Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ross Douthat's Bogus Journey

Ross Douthat dedicates his Easter column to defending the concept of Hell, lamenting that Hell is losing cache with Americans even in a period where belief in God and miracles and angels is holding up pretty well, comparatively speaking anyway. Douthat's thesis appears to be that:
Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

A lot of people are talking about this piece, so I thought I'd add my two cents, but I keep writing long paragraphs and then deleting them because I just can't put my finger on what he's trying to say here. "The reality of human choices?" Surely Douthat isn't arguing that people have to believe in Hell in order to act morally, since it's plainly obvious that millions, perhaps billions, of non-Hell-believers have lived without their lives spiraling into some hedonistic chaos. Nor, surely, is he asserting that only people who believe in Hell can feel like their lives have meaning (again, ask any liberal Christian/Jew/Buddhist/pagan/secular/atheist).

Is he saying a Christian can't believe in free will without believing in Hell? I'm thinking maybe, but Douthat keeps hedging his language and veiling the edges of his thesis. "[doing away with Hell]... also threatens to make life less fully human." What the hell does that even mean?

I'm also perplexed by the baseball analogy. I get that not keeping score in a children's game is a classic conservative trope about wussy liberal parenting, and thus a kind of dog whistle here for "liberal, liberal," but I don't get how hell plays into it. Do the runs and strikeouts "have real meaning" when parents keep score? We're still talking about 6 year olds playing teeball, aren't we? Is he saying that kids don't try hard if you don't keep score? If that's it, then the clear meaning of the analogy is that people won't try to do good if they're not threatened with Hell, which, as we established, is laughable.

Then again, that would explain why he went to such lengths to obfuscate his own point.

There's an extended example at the end about how Tony Soprano shouldn't go to Heaven. Setting aside the fact that Tony Soprano isn't going anywhere because he isn't real, is that really all this is about? There should be a Hell because Hitler and Judas shouldn't go to Heaven? Then what was all that cloudy b.s. about baseball and "a life less fully human" for?

And I'm glad Ross agrees that Gandhi's unbelief should "puncture religious chauvinism," but he's still hedging on Gandhi. Why? Is he insinuating that it's worth casting Gandhi into the Lake of Fire if it means we get to toss unrepentant mobsters in along with him? I certainly hope not, and I have serious doubts that many people would agree that the Final Judgment is going to be that sloppy. Nor, for that matter, would many of Christianity's most influential writers, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom readily admitted that God can and probably does save a righteous non-Christian here and there. I don't know why Douthat finds it too controversial to just say Gandhi probably earned his way in, unless he really does think Gandhi is damned. And honestly, if you live in the 21st century and still believe in a God so hard-hearted and legalistic that even Gandhi is left outside the gates, you're the one living "a life less human."

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