Breaking the Spell

There was a very interesting opinion article in last Sunday’s New York Times (“How to Think Your Way Into Religious Belief” 8/15/21).  It was written by Ross Douthat, who has had a column in the Op-Ed section of the Times since 2009, and has on occasion used that space to write about religion.  Douthat is Catholic, and his writings demonstrate a broad interest in religious belief, in particular the wide-ranging religious habits of Christians in the United States and the growing number of the disaffiliated who are “spiritual but not religious.”  In his column, Douthat speaks to those readers who are drawn to some aspects of religion and spirituality but who balk at accepting the existence of the supernatural.  To these, Douthat gives the following advice: “Instead of starting by praying or practicing in defiance of the intellect, you could start by questioning the assumption that it’s really so difficult, so impossible, to credit ideas of God and accounts of supernatural happenings.” 

We’ve all heard the stories about kids going off to college and having the unfortunate experience of atheist professors deconstructing their faith, leaving them to doubt and even reject what previously they had accepted as true.  In his column, Douthat attempts to turn the tables by inviting non-believers to question the foundations of the materialist world view that they take for granted, and which he argues requires a similar leap of faith.  Referring to the philosophical positions of atheists who essentially argue that “religious faith prevents believers from seeing the world clearly,” Douthat poses the provocative question: “What if atheism is actually the prejudice held against the evidence?”  In other words, the categorical refusal to consider the possibility that God exists might actually restrict the atheist’s own ability to accurately perceive the fullness of reality. 

Douthat readily concedes that advances in scientific knowledge over the past 500 years have forced believers to rethink some previously-held ideas.  But, he argues, “there are also important ways in which the progress of science and the experience of modernity have strengthened the reasons to entertain the idea of God.”  He points to the challenges that the experience of human consciousness and “the strange fittedness of our universe to human life” pose to materialism.  To accommodate their materialist worldview, some posit theories that consciousness is just an illusion, and that we just happen to be living in one of the privileged worlds that make up the “multiverse of infinite realities.”  This, however, requires no less a leap of faith than does belief in an intelligent mind that created all things, including human beings who have rational minds that can discern the order of the universe, apply our own powers of creativity to it, and wonder at its beauty.  Douthat also points to the interesting fact that while people are becoming less religious, they are not necessarily becoming materialists.  “You can read about ghosts in The London Review of Books and Elle magazine; you can find accounts of bizarre psychic phenomena in the pages of The New Yorker.”  Are these simply misinterpretations of material reality?  Or do they somehow correspond to real experiences of the supernatural? 

Douthat acknowledges that none of this is proof of the truth of Catholicism, or Buddhism, or any other particular religion. Rather it is an attempt at breaking the spell that atheistic materialism has cast on the modern imagination.  Once that happens, more people will be free to take seriously the great questions of truth and meaning, and whether it just might be the case that God exists, that He created all things, and that maybe, just maybe, He knows and loves us.  

posted 8/22/21

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