While finding atheism in the human propensity for violence, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes some curious arguments about religion (emphasis added):
I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don’t know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does. I’m also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don’t know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality.
I don’t think any serious theologian would argue that religion “brings morality” or that it is an “actual barrier” against immorality. I’d love feedback from my theologically astute readers, but if I remember Mere Christianity, the argument is that religion (Christianity in C.S. Lewis’s case) will swing you in the right direction, not that it eliminates evil. We can wonder if religious faith changes some people’s behavior and improves upon their worst instincts. And if it does, we can ask why and how much.
These types of questions–the extent and degree of faith’s positive influence–are the ones that matter. Not essentialist, reductive claims about the end of violence. From my vantage point, oversimplifying religion in this way is just one step away from oversimplifying religious people. It’s how we end up with the idea that someone who rejects evolution is not someone who enjoys Mediterranean cooking, art museums, camping, and traveling. Someone who rejects evolution is a creationist and nothing else.
I remember TNC once wondered how, given the endless fawning by politicians and their position of historical privilege, American Christians could think they are treated unfairly and biased against. Writing like TNC’s provides some insight. More than any other journalist I read, TNC immerses himself in scholarship. Whether it’s race and IQ, income inequality, or the history of slavery, TNC grapples with the deepest thinkers. He routinely cites peer-reviewed research, and appreciates the importance and value of expertise.
But when it comes to religion, violence and morality, who does TNC quote at the start of his post? Which intellectual giant does he reference? In light of his other writing, you’d think it would be someone like N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, or Francis Chan. Guess again. TNC begins this erudite reflection by quoting…(wait for it)…Phil Robertson! Really? That’s his source for the best of Christian thought?
When it comes to religion, unlike every other topic he writes about, TNC tends to intellectual laziness and crude generalizations. I wish he would instead follow his own advice for Robert Huber after Huber’s careless take on race relations:
Great writing moves from the particular, from the hard details, from specifics out to the universal..Anchored to a particular thing, specific reporting, and actual people, Huber is able to tell us something about Bill Cosby, race, and the limits of moral castigation. No one who wants to write beautifully should ever — in their entire life — write an essay about “the subject of race.”
It’s okay to not wrestle with scholarship. It’s okay to be interested in some things and not others. If as a public intellectual, however, you do engage with a topic, it’s not okay to ignore the thousand of pages already written or to distort the questions asked by experts in the field. TNC and much of the media write about Christianity–and Christians–in a way they wouldn’t dream about with other subjects. That’s unfair and counts as bias in my book.