Ross Douthat’s Appeal to the Religiously Credulous—I Guess He Means Us

Laurie Cozad, the Interfaith Engagement Coordinator here at Wheaton College, holds a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago.  She has taught, written books, and presented at National and International conferences for the past 25 years.

I have recently invested in a subscription to the New York Times.  And as a scholar of religion, I was excited to check out what the New York Times had to say on the subject. I quickly ran into Ross Douthat, the regular religion columnist for the paper.  As I read article after article I grew increasingly bewildered by the fact that the New York Times, the venerable old lady of journalism, had allowed a person, with no discernable credentials in religion, to bleat out his opinions. 

Moreover, Douthat does not seem to possess any scholarly foundation in such things as using evidence to back up his opinions, adequately researching his topic of the day, or in understanding the history of the very complex field of religion.  In fact, he veers between two extremes; the first being that he makes grandiose arguments that lack evidence, scholarship, and nuance. Or he paddles in the shallows of a topic without making any concrete points. In the latter case he reminds me of what a friend of mine was told by his dissertation director: “It’s not that you’re saying anything wrong, it’s that you’re not saying anything at all.”

But the article that really got under my skin was one entitled “Be Open to Spiritual Experience. Also, Be Really Careful.” In this column from February 1st, 2023, he claims that “within the general pattern of American Christianity’s decline” one sees “the rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality. . .  [wherein] more and more religious lives are lived in between worldviews, in experimental territory where it’s a mistake to expect coherence, theological consistence, [or] a definite set of prior assumptions or beliefs.” According to the Public Religious Research Institute’s latest census, “The white Christian decline has slowed” and those who would be most likely to traffic in experimental territory, namely those who either reject religion or claim no religious affiliation, has declined from 25.5% to 23%.  

Biases and mistakes aside, he is making an argument for the problem of new religious practices and rituals coming into vogue.  Having written a book on cannabis ministries and the ways in which these cannabis ministries clearly embody their own coherent systems of symbols, rituals, community practices, doctrines, and places of worship, I wanted to sit Douthat down and give him a short but meaningful look at the History of Religions and the ways in which new religious movements (NRMs) are alive and well and bubbling to the surface in every society not put down by a dictator government. 

These NRMs spring from the bits and pieces of older institutionalized religions, and as such, encompass “deinstitutionalized spirituality” where “religious lives are lived between worldviews, in experimental territory.”  And unlike the way Douthat uses these words above, this is a positive development in the history of religions and a clear-eyed look at the way that even institutionalized religions reinvent themselves over time.  This reminds me of something that Walter LeFleur wrote in Liquid Life. In this excellent book he looks at the memorials for aborted fetuses in Japan that take place on the grounds of Buddhist temples:  About this he writes that “[R]eligion takes place in the spaces in between.”  Here, he speaks to the fact that no religion is pure in the sense that religions incorporate cultural norms, soak up pieces of other religious traditions, and maintain spaces that can grow into new religious practices that are relevant to practitioners.  I found this to be the case directly when I was briefly engaged to a Presbyterian Minister.  I got friendly with a deaconess and asked her point blank if she believed in predestination, the founding principle for this denomination of the religious mainstream.  She said, “No, I believe that people are free to carve their own paths to salvation rather than being predestined as to whether or not they will be saved.” In other words, she is taking bits and pieces of the Presbyterian tradition that feel relevant to her own spiritual sojourn.  So the idea that religions must contain, as Douthat maintains, a “settled religious meaning” is contrary to the fact that even mainstream religions such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Church in America are always subject to change as congregants bring their own needs and belief systems into the mix.  

Religion and entheogens (those drugs that are experienced as inducing a spiritual encounter with the transcendent) are his primary target in this piece.  Starting with the sentence that “Ayahuasca [has] become the drug of choice for so-called psychonauts,” he fails to take into account that religious groups in Brazil such as Unaio do Vegetal (UDV) and the Santo Daime Church have been using ayahuasca for decades to induce sacred visions. Moreover the religious use of ayahuasca has been made legal in the United States regardless of the fact that DMT, the main ingredient in ayahuasca, is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, one which according to the DEA, is defined as follows: “Schedule 1 drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”  The same goes for peyote, also a Schedule 1 drug which has been legalized for religious use by Native Americans.  Additionally, cannabis has been used all over the world both as a healing agent and in religious ceremonies as a portal to the divine, especially in India.  In the U.S., cannabis has been legalized for medical use in 30 states and recreational use in 21 states with cannabis churches springing up in every liberal state, though, like ayahuasca and peyote, cannabis maintains its position as a Schedule 1 drug.  

Smack dab in the middle of this piece, Douthat inserts a beautiful paragraph—the beginning is rough but it gets better.  “Yes, plenty of New Age and woo-woo practices don’t make any sense or lead only unto pyramid schemes:  there are traps for the credulous all over.”  Here it comes: “But the basic pattern of human existence and experience, an ordered and mathematically beautiful cosmos that yields extraordinary secrets to human inquiry and supplies all kinds of wild spiritual experiences even in our allegedly disenchanted age. . .makes a general openness to metaphysical possibilities a fundamentally reasonable default.”  Why didn’t he write about that?  But he then follows up with: “[I]t’s also important to emphasize something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful….”

To my mind, religion is best defined as that which incorporates the transcendent.  Mircea Eliade, the father of the History of Religions, stated that religion is a sui generis, namely a phenomenon unto itself because it centralizes something beyond this earthly realm, namely, the great mystery that is the transcendent.  Moreover, for those who would regard themselves as religious, only two things are a must:  relevance to one’s daily life and the potential to trigger experiences of the sacred.  Given the diversity and longevity of religious practices using entheogens, one can safely assume that in the right place and the right time, these substances have a proven track record of opening a portal to the transcendent. Does that mean that children should be given access to these drugs?  Does that mean that they are free of potential problematic effects?  Are we encouraging people to take these drugs without access to a religious community?  Of course not.  But neither should entheogens be dismissed as Douthat has done throughout this article.  

As Douthat nears the end of his opinion piece he states that “[F]rom any religious perspective, there’s reason to worry about a society in which structures have broken down and masses of people are going searching without maps or playing around in half-belief or deploying, against what remains of Christianity, symbols that invoke multiple spiritualities at once.”  Given that Christianity has the largest numbers of followers in the world and doesn’t seem to be losing ground any time soon, it’s really not an issue.  Moreover, Is there someone giving away maps to the sacred?! Sign me up. 

In his final sentence, Douthat again warns all those credulous, timid souls to be “very, very, careful about what you invite in.”

I would rather be very, very, careful about those making unexamined assumptions.