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The Consolations of Theology

May 9th, 2007 · 6 Comments

Ross Douthat has a good roundup of the discussion sparked by Christopher Hitchens’ claim that Karl Rove is an atheist who typically characterizes himself (I’ll agree, somewhat condescendingly) as “not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.” I was actually discussing this very issue with a friend over the weekend, and as I said then, I find this apparently quite common attitude a bit puzzling.

I understand, I suppose, why people might wish that it were true that there were an all-wise, all-good intelligence governing the universe and guaranteeing us eternal bliss. I don’t share that wish myself: I’m more inclined to Christopher Hitchens’ view that this sounds an awful lot like a benevolent but utterly inescapable dictatorship. Moreover, I’m pretty well convinced by Bertrand Russell’s argument that the existence or nonexistence of God doesn’t actually make a difference from the point of view of either morality or an ultimate meaning for existence: If you can’t get those things without God, you won’t get them with Him either. Even if that weren’t so, there’s something terribly infantilizing about the whole picture—the wish for God is the wish to have your meaning made for you, the wish to abjure the core responsibility of a human life. But I suppose eternal bliss has its appeal.

What befuddles me rather more is the wish to be able to believe, given the supposition that there is no God. There are any number of consoling or otherwise pleasant fantasies we entertain when we’re young: You’re the Most Special Princess ever, lost scion of the royal family from a hidden magical kingdom! You’re a superhero with Awesome Secret Powers! You’re having a whirlwind romance with a glamorous and beautiful movie star! These are fun things to believe, but there’s an age past which it’s a bit embarrassing to cling to them, or to wish that you could. Suppose you met some grown person who did harbor such a belief. Assuming, per impossible, that this were simply a net source of happiness that didn’t otherwise seriously interfere with one’s getting along in the world, what would we make of such a person? If the real life from which they were escaping into some such fantasy were sufficiently intolerable, we might not begrudge them a pleasant delusion, but they would almost certainly be an object of pity, not envy.

Addendum: As a commenter notes, of course, this general point should be separated from an evaluation of Rove’s phrasing which is probably best parsed as a way of honestly acknowledging his convictions while simultaneously flattering believers and attempting to establish he’s not one of those bad atheists.

Tags: Religion



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Scharf // May 9, 2007 at 10:25 am

    While I agree it’s an error to assume perfect Machiavellianism to everything Rove does and says, I think Rove’s answer is designed to disarm the believers with which he needs to associate and from whom he hopes to solicit support. Rove knows he can’t fake belief, so he gives a response that both flatters the believers and elicits their pity (and contributions). That it also ilicits your pity may be a side benefit (or not).

  • 2 Alex Knapp // May 9, 2007 at 11:14 am

    I think the wish for something to believe in among some of the unfaithful comes a desire to BELONG more than it does to have a life of meaning. Being a surly curmudgeon who doesn’t much like group identification, there’s no real appeal in that for me. But I’m smart enough to know that I’m an exception to that rule. So if we assume that Rove, who’s spent a great deal of his life surrounded by evangelicals, is actually an atheist, then I can see where he might feel isolated as a result and have a wish to belong.

  • 3 ostap // May 9, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    I’m not a believer but it’s certainly obvious why anyone would want to be. Go to a fundamentalist funeral sometime, and observe how blasted happy everyone is that Joe is off in heaven having a great old time, and he’s looking down on us from his far better place, and we (believers, that is) are going to join him someday, and then wonder why anyone would want to be a believer. Beats figuring your dead relatives and pals are all rotting and you’re going to rot too.

  • 4 Gil // May 9, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    Tom Bell posted about the prevalence of the promotion of credulity in children’s fiction last year.

    It’s definitely a popular meme. Many people have gotten past the personal belief, but haven’t gotten past the notion that credulity is a virtue.

  • 5 David J. Balan // May 9, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Do you have a source for that bit about Bertrand Russell? I’d like to have a look at that.

  • 6 John Goes // May 10, 2007 at 8:51 am

    Certainly the world is more interesting and magically rich if elves and flying spaghetti monsters exist, no? A fortiori, believing in God is psychologically enriching.

    But Karl Rove is probably saying it for strategic reasons.