The Corner

Religion

Where’s God?

Josh Wester has written a thoughtful and generally very positive review of my book. I will focus, of course, on his criticisms in part because they echo criticisms I’ve heard from many on the right (which I discussed at some length recently on my podcast with David Bahnsen).

Wester, who works with Russell Moore as the director of strategic initiatives at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote his review for the Gospel Coalition. Given these bona fides, it’s not a particular surprise that he takes exception to the first sentence of the book: “There is no God in this book.” As Wester and others have noted, God kind of sneaks back in at the end, but that hasn’t stopped many people from objecting to what Wester calls my “functional atheism.”

From the review:

Additionally, Goldberg’s functional atheism plagues his defense of the Miracle. He lays much of the blame for society’s ills at the feet of Romanticism, not only holding Romanticism responsible for our indifference toward the Miracle but also asserting the two are fundamentally incompatible. Thus, even as he rightly exposes the problems with our attachment to Romanticism — for instance, its promotion of the primacy of feelings or excessive idealism — he fails to recognize that what he describes as humanity’s “romantic” quest for significance isn’t actually a liability. He claims “we cannot improve upon the core assumptions of the Miracle” (15). But on this point the Miracle, at least in Goldberg’s reckoning, is fundamentally in conflict with God’s good design of human beings, who were created with an intrinsic longing for meaning and transcendence.

Such is the book’s devastating flaw. Though he rightly understands the essential function of religion in society, Goldberg denies its critical importance to his argument. . . .

On these points and many others, this significant volume would’ve been strengthened with a different approach.

I don’t think this is quite right. First, my point in leaving God out of my story of where the Miracle comes from was not to argue that the biblical tradition is not important. Far from it. I acknowledge at some length the role(s) Christianity played in the emergence of liberal democratic capitalism. My aim was to appeal to people who do not already like or sufficiently appreciate the Miracle. I set out to persuade mostly secular people on their own terms. Call them what you like — secular humanists, liberals, progressives, socialists, leftists, or simply the not particularly religious. The point is that telling these people they should like a system they already don’t like because God tells them to is not a persuasive argument by my lights.

Ask your typical well-meaning liberal what government or politics is for and they will answer any number of things, most of which are perfectly defensible. Among them: They want to fight poverty, reduce bigotry, improve public health, expand literacy and education generally, and, in their own positive-liberty infused thinking, expand human freedom. What I want them — but also conservatives seeking to argue with them — to take away is a very simple lesson: Liberal democratic capitalism (or “the Miracle”) has done all of these things better than all of the alternatives man pursued for the preceding 250,000 years before the Miracle.

These are empirical facts that do not require appeals to divine sanction to be recognized as true. (One of the few things that liberals care about passionately that the Miracle has made worse is economic inequality. But that’s because capitalism makes everyone richer, just not at the same pace. The subjective definition of poverty turns conditions that would have been considered luxurious even a century ago into deprivation.)

Wester’s other critique is well taken insofar as I suppose I could have been more clear. He says my claim that “we cannot improve upon the core assumptions of the Miracle” is “fundamentally in conflict with God’s good design of human beings, who were created with an intrinsic longing for meaning and transcendence.”

This is not my position whatsoever. We are hardwired to want a sense of meaning and belonging, as I write many times in the book. The problem is not that we desire to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, nor is it a flaw in God’s design that we seek transcendence. The problem comes when we look to find transcendence and meaning in things that cannot give it to us, most specifically the state (but also in ourselves, or in idols). As I write:

The desire for family is of a piece with what Robert Nisbet called “the quest for community.” Indeed, one reason the “Life of Julia” ad resonated with anyone it is that it offered a vision of belonging to something, an opportunity to have the state step in and fill the holes in your soul. This story — that the state can be your family or provide you with a sense of community — is incredibly powerful and popular. It also leaves conservatives and especially libertarians at a distinct disadvantage. As a matter of core ideology, we do not see the state as a good, reliable, or even possible substitute for the sense of social solidarity and belonging that can only come from civil society, starting with family.

The problems besetting the Miracle stem from our increasing tendency to look away from the little platoons of family, faith, and community for spiritual sustenance and toward the state or to various abstract identitarian ideologies that cannot provide what they are promising (the government cannot love you, and neither can any of the movements promising that they will once they take over). In other words, the flaw is not in what Robert Nisbet called our natural “quest for community” but in where we are looking for it.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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