Ross Douthat, Sophistry, and Getting Philip Larkin Wrong

Folks familiar with Ross Douthat’s writing over at the New York Times should be well clued-on to his style, which produces bits of meandering sophistry that include a sentence or two toward the end giving away the game. In those sentences, Douthat reveals the tension of maintaining the appearance of a sophisticated intellectual conservative is too great to bear and rips off the mask to grant us all an unmediated audience.

The latest exhibit in this portfolio of pretense-and-revelation is on display in Douthat’s attempts to enlist the recently departed Christopher Hitchens into the ranks of the believers. Douthat’s arguments do not rise above the level of suggesting Hitchens’ attitude toward religion was a case of Freudian reaction-formation. But, as promised, the real kicker is at the end, where with delightful predictability, Douthat reveals his true agenda:

When stripped of Marxist fairy tales and techno-utopian happy talk, rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor, and leads ineluctably to the terrible conclusion of Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” — that “death is no different whined at than withstood.”

This is a classic-threefer.

In turn: “Marxist fairy-tales”? “Techno-utopian happy-talk”? What are these? Button-pushes, I’m guessing; rallying cries to enlist the faithful. “Rigorous atheism” does not require either fairy-tales or utopian promises; au contraire, it aims to dispense with the need for those anti-humanist, teleological, and eschatological narratives that Douthat apparently needs to sustain himself.

Then there is the tired old claim about atheism making “human hope and endeavor” impossible. The breathtaking arrogance on display here is almost too much to bear. The only one with the impoverished view of the human condition and the only denier of the infinitely varied human ability to make and sustain meaning is Douthat himself. Mankind has shown itself capable of meaning-construction in myriad, countless ways; belief in the existence of a Supreme Being has never been necessary, sufficient, nor in many cases, desirable. Historical ignorance and pathetic parochialism are the least of Douthat’s sins here.

Finally, just to round things off, Douthat gets Philip Larkin wrong. Those who will admire Douthat for his erudition in quoting a poet in an Op-Ed should read Larkin’s poem for themselves. How Larkin’s ode to the challenge that death lays down for all our attempts to reckon with our temporary, transient foothold in the cosmos can be read as an indictment of atheism is beyond me. If anything, Larkin’s pessimistic vision can be read as the starting point of a new hope; having dispensed with all false promises to make death palatable, one is finally ready to face its irrevocable, everlasting, mysteriously-contoured sentence.

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