The Fortunate Faithful?

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Matt sides with Jon Chait; Ezra sides with Karl Rove. I take Matt's point that the atheist's self-proclaimed envy for the believer's faith is often a form of condescension, along the lines of saying "I wish I could believe in your crazy religion, you gullible fool, but I'm just too smart for that." On the other hand, I think there are circumstances where the condescension fades into the background: It's hard to see, for instance, why an atheist parent trying desperately to cope with the loss of a child wouldn't envy a Christian who believes in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, even if that envy has an element of condescension woven in.

Of course, the death of a child is an extreme circumstance, and in the daily round of eating, sleeping, working and copulating, it's possible to make the case that - assuming there is in fact no God - the consolation that religious believers get from their creed is outweighed by the inconvenience, repression and sacrifice their belief system requires. (There's also the fact that a non-trivial number of believers, as one of Ezra's commenters points out, are as likely to be freaked out by their experiences with the numinous as comforted by them.) In the Western context, there's the question of hell as well: If the possibility of eternal damnation seems more frightening to you than the possibility of extinction, then you have less reason to envy an orthodox Christian his belief system. The moralistic therapeutic deism that passes for Christianity for many Americans, of course, is more self-evidently enviable - though also more self-evidently ridiculous. (There's that condescension!)

And then there's the variance in religious teachings to consider. Were I not a Christian, for instance, I'm pretty sure I would envy Christians their beliefs about the afterlife, since the survival of consciousness and the resurrection of the body more or less matches up with my deepest longings concerning what awaits after death. (This correlation is one of the many reasons, of course, why I am a Christian to begin with.) I'm less sure that I'd envy someone who believes in reincarnation, or the annihilation of the self in some pantheistic sea, or some of the other religious notions about last things, because I find these concepts barely more consoling than the materialist attempts to reason away the fear of death - which is to say, not consoling at all.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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