The strange beliefs of Nicholas Kristof

A couple of years ago, to celebrate the Catholic feast of the Assumption, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column called "Believe it or Not" (New York Times, 8—15—03), in which he scoffed at the na´ve religious beliefs of Americans and in particular at the absurdity of believing in the Virgin Birth of Christ. This year, to celebrate Christmas, I wish to reply to his charges.

In publishing his column, Kristof showed considerable bravery.  Not by attacking religious believers (which is mere political correctness) but by exposing his own beliefs, which are touchingly old—fashioned and naive.  I feel that he must have had a very sheltered childhood.

He lamented, for example, that 'Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)'. His evident sadness reveals his own belief in the evolutionary doctrine, typical of Victorian rationalists, that by the action of some mysterious force, we humans will be gradually transformed into something nobler and finer.  The trouble is that the only demonstrable mechanism for such a process is dog—eat—dog competition.  As James Burke pointed out in The Day the World Changed, the political offspring of Darwinism were cutthroat capitalism, Marxism, and Nazism, hardly a lovable brood. 

There is no logical place in the evolutionist vocabulary for sentimental terms such as "good" and "evil"; no basis for preferring Mother Theresa to Eichman.  And yet, in his other writings, Mr. Kristof has evidenced a partiality for kindness, compassion, and tolerance and a distaste for hatred and brutality.  Such sentiments are inconsistent with rationalism.  Where did he get these notions?

Certainly not from the ancient Greeks, who brutally mistreated slaves and women and considered aristocracy preferable to democracy.  Nor from the Romans, who believed in anything convenient and regarded torture as the only acceptable method of police interrogation.  Nor from Asia or Africa, where enslavement, persecution, and hatred are far from unknown. The concepts of universal human rights and dignity — the "truths" thought to be "self—evident" — were set forth by Jesus and St. Paul in the New Testament but were first articulated as political policies only 500 years ago by Dominican and Jesuit priests, as part of their efforts to prevent enslavement of South American Indians, and were then passed on from one Christian philosopher to another until they got to Mr. Jefferson. If a religious belief can give birth to something like that, maybe we should be a little hesitant before discarding it.

Compare the fruits of science and religion. I'm sure Mr. Kristof has the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials on the tip of his tongue, but let's stick to the twentieth century, where the principal manifestation of Christianity has been global charity. If Catholic Relief, the Christian Children's Fund, and their Judeo—Christian ilk were to disappear overnight, millions of Africans and Asians would die with them.  Compare this with the spawn of science, such as nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, and cell phones.  It was not religious fanaticism that built the gas chambers of Auschwitz or ordered the Bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima.

Mr. Kristof's skepticism about Jesus' virgin birth has a quaint Victorian flavor.  He would be well advised to get an up—to—date technical encyclopedia and look up "parthenogenesis". Frogs do it, Mr. Kristof. Mammals do it and, according to recent research announcements, humans will soon be doing it.  (When the ladies don't need us men anymore, what then?)  The Virgin Birth is but one of the many religious doctrines that seemed silly a century ago but are now interpretable in terms of contemporary science—creationism by the big bang theory, original sin by gene splicing, the Eucharist by electronic wave function overlap, and so on.  In the century—old face—off between science and religion, it is science that has blinked.

Indeed, it is now science that strains our credulity.  Relativity and quantum mechanics were preposterous enough but we are now asked to swallow absurdities like black holes, wormholes, and superstrings that would make Baron Munchausen blush. Compared to these, belief in the Virgin Birth is easy.

Mr. Kristof's devotion to the rationalism of his childhood is touching but chronologically parochial.  Christianity is the road by which Europe and America traveled to Now, and it led us to an eminence the rest of the world envies.  If, as Mr. Kristof deplores, we Americans are still religious, then thank God for it.  

Christianity has been around for twenty centuries and (to paraphrase Macaulay) "...may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from India shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken block of the Washington Monument to sketch the ruins of the US Capitol."

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.

A couple of years ago, to celebrate the Catholic feast of the Assumption, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column called "Believe it or Not" (New York Times, 8—15—03), in which he scoffed at the na´ve religious beliefs of Americans and in particular at the absurdity of believing in the Virgin Birth of Christ. This year, to celebrate Christmas, I wish to reply to his charges.

In publishing his column, Kristof showed considerable bravery.  Not by attacking religious believers (which is mere political correctness) but by exposing his own beliefs, which are touchingly old—fashioned and naive.  I feel that he must have had a very sheltered childhood.

He lamented, for example, that 'Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent)'. His evident sadness reveals his own belief in the evolutionary doctrine, typical of Victorian rationalists, that by the action of some mysterious force, we humans will be gradually transformed into something nobler and finer.  The trouble is that the only demonstrable mechanism for such a process is dog—eat—dog competition.  As James Burke pointed out in The Day the World Changed, the political offspring of Darwinism were cutthroat capitalism, Marxism, and Nazism, hardly a lovable brood. 

There is no logical place in the evolutionist vocabulary for sentimental terms such as "good" and "evil"; no basis for preferring Mother Theresa to Eichman.  And yet, in his other writings, Mr. Kristof has evidenced a partiality for kindness, compassion, and tolerance and a distaste for hatred and brutality.  Such sentiments are inconsistent with rationalism.  Where did he get these notions?

Certainly not from the ancient Greeks, who brutally mistreated slaves and women and considered aristocracy preferable to democracy.  Nor from the Romans, who believed in anything convenient and regarded torture as the only acceptable method of police interrogation.  Nor from Asia or Africa, where enslavement, persecution, and hatred are far from unknown. The concepts of universal human rights and dignity — the "truths" thought to be "self—evident" — were set forth by Jesus and St. Paul in the New Testament but were first articulated as political policies only 500 years ago by Dominican and Jesuit priests, as part of their efforts to prevent enslavement of South American Indians, and were then passed on from one Christian philosopher to another until they got to Mr. Jefferson. If a religious belief can give birth to something like that, maybe we should be a little hesitant before discarding it.

Compare the fruits of science and religion. I'm sure Mr. Kristof has the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials on the tip of his tongue, but let's stick to the twentieth century, where the principal manifestation of Christianity has been global charity. If Catholic Relief, the Christian Children's Fund, and their Judeo—Christian ilk were to disappear overnight, millions of Africans and Asians would die with them.  Compare this with the spawn of science, such as nuclear weapons, bioterrorism, and cell phones.  It was not religious fanaticism that built the gas chambers of Auschwitz or ordered the Bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima.

Mr. Kristof's skepticism about Jesus' virgin birth has a quaint Victorian flavor.  He would be well advised to get an up—to—date technical encyclopedia and look up "parthenogenesis". Frogs do it, Mr. Kristof. Mammals do it and, according to recent research announcements, humans will soon be doing it.  (When the ladies don't need us men anymore, what then?)  The Virgin Birth is but one of the many religious doctrines that seemed silly a century ago but are now interpretable in terms of contemporary science—creationism by the big bang theory, original sin by gene splicing, the Eucharist by electronic wave function overlap, and so on.  In the century—old face—off between science and religion, it is science that has blinked.

Indeed, it is now science that strains our credulity.  Relativity and quantum mechanics were preposterous enough but we are now asked to swallow absurdities like black holes, wormholes, and superstrings that would make Baron Munchausen blush. Compared to these, belief in the Virgin Birth is easy.

Mr. Kristof's devotion to the rationalism of his childhood is touching but chronologically parochial.  Christianity is the road by which Europe and America traveled to Now, and it led us to an eminence the rest of the world envies.  If, as Mr. Kristof deplores, we Americans are still religious, then thank God for it.  

Christianity has been around for twenty centuries and (to paraphrase Macaulay) "...may still exist in undiminished vigor when some traveler from India shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken block of the Washington Monument to sketch the ruins of the US Capitol."

Paul Shlichta is a research scientist who is currently writing a Manual of Methods for dealing with business and everyday life. His scientific credentials may be viewed here.