The gospel of Scott Adams is one of mediocrity untroubled by humility, which means that now is the perfect time for him to make a comeback; the dangling toes of the zeitgeist are once again within his grasp. We’ve heard more about him lately than we have since CD-ROMs.
Adams is, of course, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, the one with the featureless little man in an upturned tie who rails tirelessly against the indignities of his cubicle. At least a few longtime fans raised their eyebrows in 2015 when Adams announced his affection for Donald Trump ahead of the Republican presidential primary. Shortly thereafter, he began bragging that he was “the best political predictor in the history of the earth” and spewing forth, with obvious glee, all kinds of Grand Prognostications via his blog.
Dilbert was never the Bible of anti-corporate disaffection that the office workers of the 1990s, itching in their dry-cleaned shirts and cubicles, wanted it to be. But that hasn’t stopped the comic strip’s creator from acting like a holy man.
He even has the treatises to prove it. Did you know that Adams, in addition to spinning off some hokey works of business theory, also wrote a pair of theologically dense novellas more than a decade ago, and has recently been telling interviewers that these daring “thought experiments” will be the things about him that we’ll remember most?
That’s right, God’s Debris and The Religion War—published in 2001 and 2004, respectively—will be Adams’s “ultimate legacy,” or so he told a reporter from Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this year.
Well then, we better get reading. I began with God’s Debris and its swagger-filled introduction, where I learned that “the story’s central character has a view about God that you’ve probably never heard before” (emphasis mine).
A lover of religious studies myself, I attended a hippy college and smoked my fair share of pot, so I’m pretty sure I’ve left no stone unturned. But I kept reading anyway, hoping to answer a burning question of my own: What sort of work of metaphysics must this be to compete with the likes of Dilbert?
A blandly superficial but endlessly smug one, as it turns out.
Much like an over-confident first-year philosophy student, Adams is a dabbler.
The story goes like this: God’s Debris imagines a world in which inhabitants are spread across a hierarchy of consciousness, with the most enlightened being of all—a messianic figure known only as the Avatar—occupying the “fifth level of awareness.” Though there can be only one Avatar at any given time, his or her skills can be transmitted to a designated successor. Our protagonist, a delivery driver, is deemed to be such a worthy heir, and is raised to the fifth level of awareness in the book’s final pages.
By the beginning of The Religion War—which takes place in the year 2040—our hero is stuck in the middle of a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, with a “Christian Alliance” on one side and a “Great Caliphate” on the other. As if to confirm the old adage that no serious “thought experiment” is complete without a defense of religiously motivated mass slaughter, the book delivers just that. The leader of the Christian Alliance tells his followers:
“I know what you’re thinking. . . . There can be no reason good enough to destroy an entire culture, two billion people, most of which have no quarrel with us. But the alternative is defeat. Their culture is infected with a belief that killing infidels is a ticket to paradise. If we win the war militarily but leave the enemy’s beliefs intact, we strengthen them. . . . They would chip away at our economy until we couldn’t support our military, then they would destroy us. We must kill the idea. The only way to do that is by eliminating the vessels that carry it.”
Somewhere along the way, the books drop any pretense that they are earnestly seeking after the Universe’s Big Questions and instead slide into total speciosity. Innovative they are not; Adams has smushed together the prophetic thought of many different religious traditions, drawing on the same literary themes as modern apocalyptic texts like Left Behind.
Much like an over-confident first-year philosophy student, Adams is a dabbler, and extremely proud of it. God’s Debris, in particular, uses a butchered form of Socratic dialogue to cover topics ranging from evolution, the existence of free will, and ESP—not to mention an incoherent discussion about the nature of God that sounds awfully similar to a mishmash of probability-based arguments (Pascal’s wager), negative theology, and the quantum-physics-heavy new ageism of films like 2004’s What the Bleep Do We Know!? And also much like said self-assured student, Adams is extremely defensive about his intellectual prowess. In the introduction to The Religion War, anticipating that there would be some readers who would read his work only to “angrily insist that there were no new ideas in it,” he had this to say in preemptive reply: “False memories are a common side effect of having your worldview suddenly bent.”
Although the novellas that Adams describes as his “ultimate legacy” are probably better left buried in the depths of Amazon’s bottomless inventory, there is at least one thing they can remind us: hell hath no fury like a mediocre man intent on passing himself off as an intellectual powerhouse.
Half-assedness has long been Adams’s guiding principle.
That Adams’s dive into theology is extremely half-assed is not, in his view, a problem; in fact, half-assedness has long been his guiding principle. For him, mediocrity is a feature, not a bug. Read Adams’s slew of other sacred texts—especially business advice books like The Dilbert Principle—and you will quickly grasp his message: you don’t need to be well-informed about anything if you are shoddily informed about many things. Just bite off a little bit of this and a little bit of that, masticate it around until it’s gooey and soft, and then spit it out to see where (and how much of) it sticks.
It’s not hard to see why Adams would see in Trump a pure expression of his divine ideal. During the run up to the election, Trump padded his team of advisers with mysterious foreign policy experts, garnered praise from a cohort of fringe Christian pastors, and surrounded himself with scandal-ridden politicos that faded in and out of view every few months.
With the exception of a few hires, conditions haven’t improved since he entered the White House. Steve Bannon—who, in addition to drawing his political inspiration from atrocious and poorly written racist literature, blows through marriages and careers like no other—weaseled himself into an ill-advised National Security Council appointment for a while. The other intended “brains” of the operation aren’t doing much better. Sebastian Gorka’s much-flaunted dissertation “would not earn him a doctorate at any reputable academic department in the United States.” And who could forget Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s conspiracy-laden Twitter feed? Flynn only got the boot because he hadn’t mastered the art of failing upwards.
As New York Review of Books contributor Masha Gessen observed in January, “not only does [the incoming administration] not achieve excellence: it does not even see the point of excellence.” Trumpism was born out of mediocrity, and despite its promise to “Make America Great Again,” it has retreated into the same sort of defensiveness that Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss exhibits when he cries, “Stop making mediocrity sound bad!”
If, as Adams tells us in God’s Debris, self-delusion is a plague, making it all too easy to “be seduced by your own apparent infallibility,” then maybe he—not to mention his fellow Trump fans—ought to take a look at the log in his own eye.