Bad Religion

A Secular Skeptic Gets Convinced
New books dissected over email.
April 16 2012 6:00 AM

Bad Religion

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Will Saletan and Ross Douthat discuss Douthat’s new book on faith in American society.

Ross Douthat.
Ross Douthat's new book is Bad Religion.

Josh Haner/New York Times.

Dear Ross,

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

I really like this book. You’ve taken on a difficult challenge. It’s easy to make a highbrow case for faith or conservatism by ditching the parts All Reasonable People reject. But you’re defending the whole ball of wax: the chosen people, the virgin birth, the Catholic hierarchy, and all that stuff from Jesus and Leviticus about fornication. You’ve gone after every indulgence of modern life: gourmet food, financial speculation, non-procreative sex—even yoga. The cynic in me is tempted to boil down the message to a tweet: If it feels good, don’t do it.

I think I speak for a lot of secular liberals when I confess my lifelong skepticism that anyone could make a rational case for such old-fashioned ideas. And yet, you’ve done so. One thing I hope we can accomplish in this conversation is to explain to Slate’s readers how you’ve done that, and how your approach differs from what’s often understood to be the mentality of the “religious right.”

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The title, Bad Religion, captures your argument quite well. Secularists look at many of today’s preachers and theocratic politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, and conclude that religion is the problem. Conservative Christians listen to those politicians and conclude that secularism is the problem. You’re articulating a middle ground: The problem isn’t that all religion is bad, or that religion is under threat of extermination—it’s that some kinds of religion are bad, and these corrupt versions are replacing the sort of religion that’s healthy and authentic.

I’m not a Christian, so as I read your book, sometimes I’m hearing the lyrics but not the music. But what I love about it, and what I think any skeptic would appreciate, is your relentlessly critical version of moderation. You’re not saying both sides are right. You’re saying both sides are wrong. And you’re explaining how religion, which many of us have regarded as a cultural and political threat in need of restraint, is itself—when properly understood and practiced—a restraint on cultural threats such as greed, partisanship, and nationalism.

120412_BOOKS_badReligion
Bad Religion
by Ross Douthat
Simon and Schuster

At the same time, if you’re going to be God’s advocate, I can’t resist being the Devil’s. So the other thing I want to do is press you about some of the issues you raise: homosexuality, contraception, evolution, civil rights, capitalism, nationalism, and Mormonism. I want to tease out how far you’re willing to go toward criticizing Republican politicians and reconsidering established religious doctrines.

The crux of the book, as I see it, is your concept of orthodoxy. Before we get into the issues, let’s clarify what you mean by that. You’re not defending fundamentalism. In fact, you’re attacking fundamentalism, and you’re distinguishing it from Christian orthodoxy, which is what you articulate and defend in the book. What’s the difference between orthodoxy and fundamentalism? Why should people who reject fundamentalism open their minds to orthodoxy?

Irreverently yours,

Will

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