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Can a secular writer understand believers? A New York Times columnist has doubts

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 5:52 p.m. MDT

Ross Douthat questions whether a secular writer can understand believers in a Feb. 13 column.   (Shutterstock) Ross Douthat questions whether a secular writer can understand believers in a Feb. 13 column. (Shutterstock)

How clearly do nonbelievers see believers? That's a question posed by New York Times columnist and blogger Ross Douthat in the wake of a discussion of atheism and belief by New Yorker magazine writer Adam Gopnik.

While Douthat, a Christian, said he expected to be "pained" by Gopnik's portrayal of believers, "I didnít expect to be quite so Ö puzzled by his depiction of contemporary belief." Gopnik tries to offer a "sympathetic" view of theism, Douthat said, but ends up presenting, in Douthat's view, "a peculiar and telling misreading of what theists actually believe."

Douthat writes, "That misreading follows from the fairly stark distinction that Gopnik tries to establish between the God of popular belief — the God of miracles and commandments, signs and wonders, heaven and hell — and the God of more intellectually-minded modern believers."

Instead, Douthat attempts to show that theists can thread the needle and develop a refined view of God: "Gopnikís failure to grasp that fairly elementary point — that the possible conceptions of God are not exhausted by the lightning-hurling sky-god and the mostly-irrelevant chairman of the board — suggests, not for the [first] time, how little they know of religion who mostly secularism know," he concludes.

Read Ross Douthat's blog entry at The New York Times website. And, read Adam Gopnik's New Yorker essay at the magazine's website.

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