On his website The Weekly Dish, Andrew Sullivan publishes “dissents”—comments from readers who have disagreed with things in the previous week’s column. They’re often quite long, and, to his credit, Sullivan often admits he’s wrong or engages the dissent thoughtfully.
In his column a week ago Friday, Sullivan made a statement about the virtues of Christianity that riled me up, for recently he seemed to have strayed away from the God-osculation that was, to me, his most irrational feature. But then it returned. He had this exchange with a reader (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?
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.
That response, about the need for Christianity to sustain liberalism, struck me as badly mistaken, and I wrote a short post about it. But then, realizing that perhaps Sullivan might engage me directly in a “dissent”, I rewrote my post, added data, and sent it off to the Dish. I was hoping he’d choose to answer it in public, and I wanted to see what he’d say.
I didn’t entertain high hopes for this, as Greg, who sent several dissents to the old Daily Dish (a couple of them published), told me that dissents aren’t acknowledged and few of them are printed. Nevertheless, I sent what’s below to Sullivan. I’m printing it here because it wasn’t used this week; Sullivan answered several readers’ dissents about Trump. (Sullivan engaged me in an exchange nine years ago, back when I was pretty down on his religiosity and took issue with his seeing Scripture as metaphorical, not intending to be read literally.)
Rather than waste what I wrote, here it is. Perhaps some day Sullivan might address it, or it might be useful for somebody else. The data come from a number of posts I’ve done on this site.
I wanted to challenge you on a statement you made in last Friday’s Dish. In response to a reader’s question about whether you thought that “a resurgence of small ‘L’ liberalism is possible in an increasingly atheistic west”, and how it could be promoted, you said this:
. . . . 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.
I agree about the objective reality part—after all, modern liberalism and its program are closely wedded to real facts, not fake ones—but I don’t agree that liberalism needs a “transcendent divinity”. In fact, objective reality suggests the opposite: liberalism needs to reject the idea of gods.
I’ll leave aside the contradiction between believing there’s an objective reality and the assertion that there’s a “transcendent divinity”, much less a Christian one— claims about reality that have no empirical support. And I’ll only mention that many nonliberal positions, like anti-pro-choice and anti-gay views, are often seen and supported as God’s will.
Instead, I want to emphasize that the objective reality of the world is that the less religious a country or a state is, the more liberal it seems to be. Not only that, but the inhabitants are better off and happier.
There are now ample data showing a negative correlation among the world’s countries between belief in God and several indices of national well being—indices that comport with liberal goals. Measures of “successful societies”, incorporating 25 factors that make for healthier societies, are negatively correlated with religiosity among developed Western nations. Income inequality across 67 countries is positively correlated with the frequency with which their inhabitants pray. The UN’s World Happiness Index, a measure of people’s subjective evaluation of their mental well being, is strongly negatively correlated with the average religiosity of a nation.
Granted, some of these data come from non-Christian countries, but most are Christian.
This also holds for states in the U.S.: the human development index, a measure of a state’s well being, is negatively correlated with the average religiosity of the 50 American states. Of course in America religiosity is Christian religiosity.
Over and over again—and this is a fact well known to sociologists—we find that the more religious a country is, the worse off it is. The five happiest countries in the world, for instance, are Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland—hardly Christian nations, with Scandinavia being for all purposes a den of atheists. And these countries, by all lights, are liberal, moral, and caring.
While the reason for these correlations aren’t clear, it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness. Rather, it’s probable that, when the people of a country or state are not well off, and don’t feel cared for by their societies, they turn to religion as a palliative: the assurance that Someone Above will take care of things, now or after death. Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
Whatever the cause, objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies. Rather, worse societies seem to become more religious, or retain more religion.
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, and is the basis for all the happiest, most secure, and best-off societies in the world.
All the best,