David Brooks’ Rant on Emptiness of Secularism is Poppycock

New York Times columnist David Brooks is way behind the curve when it comes to post-theistic ethics and religion. In yesterday’s column, “Building Better Secularists,” what he actually builds is a caricature of “secularists” which he then proceeds to scold. Brooks sees these poor secular creatures (who are inching toward majority status in our culture) as feebly—and thus far futilely–trying to build an inspiring ethic without the “God” prop.

Relax, Mr. Brooks, we are doing just fine. I write, incidentally, as a Christian atheist, something I describe more fully in Christianity Without God: Moving Beyond the Dogmas and Retrieving the Epic Moral Narrative (SUNY Press 2014).

Brooks’ reflects a common syllabus of errors regarding ethics and religion without “God…”

For starters, he says that the godly can draw from “moral creeds that have evolved over centuries,” but that those poor adrift secularists “have to build their own moral philosophies” starting from scratch.

Nonsense!

Even Pope Francis invites atheists to join him on his Judeo-Christian moral mission. That epic moral vision that was birthed in ancient Israel and echoed into Christianity doesn’t require deity or afterlife beliefs, something the pope seems to get. And that grand biblical moral vision is just as available to those who deny the “God” and afterlife hypotheses as it is to those who take those myths literally.

In any religion the moral core is one thing; the imaginative dogmatic superstructure is another. Christianity’s dogmatic superstructure is especially replete with phantasmagoria…things like virgin births, dead people walking, and those resurrected people ascending straight up into the heavens (without ever going into orbit). Fortunately the moral vision of Judaeo-Christianity religion does not depend on such poetic fictions. The “God” and afterlife hypotheses add nothing to the moral core of Judaism and Christianity, and that moral core is just as available to secularists as it is to the dogmatically orthodox.

Indeed many professing Christians might be dogmatically orthodox moral heretics. They take the dogmatic legends literally and fervidly but are less enthused about the moral demands of the tradition. Thus they would smite you for not taking literally such metaphors as Exodus, Virgin Birth, and Resurrection but will not join Isaiah in saying that the only route to peace is through the absolute elimination of poverty. (Isaiah 32;17).

Nor are they, as was Jesus, “good news for the poor” or “peacemakers.” (Luke 4:18: Matt. 5:9)

In a splendid irony, secularists who walk the walk on these ideals might be more “Christian” than the “dogmatically” pure.

For Brooks, to be religious you have to believe in “God,” which is way off the mark. Religion is a response to the sacred—whether the sacred is understood theistically or not. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism are godless, and yet they have been, and are, culture-shaping powerhouses of moral idealism. As Professor Chun-Fang Yu says “Unlike most other religions, Chinese religion does not have a creator god…There is no god transcendent and separate from the world and there is no heaven outside of the universe to which human beings would want to go for refuge.” Increasingly, Christians, Jews, and others are at one with that sense of reality—as is modern science.

Literalism is suffocating. It smothers the moral dynamism of “religions,” which at their fiery core are classics in the art of cherishing, and a spiritual resource—for those who imagine a “God,” and for those who do not. The Exodus may not have happened and Moses may never have existed. He might, like Yahweh, be a composite of many personalities woven together with literary freedom.

“There was no mass Exodus from Egypt,” write historians Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman. Forget the fictional frogs and the sea engulfing the bad guys. What happened from 1250 to 1050 B.C.E. was not history but a psycho-political, epochal breakthrough of social imagination.* Outstripping Homer and Virgil in wit and wisdom, these Hebrew poets imagined a move from the one-percent rule of Egypt to the sharing society of Sinai where “there will be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4) and where the first experiment in a classless society achieved a success that sowed the seeds of modern democratic theory.

There is good sense and abundant spiritual inspiration in that ancient poetry. Noisy debates about gods and goddesses should not distract us from moral wisdom that is so contemporaneously relevant that it might well have been written yesterday.

*Correction: dates originally read “2050” to 1050. RD regrets the error. 

  • Jim Reed

    What happened from 2050 to 1050 B.C.E. was not history but a psycho-political, epochal breakthrough of social imagination. Outstripping Homer and Virgil in wit and wisdom, these Hebrew poets imagined a move from the one-percent rule of Egypt to the sharing society of Sinai

    Isn’t that the same thing as the modern day series of “Left Behind” books and movies, and the children’s series of the books?

  • Nick Ethan Molchanov-Collins

    “Religion is a response to the sacred—whether the sacred is understood theistically or not. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism are godless, and yet they have been, and are, culture-shaping powerhouses of moral idealism”

    1. Are you sure about the lack of gods in chinese and asian religions??? Seriously, buddhism is full of them, as is shinto, hinduism, and every spiritual philosophy developed in
    relation to such plurality of theisms or other impersonal concepts. It isnt one or the other, its all of them, many of the “deities” play a metaphorical role in regulating and interpreting perception (animism, panentheism, etc.)

    2. The sacred is what then? (Hint. Everything that exists, existed, or will exist in all domains of experience) the sacred is the proper response to Life. Morals have a role, but are far from the core of religion, more like an adjunct (unless of course youve internalized the idea that they are, then they are, for you at least)

    3. The world is the datum for synthesis, religion is the account of synthetic experience. Your view of existence (what Whitehead called the observational order) determines what you see, and thus how your synthesis comes out. It is the purpose of your life, and all existence.
    It is ridiculous to think of religion as a choice between varieties. Its your job to make it, humans.You are already doing it whether or not you are aware.

  • Jim Reed

    Doesn’t the scientific method make all that obsolete?

  • NancyP

    The NY TImes loves to employ/syndicate overpaid and underworked pundits such as David Brooks. Fact checking? He’s never heard of it. His goal is to flatter the Upper East Side (richest zip in the country) NYTimes executives. His knowledge of non-wealthy America is limited to seeing the nannies and housemaids coming to work in his neighborhood. Waste.Of.Space. (electrons, ink, etc)

  • weylguy

    I always love asking Bible experts this question: How many plagues were visited upon the Egyptians according to the Old Testament Book of Exodus?

    Invariably, they answer ten. The answer is twelve — read the book.

    But I agree with Finkelstein and Silberstein — the Exodus event never happened and Moses (probably a name bastardization of the 18th Dynasty’s Pharaoh Thutmose III) never existed. The entire story was probably based on a distant memory of the Pharaoh Ahmose kicking the Hyksos (who were Canaanites) out of Egypt around the year 1550 BCE.

  • joeyj1220

    I’m so happy to see Maguire on the pages here at RD!!! LOVE this line “Indeed many professing Christians might be dogmatically orthodox moral heretics”…

  • Jim Reed

    Don’t most Christians think that about most other Christians?

  • apotropoxy

    Nice to see a shout out to misters Finkelstein and Silberstein.
    Note on Moses:
    That story had been kicking around the Middle East for a VERY long time before the Jews adopted it. Sargon the Great (Akkadian) was a real king who had a legend grow up around his name. He, too, was “found floating on the great river in a reed basket, brought to shore by a woman and rose up to be the leader of his people”.

  • Whiskyjack

    Yes. The Moses story is nothing but revenge porn. Characterizing it as a psycho-political, epochal breakthrough of social imagination seems to be an unnecessarily florid and overblown description of a basic human impulse.

  • joeyj1220

    no… most right wing Christians would never call a progressive Christian “orthodox”

  • joeyj1220

    i think its oversimplifying to call it just “revenge porn.” (although, I agree it has some of that in it for sure) The fact that the Moses story has inspired the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights era, and other liberationist groups certainly point to something that is beyond just vengeance

  • GeniusPhx

    It’s true ppl see the world through their religions, its a world view. But as an atheist I see the world as it really is. I have my biases, but they aren’t based on someone elses biases who lived 2k years ago.

  • Emerald Twilights

    For starters, [Brooks] says that the godly can draw from “moral creeds that have evolved over centuries,” but that those poor adrift secularists “have to build their own moral philosophies” starting from scratch.

    Actually, the secularists can reach back millions of years for a morality rooted in evolutionary mammalian socio-biology and the pro-social traits of empathy, altruism, sense of fairness & sharing, cooperative social living, and the nurture, protection and education of the live-born young.

    The moral creeds that have evolved over centuries that Brooks refers to all too often confuse religious issues with a moral issues. They are not the same. If the only negative consequence of an action is in some heaven or hell, or within the disciplinary counsels or edicts of a religion, then it’s a religious issue, not a moral issue.

  • The religious do not behave more pro-social and ethical than nonbelievers

    https://plus.google.com/101046916407340625977/posts/MuoTsXAkEhz

  • Judith Maxfield

    Did I see this correctly? What in Heaven’s name is a Christian atheist? That truly is the height of a self made construct. I.E. A Jewish god left out of a Jewish Messiah and Christ for some of us.
    So you want the easy way out?

  • LegalizeLezMarriage

    Generation after generation of Jewish people have led seders (the passover dinner that celebrates the Exodus) that explicitly declare, “Let us imagine ourselves as if we were in bondage yesterday and only today are freed.” The memory is to remain fresh for the reason that there still exists slavery in this world, and we should never forget that. It’s not just a matter of “our holy man did this and therefor we’re right and everyone else is wrong.” In fact with Jews it hardly EVER is.

  • The technique is called “have the cake and eat it.”

  • DavePasinski

    I’ve read the “Christian” Maguire and I’ll read the “Christian atheist” (sounds impossible to me, unless he is defining “Christian” in ways other than believing that Christ is somehow as the common creeds have claimed). What I’m always stuck on with a non-theistic universe is theodicy – the problem of suffering – which has always been thrown against believers as “how could a ‘Good God” do this” and the only honest answer is, “I don’t know, but I sure hope and trust it will make sense “on the other side.” Naive and simplistic? Perhaps, but 17 years of a hospice chaplain and seeing inexplicable suffering always brings me my knees in trust and hope for something more than I could ever explain…Otherwise, the universe truly makes no sense to me…

  • Judith Maxfield

    Yes. I guess this is a new Selfi trend. That is really having your cake and eating it too. Gaze into the mirror and marvel at your perfection. I believe there is a Greek myth that addresses that. Time to go back and read the end of the story.
    Of course anyone can have ethics and care for humanity. But thats not the whole point of Christ. I promise there is more. However, you are missing my point. You can’t take Jesus out of the Judaic context without his god. You then make Jesus in your own image. We’ve been there already and look what happened.
    Ethics and religion did not save Europe and the Jews from war and the Holocaust. There are reasons for it we still don’t get. Our worldview is one of self-creation and destruction, even with ethics.

  • Jim Reed

    When you think about it, Christian atheist might make some sense. This is a Christian nation, and what happens when someone who is deeply into that system stops believing in the name of Jesus? This all starts because there are so many contradictions in Christianity. Christian atheist could be one of the strands that it leads to. If you start with nonsense, everything that follows will also contain nonsense, and the only question is to what degree. The only way around that is to throw it all out and start from scratch, but I doubt America is ready for that yet.

  • Belt of Clocks, Waist of Time

    The official Nazi motto was “Gott mit Uns.” God With Us. Nazi soldiers were issued bibles as standard equipment and the Nazi army had Christian chaplains, same as ours.

    And on the list of books to be burned, the German Student Union (the group that organized the burning) included, “Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of Darwinism.”

    But yeah, sure, keep spinning the Nazis as atheists. Got to fill the hours somehow.

  • Belt of Clocks, Waist of Time

    Meh. At one point in my life I honest-to-goodness lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I remain steadfastly un-flattered by Brooks.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Than they should find another name that makes sense. anyway, this is Not a Christ- ian nation.

  • Jim Reed

    They have as much claim on the name as anybody else. There are problems with all of the Christianities. You can’t say some are right and some are wrong because there is nothing to make some of them right. They are all human constructions, they all have flaws and contradictions, and nobody owns the name.

  • Jim Reed

    steal it for a selfie gain.

    I don’t think so. This is a Christian nation in that we will only elect Christians as president, and high office needs to be Christian or Jewish. That is the way it has always been, and it might be changing, only slowly. Every president has been a Christian. Is that true? Maybe, maybe not, but they all know they must appear Christian to make it here. Some have different interpretations of what Christian means, but they all have just as much right to call themselves Christians as the most crazy Jesus freak does. There is no right definition of the name.

  • phatkhat

    It makes perfect sense. If you follow the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, like the Sermon on the Mount, taking care of the poor and sick, etc., but do not believe he was divine, then you could be considered a “Christian atheist”. Most of what is called “Christianity” really isn’t, anyway. It’s more like Paulism.

  • Jim Reed

    If you are talking about conservative fundamentalist Christianity, then the creeds are important and Christian atheist doesn’t make any sense. Progressive Christianity seems to be different, in a process of change. Everything is now optional. Heaven and hell might not be real in a conservative fundamentalist way. The creeds can be applied or skipped in whatever portions you want. Bible stories are not literal, and even the name of Jesus is open to different interpretation by different people. It is really more of a humanist view of religion, but still under the Christian umbrella. Check back in later centuries to see where this process will lead.

  • cgosling

    Dear Mr. Brooks – How dare you say the rational and happy lives of secularists are empty, unless you are referring to the fact that our lives are empty of superstition blind faith.

  • RexTIII

    And, let’s provide no moral historical value to the Human Beings who were quite busy evolving all over the world completely unaware and uninvolved in any of the Abrahamic Zones and Influences. The audacity of anyone limiting the evolution of ‘moral values’ out of any particular religious philosophy is insanity, and so very American.

  • Nick Ethan Molchanov-Collins

    nope. Path-dependent modes of thinking embedded in our cultural systems and forms (and in our neurobiology) which conditioned previous cultural forms (say religion, and the sciences, which are a branch off the same phylogenetic tree) continue to inform our thinking today. So you see science recapitulate the same types of mythic thinking found in all religious traditions and states. See Michael Witzel- The Origins of the Worlds Mythologies and Steve Farmer – The Neurobiological Origins of Primitive Religion (here is the latter: safarmer.com/neural.origins.of.religion.pdf )

  • William Burns

    Brooks is an ass, but it is equally hard to take seriously someone going on about the “moral vision of Judaeo-Christianity.” There’s Judaism and there’s Christianity, but there’s no “Judaeo-Christianity.” And as far as the Jews sowing the seeds of modern democratic theory, there’s a reason why its a Greek word.

  • SilasCepa

    It’s very sad to see a former Catholic Priest fall so far as Mr. Maguire has.

  • itiswhatitis

    Honestly, you sound confused and angry all while using big words to sound intelligent and calm. It is an oxymoron to suggest that you can be both Christian and Atheist. Christians are followers of the Way as described in John 14:6. Atheist do not believe in God. At the very least, you can say that consider yourselve a good person. But as Leonard Ravenhill once said, Jesus didn’t come to make bad men good but to make dead men live. You are dead in your trespasses no matter how good you think you are. That is why Jesus sacrificed himself on a cross so that you’re punishment could be taken upon His shoulders. But the requirement for salvation is humility. Acknowledge your desperate need for God’s forgiveness and accept His plan for your redemption. Take care.

  • itiswhatitis

    Not really, Jesus said if you aren’t for me, you’re against me.