Andrew Sullivan: Sustainable liberalism requires God

August 29, 2020 • 1:45 pm

I want to add one comment to today’s earlier post on Andrew Sullivan. It gets its own space here because it’s is unrelated to the issue of violent vs. nonviolent protests.

One good feature of The Weekly Dish is that thoughtful readers write in offering criticisms of what Sullivan wrote earlier.  Sullivan then responds, and, to his credit, sometimes he admits error. But this time he touts God. Here’s a bit of one critical email and Sullivan’s answer (my emphasis):

Part of reader’s comment:

Parting question for you: Do you think a resurgence of small “L” liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic West? If so, by what mechanism would it be brought about?

Sullivan’s response:

I’m glad you’re making this essential point about right-wing postmodernism as well. I agree largely, and should devote more attention to it — as I have done in the past. But the honest answer is: I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity. That’s why I suspect a reinvention and reboot for Christianity is an urgent task.

Well, yes, you have to have faith in an objective reality if you’re trying to do any effective politics, but liberalism depends heavily not only on the concept of objective truth, but on ascertaining what it is. But as for “general faith in a transcendent divinity”, well, that’s totally bogus. Why do we need belief in God to advocate liberal politics? It would seem the opposite to me: many right-wing tenets, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay positions, seem to depend on adhering to the will of a god or a faith.

It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god. (Sullivan’s a Catholic—a pretty pious one, I gather, though not an adherent to all Church dogma.) If you believe in an objective reality, then you must also believe that there are ways to ascertain what that reality is. But there is no way to ascertain the “reality” of a god, much less of Sullivan’s Christian god. The more urgent task is to weaken all faiths, not buttress them.

Fortunately, we do have a reinvention of Christianity. It isn’t a reboot, but surely suffices as a grounding for liberalism. It’s called secular humanism.

53 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan: Sustainable liberalism requires God

    1. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature.”

      Somebody named Marx said that, though I can’t recall whether it was Chico or Groucho. (We can eliminate Harpo; he wasn’t one for much talking.) 🙂

  1. I’m with you on this but it’s a mystery which is not susceptible to rational explanation. My father, a clergyman, very bright, would not be dissuaded – ‘Doubt is why I have faith’ he would say – and switched from a potential career as an engineer because ‘I was called’.

    1. “Doubt is why I have faith’

      It is remarkable how assertions like this are held to mean something just because they happen to form grammatically correct sentences. It is like a spell cast by a wizard. The words justify themselves.

      1. Wonderful. Just the words you’ve quoted make some equally assertions:
        Is doubt why I have faith
        Faith is why I have doubt
        Why have faith, I doubt
        I doubt why faith is

        1. Hah! There are others but maybe these aren’t as good:
          ‘Mother is the invention of necessity’.
          ‘Invention is the mother of necessity’.
          ‘Necessity is the invention of mother’…

    2. ‘Doubt is why I have faith’.

      Your father’s logic is absolutely spot on. There is no (religious) faith without doubt. The virtue of belief in God rests entirely on hurdling the doubts. Certitude would dissolve the virtue.

      He is, however, deluded in his faith.

    3. ‘Doubt is why I have faith’ he would say …

      Wow. “That’s some catch,” as Yossarian would say.

  2. At nine o’clock tonight C-SPAN 2 is re-airing a three hour long interview with Christopher Hitchens (part of its In Depth series). Should go down well with a glass of wine and a fat blunt. Hitchens and Sullivan knew each other well. Just a heads-up.

    1. Hitch and Sullivan made a few joint appearances on the “Washington Journal” segments of C-SPAN, as here.

      The badinage between the two had something of a buddy-movie, bromance feel. 🙂

  3. There are entire societies that rebut his contention that we need pious faith to be successful at liberalism. Let’s start with Norway.
    What is needed is a strong and deep system of social support aimed at ensuring that everyone has good education, health care, economic support (or work), and a just system of incarceration, rehabilitation, and release.

    What we really need is Western Socialism. But shhhhhh, on that.

      1. Thanks for your post. I applaud the heightened human flourishing in Norway. But, are you not dressed in sackcloth and ashes, with wailing and gnashing of teeth for, unlike the U.K. (re: Brexit), never having joined the E.U.? Would Obama’s making a trip at U.S. taxpayer expense to stand on Norwegian ground (as he did in the U.K.) to beseech Norwegians to join the E.U. have made the crucial difference? 😉

    1. If Christianity was decisive for the success of countries, the Christian majority in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Christian hegemony in Latin America should have demonstrated that.

      I am receptive to arguments about the role Christianity played for Western Civilization, but the Islamic Expansion and the Great Schism make it hard to assess (there was no control group left after Northwest Europeans monopolized Christianity).

  4. “It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god.”

    Two people can look at the same text (objective reality): one person is familiar with the language of the text and says “I understand what this means” (transcendent reality); the other person, who doesn’t know the language, says, “There’s not a shred of evidence for any meaning here.”

    Both people would be right.

    1. Yeah, I don’t know the language of woo. And no, the first person would be wrong because nearly everyone else would disagree with him. He can thinks he understands what it means, but what if it means something else to someone else? No way to figure out what the “transcendent reality” (an oxymoron, actually) is.

      In science, however, there are ways to adjuciate what the “objective reality” is.

      Sorry, you’re in the same camp as Sullivan, As Michael Shermer said, you have a “a self-defining belief wherein one can be completely rational in most areas of life but preserve one belief for emotional reasons.”

    2. It’s also possible, as in pareidolia, for a person to find meaning in random gibberish, where none actually exists.

      1. Two people can look at the piece of burnt toast: one person sees an image of Jesus; the other person says, “There’s nothing but burnt toast here.”

        Both people would be right.

        1. True enough. But if person #1 took the image of Jesus he or she saw in the burnt toast as some sort of act by, or message from, the Lord, that person’s belief would be unsubstantiated by anything resembling “evidence.”

          Person #2, OTOH, could conduct scientific experiments to establish that the object was made from flour and water (and perhaps yeast and other ingredients) that had been exposed to heat, nothing more.

      2. “It’s also possible, as in pareidolia, for a person to find meaning in random gibberish, where none actually exists.”

        Hi, Ken. I love it when you increase my vocabulary. 😊

        In my analogy the text is written in a language that person A doesn’t understand but person B does—or at least claims to. In effect, Person B sees everything that Person A sees (“objective reality”) and claims to see something that Person A can’t see (“transcendent reality”).

        Now, Person A is justified (“right”) in saying that “there’s no evidence” for any meaning in the text, since for him there is none. Person A is not justified, however, in saying that there’s no meaning in the text, since he has no way for him to judge whether Person B really can read the language of the text and is extracting meaning from it or whether the text is random gibberish and Person B is making up a meaning out of thin air. Even less, dare I say, is Person A justified in taking pride in his inability to find any meaning in the text.

        But I’m already violating my dictum that it’s futile to debate spiritual matters rationally, so I will cease and desist.

        1. This is simply confused nonsense. Person A is in no position to say anything beyond “I don’t understand that” and “I don’t know if Person B does because I don’t entirely trust him”.

          Framing Person B as “understands the language or claims to” simply obfuscates. Either Person B does or doesn’t. Whether B is a liar or not is completely separate from whether B understands. There is no paradox here. No support for “spiritual matters”. There is nothing but poorly constructed analogy.

          This is the type of intellectual laziness that religion delights in. Just because the sentences of your analogy follow the structure of the English language doesn’t make them meaningful.

          1. “Person A is in no position to say anything beyond ‘I don’t understand that’ and ‘I don’t know if Person B does because I don’t entirely trust him’.”

            That would be nice.

  5. Sounds like you have your very own “reader’s comment” to send to Sullivan. It would be an interesting exchange if you were to get him to tell us why liberalism needs a “general faith in a transcendent divinity” to survive. It’s as if he adds lines like this as a required acknowledgement of a source of funding. His faith seems to connect to his reason by the thinnest of threads.

  6. If I understand what I have read of Fukuyama’s The End Of History, the common evolutionary pattern for all human societies is in the direction of liberal democracy. There is no indication of a required religion.

  7. Someone needs to hammer into Sullivan’s head that the least religious countries on earth are the best ones to live in. And they’re definitely liberal! Conservatives might even call them socialist, but that’s only true in the feverish minds of people who cannot abide an activist government and substantial safety net.

    “General faith in an objective reality” actually leads to NOT believing in a transcendent divinity (since its existence isn’t supported by objective evidence or reality!). Our world is already a numinous place, transcendent in its scale and beauty. Why degrade it by dragging in the soiled claptrap of ancient religions that made the universe centered around humans and thus detracted from transcendence?

    Sullivan is not alone in wanting to turn the US into a Christian nation. There is a set of American Catholic intellectuals who firmly believe the country needs to be remade into a Catholic polity. I find these people incredibly creepy in their desire to foist a minority faith on a nation.

    1. “I find these people incredibly creepy in their desire to foist a minority faith on a nation.”

      As opposed to a (marginally) majority (Protestant?) faith, especially with a refulgently self-righteous Southern Baptist component?

      (I wonder if Sullivan supports Catholic clergy celibacy? Protestant clergy are not so burdened. In either sect doctrine is that sex outside of marriage is a no-no. Does Sullivan think women should be silent in church?)

    2. Have you met our friend Mr. Bannon? Here he is… oh. no. wait…. he’s in jail! How about that?*

      See Sloppy Steve’s skype conclave with a bunch of Vatican nuts a few years ago on youtube. Pour a large drink first.

      Make it Champaign if Bannon is sent to the slammer. 🙂

      D.A., J.D., NYC

      *Actually he’s not – he is out on bail, which is surprising given his wealth, international contacts and the charges he’s facing.

  8. There are tens of thousands of christian sects that can not agree on one objective reality. If Christians can not even agree on an objective reality what hope is there for other religions to all agree on one objective reality?

    I do however believe there is hope that one day all humans will understand the folly of religion and the universality of the reality described by SCB.

  9. Why do we need belief in God to advocate liberal politics?

    I took it that Sullivan and his interlocutor (who inquired expressly about “small ‘L’ liberalism”) were addressing “classical liberalism” rather than liberal politics.

    Either way, though, I agree that the drivel about “transcendent divinity” is naught but otiose hocus-pocus.

  10. This is why I have a hard time reading any of his work. I agree with JAC that he can be very clever and insightful in his writing, no argument there. But there’s always this veil of religious hubris that hangs over him. In that regard he’s in the same camp as David Brooks and his deluded insistence that secularization is destroying civilization.

    I wonder if Andrew has read Enlightenment Now? Pinker provides plenty of evidence to refute the idea that humanity needs religion to flourish.

    1. Yeeees. This the same David Brooks – big time family values guy who dumped his wife for a woman decades his junior?
      He’s such an odious creep and I’m glad you brought him up.

      D.A. NYC

  11. It’s the denial of an objective reality that makes Critical Theory so dangerous, as Lindsay and Pluckrose point out in their new book: “Additionally, for Derrida, the speaker’s meaning has no more authority than the hearer’s interpretation and thus intention cannot outweigh impact. Thus, if someone says that there are certain features of a culture that can generate problems, and I choose to interpret this statement as a dog whistle about the inferiority of that culture and take offense, there is no space in Derridean analysis to insist that my offense followed from a misunderstanding of what had been said.”

    But that isn’t a criticism that can be levelled at traditional liberalism.

    As for Sullivan’s claim that liberalism’s survival also requires “some general faith in […] a transcendent divinity”, I simply don’t understand what he bases this on at all.

  12. Christianity is a recent superordinate category used when the particulars of some belief system in some Christian tradition are not known. It’s now often abused to create the illusion of a united Christianity. What is he advocating for? “Christianity” — the set of beliefs that unites anyone from Catholicism to Evangelicalism, Young Earth Creationists and near-deist Christians alike is so broad as to be meaningless.

    The Anglicans persecuted the Recusants; the Catholics persecuted the Hugenots; Lutherans and Catholics waged wars for decades and so on. Not to mention the previous centuries of purges. Obviously Sullivan believes in fairytales and the usual bizarro history, but I don’t understand why other people constantly enable this gaslighting that comes from one Christian or another.

    Christianity is diametrically opposed to liberalism. What could society learn from Christians? To bring popcorn to an execution and enjoying it watching someone die? No thanks.

  13. Yes, secular humanism is a reinvention of Christianity but how could Christianity get rebooted? Its fatal flaws have been exposed and its foundations rest upon supernaturalism which is laughable because evidence against it continues to grow with time. How can inerrant text be rebooted?

  14. It’s pretty hard to shake a person’s faith in divinity when they define it as the ground of all reality, as “Reality Himself”, and whatnot. Mysticism runs strong with this type.

  15. ABSOLUTELY! Thank you, professor. I know you like A.S. – as I do – he is an excellent writer and a perceptive thinker.

    But his faith based bs always irritates me.

    He’s not above other idiotic ideas – with great confidence I always note – such as his opinions on marijuana which are entirely unscientific (science would seem important in drug use wouldn’t it?) – and he frames mj as a moral issue only, with an answer congruent with HIS tight assed morality. I don’t respect that.

    He’s worth reading, I’ll give you that, but he is a deeply flawed Brit.

    D.A., J.D., NYC
    (Australian writer/atty)

  16. It seems to me that, in this day and age, for a Catholic intellectual like Andrew Sullivan ( or Garry Wills or James Carroll) to remain intellectually honest he must admit that his faith boils down to mere fideism, expressed in the Latin formulation credo quia consolans. Once making that admission, he must then lighten up and quit prescribing his personal medicine as a cure for what ails society. We here in the USA pledge allegiance to a secular Constitution, and that allegiance requires us to keep the Constitution secular.

    1. “We here in the USA pledge allegiance to a secular Constitution”

      But all of your presidents end their inaugural oath with: “So help me God”, which flagrantly violates the First Amendment.

      1. True enough. But I don’t think that oath violates the First Amendment in that it is a declaration of personal belief, which is protected by the “free exercise” clause in that amendment. What the other pertinent clause of the First Amendment, viz., the “establishment” clause, prohibits is using the government’s power to promote, favor or aid any religion. I’ll admit that the establishment cause has been weakened and violated throughout US history, but this does not obviate my point that the Constitution is secular.

        1. When a president, ‘during an official ceremony’, places his hand on the Bible and asks for God’s help, it is evident that he is using his governmental power to promote the Christian religion.

  17. “It irks me that a man who is often so rational in other ways still believes, without a shred of evidence, that there is a god.” – J. Coyne

    Well, we’ve known for a long time that…

    “Many factors besides evidence and argument are effective in forming people’s opinions. Among these we may cite religion (and anti-religion), politics, loyalties to certain social groups, antipathy to other social groups, the desire for emotional comfort, the desire to be respected by one’s peers, the desire to be thought original, the desire to shock, the desire to be in a position to force one’s opinions upon others, the desire to belong to a like-minded group of people who flatter one another by making fun of people whose opinions differ from those of the group, and the desire to be one of a small group of enlightened ones who bravely struggle against the superstitions of the masses.”

    (Van Inwagen, Peter. Metaphysics. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015. p. 18)

  18. It always goes like this:

    Theist: “A moral society is impossible without a strong belief in a deity”.

    Humanist: “That’s silly. For example, in the Czech Republic, 78% are unaffiliated or undeclared. And yet it is prosperous with a low crime rate.”

    Theist: “Oh, they’re just living on the moral capital of religion.”

    You can’t win with people like Sullivan. They are not interested in facts, only in justifying their own beliefs.

  19. I’m not sure what Sullivan’s actual argument for this position would be, but I can imagine a steelman version of it.

    It isn’t a novel thought that the rise of illiberal movements like wokeness and QAnon in the liberal world can be partially attributed to the decline of other communal sources of meaning. It may be that humans, as a group, so fundamentally require tribal and even religious sources of meaning that if compelled to give up their traditional religions they’ll just go invent new ones that are in some ways even worse.

    As an atheist, I used to believe and hope that secular humanism could fill that gap. But with these latter-day cults, one of the dynamics at play is adherents demonstrating their piety by proclaiming belief in implausible claims—the more implausible the better. That too was a feature of the old religions, but not of secular humanism.

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