everything about why people should care about other people – and in a way that made perfect sense but in a way that required the people who listened to show some humility, in order to understand it? When was the last time you tried to sell something to somebody and could only make the sale if the person showed a little humility? I am guessing not all that recently.

I mean, I used to be an above-average salesperson but I never sold anything where the sale was conditioned on the buyer showing some intellectual humility, much less spiritual humility. Thus, I am willing to cut a little slack to Douthat who, after all, got hired by the New York Times while never denying that Jesus rose from the dead. And, this is 2018, more or less.

Thanks for reading.

49 Niroscience January 17, 2018 at 12:36 pm

Watership down was one of my favourites growing up. I geniunely remember the book’s mood being more oppressive and sombre than anything I read until as an adult.

50 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 1:24 pm

It is nihilistic. The Animals of Farthing Wood book series are much more healthier from a moral point of view.

51 Cuckolic January 17, 2018 at 12:58 pm

According to Douthat an Islamic Europe is preferable to a post catholic Europe. A profoundly disturbing opinion.

52 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 1:05 pm

Yes I found that very worrying as well. Very very disturbing.

It’s akin to how the Quakers in their quest for pacifism and purity of one’s adherence to practice, basically gave up on governing in Pennsylvania by the middle of the 18th century.

53 P Burgos January 17, 2018 at 3:44 pm

Why would it be worrying that a Christian thinks that people who worship God are better than people who do not? That seems like an entirely sensible opinion for a believer to hold. It seems like it would only be disturbing if it were surprising.

54 Tanturn January 17, 2018 at 1:22 pm


55 Todd K January 17, 2018 at 2:31 pm

I just rolled my eyes and grinned. Not at all surprised.

56 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 1:25 pm

I would rather live under Islan than under paganism.

57 Richter January 17, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Pretty strange viewpoint. Living under paganism would offer you the possibility of pursuing your own faith in relative freedom. Living under Islam would, in the long run, wouldn’t.

I guess if you’re a religious authoritarian who doesn’t particularly care about the content of your beliefs–merely that any religious beliefs are strictly imposed on everyone–rule by Islam makes sense. It’s an execrable viewpoint, but a common one, I guess.

58 JonFraz January 17, 2018 at 3:02 pm

I’d take the pagans (as in the actual Wiccans etc.) any day over Muslims as rulers.

59 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Then you support Hindus persecuting Christians under Modi and Romans persecuting Christians under Nero.

60 Richter January 17, 2018 at 5:09 pm

Yes, I’d support both of those “persecutions” over rule by Islam.

Modi’s supposed persecution of Christians seems close to non-existent, as far as I can tell, and my understanding is that he’s more interested in coming to an understanding with Christian leaders to tackle their common enemy, Islam.

The Roman persecution of Christianity stemmed not from religious disagreement, but because the Romans feared Christianity would undermine their authority, transform their society, and destroy other belief systems. All justified concerns, as history showed.

61 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 7:23 pm

Richter : Precisely!

Roman persecution of Christianity stemmed from Christianity’s universalism, and the threat it posed to Roman religion, Roman empire, and most of all, Roman institutions.

Christianity was a religion with philosophical pretensions that posed a challenge to everything that was established in Rome. It was NOT, I repeat, was NOT a “live and let live” religion

62 JonFraz January 18, 2018 at 1:42 pm

The risk of Nero and Diocletian rising from their tombs and instituting a new persecution of Christians is pretty much null.
Can we limit this to a discussion about pagans today– I gave the Wiccans as an example.

63 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 4:55 pm

Haha. Christians are a privileged relatively affluent minority in Modi’s India. Anything but oppressed.

64 Charbes A. January 17, 2018 at 6:01 pm
65 Hoosier January 17, 2018 at 6:30 pm

Not what I hear, see the link below. Besides, affluence is meaningless when discussing the plight, or lack thereof, of a religious minority.

66 anon January 17, 2018 at 11:34 pm

Christians are routinely persecuted by Hindutva types in India. Just google.

67 Anonymous January 17, 2018 at 1:37 pm

It follows. If you believe there is one God, and Muslims follow that same God imperfectly, that is better than a life without God.

Whereas the agnostic humanist approach would be to say you can worship cats, if that works for you, as long as you also recognize the universal right of others to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

68 Borjigid January 17, 2018 at 1:50 pm

Surely you mean Purr!-suit of happiness?

69 Anonymous January 17, 2018 at 2:02 pm


70 Joël January 17, 2018 at 5:43 pm

That’s the idea Houellebecq is playing with in “Submission”. His main character seems to agree.

71 Art Deco January 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm

which I found totally engrossing.

Driver Ed courses in New York used to conclude with a documentary about car wrecks called Signal 30. Yes it was graphic and, i suppose, totally engrossing when you weren’t running to the men’s room to retch.

72 Donald Pretari January 18, 2018 at 2:15 am

In California the film was called Red Asphalt.

73 carlospln January 18, 2018 at 9:14 pm
74 Trump Fan January 17, 2018 at 2:17 pm

I think that we’re — that to me is a more immediate source of anxiety than genetic engineering. I think that we’re going to wake up in 20 or 30 years and be — well, we may not wake up, but I would like to think that we’ll wake up in 20 or 30 years and say — “Why were we putting all of our children in front of these screens for so much of their childhood and shouldn’t this be something that we had exerted actual control over instead of just leaving it to some combination of experiment and market forces and governments wanting to be hip and cool and buying a lot of Chromebooks that Microsoft wanted to unload,” and so on.

And so I could see something similar happening with genetic technology, but I think bringing technology under control so that the more radical genetic experiments are limited and happening in, happening at the margins, basically, that should be the goal. I think it doesn’t mean that we could actually succeed, but I think it’s a reasonable goal to set.

It’s an interesting comparison, complaining about the Screens is quite popular, but no one ever does anything about it. It seems to me that the opposition to genetic engineering is getting less hysterical as it steadily approaches feasibility: rather than giving a reason to oppose it, Douthat pivots to a point about Screens.

75 Philo January 17, 2018 at 3:29 pm

If you try to be a Christian (or an adherent of some such religion) and also a rational person, you find contradictions in your thinking. You don’t want to bite the bullet and make a choice between contradictory propositions (or simply suspend judgment, agnostically), so you look for a comforting fudge–and attempt to have your cake and eat it, too–which is what Hegelians call “synthesis.”

76 Vl January 17, 2018 at 6:49 pm

Newton, Leibniz, and more modern, Donzhansky and Collins. All clearly irrational.

77 Todd K January 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm

Newton was essentially a heretic; some of Francis Collins’ views are irrational. “At the most fundamental level, it’s a miracle that there’s a universe at all. It’s a miracle that it has order, fine-tuning that allows the possibility of complexity, and laws that follow precise mathematical formulas.”

“Fine tuning”?

78 Steve January 17, 2018 at 3:34 pm

I think in the transcript it should say “Jansenist-Jesuit” or something to indicate these are the two sides.

I read it as “Jesuits who are Jansenists” and was like “how many of those are there? Like 2?”

79 mkt42 January 17, 2018 at 3:37 pm

“why Watership Down is the best modern novel for understanding politics”

I think it was the National Lampoon in the mid-1970s who wrote a lampoon of the novel, called “Watergate Down”.

(And “Bored of the Rings” remains a classic lampoon.)

80 asdf January 17, 2018 at 3:41 pm

“what does islam have that we don’t”? — a blank slate, a destroyed blown-out civic society, whether due to arab dictators or social isolation + rejection from the main of france & britain.

81 JJ January 17, 2018 at 6:19 pm

I wonder how long it’s gonna be before Douthat just straight up endorses the Jewish Sabbath as a way to limit kids’ screentime.

82 jack January 17, 2018 at 6:21 pm

I can’t say I found this interview thought provoking I suppose in large part because religion does not speak to me as it does to Douthart. For me it was like listening to two adolescents discussing some arcane points of the Star Wars mythology. I think the most telling moment was Prof. Cowen’s observation that when he tried to read some modern theology books he found them boring. I think that if you are not a believer and the religion books are not written from say an anthropological perspective they are boring because you cannot analyse them in a purely analytical way — you have to buy certain assumptions and if you don’t religion is boring.

83 Hoosier January 17, 2018 at 6:33 pm

I find good theology to be interesting because it essentially tries to teach us how to live our lives. What should we do to orient ourselves closer to God and give ourselves meaning?

There are definitely people who are satisfied with a pure materialistic explanation for the meaning of life, but for those of us who aren’t, theology can be fascinating.

84 Milan Griffes January 17, 2018 at 8:36 pm

I always love the “what’s your production function?” question:

85 Steve Sailer January 17, 2018 at 8:44 pm

“What is the Aryan Christianity of the Nazis, if not the Marcionite heresy given form in the 1930s and 1940s?”

The Nazis seem more out of the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament than from anything in the New Testament.

86 Judeo-Christian? January 17, 2018 at 8:45 pm

Douthat is more skeptical of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic synthesis in the future than a simple Judeo-Christian melding. He seems to not understand that Judaism has much more in common with Islam, theologically, than it does with Trinitarian Christianity (over 95% of Christianity is Trinitarian). The main theological claim of Judaism is the oneness of God, which is also true for Islam. The Christian claim of a part of god inhabiting a human body is an affront to Abrahamic monotheism.
The concept of a Judeo-Christian civilization is the outcome of political circumstance and not a reflection of theological proximity vis-a-vis Islam. This is why all Orthodox Jews believe a Muslim who follows the Seven Noahide Laws will have a place in the hereafter, while Christian who believe in the Nicene Creed will have nothing.

Any synthesis between Christianity and Judaism will be based on political expediency and not on theological grounds. Synthesis between Judaism and Islam can be based on theology if political hurdles are overcome.

87 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 9:32 pm

“Grace vs works”

This is a great point of contention in Sri-Vaishnavism, the religion I belong to. It is a strand of Hinduism practised by Vaishnavites in the southern state of Tamil nadu in India.

This is expressed using the Cat vs Monkey analogy. In the Cat analogy, the kittens save themselves by just implicitly trusting the mother. So their salvation is purely dependent on God’s grace. The kittens don’t have to do anything to save themselves. God picks people for salvation as he wishes.

In the Monkey analogy, the young monkeys do need to cling to the parent monkey in order to save themselves. They dont implicitly trust the parent. The action on the part of devotee (be it through good works, piety or ritual) is very much essential to salvation.

While Grace is favored among the poorer Sri-Vaishnavites, Works is favored by the more middle-class and affluent Sri-vaishnavites.

88 blah January 17, 2018 at 11:31 pm

If I remember right, the cats are supposed to be like Thengalais and the monkeys like Vadagalais. But whom does the analogy come from – Thengalais or Vadagalais? (I first heard the analogy from a Vadagalai who was arguing that the story of Ramanuja shouting out the “secret Mantra” was a fake story, but couldn’t make out if the analogy was a Vadagalai creation or the Vadagalai embrace of a Thengalai accusation).

89 shrikanthk January 18, 2018 at 5:45 am

You are right in the first sentence.

But I am not sure where and how the analogy originated. I do know that the Thenkalai and Vadakalai split came about sometime in the 15th century between the followers of Vedanta Desika (Vadakalai) and Lokacharya / Manavala Mamunigal (Thenkalai).

The “grace” school is clearly more populist though and on average a tad poorer than the “works” school (Vadakalai).

So is it fair to say that in Christianity, Catholicism emphasized “works” while the Protestant sects for the most part focused on “grace”?

90 blah January 18, 2018 at 8:28 pm

Thanks for the explanations. I don’t know if there this sort of a distinction between Catholics and Protestants, and the idea of “grace” doesn’t seem very compatible with protestant ethic.

91 shrikanthk January 18, 2018 at 5:48 am

Most of Hinduism in the rest of India is “works” focused, in my view. Particularly given the origin of the religion in Vedic ritualism.

Grace, however, became gradually more important in theological debates in the middle ages. Particularly down South in Sri-Vaishnavism, which in turn influenced North Indian bhakti through Ramananda.

But on an average Hinduism is more focused on Works than Grace, in my view (notwithstanding the accusations of Fatalism against the religion).

92 blah January 18, 2018 at 8:30 pm

But on an average Hinduism is more focused on Works than Grace, in my view

Perhaps bhakti (or even more so, prapatti) comes with the moral hazard that one tends to attribute the fruits on one’s own work to grace, impacting how a third party perceives it?

93 shrikanthk January 18, 2018 at 8:58 pm

Yes. “Yeh sab bhagvan ki den hai” – that’s a common Hindu refrain.

Maybe I should take back what I said about Hinduism leaning more towards “works”.

Actually I am not sure. Things have changed a LOT in past 500-800 years with the Bhakti movement I think. Ramanuja and his successors in the North have had a big impact. Grace is probably a tad more dominant now. A lot of common man rhetoric (as the one I mentioned above) definitely suggests a strong faith in predestination / grace.

But then orthodox Smartha brahminism definitely emphasizes ritual a great deal. And performance of a lot of duties. So that aspect of Hinduism (which one can say is of an older vintage) is definitely Works focused.

94 shrikanthk January 17, 2018 at 9:38 pm

Douthat on Islam :

His view seems to be that Islamic extremism at one level expresses the greater sincerity and theological enthusiasm of the Islamic people.

I somehow don’t buy it. Islamic extremism which we see today is for the most part political. And that’s not surprising because Islam is a political religion. A far more political religion than Christianity or Judaism. I just don’t understand why this is so hard to grasp.

The church vs state distinction has NEVER existed in the Islamic world. The Caliphs are not merely temporal rulers but also entrusted with the task of spreading the “true” faith across the world. Most Muslim kings of the middle ages have been motivated in their expansionist endeavors by their religious faith.

So the extremism of Islam is NOT stemming from enthusiasm for some theological finer point. No. It is stemming from a desire for political power.

95 Chip January 17, 2018 at 11:35 pm

That’s the crux. Without a reformation that allows adherents to have a direct and personal relationship with god, rather than religious conformity enforced by the mosque and state, I see little hope for Islam.

Like communism, Islam is a collectivist belief system that won’t survive the empowerment of the individual created by wealth and technology.

96 blah January 17, 2018 at 11:45 pm

I am not as optimistic as you are. Islam has a certain compatibility with individualism because it is deeply identity-conscious, promotes an individual identity, unlike communism (e.g., the notion of who is a Muslim is so central to the whole thing). Part of the weakening of Christianity in the west was facilitated by how young people of a Christian background were encouraged or rather incentivized to virtue-signal against Christianity. With Islam, somehow the discussion of its troublesome aspects is carefully kept out in the west, and the preferred view is to think of it as another identity that one could be proud of.

97 shrikanthk January 18, 2018 at 5:28 am

The Reformation in essence represented the revolt of certain clergymen away from the power center that was Rome, against the Catholic church. But the Church vs State distinction existed for close to a millennium prior to the outbreak of the Reformation.

What I am saying is that in Islam the distinction has NEVER existed. It is a totally different problem. Islam has never had to deal with the conflict between religious concerns and secular imperatives – a tension which Christianity has grappled with throughout its history. Even in a more decentralized religion like Hinduism, this tension has always existed, in the form of conflicts of interest between the Brahmins who represented the religious point of view and the Kshatriyas / wealthy Sudras who represented the Political POV and the Vaishyas who spoke for commercial interests. With the exception of possibly 18th / 19th century when Brahmins were very dominant, the other power centers were extremely competitive vis-a-vis brahmins throughout Indian history.

In Islam the temporal power always thought of itself as happily aligned with religious authority. In fact it thought of itself as representing religious authority. And in this set-up extremism had only one goal. Extending Islamic temporal authority across the world. So to talk of Islamic extremism as some form of theological enthusiasm is very misplaced and naive. The extremism here has temporal roots. And Islam itself is a highly temporal, this-worldly, political religion.

98 Ali Choudhury January 19, 2018 at 8:12 am

I don’t know about that. The bulk of the wars fought by Muslim monarchs were against other Muslim monarchs for political control over their land. The West sees the Ottomans etc. as primarily religious warriors who were looking to spread their faith. They were trying to increase the size of the empire so the rulers had access to more land revenue, the same reason they bumped up against the Fatimids in Egypt, the Safavids in Iran and other Anatolian polities. If the spreading of the true faith was their main concern, Greece, the Balkans, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Hungary etc would not have remained Christian majority countries. Nor would Hinduism have been permitted to exist in northern India.

99 shrikanthk January 19, 2018 at 11:42 am

Close to a third of northern India converted to Islam (this includes modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh). The Jiziya tax which existed in Northern India for much of the period from 13th to 18th centuries, clearly showed there was a strong incentive to convert. Ofcourse not everyone converted, because Hinduism was too big, too numerous and the traditions too strong. In countries where the traditions were weaker (Eg : Indonesia or Malaysia), everyone converted to Islam.

Ofcourse this doesn’t mean secular considerations didn’t exist or didn’t motivate expansionary efforts. They very much did. But the spread of the faith was always an item on top of the mind of the warriors / caliphs / sultans.

100 Robin Hanson is right. January 18, 2018 at 5:03 am

Hey people of chatterati, saying “it’s not at all clear to me” instead of “i don’t know” doesn’t make you sound highfalutin. What a goddamn pompous expression.

101 shrikanthk January 18, 2018 at 5:59 am

Regarding Original Sin – Can someone here actually explain it to me in layman’s terms.

I have never quite understood it properly. My prior understanding has been pooh-poohed in some forums. So it would be good to hear from a Christian on what Original Sin actually is. Then I can try to think of analogies to it in my religion 🙂

102 JonFraz January 18, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Original Sin is the corruption of human nature so that (as Augustine out it) we cannot not sin.

103 Man-at-Arms January 18, 2018 at 8:01 am

Since mid-December I have probably checked 20 times whether the conversation would already be online.
Thank you.

104 li January 18, 2018 at 3:25 pm

“…serious questions about God…”? No harder that serious questions about the tooth fairy.

105 li January 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm

than, not that.

106 Ryan T January 18, 2018 at 7:40 pm

Pretty interesting, perhaps because the content was not of interest to me. FWIW, this interview reduced my esteem for Douthat.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: