Why do people hate religion? Because Trump.

August 30, 2019 • 12:30 pm

Well, I deliberately used Millennial jargon in the title because humor. But the article below, an op-ed in today’s New York Times, isn’t so much funny as wrong-headed. Timothy Egan, a contributing NYT opinion writer and author who seems to have a weakness for faith, uses a clickbaity and misleading headline to give us a dubious answer to a dubious question.

Click on the screenshot to read Egan’s piece:

First of all, do people really hate religion? Yes, some people hate some religions, but to say that people (I presume he means “Americans”) hate religion is to presume too much. Where are the data?  The only data he gives, which he claims gives us the reason why people “hate religion” (see below), shows only that young people are becoming less religious. In other words, the “hate” is simply a clickbaity way to say that people are becoming more secular—a trend that has been going on for decades in America, and is farther advanced in Europe.

Egan starts by discussing a nun, Sister Norma Pimentel, who works with migrant children in Texas—children whom, says Egan, “her president would otherwise put in cages.” And the fact that he opposes a charitable nun to Trump tells us where Egan’s going.

Now nobody doubts that religion can inspire people to do good things. Or at least give good people an opportunity to do good things. (As physicist Steven Weinberg said, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”) But I’ll concede that the religious spirit can even turn some people who wouldn’t otherwise do good into admirable do-gooders.

Sister Norma Pimentel may be a positive advertisement for religion. But there are many others who aren’t, and Egan names them: Mike Pence, Archbishop Charles Thompson (who demoted a Catholic school because it wouldn’t fire a gay teacher), most white evangelical Christians, “the charlatans who wave bibles, the theatrically pious”, and, of course, Donald Trump.

Wait! Trump? He’s not even religious. But to Egan, he’s one reason people supposedly hate religion, since he battles and demeans the opponents of white evangelical Christians.  And here we get to the first flaw of Egan’s argument: his unevidenced claim that people hate religion because of Trump. Look at this:

Evangelicals give cover to an amoral president because they believe God is using him to advance their causes. “There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump,” said Ralph Reed at a meeting of professed Christian activists earlier this summer.

But what really thrills them is when Trump bullies and belittles their opponents, as counterintuitive as that may seem. Evangelicals “love the meanest parts” of Trump, the Christian writer Ben Howe argues in his new book, “The Immoral Majority.” Older white Christians rouse to Trump’s toxicity because he’s taking their side. It’s tribal, primal and vindictive.

So, yes, people hate religion when the loudest proponents of religion are shown to be mercenaries for a leader who debases everything he touches. And yes, young people are leaving the pews in droves because too often the person facing them in those pews is a fraud.

They hate religion because, at a moment to stand up and be counted on the right side of history, religion is used as moral cover for despicable behavior. . .

But if you click on the link about people leaving the pews in droves, it goes to a Pew survey showing only that, as we already know, younger people are becoming less religious.  It doesn’t say why, much less say that they’re leaving because their preachers are “frauds”.

In fact, that’s probably not a good reason. Secularism was already on the rise in America decades ago, well before Trump became President and Pence his Vice-President. It was underway well before the rise of the “prosperity gospel” (rightfully decried by Egan as hypocrisy) and the megachurches. (In fact, megachurches exist precisely because people are leaving religion.) My own judgment would be that young people are leaving religion because it’s a vestigial relic of the infancy of our species—like a lanugo that gets shed, and because science (and the foolishness of religious doctrine in the face of moral advances) has taken some big bites out of faith.

In fact, another Pew survey from 2016 gives the reasons why “nones” have left formal religion behind. You can read it for yourself, but here are two tables from that survey. (Note that the data were taken before Trump became President, but people were already leaving religion in droves, leading to the rise of the “nones”.) “Don’t believe” is the main reason.

Very little of this has to do with the hypocrisy that Egan sees as the main cause of “hating religion”. More of it has to do with lack of evidence and the divisiveness and harmfulness of religion itself. It’s very odd that Egan takes it upon himself to diagnose the attrition of faith without actually looking at the reasons for it.

So he’s wrong on two counts: there is no evidence that most Americans “hate religion”, and, conflating hating religion with leaving it, he gives us reasons that aren’t supported by data.

The other issue, which is more minor, is that throughout his piece Egan claims that people who “hate religion” aren’t really hating true religion. That is, dubious and grasping evangelicals—hucksters like Creflo Dollar and hypocrites like Catholics who demonize the gay but not the divorced—aren’t really practicing what Egan sees as “good” religion:

In Indiana this summer, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson stripped a Jesuit prep school of its Catholic identity for refusing to fire a gay, married teacher. The same threat loomed over another Indianapolis school, until it ousted a beloved teacher with 13 years of service. He was fired for getting married to another man — a legal, civil action.

The archbishop claimed he was upholding Catholic teaching, an example of the kind of selective moral policing that infuriates good people of faith.

. . .White evangelical Christians, the rotting core of Trump’s base, profess to be guided by biblical imperatives. They’re not. Their religion is Play-Doh. They have become more like Trump, not the other way around. It’s a devil’s pact, to use words they would understand.

In one of the most explicit passages of the New Testament, Christ says people will be judged by how they treat the hungry, the poor, the least among us. And yet, only 25 percent of white evangelicals say their country has some responsibility to take in refugees.

It’s not a good tactic to selectively cite scripture to show that the good bits tell us what “true” religion is. That’s a circular argument, and a tendentious one. Why is a gay-hating, woman-oppressing and evolution-denying Southern Baptist not a “true believer”? And why is “true religion” discussed by Egan only forms of Christianity? What about Islam? Could it be that some “hatred” of religion has to do with dislike of the tenets of Islam, and how, in recent years, that doctrine has inspired some people to do bad things? Egan is silent.

You can pin a lot of bad things on Trump; in fact, almost everything he does is odious, and the sooner we get rid of him the better. And of course the op-ed writers at the Times hate the President, and for good reason. But do we really need to pin on the Orange Man the fact that people increasingly “hate religion”?  Especially because we don’t know that people increasingly hate religion. All we know is that they think religion isn’t for them, and they’re leaving the pews and becoming “nones.”

What I think is going on here is that Egan is either religious or soft on religion, and he hates Trump as well, so he makes a weak argument to connect his two emotions. I have no patience for this kind of phone-in and ill-considered editorial.

27 thoughts on “Why do people hate religion? Because Trump.

  1. Jerry, you say:
    “I have no patience for phoned-in and ill-considered editorials like this one.”

    Ho ho. Looks to ME like you have a ton of patience! To wit: your brill rebuttal of another inane NYT piece.

    Contemporary journalism in all its myriad forms—I can’t decide if ITS getting dumber or I’M getting smarter.

    Anyway, GOOD work here, Jer.You’ve once again parsed a piece of poop.

  2. Attitudes in the Republic of Ireland, once very much under the thumb of Holy Mother Church, have become much more secular in the last generation. Because pedophiles? Maybe. Because improved living standards? Maybe. I wonder whether the correct answer isn’t really: Because Education. Here is a key factor (from Wiki): “On Saturday 10th September, 1966, the Fianna Fáil education minister, Donogh O’Malley, famously made his unauthorised speech announcing plans for free second-level education in Ireland. Free second-level education was eventually introduced in September 1967, and is now widely seen as a milestone in Irish history.”

    What this means, I think, is that secondary education was taken out of the dead hands of the Church. This is exactly what underlay the quiet revolution in the culture of Quebec in the 60s-70s. It happened sooner in Quebec than in Eire, for reasons it would be interesting to explore. [Of course, secondary education in the USA has been secular for ages, but religiosity remains high, so there are other variables too.]

  3. “Sister Norma Pimentel” — What kinda name is “Norma” for a nun? I mean, it’s a perfectly fine name — for a singer or a waitress or an old-timey movie star. But a nun? Why, back in my day, they were all named after saints. And, most of ’em, with a “Mary” stuck between the “Sister” part and the saint-name part, like Sister Mary Emmanuel or whatever. I never heard’a no “Saint Norma.” What’s the RCC come to?

    But bless Sister Norma’s heart anyway. She’s out doing what she no doubt thinks of as “the Lord’s work.” And good for her for helping those poor kids in Texas.

  4. (OT) Referring to a previous post (Words and phrases I hate): I find the phrasing “reason why” as in “Examples of reasons why people are unaffiliated”, above, to be redundant when the word “reason” is used as a noun. It should have been either “Examples of reasons people are unaffiliated” or “Examples of why people are unaffiliated” or, better yet, “Some of reasons people are unaffiliated”. Some people equate verbosity with profundity.

          1. Dark Black! Finally, I knew one of your weird words plucked from your fly-paper noggin’. 🙂

            Glad to hear Dorian is North of you. I’ve never been in a hurricane, and I’d like to keep it that way. I guess living on the West coast ensures that.

  5. I saw a man in the discount store yesterday
    evening sporting a tee shirt that screamed
    at me a YOU – statement message upon its
    front, “YOU need Jesus !” ( I loathe YOU –
    and YOU SHOULD – statements ! and never
    use them myself. Never ! )

    So … … using the script outta
    My Darling William and several paces ahead
    of him, I feigned tripping. And when
    he stared at me, I hawked in as gravelly and
    as raspy a tone as I could summon thus,
    “I got this. It’s just that it’s been awhile
    since I possessed … … a body !”

    He looked horrified.


    1. Too funny. I was in Seattle’s Pike Place market today and saw a man wearing a “Y’all need Jesus” t-shirt. I rolled my eyes, but your reaction was much, much better.

  6. I agree totally with your take on this editorial mess. He gives dislike of religion a bad name. What we have in the name of Trump today is the evangelicals new Masiha. It is a very strange combination but it also proves the general hypocrisy of religion. What we see in the news just this week, in the immigration area shows this in spades. We have Trump and his minions sending official letters to specific people telling them they have 31 days to get out. These are people, very ill patience, currently receiving treatment for complex illnesses. Most of them will die if required to leave because the treatments they are getting are not available anywhere else. This is Trump hitting the lowest note yet and his Christian followers are all in.

  7. An excellent critique of a NYTimes opinion writer on the state of religion in today’s politcally and socially turbulent World. Great job, Jerry👍

  8. My personal hypothesis is that ever increasing mobility and flexible, temporary ‘communities’ (work teams, for example,) vs. the traditional model of lifelong townships has a lot to do with increased secularism. I feel lucky that my work environments are all ‘majority minority’, with a lot of diversity. I think that’s really important – but it certainly wouldn’t work if different denominations of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., had a significant problem working together. Our working world makes up a huge percentage of our lives and our working worlds have to be fluid. If you’re rushed into the ER, and a diverse team is there for the night, it behooves no one for one team member to look over to the other side of the gurney and go “Oh mah gawd! The new hire / person filling in / nurse joining us from upstairs is a different religion! I’m not working with you!”. New people are in and out of workplaces in various roles (coworker, client, etc.) all the time and rigid sectarian barriers would make professional life all but unworkable. (An aside – this is one reason why I think identity politics is such a bad idea. It creates many of the same problems, minus the idea of an ultimately all-loving and forgiving God.)

    Of course it’s possible in theory to have a strong religious identity and to still maintain this flexibility in other settings, but my hunch is that humans form much of their identity around the people with whom they are actually collaborating in the real world. (Our Paleolithic brains are wired, I assume, to give primacy to the group we work with, as in the past collaborative work was literally a matter of life and death.) If religion is not the basis of group cohesion in most settings – to the contrary, it is something one must really put on the back burner, as it will inevitably clash with other’s religions – I think this naturally has an effect on the human psyche and how the concept is prioritized internally. I think this fits with the idea that religious beliefs tend to be more fundamental in more rural areas where the local community presumably shifts less. I also think this jives with the growth of “spiritual but not religious”, which is essentially removing the personal development aspects of religion from the more tribal aspects.

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