Is anybody in newspapers writing as interesting and as well as Ross Douthat these days? He keeps this up, he’s going to win a Pulitzer. In his Christmas column, Douthat reflects on the three strands of American popular religion. The first is standard Christianity (“biblical” religion, Douthat calls it), which takes the Christmas story straight up. The second is “spirituality” — Moralistic Therapeutic Deism — which picks and chooses what works:

 It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

Here is the third option:

Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.

But if the crèche and the star are meaningless — that is, if there is no meaning beyond the material world — then why be good?

In essence, it proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.

I know, I know. We all know atheists who are moral exemplars, and theists who are louses and rotters. No argument there. Over the long term, most people are not going to be able to derive a livable and binding morality out of atheism. It won’t be that much better for the “spiritual but not religious” folks, at least not in the face of serious moral crisis. The social utility of a religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, what heve you) doesn’t make it true, but ideas really do have consequences.