Creed or Chaos? An Open Letter to David Brooks

What happens when doctrines collide?

Posted Apr 22, 2011

An open letter to David Brooks:

In "Creed or Chaos," your column in today's New York Times, you use the new Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon" as a pretext for talking about religious creeds and dogmas. "People are not gods," you remind us, which presumably puts us in need of creating them. Our problem, according to you, is that we "don't have the ability to understand the world on [our] own, establish rules of good conduct on [our] own, impose the highest standards of conduct on [our] own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on [our] own."

Funny: I thought we had established a few good laws and ethics codes without divine intervention. But if we can overlook its amnesia about the Enlightenment, your statement and provocatively titled column ("Creed or Chaos") raise a number of urgent, vexing questions: What happens when your dogma seeks to override my right to dissent from it, including from skepticism, doubt, and unbelief? How, traditionally, have adherents to dogma treated those upholding the right to disagree with it, including as freethinkers? And what tends to happen, historically, when one religious doctrine collides with another and, well, yet another?

In calling your column "Creed or Chaos" (on Good Friday, no less), you clearly let us infer that "chaos" is the logical, perhaps inevitable consequence if "creed" is not upheld. I find such inferences pernicious, historically misleading, and borderline insulting. "Creed or Chaos" is a false binary, and a highly provocative one. You obviously have forgotten that advocates of secular humanism upheld fellow-feeling and civitas (citizenship) in the nineteenth century precisely to offset the pointless, damaging, and highly destructive doctrinal wars that were raging within Christianity at the time.

Just how destructive were they? Enough for figures such as the Reverend Edward Monro, vicar of Harrow in Middlesex, to declare in one paranoid pamphlet: "A clear line must be drawn with regard to the claims of the Roman Communion upon us. We can no longer go on playing with Romanism, or live on the borders of her encampments, while we are members of the Communion of the Church of England."

Where should the same "clear line" should be drawn today in Belfast, or, for that matter, in Belgrade, Beirut, and Baghdad—all cities wracked by deep, seemingly intractable sectarian disputes?

As you conveniently omit to mention such conflicts over creeds and put religious history in amber, readers of your column will never know that praise for dogma in Edinburgh, 1696, led one university student named Thomas Aikenhead to being tried, convicted, and hanged for blasphemy. His crime: "denying the Doctrine of the Trinity." Nor might one recall that religious zealots in Victorian Britain weren't happy with merely the closure each Sunday of the nation's libraries, museums, lecture rooms, zoos, public gardens, shops, and theaters. The same zealots also tried repeatedly to stop other people from railroad traveling on those days.

One wonders if the term "railroading" didn't come from such attempts. Certainly, they were sufficiently vehement and intrusive for John Stuart Mill, the liberal philosopher (and, I'd wager, a man you'd respect), to invoke them, in his famous treatise On Liberty (1859), as a form of "religious bigot[ry]." That bigotry, according to Mill, lay in "the notion that it is one man's duty that another should be religious, . . . a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not leave us guiltless if we leave him unmolested." It is, he concluded in his brilliant defense of freethought, "the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important which makes this country not a place of mental freedom."

Rather than acknowledge that history, you are too busy channeling Dorothy Sayers' high Anglican demand for strict doctrinal adherence, the source of your Manichean title, "Creed or Chaos." According to your bullet-points:

"Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality [...]." Unless, of course, one has doubts about that map, as most of the best minds in the nineteenth century did, in which case you'd be right out of luck.

"Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally [...]." That would obviously include the four in ten Americans who currently subscribe to strict creationism, a position that holds that we have all descended from the same human pair and that our planet, though we can accurately date it as billions of years old, can be only as long as scripture tells us it is—which is to say, in the region of 6,000 years. Sure, that kind of doctrinal thinking is a boon to 21st-century American students looking to compete in a global market.

"Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules [...]." Yup, those "timeless rules"! Like the one in Deuteronomy that says that stoning your child is okay if he strays from the faith. Or the one in Leviticus that insists, contra Genesis, that "all that are in the waters, in the seas and in the rivers," are "an abomination" (11:9-12). The charge is thrice repeated; and, you'll recall, Leviticus is no less merciful on those who eat hare, fowl, and pork. But those would be "timeless truths" rather than dietary warnings to early cultures on how to avoid infection and disease through poor food.

But never mind. For you, "rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us."

It does, true. The problem, alas, is that—like your split between "Creed" and "Chaos," which you might have inherited directly from Milton's Paradise Lost, with its allegorical account of Chaos, Night, Sin, Death, and so on—the same rigorous theology has a pesky tendency to insist that only believers can be saved, while everyone else is pretty much written off as going to Hell. (Thanks a lot for that. And, of course, there's no presumption, risk of projection, or risk of error in writing off billions of one's fellow humans in that way.)

Now, if only the same religions could just agree on a vision of eternal salvation! If only, too, they could put an end to their fierce, internecine disputes and infatuation with eschatology, we might just begin to address the problems that afflict us here on Earth. It is, after all, both Good Friday and Earth Day.  Follow me on Twitter: @christophlane