Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

Shorter Ross Douthat: Since I have the moral development of a little bitty child, I need someone to punish me or else I will be bad.

Longer Ross Douthat:



A Case for Hell

By ROSS "Hellboy" DOUTHAT

Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.

The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer.


And if everybody's doing it it has to be right. Either way, it's not surprising that people choose to believe in eternal life and happiness, a Fatherly, omnipotent creator who will always care for them, and that they have a hot-line to this Heavenly Father. Why not? Most people would rather live in a state of hope than a state of fear. If there really is a god, they'll be rewarded for their (supposed) belief and if there isn't a heaven they'll be dead and never know.


But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”


Ross has a sad. People no longer live in an imaginary, unnecessary state of guilt and fear, and just roll their eyes every time he tells them they're going to hell in a handbasket.



In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.


I think he's looking for the word "unbelievable," not "unpalatable."



But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.


Oh, for the good old days, when everyone was as callous about death as the god of the Old Testament.

Atheist polemic states that there are no deities, so we really don't wonder how a good deity could be cruel. We just like to remind fundamentalists that their loving god is really mean.



These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.


I think of "hellmouth" as Joss Whedon's resonant phrase.

Yes, Ross Douthat is complaining that the media doesn't discuss his personal and unpopular religious beliefs enough. That kind of self-centeredness is also the attribute of a little bitty child. Douthat doesn't want to let the absurdity and offensiveness of a kind, loving god who sees the sparrow fall but missed out on the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown to stop anyone from believing. That would be bad because then people wouldn't be afraid of eternal damnation and might have gay sex.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane.


And less homicidal.

The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

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.


That's right. You do the right thing because you choose to be good. You choose to be good because doing good makes you feel good about yourself and eases the pain almost all of us carry inside; self-doubt, loneliness, frustration, guilt, hunger for love and acceptance. Because we let ourselves feel this pain, we need to ease that pain in ourselves and others. What could be more human than that?

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.


Unlike Douthat's belief system, which sees God as judge, jury, executioner, and jailer.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”


We realize that every action is a choice and that we are the sum total of our choices and actions. If we are only good because we fear hell, we will make the choices that we think will make our gods and goddesses happy, instead of making choices that will make ourselves and other people happy. Notice what is missing here? The effect of people's actions on other people. Douthat has neatly cut out everyone else on the entire planet, and reduced all of creation to one thing--whether or not he gets the Official Hebrew God Stamp Of Godly Approval. Once you take other human beings out of the moral equation they become roadkill on your quest for eternal life. That is why it is so easy for good religious people to do bad things.

We could say the same thing about heaven as hell. It gives our life meaning (that is, a goal); our salvation is determined by our belief in heaven (and God) and by our actions on earth. That's not good enough for Douthat. He has to know that others will be punished in the fiery pits of hell, forever. Somebody has to suffer, or else Douthat's life has no meaning. And since Douthat won't be around to see them suffer in hell (or so he presumes), he needs to see people suffer for their sins right here and right now. That will prove that God exists and that He is exactly what Douthat believes him to be. If we could only see more people suffer, everyone will believe and everyone will be afraid of God and everyone will obey God and we will have proof for once and for all that God exists and loves us--as long as they believe in Hell.

And that is why Ross Douthat is proselytizing from the pages of The New York Times, although we are not sure why the Times is eager to pay him for his little sermons.

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?


No, because he's fictional, much like Heaven. But aside from the self-affirmation, the need for what some people see as Justice is very strong; people who feel they have suffered injustices all their life are overwhelmingly eager to inflict justice on others. Atlas Shrugged is filled with Ayn Rand's cries for justice, her pleas for understanding and appreciation, although with Rand, cries and pleas take the form of arrogant ranting. Those needs don't just go away because we are grown up and seemingly rational.

28 comments:

Larkspur said...

Douthat ought to be told: From beneath you, it devours.

Alternate translation: it eats you starting with your bottom.

Susan of Texas said...

The secret handshake! Another Whedon fan is revealed!

Something is eating him; too bad it's his own demons.

Lurking Canadian said...

I strongly suspect that he associates "hellmouth" with Whedon too, but cast about desperately for a novelist he could hang it on, to maintain his smarter-than-thou cred.

KWillow said...

...But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”...

Well, DUH!

That man is really, really dumb.

Anonymous said...

I love Ross. He would be considered as one of the Deep Thinkers of his time...oh, say, back in 1910...

Downpuppy said...

Susan, you're way too clear on Ross. Why the NY Times thinks paying Ross to reveal his icky inner life is a good thing, I have no idea.

NonyNony said...

Argh Douthat is so irritating.

Why are people more interested in books about heaven than books about hell? Well maybe it's because you're looking in the goddamn self-help section - where people are looking for life-affirming stuff not "you're going to hell" diatribes.

So when you look in the religion section or the "Christian fiction' sections and you DO find people who want to read about hell what they want is the REVENGE FANTASY. It's the theological reason why hell was constructed in the first place - not as a threat of damnation if you don't do what you're told (that came about later) but as the REWARD for the "saints" who listened and became Christians. They get to sit up in heaven and watch the writhing of the damned in hell as their REWARD for following Christ (see Revelation for how this played out in the early church).

Hell is a revenge fantasy - much like Rand's revenge fantasy in Atlas Shrugged. "You people don't see my genius today but I know that I'm right and I'll show you - someday you'll be in torment and you'll remember what I said. You'll regret not listening to me." Hell sprouts from the place where being able to give the smug I TOLD YA SO comes from - only later did it move into a device for thought control and then into the embarrassing artifact of a more brutal age that it's become for churches today.

UncertaintyVicePrincipal said...

"I love Ross. He would be considered as one of the Deep Thinkers of his time...oh, say, back in 1910"

Saw, flip, hammer, carry the two...

1910 ---> 1019

There.

Fixeth that for thee.

Anonymous said...

I knew you'd do a number on that piece. And yet, its really like shooting fish in a barrell. I mean, you pretty much can't get more sophmoric than that. I believe Douthat may have gone to my alma mater? Its humiliating to imagine that they didn't boot his ass not only off campus but out the tallest building (William James) to prevent him from sullying our good name. The reasoning in that piece is craptacular.

Here's a parental brag: my sixth grader was just asked to write a "persuasive essay" on some topic. She astonished me by writing a sophisticated piece on the imaginary question (which she choose) "should the school have a student council." Here's the thing--she argued both sides of the question with equal fervor, and equal insight. I'm pro democracy and pro student involvement but she really had my head spinning by offereing such good arguments pro and con that I couldn't decide which was right.

That's something Douthat clearly never has had to do--he isn't a debater, he isn't an intellectual, and he's jaw droppingly dishonest in every line of that piece. My sixth grader could have shown him the flaws in his reasoning because every single thing is so patently based on faulty premises.

aimai

fish said...

Another Whedon fan here, one who has never really recovered from the cancellation of Firefly.

dlgood said...

Tony Soprano, in addition to being fictional, is also Catholic. (Like most every fictional mobsters.)

Boy, Ross just has no clue what he's talking about.

Mr. Wonderful said...

It's not the suffering of humans for which God should be indicted and condemned. It's for the suffering of innocents--babies, toddlers, etc.

Cue the special pleading: "We cannot know His reasons." (Although the rest of the time, "we" presume to, and think "we" know how He wants us to behave.) "After brief suffering, those babies went right to Heaven" (and thus missed out on what is supposedly so essential--the exercise of free will to accept the Good).

If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.

On the contrary, Ross: if we know that being "good" will get us into paradise, then none of our yeses has any real meaning.

Tommykey said...

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

It's precisely that sort of human egocentrism that leads me to conclude that religion is a human invented thing rather than some divine revelation.

For these people, it's not enough that we are the inhabitants of one small planet in one of billions of galaxies. No, we have to be some creator entity's special creation and that our action, even our thoughts, are of paramount importance to this creator.

Myles said...

But aside from the self-affirmation, the need for what some people see as Justice is very strong; people who feel they have suffered injustices all their life are overwhelmingly eager to inflict justice on others.

Thank you for so succinctly summing up the anatomy of anti-banker populism.

Because that is also what it precisely describes.

Anonymous said...

We're still flying, fish. We're still flying.

Anonymous said...

Wrong as usual Myles. There is no singular thing we can call "anti banker populism" and certainly not one that can be reduced to mere spiteful retribution. Anti banker sentiment on the right and the leftvstem from utterly different notions of justice, of society, of individual, and ofbregulation. We dontbeven agree on what sin is. Susan has pointed out the otherworldlynfocus of the retributive moment band the dependence on some unseen and unknowable punishing daddy in Christianity and on the rughtbside of the aisle. This has nothing to do with liberal notions of this world justice for the violative of the social compact. The twongroups have different notion of everything.

Susan of Texas said...

Myles, you give people far too much credit. They do not condemn banks out of ideology or politics, they mostly ignore theoretical arguments. They are upset because they were laid off or their credit card limit was lowered or their friend's house was foreclosed on illegally or they are afraid they'll lose Medicare.

And this is just the beginning. The right will eliminate SS and Medicare/Medicaid if they can, shift all taxes from corporations to individuals, cut taxes for the rich, and lower wages. Then you'll really see some populism in action.

Myles said...

The right will eliminate SS and Medicare/Medicaid if they can,

This is not going to happen in a million years, no matter what Republicans say. This is legislatively impossible. People who claim they can do it are just posturing.

shift all taxes from corporations to individuals

I don't think there's actually any philosophical distinction between corporate and individual taxation. The only thing that matters is impact, or how the tax burden is apportioned.

Downpuppy said...

Given that the House of Representatives has already passed a bill to eliminate Medicare, saying that it's "legislatively impossible" is, to use a technical term, bullshit.

Susan of Texas said...

On a philosophical level it's always Christmas and never winter.

KWillow said...

...It's not the suffering of humans for which God should be indicted and condemned. It's for the suffering of innocents--babies, toddlers, etc.

Cue the special pleading: "We cannot know His reasons....


Actually, thanks to the doctrine of "Original Sin", all those unborn (aborted) babies are dammed to Eternal Hell, unless they're baptized. One reason Catholics are so upset by abortion. You'd think the church could make up some story about them being Martyrs or Saints and therefore exempt from the baptism rule, but NOPE. "Rules IS Rules". Break the Rules=Go To Hell.

Myles said...

saying that it's "legislatively impossible" is, to use a technical term, bullshit.

What do you think were the odds of its passing the House were there even a sliver of a chance of its passing the Senate and passing the presidential veto?

Pete said...

Myles, I believe you indicated previously that you were Canadian. You really should learn something about how American politics works before commenting on it. The current proposal to eliminate Medicare (as we know it) is not going to get passed with this Senate and President, that is true but trivial. However, the concept has reached the mainstream, much as Goldwater brought small-government ideology to the mainstream. Goldwater was never going to win, but we all know the trajectory of U.S. politics over the last 50 years -- and if you don't, then you need to do some studying.

Susan of Texas said...

Nice goalpost moving, Myles.

Downpuppy said...

All but 4 of the Republicans in the US House voted to eliminate Medicare. If the Republicans get back to where they were in 2006, it's dead.

And this is not in a million years?

Myles, whatever you are, you are not going to convince anyone here.

To clear up one final thing, in the US, Corporations are run by managers who long ago decided that shareholders could be treated as suckers, not owners. Look up Scott McNealy if you have any question. Taxing the corp is the only way to go, because the shareholders are never going to see any serious money.

Myles said...

To clear up one final thing, in the US, Corporations are run by managers who long ago decided that shareholders could be treated as suckers, not owners. Look up Scott McNealy if you have any question. Taxing the corp is the only way to go, because the shareholders are never going to see any serious money.

Now this I do know. The basic problem is that modern companies don't issue dividends, and the reason they don't issue dividends is that as a tax matter, share buybacks are much more efficient if you want to distribute profits to shareholders. (Basically, capital gains apply immediately on dividends, but in a deferred manner for share buybacks, and it would be insane to issue large dividends under such a tax environment.) There's a bunch of ways to force management to distribute profits to shareholders, not the least of which is to reduce the power of management to dilute shareholdings with ridiculous poison-pill by-laws. But just taxing the companies isn't to apply a solution to the wrong problem.

My personal preferences is for higher corporate taxes to compensate for lower capital gains, as the current capital gains environment is basically a built-in disincentive for corporate management to distribute profits to where it would be most economically allocated, i.e. the shareholders, instead of plowed back into corporate empire-building.

Tommykey said...

Douthat's NYT column today is titled "Death of a Failure." For a moment there, I thought he was telling us about the epitaph that would adorn his tombstone when he dies.

bulbul said...

Fred Clark finally got around to responding to Asshat.
Go read.