Ross Douthat has another in his velvety series on religion good, secularism bad. Such is his enduring theme, crudely stated. But I'll give him credit. He's smooth. Seldom does Douthat come right out and declare that only the church-attending faithful are rewarded with "health and happiness [and] upward mobility," which today, for instance, he merely suggests is a "correlation."
What of the "most religious areas of the country--the Bible Belt, the deepest South," those devout regions that "struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray"? Ah, the "social goods associated with faith flow almost exclusively from religious participation," observes Douthat (emphasis mine), and "not from affiliation or nominal belief." He offers no statistics on the Bible Belt's "religious participation" (church attendance, one presumes) versus less pious domains; he instead quickly scoots off to "America's 'Christian penumbra'"--"where practice ceases or diminishes ... [and] the remaining residue of religion can be socially damaging."
Thus these two environs are hopelessly intermingled by Douthat, though piety still gets credit for social stability while apostasy receives the debits. Pretty slick.
Charles Dickens, in his preface to the 1857 edition of the stunningly brilliant Pickwick Papers (his first novel), penned a far superior figuration. He marveled at those "who do not perceive the difference ... between religion and the cant of religion, a humble reverence for the great truths of Scripture and an audacious and offensive obtrusion of its letter and not its spirit." Dickens' target: the thumpers--who in England, as in the United States, were particularly obtrusive when he wrote his serialized, religiously satirizing novel in 1836.
[I]t is never out of season to protest against that coarse familiarity with the sacred things which is busy on the lip, and idle in the heart; or against the confounding of Christianity with any class of persons who, in the words of Swift, have just enough religion to make them hate, and not enough to make them love, one another.
Yes, Mr. Douthat, just look at that other "correlation": "the Bible Belt, the deepest South" and the vile, hateful, uncharitable politicians who spring from it--elected by those who "have just enough religion to make them hate, and not enough to make them love."
I was chatting the other day with a Protestant pastor about my agnosticism--a near perfect 50-50 split between denial and belief in the utterly unknowable--and I think I rather surprised him when I revealed that were I ever to attend a church, it would be The Church, because of Francis, and almost solely for the same secular reasons that Francis has stressed of late. My one insurmountable restraint, I continued, is that I definitely disbelieve in the divinity (but only the divinity) of the world's greatest radical, Jesus, and I refuse to sit hypocritically in a church singularly founded on that very divinity.
I wish Francis would find me a loophole. Till then, I'm a Dickensian.