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A science writer’s “ratatouille” religion

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Here and below, Jeff Brown, offers his thoughts on the new pastiche religion that a writer at New Scientist would like to invent.

Brown, a pastor in Nuremberg, Germany, holds a B.S. in Biology and a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.

One Writer’s Recommendation for a New World Religion

“A little bit of this
A little bit of that
A pot
A pan
A broom
A hat”

In the play, Fiddler on the Roof, as the departing residents of Anatevka attempt to summarize what was their village, Tevya says, “People who pass through Anatevka don’t even know they’ve been here.” When I read Kate Douglas’s article in The New Scientist: “Starting over: Choosing my religion,” I felt Tevya’s statement fit her thoughts rather well: simply replace “Anatevka” with “religion.” It appears that Douglas has passed through religion without ever realizing where she has been.

Not that I have any problem with scientific magazines writing about religion (which they seem to be anxious to do these days). If theologians can write about scientific subjects then the reverse is well in order. Kate Douglas is a feature editor for New Scientist and her articles have received acclaim. She has the task of writing about many subjects, so why not religion? But her evaluation of religion betrays her distance to it.

Douglas has consulted three Oxford scholars, whose statements make up the foundation of what she has to say about the ideal faith. Chief among these is a short analysis by Harvey Whitehouse, who while eating dinner (where else?) made the discovery that all religion is like ratatouille, and like it can be divided into four types. His divisions are as profound as his thesis: 1) the party-goers, who love “the bells, smells and pageantry,” 2) the therapy religionists, who seek remedies for “maladies of the body, heart, and soul,” 3) those on a quest who are looking for religious experience, insight, or mystery, and 4) the school, whose members adhere to an authoritative creed. Kate Douglas would like to blend them all to form a new world religion.

In her article Douglas identifies what she thinks are the various components of religion: fear (which evidently plays no role in the ideal type), euphoria and the sensual, sympathy and soothing balms, mysteries, the school atmosphere, many gods, dancing, and the right mixture of myth. If she thinks that she has come up with a new variety of religion, she is mistaken. A history of religions book or a survey of current religious practice would tell her that. Her ideal religion approaches, among others, the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece and Rome.

Theodore White visited the famine-stricken Henan province of China in 1943, where five million people died. He wrote what became an explosive article for Time Magazine, in which he described the ghastly scenes of the famine: scenes that at times were like Dante’s descriptions of the Inferno. In all the colossal misery of the disaster, one group of people provided hope: the Christian missionaries (Catholic and Protestant). White was not convinced by their Gospel, but he was profoundly moved by the mercy which issued from it. It was not euphoria, soothing balms, dancing, and myth which caused Christian missionaries to go to the Henan province of China decades before the famine. It was their faith in the Gospel: the same faith that motivated them to face the ferocity of death, armed with the help of their brethren in other countries. Kate Douglas’s new world religion, though she mentions philanthropy and cooperation, is too self-centered to create the likes of the Christian missionaries who helped in Henan.

I am not alone in calling Kate Douglas’s new world religion superficial. Lea Libresco, is a columnist for the Yale Daily News. She is also an atheist. Having noticed Douglas’s article Libresco responds in her blog, “How can you list attributes of religion without talking about it as a truth-telling thing, as Chesterton put it?” She then concludes, “If these (the attributes Douglas names) were the strengths of religion, atheism would be an easy sell.”

I think that I am right, that Kate Douglas has gathered “a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” and has passed through religion without realizing she has been there. I am sincerely thankful that she has the freedom to pursue the new (old) faith of her making. I also sincerely hope she will have few followers. I would further recommend to her or anyone else, the next time they are at Oxford, to visit the monument honoring three other Oxford scholars, who endured the flames rather than change their faith. Their sacrifice was necessary to secure since that time, anyone else’s freedom to choose or create a belief: no matter how superficial. The convictions they possessed are far more worthy of contemplation than anything in ratatouille religions.


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