Grayson Quay, contributor: A few weeks ago, with a long drive back from visiting my parents in Ohio ahead of me, I downloaded an audiobook of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, hoping to expand my knowledge of a subject I’d recently written about for TAC.
I also had a more personal motive. During a not-entirely-sober conversation at a Fourth of July party, I got to talking religion with one of my friends. She prattled about her desire to explore Buddhism and pushed me to affirm categorically that people from every religion go to heaven. When I responded that Jesus Christ was the only Way to heaven (while still allowing that it was possible some non-Christians might somehow be saved), she not only disagreed with me, but actually treated me like I was crazy for insisting that my faith was more valid than anyone else’s and for holding archaic beliefs in things like sin and hell.
I was dumbfounded. This was a successful, educated woman, the product of a Catholic home and Catholic schools. How could her ideas about religion have become so muddled? How could she not see the sheer hubris inherent in rejecting all religious traditions and replacing those millennia of wisdom with her own vague spiritual-but-not-religious intuitions? I needed to find out how this was possible.
Douthat’s first section gives a sunny portrait of the religious landscape of the 1950s through profiles of Reinhold Niebuhr, MLK, Fulton Sheen, and Billy Graham. I wept tears of joy when Douthat described President Eisenhower leading the ecumenical procession that laid the cornerstone (taken from the market at Corinth where St. Paul preached) of the National Council of Churches building in Manhattan. Within a few decades, that building was an inter-faith center. In 2013, the Council vacated it altogether.
In later chapters, Douthat comes down hard on liberal Catholicism, the feel-good spirituality of Oprah, and the faux-academic obsession with the Gnostic gospels. I slammed my fist against the steering wheel as he described the spineless accomodationism of the mainline Protestant churches.
Evangelicals, though denounced for their ahistoricism and their lockstep adherence to the Republican Party, get off a little easier, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that the damage has been done across the entire American religious spectrum.
I certainly write a lot of articles about religion in a magazine supposedly dedicated to conservative politics, but that’s because I firmly believe that strong churches make strong nations. As Douthat reminds us, the problem is not that we have too much religion; it’s that we have bad religion. Even atheists should pray for a return to orthodoxy.
Casey Chalk, contributor: I’ve recently finished a philosophy graduate course—two of the assigned books filled a significant intellectual gap for me. Both should be required reading for undergraduate students. A third book I’m reading as an ancillary to the course has also proved quite valuable.
Mortimer J. Adler’s Ten Philosophical Mistakes is an excellent introduction to the most common intellectual errors in the West. Adler’s analysis includes discussion of consciousness, the intellect, words and meanings, moral values, happiness, freedom of choice, and human nature, among other topics. The chapters evaluate the errors of thinkers like Locke, Hobbes, Descartes, Hume, Leibniz, and Kant. One theme unifying all of these Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers is a blatant anti-conservatism, best summarized in the epilogue:
Each of these thinkers acted as if he had no predecessors worth consulting, as if he were starting with a clean slate to construct for the first time the whole of philosophical knowledge.
We cannot find in their writings the slightest evidence of their sharing Aristotle’s insight that no man by himself is able to attain the truth adequately, although collectively men do not fail to amass a considerable amount; nor do they ever manifest the slightest trace of a willingness to call into council the views of their predecessors in order to profit from whatever is sound in their thought and to avoid their errors. On the contrary, without anything like a careful, critical examination of the views of their predecessors, these modern thinkers issue blanket repudiations of the past as a repository of errors. The discovery of philosophical truth begins with themselves.
For those interested in a more thorough study of the most dominant thinkers in history, I recommend Images of the Human: The Philosophy of the Human Person in a Religious Context. This surprisingly little-known anthology edited by several Canadian philosophers in the 1990s covers a tremendous amount of ground, from Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas to Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche. Each chapter provides a selection of the philosopher’s writings, accompanied by an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of each thinker’s intellectual system. A handy reference for anyone trying to understand the West’s disparate philosophical influences.
An older yet also profitable read is Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which one of the most prominent Catholic theologians of the 20th century charts the origin of the 19th century humanist movement that “moved beyond God.” A discussion of Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Comte is followed by a rebuttal from Dostoevsky, whose novels portray what society would be like without God. “If there is no God, everything is permitted,” quipped the Russian author. De Lubac agrees, writing in Christmas 1943, “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can ultimately only organize it against man. Exclusive humanism is inhuman humanism.” Taken together, these three texts offer a sound, thorough critique of many of the most dominant philosophies influencing contemporary society, culture, and politics, while offering insight into what system of thought might better serve this time of distemper.