Several people sent me links to Andrew Sullivan’s latest column in New York magazine (click on screenshot below). The curious thing is that half the senders thought the article was great while the other half despised it. After reading it (it’s long, but read it anyway), I can see why. His opening attacks on atheism as a dysfunctional religion are deeply misguided, but his criticism of both Right and Left extremist ideologies as religions is trenchant and on the mark. And the last bit, where Sullivan talks about the new Churchill movie Darkest Hour, shows Sullivan at his best, a thoughtful person and a writer who can be moving.
I used to get into fracases with Sullivan, and it was always over religion. Now that he writes less about it and more about politics—in which he’s moving left towards becoming a centrist—I like him better and read him more often. But his reversion to atheist-bashing is simply, as Wayne and Garth would say, “heinous.” In my view, Sullivan gets atheism almost completely wrong. I’ll put up some excerpts (indented) and my take on them (flush left).
Sullivan starts off badly:
Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.
By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).
Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. (There’s a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God.)
Note the link in the first sentence, which doesn’t at all show that religion is “in our genes”—whatever that means. We don’t know of any “God genes”, and if by “religion genes” Sullivan means either “we like to look for greater meanings” or even “we have a tendency to accept the delusions of our elders,” well, yes, that’s probably true. But if religion is in our genes, how come so many people don’t express it? Or have those “genes” been selected out of the population of northern Europe?
But Sullivan claims that there aren’t really atheists: all of us, churchgoers or nonbelievers, he argues, are fundamentally religious. There are many responses. First, we atheists don’t deny God as absolutely as others believe in gods. Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one. Many of us, including the scientifically minded, reject God in the way we reject the Loch Ness Monster: there could have been evidence for both creatures, but none has shown up. There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us—I am one, Carl Sagan was another—that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence. In contrast, for many believers there is no evidence that would dispel their notion of God. If evolution, the Holocaust, and the persistence of evil and physical disasters didn’t do it, then nothing will.
Nor does atheism entail a set of values to live by. Many of us become humanists, realizing that because there’s nobody Up in the Sky, our best bet is to live our lives helping fellow humans and other creatures. But not all atheists are humanists; some are Republicans. The fundamental difference between atheists and believers is that the former don’t accept the existence of the supernatural or the truth claims of established religions. If religion is construed, as Dan Dennett sees it, as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” then no, atheists aren’t religious at all.
As for Buddhism, well, the forms embraced by atheists are philosophies rather than religions, since they don’t deal with the supernatural. And that philosophy can provide quietude in your life and a way, as Yeats wrote, to cast a cold eye on life and on death. I know that’s the way Sam sees it, but I can’t speak for Robert Wright—nor would I want to.
I’ll pass charitably over Sullivan’s praise of John Gray’s latest atheist-bashing book, and show Sullivan’s disdain for progress and science, at least as substitutes for religion (which they aren’t):
[Religion] exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.
This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.
Well, yes, surely some religions are in place because of our knowledge of mortality, but not all religions posit an afterlife (many Jews, for instance, reject that notion). And Bulletin to Andrew: we don’t see science as a replacement for religion, at least not most atheists. We like science, we enjoy learning about it, and it even provides some awe—”spirituality,” if you will. But it’s not the supernatural, we don’t take it as absolute truth, and it offers no moral guides. The substitute for the bogus morality pushed by religion is not science, but secular morality and humanism. Those involve reason, not the diktats of the big guy upstairs. As far as giving us “meaning,” yes, religions do, but different faiths give us different meanings, and a given faith can mean different things to different people. To many Catholics, abortion is murder and homosexuality a sin; the more liberal Sullivan rejects these notions.
And what is ultimate meaning, anyway? One of the most popular posts I put up was a short one asking readers “What’s your meaning and purpose?” There are 373 comments, and, as I recall, most people say that this is either a meaningless question or that we rationalize our “meaning and purpose” by elevating the things we simply like to do to that noble three-word phrase.
As for “ultimate” meaning, well, that’s a notion that’s intimately connected with God, and so the question answers itself—and wrongly. With no evidence of a God, there’s no use asking for an ultimate meaning and purpose. All we can do is answer that for ourselves but not others.
Sullivan continues, going after Hitchens:
Ditto history. My late friend, Christopher Hitchens, with a certain glee, gave me a copy of his book, God Is Not Great, a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely. But the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes — from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers — does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didn’t practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst. That’s what I told Hitch: great book, made no difference to my understanding of my own faith or anyone else’s. Sorry, old bean, but try again.
Note the bit where Sullivan says that God is Not Great “does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true.” What, exactly, does he mean by “meaning”? If he means “the factual claims about gods and prophets made by Scripture,” then yes, Hitchens’s book makes hash of those. If he means “how I interpret and accept the morality that comes from religion?”, then that is not a true-or-false question, since there is no objective morality. Morals are a result of preference—preference for what kind of world we want, combined with some empirical evidence for how to achieve that world. Science doesn’t give us morality, nor does it purport to. Its purpose is to understand the world, not to change it. (That’s what technology is for.)
And Hitchens’s book should certainly have caused Sullivan to at least question what he believes. Does he think Jesus was not just based on a real person, but was really God’s son? And that said Jesus was crucified and resurrected? What about the other claims of Catholicism? If Sullivan doesn’t accept those claims, why is he still a Catholic? Does he like the music and incense? Because for sure, Catholicism is about the least gay-friendly faith going, and Sullivan is gay.
Then, like Gray, Sullivan bashes progressivism, conflating it with material well being and neglecting the moral progressivism that is largely the subject of Steve Pinker’s last two books. In fact, Sullivan construes Pinker as being deeply religious!
Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.
I’ve addressed the notion of “faith in reason” before, and rejected it. As I wrote in Slate:
What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!
I won’t reproduce Sullivan’s attack on materialism (he mentions kale, Netflix, and Pilates), though of course Sullivan is a member of the liberal elite (well, “centrist elite”) that he decries so loudly:
And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”
That is not “faith” in the sense of “faith in Catholicism”—not by a long shot. The “belief in improvement” is simply a hope and a wish that the world gets better, and even Sullivan surely adheres to that. It’s not “unthinking” by any means. The belief in progress is simply confidence that the exercise of reason will improve things. As I said, reason is neither faith nor religion.
I don’t know why Sullivan got things so badly balled up here, but I was saddened to see him make the same mistakes as so many less thoughtful atheist-bashers. But of course Sullivan is a Catholic, and that surely played a role in his polemic. “Give me the boy. . . .” said the Jesuits.
So that’s the bad bit. Sullivan improves dramatically when he compares both the Far Right and the Authoritarian left to religions, but I’ll let you read that for yourself. One teaser:
Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.
For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.
And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history — itself a remnant of Christian eschatology — it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.
After vetting some of the proposed Democratic Presidential candidates for the 2020 election, Sullivan recounts how he teared up when he saw the movie Darkest Hour, which I also liked (Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Churchill). Here Sullivan’s writing is excellent and positively elegiac:
Why had my response been so intense, I asked myself when my bout of blubbering had finally subsided? Part of it, of course, is my still-lingering love of the island I grew up in; part is my love of Churchill himself, in all his flaws and greatness. But I think it was mainly about how the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure seized the moment.
And I realized how profoundly I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to delegitimizing this country and entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.
I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?
Good writing and a great final question—one that only time will answer.
Andrew, O Andrew, pray give up your foolish faith and join the Reasoning Heathens!