Andrew Sullivan is a semi-pious Catholic who has been reluctant to specify exactly what tenets of Catholicism he embraces. It’s certain that he’s not a Biblical creationist, as he insisted when we famously crossed swords ten years ago. When I maintained that the creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 were taken literally by the early Catholic theologians, and are still embraced by many Catholics today, he resorted to invective and obscenity in attacking my claim:
There’s no evidence that the Garden of Eden was always regarded as figurative? Really? Has Coyne read the fucking thing? I defy anyone with a brain (or who hasn’t had his brain turned off by fundamentalism) to think it’s meant literally. It’s obviously meant metaphorically. It screams parable. Ross [Douthat] sees the exchange as saying something significant about the atheist mindset – and I largely agree with everything he says, except his definition of “fundamentalist” doesn’t seem to extend much past Pat Robertson. It certainly makes me want to take Jerry Coyne’s arguments less seriously. Someone this opposed to religion ought to have a modicum of education about it. The Dish, if you recall, had a long thread on this subject in August. No one was as dumb as Coyne.
Well, it was Sullivan who put his foot in his mouth, for all the early Church Fathers, including Aquinas and Augustine, believed that the Genesis creation story was literally true, and about 40% of Americans continue to do so today. Even among Catholics creationism is widespread. Although the Vatican formally has no objections to evolution, many Catholics do. As I wrote in a 2012 paper in Evolution:
27% of American Catholics think that modern species were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since, while 8% do not know or refuse to answer (Masci 2009)
Since then I’ve queried Sullivan about what he really believes as a Catholic. Was Jesus the Son of God? Did Jesus perform miracles? Was he resurrected? Sullivan has never, as far as I know, laid out what he believes, which is very odd for a believer, especially an intellectual one. But we can be sure he doesn’t think that homosexual acts are a “grave sin” that doom one to hell if unconfessed, for Sullivan is gay.
In this week’s column, Sullivan is back to osculating religion again, and repeating his belief that America would fall apart without Abrahamic religion. Click on the screenshot to read the osculation.
After a year of missing Mass because of the pandemic, Sullivan forced himself out of bed of a Sunday and went to Washington’s National Cathedral. Given his animus towards the Catholic Church’s attitude towards gays, and his hatred of its pervasive sex abuse of children, one wonders why Sullivan goes to Mass at all.
My first guess was that he liked the ceremonies, songs, and sermons, which satisfies some need for ritual and spirituality. And indeed, that’s a big part of it:
. . . The one thing Catholicism teaches the bored and distracted church-goer is that your own mood doesn’t really matter. The consecration will happen regardless. Your inspiration is not the point. And what makes this all cohere somehow is physical, communal ritual — and that, I realize, is what I really miss.
I miss the silent genuflection; the chanting in unison with others; the simple standing up and kneeling down and standing up again. I miss the messy democracy of the communion line, and the faces I recognize from decades in my parish, and the faces I don’t. I miss enacting something ineffable with my body, using words I never chose myself, and using them uniquely in this space. I miss the irrational, collective order of it all. I miss the liberation of submission to something far larger than myself.
Well I won’t denigrate the man for wanting some kind of ritual, though he does admit it’s “irrational”. Why irrational, though? Because the significance of the ritual lies in submitting himself “to something far larger than myself.” And by “larger,” you can bet he doesn’t mean “a big crowd of people.” No, he means God. And since there’s no evidence for a God, he’s submitting himself to a phantom.
I’m always baffled when a smart person, especially a journalist, believes not just in a god, but in the dictates of a particular Church. And, indeed, Sullivan finally admits that he believes some of the tenets of Catholicism:
And, beneath all this, only poking above ground every now and again, I miss the weekly reminder of what I deeply believe within the folds of my consciousness: the command of universal love; the fact of life after death; the radical truth of experiential mystery; and the centrality of the Gospels to eternity. Many atheist or agnostic friends sometimes ask me how they too can have a leap of faith. And the truth is I have no idea. I have never leapt anywhere. I have trudged, stumbled, meandered, persisted, and resisted all my life. But to have one part of my existence directed to the timeless and the mysterious just once a week all my life has given me something priceless.
Here he sets himself apart from Jews and Hindus, and many other believers, by affirming that he does belief in life hereafter and the importance of the Gospels. Further, he has no idea at all why he believes what he does. There was apparently something about Catholicism that resonated with him. (I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that he was brought up Catholic.)
Well, I’m not going to tell Sullivan that he’s basing his priceless feelings on a delusion, but I can say it here. Is it wrong to condition your beliefs and actions on a religion whose tenets have no empirical support? Yes, of course. Would Sullivan still go to Mass if he didn’t think there was a god or an afterlife? Indeed, the Bayesian analysis of a theistic god surely militates strongly against one, so he’s worshiping something that probably doesn’t exist. Nevertheless he feels it exists, and therefore predicates his life on it—a very odd attitude for a journalist who relies on facts.
Well, maybe I’m being too hard on the man, trying to argue that what brings him solace is fictional. After all, it does bring him solace:
I couldn’t say exactly how this counter-rational aspect of my life affects the rest of me, but it definitely stabilizes things. It gives perspective. It makes the awfulness of the world less intolerable, it momentarily breaks what Michael Oakeshott called “the deadliness of doing”.
It is good to get out of the addled brain for a while, to live in the soul and the body alone. And I wish I were better able to convey how life-giving this is.
I see the calm it gives others too: the repetition of little acts, the recitation of the same words, the unity that such rituals can give a life over the decades. I saw it in my Irish grandmother — rattling through the Rosary like a freight train.
It’s not our brief to tell Sullivan to stop believing in a lie, but it’s perfectly fine to write it here.
As his article winds down, Sullivan argues that one of the benefits of “true” religion—presumably his brand of religion—is that the need for meaning isn’t co-opted into other forms that are harmful. He specifically mentions the fusion of Republicanism with Evangelical Christianity, as well as “wokeness”, which he—and John McWhorter—consider a distortion of religion. Unfortunately, Sullivan characterizes wokeness this way:
. . . .a profoundly atheist view of the world as merely the arrangement of power structures.
I’m not sure how he sees atheism as essential to wokeness, and it’s certain that many of the Woke are religious. But showing the supposed problems with alternatives to religion is the way Sullivan finds reassurance in his belief.
But what I can’t cut him slack for is what he says at the end of his piece: that America would be the worse if it gave up “humble” faith:
These pseudo-religions will fail. They are too worldly, too rooted in contemporary culture wars, too baldly tribal, and too shallow in their understanding of the world to have much staying power. But they can do immense damage to souls and our society in the meantime. They lack the one thing that endures in religious practice: something transcendent that makes the failure in our lives redemptive, and sees politics merely as the necessary art of attending to the imperfect.
It took centuries for Christianity to begin to model that kind of humility and conviction, and to reject earthly power as a distraction from what really matters, what really lasts. And it would be a terrible shame if America threw that glorious inheritance away.
I’d ask him, as I did in an email for his “dissents” section (a comment he never published), how the atheistic countries of Scandinavia and Northern Europe manage to thrive having abandoned their “glorious inheritance of religion”. How do those nonbelievers manage to find solace? And not just that—they’ve constructed governments and societies that in many ways are more humane and moral than America’s.
And that’s my Easter homily.