My unpublished comment on The Weekly Dish

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?

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 pastBut 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.

Dear Andrew,

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,
Jerry Coyne

33 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Historian
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    In regard to his mail, Sullivan says this in this week’s column:

    “The same reader asks:

    Do you read all your mail? I get there’s a limited number of dissents you can post, but it would be nice to know some idea of the volume of emails you get and/or if they’re being read.

    Either I or Chris reads them all — about 350 this week alone — but Chris is lord of the in-box and selects these dissents to make me squirm.”

    Maybe Chris decided that your dissent would make Sullivan squirm just a little too much.

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Who knows. I thought Sullivan liked to engage strong dissents, and I did know about those 50 dissents per day. I just took a chance. As Vonnegut said, “so it goes.”

  3. Linda Mercer
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Jerry, Couldn’t have said it better myself! Good grief! What is wrong with people? maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Or is it cramming for finals!?

  4. Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    It seems like we’ve got a pretty good body of evidence testing Sullivan’s “liberalism requires theism” hypothesis, and the hypothesis is failing miserably. I suspect Sullivan is deriving his view from another failing hypothesis, “morality requires theism”.

  5. rickflick
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    It’s puzzling to me how such a bright, well informed, well read, individual can be so blinkered on this subject. Maybe it’s just having spent so many hours inside the asylum.

  6. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    “I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity.”

    The linking of the need for “objective reality” and “transcendent divinity” strikes me as marvelously oxymoronic.

  7. Barry Lyons
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I love your closing paragraph. It’s perfect.

  8. Cate Plys
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Bravo! Great closing line.

  9. Jenny Haniver
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    You say “it’s not likely that religion itself promotes poverty, inequality, and unhappiness.”

    I beg to disagree. I’d say that Christianity promotes precisely those things. Poverty is glorified as being Christlike, as is inequality — pathological humility; unhappiness — suffering is also Christlike. Buddhism just accepts poverty and inequality as the way of the world, and one spends one’s miserable, poverty-stricken existence meditating to stave off unhappiness, paradoxically elevating the seeking of happiness as a cardinal objective.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure if suffering is Christ-like (we do not even know if he existed), but it certainly is recommended as a positive by many Christian sects. No greater example than the vile Mother Theresa, who refused to give those in her care analgesics because suffering brings the victim ‘closer to Jesus’.
      I’m curious to know what Mr Sullivan thinks about that. Urgent?

      • Posted September 6, 2020 at 1:17 am | Permalink

        Oh she was TOTALLY vile.
        But try making that point at a dinner party!
        best,
        D.A. NYC

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted September 6, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

          Well, I actually did make that point at a dinner party. I can’t say it was a real winner, to put it mildly. It did not exactly made me popular, although later, behind the scenes as it where, I got some positive reactions.

    • Jimbo
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Religion also promotes a certain fatalism in peoples’ thinking and I do wonder if it perpetuates a degree of resignation to poverty, praying to God to alleviate it, rather than working toward creative solutions to address it (admittedly a vast generalization). Further, Hitchens rightly pointed to birth control and the empowerment of women as one of the most effective means of combating poverty throughout the world which religion has overtly impeded throughout history.

      That said, I am loathe to suggest that this point in Jerry’s dissent grants too much to Sullivan. Often to effectively rebut an argument (or even hope to evoke a reply as in this case), one must avoid a broad fusillage of attacks and stay focused only on the specific claim using caveats to foreclose upon other legitimate but tangential arguments that the responder might address to avoid directly answering the question. Jerry’s dissent was concise and spot on and will be hard for Sullivan to defend or wiggle out of.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted September 5, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        “Jerry’s dissent was concise and spot on and will be hard for Sullivan to defend or wiggle out of.”

        Undoubtedly, that’s why Sullivan didn’t take it on.

        In addition, the way Sullivan constructs his assertion: “I don’t know whether liberalism can survive without some general faith in an objective reality and a transcendent divinity,” conflates two different kinds of faith, religious and mundane, unless of course, he ‘believes’ there’s no difference between them. I’d like to know what.

  10. Greg Geisler
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Excellent rebuttal! Going to save this one for future use! Thank you!

  11. Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    You stated: “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.”

    Amen to that

  12. Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    You stated: “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.”

    Amen to that

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I think the U.S. is already a fairly religious place. Then you add to it few safety nets when things go bad for individuals. Loss of job also includes loss of health insurance. Serious illness without proper health care – a main reason for bankruptcy in the country. Retirement pension plans are almost gone for everyone but federal or govt. employees so retirement is becoming very hard for many as they get older. Add all of this up and people resort to their religion and their guns for reassurance or something. In other words, most of the things available to people in those happy countries of Europe are simply not available here. The insecurity makes them hold tighter to their religion because that is all they have.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I spent most of my life in Western Europe and South Africa, but the notion that someone would go bankrupt because of necessary medical care and ends up with nothing sounds alien,… and evil.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted September 5, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        I think it is the number one cause for bankruptcy in this country. Millions of working people have little if any savings. If they also do not have health insurance that is good, any medical problem can easily end in bankruptcy.

        • Nicolaas Stempels
          Posted September 6, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          Yes Randall, I know. But it is totally unconscionable and positively weird in one of the richest countries in the world. I think we’re on the same page here.

  14. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    It should not escape notice that four of the five happiest countries are notable for the consumption of herring. My last academic sabbatical was spent in Sweden and Denmark, where I spent some time investigating the qualities of both societies’ inlagd sill. I found that both made me happy.

    • Jimbo
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

      What? Are you being serious in suggesting that Scandinavian happiness is in part due to herring consumption or you just like it? That sounds like an easy experiment to conduct. We can use baked sole as a negative control.

  15. Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    “. . .objective reality doesn’t support your claim that embracing transcendent divinities leads to more liberal societies.”

    I don’t think Sullivan is claiming that a belief in God leads to more liberal societies bur rather is questioning whether liberalism unaccompanied by a belief in God is sustainable. To his credit, I think, he proposes that Christianity needs to be reinvented and rebooted to accommodate liberalism and not that liberalism needs to be reinvented and rebooted to accommodate Christianity. Much of Sullivan’s career, in fact, has focused on his struggle to reinvent his Catholicism to accommodate his liberalism.

    Sullivan seems to be suggesting that liberalism and religion are not inherently at odds (a premise for which there is abundant historical evidence) and, in fact, that a liberalism that embraced “a general faith in a transcendent divinity” might be stronger than a liberalism that rejected same. This is questionable, of course, but given the modest terms in which he couches his assertions (“I don’t know whether” and “I suspect”) I see no reason to shoot them down without serious consideration.

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      If liberalism can’t be sustained without belief in God, then perforce, over time belief in God leads to more liberal societies.

      I see very good reason to shoot down his claim given that there’s no evidence for a god, much less the Christian god. As Hitchens said, that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. So I dismiss his claim–unless one is foolish enough to suggest that you should believe in gods without evidence simply because it’s good for society.

      Until you provide evidence for the existence of the Christian god, I simply can’t listen to any claims that it must be infused into liberalism. It’s already clear that liberalism unaccompanied by belief in god is sustainable, as we see in Scandinavia, so Sullivan’s question is answered with a firm “yes.”

      • Posted September 5, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        “I simply can’t listen to any claims that [religion] must be infused into liberalism.”

        Given that the founding ideas of liberalism per Locke et al. (human equality based on the proposition that we are all created in the image of God; innate rights of conscience that are sacred and can’t be coerced by church or state; impartial justice—essentially “Do unto others”—as the cornerstone of any democratic society) are all tinted (some would say “tainted”) by the brush of religion, the issue Sullivan raises is not so much whether religion should be “infused into” liberalism but what happens when religion is extracted from liberalism. Scandinavia notwithstanding, it’s really too early to tell.

        • Posted September 6, 2020 at 4:22 am | Permalink

          Nope, it’s not too early to tell. Religion is disappearing from the West and the West is getting more moral. There’s no doubt that liberalism is sustainable without religion. It had better be since if liberalism rests on positing a nonexistent being, it would be doomed.

        • GBJames
          Posted September 6, 2020 at 8:39 am | Permalink

          Gary, these arguments have been debunked so many times that I’m amazed you would trot them out here. The fact that the Enlightenment developed in countries that were religious offers no support at all. What else would it develop as a reaction to? Do you also credit slavery for the development of the Civil Rights Movement?

          And “do unto others” is such a basic moral precept that it almost certainly existed before organized religion developed. Religious thought systems that absorb and “infuse” generic human moral attitudes can’t be credited for creating them.

          Lordy, this is tiresome.

          • GEORGE SEPSO
            Posted September 6, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            Done told y’all already bout Sullivan. Ain’t nobody more obfuscat’n than him—less’nd it be David Bentley Hart (that ole’ boy shaw got some learn’n under his belt)….Sorry, started my Labor Day partying way too early. Just prepping for my encounter with Alabama relatives tomorrow.

  16. FB
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I support a reinvented Christian faith that makes the religious indoctrination of children a capital sin, but I don’t know whether Christianity can survive that.

  17. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Maybe Andrew refuses to engage with your argument because he can’t produce any evidence to counter them. His only basis for the need for a “Christian reboot” is his own faith — which pretty much by definition is not in need of evidence for support, for it here was evidence, belief would no longer be based on faith but on that evidence.

  18. Posted September 6, 2020 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    Top notch reposte professor. A.S’s religiosity is odious and irritating on a generational, galactic scale. For a smart guy he gets some things spectacularly wrong – (ever heard him on marijuana? Sheesh! Pass me my joint!)

    The arguments you make are similar to mine when faced with religious people and/or nutters. I live in Manhattan so that is rare, (we have bridges and tunnels to keep that stuff out), but online occasionally.

    The palliative argument is maybe true but it is kind of a chicken or egg question I think. Religion soothes them AND oppresses them, fomenting ignorance and dangerous magical thinking.

    I often use Japan as an example of the Scandinavian/Australian atheist experience regards the toxic monotheisms (the WORST of magical thinking – worse than the rather benign Buddhism or Shinto). Japan “works” exceedingly well I believe as a RESULT of no monotheism. Confession: I am a Japanophile, former resident of Tokyo and Japanese speaker.

    I also point out the other end – the poverty and misery of *pious* countries; Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, Rwanda (the most Catholic country in Africa according to Hitch, a fact that checks out).

    David Anderson, J.D., NYC
    (formerly of Shinjuku, Tokyo)


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