Writing about Religion in the New York Times

This was the photo that appeared on the front page of the “Sunday Review” in the New York Times. The section was loaded with religion, I’m sure for Easter weekend. Check out these articles by Ross Douthat, Nicholas Kristof, Maureen Dowd, and Matthew Hutson.





There seems to be a common thread in these articles. Against the New Atheists, it would seem that religion still matters in the liberal public sphere, especially on the holy weekend.

What is basic to all four articles are notions regarding the social and cognitive function of religion. Religion, it is claimed, helps stitch things together. Religion is the social glue of society. The fantastic objects of religious superstition provide cognition the critical apparatus with which to make sense of the world. In other words, liberal religion in the secular space of the New York Times justifies itself in pragmatic, functional human terms.

None of this is new. The “functionalist” approach to the study of religion goes back more than a hundred years to the sociology of religion, to Emil Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life . In the psychology of religion, one Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther pioneered a psychoanalytic view of religion that did not pathologize its object.

I cannot help think that Spinoza and the New Atheists not just a little right. Religion may stitch things together, but only by tearing them apart from others. The writers writing about religion in the secular space of the NYT certainly know better. But on Easter weekend they forget for a moment about the capacity of religion to de-range social and mental life.

It’s no simple thing, to hold together in a single clause the thought that, on human terms, religion is both functional and dysfunctional. At any rate, the rabbis remind us that one can be good to God and bad to “man,” and good to God and bad to “man” (b. Kiddushin 40a). So maybe we don’t need religion for social cohesion, and again the New Atheists are right about at least this.

I liked much better Stanley Fish’s discussion of faith and evidence in science and religion, also appearing this week online at the NYT. The conclusions were left ambiguous about the things that distinguish religion and science and the things they hold in common. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/09/evidence-in-science-and-religion-part-two/

As I posted earlier below, for more thick descriptions in The New York Times as to the “phenomenal” aspects of what it might “feel to be religious,” for a little mysterium tremendum, the arts section is the place to go.



About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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