Saturday, February 7, 2009

Douthat v. Coyne: False Leveling

Adding to the annals of responses to Jerry Coyne's provocative book review, Ross Douthat has undertaken to show that Christianity stands on epistemological footing as solid as other widely-held belief systems he doesn't favor:

In making their case, an apologist for Christianity and an apologist for, say, liberal democracy are likely to draw on a similarly hodgepodge-ish set of claims - some philosophical, some historical, some scientific, some anthropological and some personal. Which is to say, both political and religious beliefs depend, in part, on an agglomeration of contentions and experiences that persuade, rather than a set of findings and experiments that prove ... I'm pretty sure that Mother Teresa doubted the truth claims of Christianity more frequently than, say, Howard Dean has ever doubted the truth claims of the Democratic Party.
Grant, for the sake of argument, that Mother Theresa's doubts outperform Howard Dean's in both number and intensity. Douthat is still trying but failing to make a like-with-like comparison.

True, Christianity has come to be buttressed by a hodgepodge of varied and multi-disciplinary truth claims that are more or less persuasive. In this sense it on par with, say, Rawlsian liberalism, democratic socialism, Kantian ethics, Burkean conservatism, Jamesian-Deweyian Pragmatism, or what have you.

But this conveniently sidesteps the fact that Christianity proceeds from specific claims about the divinity of Jesus, which come bound up with historical claims about the circumstances of his parentage, birth, life, associations, teachings, and death. The authority of Jesus and those who claim to have carried his message forward authenticate further claims about the fate of every human being born since (among other things, e.g., a cavalcade of miracle claims).

Remove "Jesus is god" -- or, for that matter, "god exists" -- from Christianity and you're left with another contestable school of thought that stands or falls on the strength of its evidence and reasons. Whatever we might say of Christianity without "god exists" and "Jesus is god," it is not recognizable as Christianity.

There is no equivalent sine qua non for Rawlsian liberalism, Kantian ethics, Burkean conservatism, or the rest. Had those figures never been born, their ideas would probably have been advanced by others in some form or other. The essential point is that the strength of what they said does not rest on their authority; instead, their authority rests on the strength of what they said. This is a significant and obvious difference between them and Jesus, one that separates their systems from Christianity, one that Ross Douthat has managed to miss.

No comments: