Douthat’s Wager: Go to Church, Even If You Don’t Believe

“We don’t have to be a big church, just an alive church": a message, with accompanying photo from the website of the Mayfield United Methodist Church near Albany, NY.

If you are a secular liberal who made your twice-yearly trip to church on Easter Sunday, you took an important step toward improving your life, your political philosophy, and your community, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. The next step is to go back, not just at Christmas, but every Sunday from now on.

Douthat’s Easter Sunday column was, in his words, an “implausible proposal” aimed at helping post-Christian readers fill a gap in their lives while helping their former churches fill their pews. Mainline churches—the long-established, theologically liberal denominations that in the twentieth century were closely associated with white American political power—have been aging and dwindling as younger Christians either join nondenominational evangelical churches or disaffiliate from religion altogether. Half of American Presbyterians are age 59 or over; half of atheists and agnostics are under 34.

Douthat’s argument takes seriously the fact that religion is a social phenomenon, a way that humans negotiate public life and manage the “effervescence” of collective experience. He writes that church groups are better for dating than Tinder and that “Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.” (Douthat doesn’t consider the effect his proposal would have on revenues at brunch restaurants.)

Even if it is true that American liberalism would flourish if it returned to the churches, the prospects for that happening are slim. The biggest reason people have left the mainline is not sociological. It’s theological. People simply don’t believe what the churches teach about God. No social or material inducement may make a difference. In that sense, secular liberals are more sincere about belief than are adherents to the prosperity gospel, which promises riches to the faithful.

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The argument Douthat makes is similar to one made by another conservative Catholic, the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, more than 350 years ago. The argument known as Pascal’s Wager is the idea that it’s better to believe in God than not, because even if the odds in favor of God’s existence are pretty remote, the cost of belief is relatively low and the potential benefit is enormous. Likewise, the benefit of not believing is low compared to the potential cost, if indeed God does exist and consigns unbelievers to eternal hellfire. So if you’re unsure about God, act as if you believed, because “Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness.”

Douthat adapts Pascal’s case to a more secular age by bracketing belief. For the sake of his argument, it doesn’t matter if there’s such a thing as heaven or hell. The benefits of religion are all right here on earth. Just go to church, meet people, celebrate the holidays, learn about morality, bury the dead, and give to the poor. It will make you and everyone else better off here and now. It will even make you a better, more committed liberal.

He has something of a point. Some liberals acknowledge a need for a more organized, social complement to individualistic and consumerist spirituality that is currently in favor. Andrea Jain and Arielle Levites have recently made the case in Religion Dispatches that spiritual-but-not-religious liberals who want to resist the Trump agenda will need more than yoga, composting, and the occasional online donation to be effective. Self-improvement is a worthy aim, but as Jain says, the political reality of the day demands that liberals undertake “concrete acts of collective resistance.”

In that case, mainline churches seem to have just what secular liberals need. As Douthat points out, mainline denominations are already committed to gender and racial equity, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, and anti-militarism. In addition to that, they have an extensive, international infrastructure of churches, seminaries, and charities ready to serve the marginalized and focus collective action. They have a skilled workforce that is decidedly not in it for the money and that doesn’t mind being arrested at a protest. And, no small thing, the Episcopalian or Presbyterian church is often the most beautiful building in town. Even if the nearest Lutheran church has a crummy website, its music is surely better than what you’ll find at the “atheist church” Sunday Assembly. It would be a shame for these resources go to waste.

I suspect that for many of the spiritual liberals Jain and Levites are talking about, there is just one problem: belief. According to a Pew Research Center study released last year, the most common reason adults gave for disaffiliating from the religion of their childhood was that they no longer believe. Only a quarter of them identify as atheists or agnostics; the rest are, religiously speaking, “nothing in particular.” These non-religious Americans do tend to be politically more liberal than religious ones. They are Douthat’s audience.

Even though his argument is mainly sociological, Douthat acknowledges that belief is the key obstacle. But where Pascal invited the nonbeliever “to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions,” Douthat browbeats the atheist. “Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.” This glib approach only makes skeptical readers dig in further against faith. Belief is no trivial matter; you can’t taunt someone into it.

Going back to Christianity’s origins, Paul taught that it was belief, not ethnicity or social status, that made someone a Christian, and faith, not deeds, that made a Christian worthy of salvation. The Protestant Reformation and, later, the growth of Evangelical churches reiterated this emphasis on belief as the core of Christianity and the prerequisite to belonging to the church. In the gospel according to Prince, now a year departed, Jesus assures his listeners, “All I really need / Is to know that you believe.”

As any number of atheists who attended a seder for the Jewish Passover last week could tell you, belief is not inherent in all organized religious practice. But it is in Christianity. The teaching that Christianity is first of all about belief was intended to open church membership to any person. In a skeptical age, it may be the biggest impediment to greater Christian affiliation and the broad-based civic Christianity Douthat wishes to see.

Younger Americans who have left Christianity are simply taking a longstanding Christian doctrine at its word. The churches told them they had to believe in order to belong. They don’t believe. So they left. In doing so, they may well have left a vacuum in their lives and communities. But in an important sense, they may also have taken Christian teaching more seriously than the Times’ official believer does.