Since Andrew Sullivan moved to New York Magazine, he seems to have become more liberal, more thoughtful, and more reasonable. But he doesn’t seem to have become less religious. Or so it seems in his latest piece (click on screenshot below).
Sullivan’s target is the thesis of Steve Pinker, who maintains in his new book, Enlightenment Now, that the world is improving in many ways, that those improvements are often permanent (we’re never going back to slavery or worldwide death penalties), that they are based on the Enlightenment values of science, reason, progress, and humanism, and that, although serious problems remain, we have ways to fix them. (I have about 75 pages to go in Pinker’s 550-page tome.)
Sullivan takes issue with this thesis—not the bit about the material improvement of our world and lives, but with the idea that this progress will make our lives happier and more meaningful. I don’t quite get Sullivan’s argument, for much of it is refuted in Pinker’s very book. What he seems to say, though, is that by concentrating on humanism and human progress, we are somehow sucking the spiritual meaning out of life.
A quote from Sullivan:
As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument [Patrick Deenan, arguing in Why Liberalism Failed], and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.
Sullivan sounds positively Buddhist here, arguing that attachment to individual welfare and material things brings misery. Yet his argument that we have lost meaning and satisfaction is countered by Pinker’s argument that however you measure happiness or life satisfaction, that, too, seems to be going up over time. Here are two figures from Our World in Data:
These increases are likely byproducts of improvement in human wealth, health, and the marked increase in leisure time afforded by both labor-saving devices and the recognition that slave-like work hours are onerous. In fact, Sullivan recognizes these data adduced by Pinker, but then undercuts them by saying that, yes, but there’s still unhappiness and loneliness in the world:
Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it — is to cite data showing statistical evidence of rising levels of a sense of well-being in one’s life across the world. And this is a valid point. But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies.
Did Sullivan even read the fucking book? (That’s the very question Sullivan asked me, including the obscenity, when he went after me for daring to claim that theologians once read Genesis as a literal creation tale.) In fact, Pinker talks about all this stuff; he’s not a sunny-eyed Pangloss who thinks that everything is now wonderful. Towards the end of the book, in fact, Pinker adduces drug abuse, suicide, and depression as indices of how far we have to go. But what Pinker does show is that all of these indices of misery have also declined over time; it’s just that life’s improvements haven’t touched everyone to an equal extent. Depression and addiction have genetic causes, too; is it Pinker’s brief to help us understand why not everyone is peachy keen? I don’t think so: the book’s purpose is to gainsay those who claim that the world is declining in material well being, health, and happiness; and that existential risks are increasing. And Pinker limns some solutions for issues like global warming and nuclear war. Pinker cannot psychologize the entire planet to find out why some malcontents or depressives remain!
Sullivan also gets the next bit wrong:
[Pinker’s] response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.
This is not in fact the case; people are getting more and more content over time, not constantly reverting to some baseline level of complacency and anomie as the world improves and they get richer.
We see the key to Sullivan’s grousing in the last two sentences, which I’ve put in bold above. Sullivan has no evidence that “modern souls” are more troubled than older souls; and Pinker’s data says otherwise. What seems to trouble Sullivan is that Pinker sees religion and spirituality as impediments to progress, and also doesn’t accept (nor do I) that you need religion to find meaning in life. The well being of the largely atheistic Swedes and Dutch, seen in the graphs above, show that “existential reality of our mortality” hasn’t kept them from being pretty damn happy. Further, it’s likely there IS no solution to “the existential reality of our mortality”: we die, and then that’s it. The solution is to accept that likelihood instead of believing in fairy tales, as Sullivan seems to do (he’s a Catholic). Indeed, Sullivan is upset that Pinker doesn’t tout religion (I find no “contempt” for it in the book, just a recognition that reason rather than superstition is the way to solve our problems).
Sullivan (my emphasis):
[Pinker] has contempt for religion — which is odd for an evolutionary psychologist, since his field includes the study of genetic, evolutionary roots for religious belief. And, equally odd for an evolutionary psychologist, he sees absolutely no problem that humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet. We are species built on tribe; yet we live increasingly alone in societies so vast and populous our ancestors would not recognize them; we are a species designed for scarcity and now live with unimaginable plenty; we are a species built on religious ritual to appease our existential angst, and yet we now live in a world where every individual has to create her own meaning from scratch; we are a species built for small-scale monocultural community and now live increasingly in multiracial, multicultural megacities.
Just because you can study something that has evolved genetically or culturally doesn’t mean you have to respect it! There may be evolutionary—and certainly cultural—roots to bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia, too, but why does that mean we shouldn’t have contempt for them? As for Sullivan’s claim that humans are “increasingly alone”, that also shows he hasn’t read Pinker’s book very carefully. Pinker looks at the claim that the electronic age has separated us from our fellow humans, and finds no evidence that social and family interactions have waned in the last few decades.
As one goes through this uncharacteristically unreasonable and emotion-laden piece, one senses that Sullivan’s real beef is that arguments like Pinker’s leave little room for religion or superstition of any sort. It hasn’t helped humanity progress, it’s superfluous, and people live perfectly happy lives without it. In other words, Sullivan is projecting his personal anguish over God’s death onto the world as a whole. This is clear by the end:
For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914.
Well, God’s not dead yet, but he’s moribund, and we’re the better for it. Sullivan, I suspect, wishes we were all religious, but we’re going in the opposite direction.
And as for Sullivan’s claims that “our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event”, that’s just more evidence that he didn’t read the book carefully. Pinker in fact discusses that possibility, and can’t rule it out, but makes data-driven arguments that these events, like a nuclear exchange, are becoming less likely. Nobody can say for sure what will happen to our world. But we know that the trends are good, we have an idea of some of the reasons why, and given that those reasons still obtain, that’s reason to expect progress rather than tragedy.
Come back to us, O Andrew—come back and join the Godless! You have nothing to lose but an enormous waste of spiritual energy.
(Let me add that Sullivan resumes rational argument in his following piece, “An Implicit Anti-Semitism,” which is about a topic I’ve recently discussed: the anti-Semitism of the Left, as exemplified by the co-Presidents of the Women’s March.)
And. . . Grania found this tweet in which Michael Shermer responds to Sullivan’s piece more succinctly:
Again @sullydish do you have any data to back your claim of "so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies"? Data show otherwise: @Evolutionistrue @MaxCRoser https://t.co/0OLgjWyZhj pic.twitter.com/S3tDuNXV4V
— Michael Shermer (@michaelshermer) March 12, 2018