If I were feeling less generous, I would suggest that the only interesting idea in Ross Douthat's column today was the pull-quote on the front page: "If you treat your faith like it is too vulnerable to be disputed, you ensure that nobody takes it seriously." It's a great pull quote, and kudos to whichever editor grabbed that gem out of Douthat's piece, a piece, I will say, which is better than his usual attempt.
Indeed, I found myself nodding on multiple occasions while reading Douthat's column this morning, which might be a first for me. His description of the theoretical deal liberal democracies have struck with religion is cogent, as is his breakdown of the situation as it exists currently. His description of the reaction to Brit Hume's ridiculous comments about Tiger Woods is a bit over the top--"A great many people immediately declared that this comment was the most outrageous thing they’d ever heard" seems a bit hyperbolic to me, but I will admit that I too found some of the reaction against Hume's comments a little ludicrous. Of course, that's because my reaction was a little closer to Ta-Nehisi Coates' than most of the others I heard, namely that Hume's error was in doing it on a news show rather than in private.
I even liked the general thrust of this paragraph:
The tendency to take offense at freewheeling religious debate is widespread. There are European Christians who side with Muslims in support of blasphemy laws, lest Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad have his reputation sullied. There are American Catholics who cry “bigotry” every time a newspaper columnist criticizes the church’s teaching on sexuality. Many Christians have decided that the best way to compete in an era of political correctness is to play the victim card.Douthat describes the current situation pretty well, I think, though it's not political correctness that created the current environment, but a backlash against it.
But while Douthat is ecumenical here, he leaves out one group who also criticizes religion. Other than a nod to non-believers in the opening paragraph, Douthat doesn't mention atheists, even though we're often portrayed as the greatest attackers of religion on the planet, and we're constantly accused of lowering the tone of the discourse. The funny thing about this is that if Douthat really believes his thesis, that "if you treat your faith like it is too vulnerable to be disputed, you ensure that nobody takes it seriously," he ought to be thanking the New Atheism, because we dispute, we challenge, we question the very premise of religious belief. When Douthat says "Theology has consequences: It shapes lives, families, nations, cultures, wars; it can change people, save them from themselves, and sometimes warp or even destroy them," we agree--we just tend to emphasize the negative aspects a little more and suggest that there are other ways to achieve the positive ones.
And if the debate Douthat wants to have really does center around the question How then should we live?, then atheists should have a place at that table, because we'll offer insight on the perspective that this life is the only one we have, that our resources as a species are in many cases finite, and that if we want our species and our accomplishments to live beyond us, we'd better take concrete steps to ensure our descendants have an environment and eco-system they can survive in. Not believing in an afterlife can have that effect on you.
Of course, not every atheist looks at the subject this way. There are many who look at the lack of an afterlife--particularly one which doesn't result in punishment--and use it as an excuse to indulge in every possible excess. But even that is a perspective worth debating alongside the rest.
The most interesting thing to me about the question Douthat poses, though, is that it's a question we really don't want an answer to, nor, I think, should we. The human race would be awfully boring if we worked out the answer to "how then should we live?" Theology at its best doesn't provide answers--it provides more questions for adherents to explore. Atheists mostly look at the world that way already, as a jumbly mass of unasked questions--we've just taken God out of it.