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Reductive thinking about religion and anti-Christian bias

January 12, 2014

While finding atheism in the human propensity for violence, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes some curious arguments about religion (emphasis added):

I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does. I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.

I don’t think any serious theologian would argue that religion “brings morality” or that it is an “actual barrier” against immorality. I’d love feedback from my theologically astute readers, but if I remember Mere Christianity, the argument is that religion (Christianity in C.S. Lewis’s case) will swing you in the right direction, not that it eliminates evil. We can wonder if religious faith changes some people’s behavior and improves upon their worst instincts. And if it does, we can ask why and how much.

These types of questions–the extent and degree of faith’s positive influence–are the ones that matter. Not essentialist, reductive claims about the end of violence. From my vantage point, oversimplifying religion in this way is just one step away from oversimplifying religious people. It’s how we end up with the idea that someone who rejects evolution is not someone who enjoys Mediterranean cooking, art museums, camping, and traveling. Someone who rejects evolution is a creationist and nothing else.

I remember TNC once wondered how, given the endless fawning by politicians and their position of historical privilege, American Christians could think they are treated unfairly and biased against. Writing like TNC’s provides some insight. More than any other journalist I read, TNC immerses himself in scholarship. Whether it’s race and IQ, income inequality, or the history of slavery, TNC grapples with the deepest thinkers. He routinely cites peer-reviewed research, and appreciates the importance and value of expertise.

But when it comes to religion, violence and morality, who does TNC quote at the start of his post? Which intellectual giant does he reference? In light of his other writing, you’d think it would be someone like N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, or Francis Chan. Guess again. TNC begins this erudite reflection by quoting…(wait for it)…Phil Robertson! Really? That’s his source for the best of Christian thought?

When it comes to religion, unlike every other topic he writes about, TNC tends to intellectual laziness and crude generalizations. I wish he would instead follow his own advice for Robert Huber after Huber’s careless take on race relations:

Great writing moves from the particular, from the hard details, from specifics out to the universal..Anchored to a particular thing, specific reporting, and actual people, Huber is able to tell us something about Bill Cosby, race, and the limits of moral castigation. No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about “the subject of race.”

It’s okay to not wrestle with scholarship. It’s okay to be interested in some things and not others. If as a public intellectual, however, you do engage with a topic, it’s not okay to ignore the thousand of pages already written or to distort the questions asked by experts in the field. TNC and much of the media write about Christianity–and Christians–in a way they wouldn’t dream about with other subjects. That’s unfair and counts as bias in my book.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    January 12, 2014 4:15 pm

    Wow. Lots to munch on here. I have to think about this one. I had never even heard anyone think that things were not becoming closer to just (justice being perfect or an absolute).

    To give the requested feedback and to paraphrase what I think the apostle Paul would say from his particular, Christian perspective, religion does not bring or cause morality, nor does it preclude immorality. Religion (Paul used the word “law”) can simply act as a signpost to tell you whether what you are doing is immoral or moral. It lets you know when you are wrong (or right); but it doesn’t fix any problems.

  2. January 12, 2014 11:02 pm

    I think it worth noting that theologians are – as far as I can tell – quite absent from the popular discussions of the role of religion in American life. Very often reductionism in religious discussion is coming as much, if not more, from those who profess a strong religious faith than those who do not.

    Put another way, for most people the first sources of religious thought they will seek out are much more likely to be Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, or Mike Huckabee than the theologians you cite. (Perhaps Pope Francis will creep further into that group as his tenure continues.) To that end I think it is important to understand their theological perspectives – as uninformed as they might be – to see how the populace thinks.

    Arguably one public figure who recently had to articulate some reasoned theological claims was Governor Romney – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16969460 I reject his notion that freedom requires religion, and think his use of Lincoln’s ‘political religion’ was off point with the rest of his remarks. But it was a reasonable effort to engage with the topic. That it takes a little-understood religion (or a firebrand of a pastor) to prompt such consideration suggests you may have some Sisyphean work ahead of you if you are to succeed in getting people to think scientifically about religiion.

    • January 13, 2014 4:35 pm

      Hey David. Thanks for the great comment. I completely agree that reductionism often comes from the deeply religious as much as anyone else, and that Joel Osteen et al. are the first source for many people.

      But that’s part of my critique. TNC would never consult the analogue of Osteen if he were writing on another topic. Why do it with respect to Christianity? I don’t think it’s *that* hard to find a great diversity of Christian perspectives, some more nuanced and intelligent than others. Yet, writers like TNC routinely pick the worst of them.

      I also agree this is a Sisyphean task. Probably impossible and doomed to failure. But I’m nothing if not stubborn:-)

      Finally..thanks for the Romney link.

      • David Bruggeman permalink
        January 14, 2014 10:03 pm

        I think it worth pondering whether or not TNC is interested in theology per se or the sociology and/or psychology of religious thought. He’s writing – or at least I’m reading it this way – about his particular perspective. Note the I statements. If he is looking for theology, he probably hasn’t sufficiently articulated his own view well enough to engage with the scholarship.

        If he’s concerned with how religious practitioners act and justify their actions, I don’t think that requires engaging with theology beyond understanding the gaps between it and religious practice.

        For instance, while Christian theology may not argue that religion brings morality, it would not surprise me that many religious leaders and believers would believe that they cannot have morality without religion (Gov. Romney seems to believe that freedom requires religion, so perhaps he’d agree with this). This could be one of those myths he referred to as necessary for doing the work that matters.

  3. January 13, 2014 1:30 pm

    Yes, I’d agree that Christianity does not proclaim that religion brings morality; moreso that it attempt to reveal moral behavior (or truth) and so helps man to protect against his fallen nature.

    • January 13, 2014 4:36 pm

      Appreciate it. On a somewhat related note…what’s Islam’s take on this question? Feel free to email me if you don’t want to write in the comments. Also feel free to ignore the question.

      • January 16, 2014 6:44 am

        Broadly speaking, Islam would be in general agreement here. Islam attempts to take a proactive approach to combating evil in that it offers a political & legal establishment to enforce prescriptions against immoral behavior. But there is the understanding that evil will always exist and that true justice can only be had in the hereafter.

  4. January 18, 2014 7:13 am

    @David: Thanks for the follow-up. Very helpful. I see what you’re saying…but still insist that within the context of TNC’s own writing on other subjects, it’s a bit odd he doesn’t acknowledge the diversity in how ” religious practitioners act and justify their actions.” But nevertheless, good point.

    @ajb240: thanks!

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