Why John Derbyshire No Longer Calls Himself a Christian.

National Review columnist John Derbyshire answers questions about why he no longer calls himself a Christian. My thanks to Ed Babinski for pointing this out. See the full article. Here is a snippet of what he says as he deals with the question of whether or not he believes religion is good for people and society:

Q. Do you believe religion is good for people?

A. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? I thought so for the longest time. All those Golden Rules, those injunctions to charity, compassion, neighborliness, forbearance, and so on. Not only does the proposition seem obvious in itself, but we all know people whose lives were messed up, but were then straightened out after they got religion. I know one and a half cases — I mean, two people this happened to, but one of them relapsed after three or four years, and last I heard she was in worse shape than ever.

On the other hand, some religious people are horrible. This past few years, working at National Review Online and fielding tens of thousands of e-mails from readers, I’ve had my first really close encounter with masses of opinionated Christians of all kinds. A lot of them are very nice, and some are very nice indeed — I’ve had gifts, including use of a house one family vacation (thank you, Pastor!) — but, yes, some others are loathsome. I get lots of religious hate mail, some of it really vile. Often this is in response to something I have said, which I suppose is fair enough, even if not a particularly good advertisement for Christ’s injunctions about meekness and forbearance. Often, though, these e-mails come in from people who are not reacting to anything in particular, they just want to tell me that I am not religious enough to suit them, or to call myself a conservative, or to work at National Review, or to live in the USA, or (though this is very rare) to live at all. Half a dozen times I’ve had readers express these sentiments using four-letter words of the taboo variety.

The usual response to all that is the one Evelyn Waugh gave. He was religious, but he was also a nasty person, and knew it. But: “If not for my faith,” he explained, “I would be barely human.” In other words, even a nasty religious person would be even worse without faith.

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say “religion” they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I’m sure it can. If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I’m sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference. Evelyn Waugh would have been no more obnoxious as an atheist.

And then there are some of those discomfiting facts about human groups. Taking the population of these United States, for example, the least religious major group, by ancestry, is Americans of East Asian stock. The most religious is African Americans. All the indices of dysfunction and misbehavior, however, go the other way, with Asian Americans getting into least trouble and African Americans most. What’s that all about?

In the end, I think I’ve now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero. But then…

Q. Do you think religion is a good thing, or a bad thing, for a society?

A. Having just said that it makes no difference to individuals on gross average, the mathematical answer ought to be “neither.” My actual answer is that the question doesn’t make much sense, as a question. Religious feeling just is, there in human nature, unremovably and inescapably. That’s the point of Chesterton’s famous, and true, remark, or quasi-remark. It’s there, and decent societies have to incorporate it somehow, to the general advantage. That’s all. You might as well ask: Is sex a good thing, socially speaking? Depends whether society is good at accommodating it. Pretty much all societies are — we’ve had lots of practice with that. Really formally organized religion is less than 3,000 years old, though. There wasn’t any need for it until really big human settlements — civilizations — came up. We haven’t all got it right yet.

Religion is first and foremost a social phenomenon. That religious module in our brains is a sub-module of the social one, or is very closely allied to it. To deny it expression is just as foolish, just as counter-productive, as to deny expression to any other fundamental social feature of human nature — sexuality, or aggression, or the power urge, or cheating.

The trick, if you want a reasonably happy and stable society, is to corral human nature into useful, non-socially-destructive styles of expression: sexuality into marriage, or at least some kind of formal and constrained bonding; aggression into sport or military training; the power urge into consensual politics; cheating into conjuring, drama, and games like poker. (I don’t mean you should cheat at poker, only that you need some powers of deception to play poker well.) Any aspect of human nature can get out of hand, as we see with these Muslim fanatics that are making such nuisances of themselves nowadays. That doesn’t mean the aspect is bad, just that some society has done a bad job of corraling it.

So I guess my answer is something like: If a society accommodates the people’s religious impulses well, it’s a good thing, and if not, not.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Loftus,

A wary eye might draw a bead on the simple fact that Mr. Derbyshire never really called himself a Christian in the first place. Having read the entire article, I can conclude with some confidence that I am rather right on this point.

But I wonder what you, an atheist, think of his melding evolution and faith when he suspects that religious faith is rooted in human brain structure. I would think this means Mr. Derbyshire is not at all in your good graces. I mean, do you think it foolish to resist the religious impulse of that brain sub-module with which nature has endowed us? Mr. Derbyshire thinks it is indeed foolish to so resist. I should think you must not at all; that you believe resisting the religious impulse is a good thing indeed. I should even think that you have a problem with Derbyshire's lingering theism, and even his embrace of Mysterianism.

Am I wrong about all of this?



John W. Loftus said...

I provided a snippet of what I like about what he wrote. I do not have to agree with what everyone writes to like something of what they said. And I too read the whole article. He previously called himself a Christian. I make no judgements about that. You can.

Daniel said...


I think your question about "resisting" the faith impulse is a good one. If you haven't yet read Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, I strongly recommend it.

In it, he poses the cui bono? evolutionary perspective -- the religion impulse was "paid for" by some good thing. Perhaps it was only socialization, perhaps it was a by-product of the "good thing" of "agent detection", as he believes.

At any rate, I do not think the religious impulse in human beings a bad thing. I think it can be directed towards the majesty and mystery of our natural universe, or made to invent fantasies and desires about the supernatural unknown.

One thing I do not think is that it can be fully "turned off" by will. That is, I do not know if we can resist it.

The question of "ought" in this area, granting that we can resist it, is a good question indeed. Trying to use its natural basis [eg the answer to cui bono?] as a starting point for an "ought" would be a little silly, wouldn't it?

Perhaps the question would best be answered using a teleological ethic -- if we want X, then we ought to do Y.

An example: If we want peace in the Mideast, then we ought to turn away from the silly tales of the OT and Qur'an.

What do you think?

ochristian said...

Derbyshire on his "Christianity":

For the most part, though, I would rather not have been asked. My Christianity was of the watery, behavioral Anglican variety (see below) — an occasional consolation and a habit, not a core feature of what neuroscientists call my “BDIs” — that is, my mental system of beliefs, desires, and intentions — and certainly not a waterproof philosophical system that I relied on in decision-making and opinion-forming. My ability to reply “yes” to this question, even occasionally, ended sometime early in 2004.

On his theism:

I belong to the 16 percent of Americans who, in the classification used for a recent survey, believe in a “Critical God.” My God is at, or possibly just is, one pole of the great two-poled mystery of everything: the origin of the universe, which passeth all human understanding. He is the Creator.

So by his own admission he was never really a Christian (it's kind of like being pregnant, you either are or you aren't- there is no 'sorta Christian')

Now, I know you call this website 'Debunking Christianity' but we all know that you folks are a-theists not primarily a-christians. So even though Derbyshire sloppily allows biology to refute Judea-Christianity (he gets the whole 'in his image' idea completely mixed up, evidence of his lack of attention while a nominal Christian) he still is far from being an atheist.

It is an interesting article, though. I look forward to hearing more about this from Derbyshire. I have been a subscriber to National Review for over 30 years and they have always been tolerant of different theologies. I don't think they have any atheists on staff, or at least they don't write about it.

John W. Loftus said...

ochristian, if it makes you feel better to claim he never was a Christian that's fine with me. Many people who visit here claim we were never Christians either. But what do you think of his reasoning?

Anonymous said...

NOTICE: Loftus is delelting and altering comments here without warning.

Thus, as a reflection of actual reader response these posts, to the extent that they ARE actual posts, reflect the opinions of the moderators only.

For real discussion: go elsewhere.

John W. Loftus said...

Anonymous, if you were the one whose comment I deleted, then please read this.

Personal attacks coupled with profanity will simply be deleted. Any editor of any decent newspaper would not print such a thing, and neither do I let such comments stand, especially when they do not address the topic being discussed.