Civil Liberties

Will God Smite John Derbyshire?


I confess a semi-secret weakness for John Derbyshire, the grumpy National Review writer and math geek. I loved his little novel, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream (a novel with Coolidge in the title!). And if I had to take sides in the ongoing Derbyshire-Andrew Sullivan squabble, I'd arm up for Derb, no questions asked. Yesterday, Derbyshire posted a "Faith F.A.Q." at NRO quite worth reading. See below for a classic example of Derbyshire's willingness to stomp on the stubborn remnants of political correctness in the service of a serious question, all in his trademark aggressively candid manner. And decide for youself whether he deserves an award named after him that goes to "statements by public figures or writers that amount to right-wing hyperbole, hate-speech or manic paranoia." I'm open to the fact that he might indeed deserve such a thing, but he's a good read.

Here's Derbyshire on the question of whether religion is good for people, and why some religious people are so bad:

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.

Further reflections on the Q & A over at The American Scene, where they're rather more qualified to talk about God than I am. Read the whole thing here.