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God Hypothesis in the Elitist’s Eye

Can the meritocracy find God? That’s the question Ross Douthat posed in a New York Times column earlier this month. Examining poll data that paints a grim future for institutional religion, Douthat offers his own take on what might be contributing to the decline. It is a multivariate problem, but he underscores one variable in particular: God is not popular with the intelligentsia. By this, he means “the wider elite-university-educated population, the meritocrats or ‘knowledge workers,’ the ‘professional-managerial class.’” 

Poking at Presuppositions

These are “my people,” Douthat admits. With his status and connections, he could be painted as an “elitist” himself. But one might say that, as a devout Catholic, he is in the intelligentsia but not of it. From this position, he feels free to poke at the presuppositions of his secular peers, including their materialist anti-supernaturalist bias:

The average Ivy League professor, management consultant or Google engineer is not necessarily a strict materialist, but they have all been trained in a kind of scientism, which regards strong religious belief as fundamentally anti-rational, miracles as superstition, the idea of a personal God as so much wishful thinking.

Thus when spiritual ideas creep back into elite culture, it’s often in the form of “wellness” or self-help disciplines, or in enthusiasms like astrology, where there’s always a certain deniability about whether you’re really invoking a spiritual reality, really committing to metaphysical belief.

This bias works in conjunction with the profound reluctance to embrace a self-denying moral code in a culture that celebrates self-affirmation, especially when every other day brings a new church scandal. Carl Trueman focuses brilliantly on the latter phenomenon in his new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which examines the historic roots of our progressive cultural zeitgeist. It might fairly be said that some writers and thinkers who focus exclusively on the intellectual debate over God should give more thought to these more personal, cultural factors. For some people, the question is not whether God exists, but whether they would care if He did.

A Two-Fold Obstacle

But Douthat is right to note that the obstacle is two-fold, a blend of the moral and the intellectual. It’s not just that the meritocratic class doesn’t want to believe, they don’t think they have to believe. If they believed the evidence for the God hypothesis was overwhelming, this might at least give them pause before dismissing the whole thing, as unappealing as they still found it. As it is, even if they find an individual religious community they like, “their materialist bias makes it hard for them to persevere, to get up early to perform rituals or recite creeds whose claims they can’t actually believe.”

Some might encourage people in such a position to continue persevering anyway. Jordan Peterson might say there is value in “acting as if” things are true whether you believe or not. After all, what if you were wrong? At worst, there’s no harm in joining a thick community and giving your family a solid grounding in a value system without which Western civilization seems today to be adrift. 

But the secularist is right to feel uncomfortable as he mouths a theistic creed. Theists, for their part, should respect this reluctance. True, self-styled secular martyrs may have over-egged the pudding, and anyone familiar with the plight of actual persecuted religious believers might be tempted to tell the comfortable atheist to check his privilege. But honest questions deserve straight-forward answers. Theists should be ready and willing to offer ways for the secularist to resolve his dilemmas, so that the idea of God makes sense not just on a pragmatic level, but a scientific level. Books like Stephen Meyer’s Return of the God Hypothesis are designed to that end. 

A “Miraculously Ordered” World

Theists like Douthat can also be sympathetic to secularists who are put off by hypocrisy in the church. But Douthat is less sympathetic to people who are simply biased against the supernatural. He himself hints that he accepts a mainstream evolutionary narrative when he says that “science has undercut some religious ideas once held with certainty.” But he still sees the world as “miraculously ordered,” populated with beings who have consciousness, free will, and a drive to explore the deepest secrets of the universe. We humans are amazingly capable of displaying “godlike powers in miniature,” yet also show “a strong demonic streak.” Faced with such mysteries, Douthat judges it not rationality but sheer “prejudice” to close oneself off to the possibility of the religious. 

But, in the end, Douthat concludes, very intelligent people will always disagree. The ball remains in their court to have the impulse and the desire to dig deeper. It thus falls on theistic case-makers not to force the secular elite to accept the God hypothesis, because this is impossible, but, at best, to leave them with no excuse.