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The Crèche Without A Star

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. [1] 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.

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119 Comments To "The Crèche Without A Star"

#1 Comment By KateLE On December 23, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

These arguments more or less come down to:

1. I believe in God, therefore morality must come from God.
2. I do not believe in God, therefore morality cannot come from God.

#2 Comment By Mike On December 23, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

@hector St Clare

“There’s no real evidence, nor reason to believe, that Roe v. Wade led to a decline in the number of unwanted children, nor that being unwanted is a particularly high predictor of becoming a criminal. Changes in lead exposure, on the other hand, probably do explain most of the drop in crime.”

Why do women get abortions in the first place? is my first question to you. I would suggest, because somebody doesn’t want the baby. Does not want = unwanted

As far as “being unwanted is a particularly high predictor of becoming a criminal,” you’d have to take that up with Leavitt and Donohue who did the research and reached their conclusion based on it.

“Lead exposure?”

First, I heard of that theory.

#3 Comment By logical atomist On December 23, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

Carlo,
I don’t want to live in either “1984” and “Brave New World” either, but my terror of “1984” seems somehow more important than my great, but essentially aesthetic, disgust with “Brave New World”.

A big problem is what is really meant by “science” and “reductionism”. I feel a little embarrassed saying that there is “good science” and “good reductionism” that just amounts to a clearer, simpler explanation, whereas much of what goes around is misguided pseudo-science and crude, misleading reductionism. With no clear criterion for which is which, it seems like a suspicious and all-too-adaptably convenient distinction, but there is something real there.

#4 Comment By Carlo On December 23, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

Logical atomist:

“The point is that the 20th Century horrors are different in scale, but not in kind, from atrocities of the past.”

I disagree. I agree with Hanna Arendt:
““The Western world has hitherto, even in its darkest periods, granted the slain enemy the right to be remembered as a self-evident acknowledgment of the fact that we are only men (and only men). […] [The concentration camps] took away the individual’s own death, proving that henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed.”

#5 Comment By Carlo On December 23, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

Logical scientism:

scientism is the irrational belief that the only form of knowledge is the one provided by “science,”where of course “science” is a purely mythological construct without any critical reflection about the nature and limits of the scientific method.

In practice, today scientism is associated with an extreme form of anti-Platonism, in the sense of denying the existence of any meta-empirical reality, such as the human person himself/herself AS PERSON in the classical sense of the word.

#6 Comment By Carlo On December 23, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

Sorry, that was for “Logical atomism” but I was already thinking about “scientism”

#7 Comment By VikingLS On December 23, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

MH Whatever conversation you’re referring to I wasn’t part of.

#8 Comment By VikingLS On December 23, 2013 @ 10:51 pm

“The case is much better for Marxism. It’s hard to argue that Marxism wasn’t atheistic.”

Given the history of the 20th century there is no reason to argue about this as if it’s theoretical.

#9 Comment By Carlo On December 23, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

jon s

“So I’m curious Carlo, you would commit crimes or suicide if your faith in a Catholic God was not 100% lock solid? ”

Where did I say anything of the kind? I certainly would have a harder time getting out of bed in the morning…

#10 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 23, 2013 @ 11:12 pm

VikingLS, looking back on the previous page I must have had a brain cramp and misread who wrote a post. Sorry about that.

#11 Comment By TTT On December 23, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

Mike:
TTT, I asked you a month ago in response to your outrageous post that AH was a “proud Catholic.” Name one credible historian to support your claim that AH was a “proud Catholic.” At that time you never did give me one credible historian to support your ridiculous claim that AH was a “proud Catholic.”

Clearly you can hold a grudge forever; shame you can’t devote any of that tenacious energy towards being right or knowing things.

I never said Hitler was a proud Catholic – I said HE SAID HE WAS A PROUD CATHOLIC, and I cited multiple primary sources backing that up. The point being to undercut the lazy, unserious, Glenbeckian canard that Hitler and the Nazis were straight-up unambiguous atheists.

Both then and now, I pointed out the Nazi puppet Catholic Ustase regime and their death camp. Both then and now, you were too much of an intellectual coward to examine that case, and I hazard a guess you don’t even believe it happened or that if it did it wasn’t SO bad. Hey, they were a Catholic government, so since only atheists are ever bad, that’s a part of… what was that thing? oh yeah… the Holocaust, that you can…. oh what’s the term… well, I guess you’re denying it aren’t you?

Oh hey, and Hirohito being a living god and the adherents of his religion killing 30 million people in his name, maybe that never happened either because it isn’t what Conservapedia says.

That “shaking off your dust” you boast of looks more like delirium tremens from here.

#12 Comment By TTT On December 24, 2013 @ 12:31 am

(btw more people were murdered at Jasenovac concentration camp under the Catholic Ustase than at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen combined.)

#13 Comment By Chris 1 On December 24, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

Natural law is fundamentally religious in nature.

“Natural Law” is a Greek construct, one that sought the intent of a neutral creator with rules that could be discerned without bothering the old codger. It is about a god who is absent and distant and removed from us.

“God’s Law,” on the other hand, is based on a series of encounters with the Living God, from Adam to Abraham to the Apostles to this moment.

The “Natural Law” is religious, but the religion is a cold paganism.

#14 Comment By logical atomist On December 24, 2013 @ 1:15 pm

Carlo,

I guess I have to admit that the particular qualities of Jesus’s ideology would tend to prevent really large-scale atrocities by Christians, and this might be true for other traditional religions. But I don’t think an aggressively secular ideology necessarily leads to things like this either. I don’t see the ideas of people like Voltaire or Bertrand Russell to be any more likely to do that than those of religious thinkers. (I suspect you will say there’s some kind of slippery slope that will eventually end up with Jacobins or Marxists, or the Huxley dystopia.)

#15 Comment By jon s On December 24, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

Uh, Carlo, from you a page ago:
“I assure you, “faith in myself” falls short of giving me a reason to live.”

In any case Merry Kwaanzaa to all!

#16 Comment By Carlo On December 24, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

TTT:

(btw more people were murdered at Jasenovac concentration camp under the Catholic Ustase than at Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen combined.)

This is why I have been insisting that you have to discuss ideas, not individuals (or individual groups). Obviously the Ustase were a vicious group of people who acted in complete opposition to everything the Catholic Church teaches. Just as obviously, the same cannot be said of the relationship between the actions of Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Che Guevara and the Marxist expectation of revolutionary catharsis.

#17 Comment By Carlo On December 24, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

logical atomists:

there are many different types of “secular thinkers.” It would not be wise to make any general statements.

But the problem is that one of the common cliches of out time is that there is some
logical connection between religion and violence, and that secularization is a recipe for social harmony. I find that just as stupid as the opposite statement.

In fact the very notion of “secularism is ambiguous. What really matters is where one stands re. the nature and value of the human person.

#18 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 24, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

Obviously the Ustase were a vicious group of people who acted in complete opposition to everything the Catholic Church teaches. Just as obviously, the same cannot be said of the relationship between the actions of Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot and Che Guevara and the Marxist expectation of revolutionary catharsis.

Nonsense. Pol Pot and Stalin, in particular, were in violation of what communism teaches, quite as much as Torquemada was in violation of the what the Roman Catholic church teaches during its better decades. Lenin and Che Guevara actually had much to commend them.

Since Carlo lives in a country where observant Catholic communists got married in church, he should know better. Viking seems to be constrained by the immediate observations in his own life.

Merry Christmas to all, Dec 25, Jan 6, or sometime in April.

[NFR: Stalin and Pol Pot were communist heretics? Hardly; they were the fulfillment of the Communist utopia. — RD]

#19 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On December 24, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

[NFR: Stalin and Pol Pot were communist heretics? Hardly; they were the fulfillment of the Communist utopia. — RD]

Communism is one of those looks good on paper ideas that usually results in a brutal dictatorship for all the reasons George Orwell so cleverly outlined in “Animal Farm”. I still get upset when I think about what happened to Boxer.

tl;dr some pigs are more equal than others.