Tish Harrison Warren hangs it up at the NYT

August 6, 2023 • 1:00 pm

It’s been a year since the NYT has been publishing Sunday columns on religion by the Anglican minister Tish Harrison Warren. She seems like a nice person, and is a compassionate rather than a hard-line Christian, but still, week after week, I was forced to read her lucubrations about what I see as society’s religious delusions. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t ignore them: it’s the laws of physics.) A column on God each week is like a column on Bigfoot: we’re supposed to take seriously something that doesn’t exist.  Sure, you can draw moral lessons from God if you want, but too often Warren’s moral lessons tallied more with secular humanism than with Christianity.

She says her farewells, none too soon, in the piece below (click to read):

At first I thought she’d signed on for a year—as it’s been about that long—and her contract had expired. But she says instead that she decided to stop writing, and gives her reasons. Did the Times gently nudge her out the door? Who knows, but I won’t miss her. Now can we have a secular humanist or an atheist for the next year?


For this and many other reasons, it was a tough decision to leave. And as with any tough decision, my reasons are varied and complex, but one is that writing publicly about God each week can do a number on one’s soul. Thomas Wingfold, a character in a novel by the Scottish minister and poet George MacDonald, said, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” Holy things, sacred topics, spiritual ideas, I believe, have power. Dealing with them is a privilege and a joy, but habitually dealing with the outside of them is inherently dangerous.

The “outsides” of holy things, to me, describes the difference between speaking about divine or sacred things and encountering the divine or the sacred directly. To be sure, we need more and better religious discourse in America. In my very first newsletter for The Times, I wrote that “we need to start talking about God,” and I still believe that. I believe that religion and, more broadly, the biggest questions in life are the driving forces behind much that is beautiful, divisive, unifying, controversial and perplexing about our culture and society.

And also behind much that is divisive and bad!  But why talk about the good of religion when you can’t even prove that God exists? Why not just talk about ethics? The thing is, Warren’s columns, without her dragging in her deity, were often mawkish laden with bromides. She was the Krista Tippett of the New York Times. Nobody would be given such a column unless there was a religious angle to it (Tippett also got her start on an NPR show called “On Faith”).

In her peroration she once again tries to imbue us with the power of faith:

We become like Linus in the old “Peanuts” cartoons who famously said: “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” True community, however, is made of real people with names, of friends with true faults, of congregations with faces, of the local, the small. Don’t get me wrong: Global and national news is important and I will continue to read news and opinion pieces nearly every day. But for me, as for most of us, the places we meet God — the places we become human — are not primarily in abstract debates about culture wars or the role of religion in society, but in worship on a Sunday morning or in dropping off soup for a grieving friend, in a vulnerable conversation or in making breakfast at the homeless shelter down the street, in celebration with a neighbor or in the drowsy prayers uttered while rocking a feverish toddler in the middle of the night.

I used to work in a soup kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, but I never met God. But I did meet Milton, a 90-year-old man who told me, over Thanksgiving dinner, how he used to wait to see Billie Holiday outside the jazz clubs that used to line the area. And that’s what kindled my investigation of jazz that became a passion. I’d say that’s better than meeting God any day, for at least Milton was real.

20 thoughts on “Tish Harrison Warren hangs it up at the NYT

  1. Don’t ask me why I didn’t ignore them: it’s the laws of physics.

    I really do think you should give more credit to the conditions in the universe (past, present, or future conditions – any spacelike hypersurface covering the relevant light cone will probably do). The laws can’t do it all by themselves; actual matter and energy are vital too.

    But, on topic, I also won’t miss Warren. Luckily I felt no compulsion to read her. Even in your posts, I’d mostly skip her words and just read your reaction.

    1. I probably would read them too, if I had a subscription. I suppose my mental process would be “I know I’m going to strongly disagree, but I need to know why I’m about to disagree, so (*sigh*) let’s get it over with.”

    1. I don’t think the oppressed and murdered women of Iran or Afghanistan love it, nor do the many gays who suffer because they are demonized in Muslim countries, and so on and so on and so on.

      It’s annoying not only because it’s dangerous and divisive, but its empirical beliefs are false. You love a delusion.

      1. To which, I’m sure, Lisa would reply “But that’s not my religion.” And that’s the rub, isn’t it? If one is wrong, then the others are all suspect. While it bothers me that religions make people (even good people—thank you, Steven Weinberg) do bad things, the main issue that has to be faced is that it is wrong. One decides, perhaps at an unconscious level, to put complete faith in something not only unproven, but very likely incorrect. This is an error, and a serious one. I can sort of see saying “I love it, myself” in the sense that I say that about opera or curries, but those things are opinion, a matter of taste only. I do not, in saying such things, make claims about basic truths that by definition must be true for everyone. I doubt Lisa would say she loves any religion other than her own, and if she does, well, she’s loving the effects of belief and mysticism, not making a truth claim.
        I hope she engages further with us: we may lead her into the light!

    2. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but that really is a silly and meaningless comment. The dissing of religion has obviously raised your hackles a little, and in reply you’ve offered a contrarian opinion intended to raise hackles in return.

      So, what exactly do you like about it? And what religion, or religions, are you talking about? Jonestown cool-aid drinkers? Scientologists? ISIS? Anabaptists of Munster? Taliban? The Norse mythology of the Æsir?

      You may as well say: “I’m sorry fire is so annoying to people. I love it myself!” Well, so what? What exactly do you love about fire? That it can provide warmth for cooking and heating, or can keep dangerous predators away from camp? Or do you enjoy the destructive power of fire that enables torture and burning of heretics? Or maybe it’s the village burning properties of fire that the Nazis put to use in 1941?

      I was in the far SE Mediterranean last week. The weather was horrendous – max temps were in the mid 40’s celsius and I couldn’t bear to be outside. The local population was mostly Muslim, and every male was dressed sensibly in light in shorts and a t-shirt. However, every Muslim woman was cloaked head-to-toe, and clavicle to wrist in thick black cloth and all were sweating profusely. I felt so sorry for the women for having to put up with that rubbish, and so mad at the men for enforcing it on them. Those women had no ability to choose their clothing, but the men wore whatever they wanted.

      It did occur to me that if you wanted to devise a way to keep your lady folk at home while you are not around, religion is your best bet. If you tell them they must ALWAYS wear the long clothing when they leave the house, it pretty much ensures they’ll stay at home all summer.

  2. It’s not like Bigfoot because the vast majority DO believe in religion. Whether this social phenomenon is delusional (yes) or not, it pervades society, and it is therefore useful to understand it.

  3. “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.” Sounds to me like she has basically an emotional approach to her faith, rather than an intellectual understanding of what it’s about and what it entails. And therefore she has a hard time in trying to rationalise aspects of her faith in a public journal week by week.

    And that failure is one of the reasons for the steady decline of faith among people who can still think for themselves.

    1. “…she has basically an emotional approach to her faith…” This points to what I consider to be the only honest reason to profess belief in any religion in this day and age, viz., fideism, or “credo quia consolans.” But admitting fideism is also admitting that religious beliefs cannot be used to determine or inform public policy.

      1. “But admitting fideism is also admitting that religious beliefs cannot be used to determine or inform public policy.”

        Can you let SCOTUS know? I think a few of them need a refresher course…

  4. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t ignore them: it’s the laws of physics.)

    No need to explain, boss; a little light masochism is some people’s kink. 🙂

  5. Good riddance! I never read her column and am thankful for CCE for packaging the horror for us!

  6. Sorry to disagree but to me any Brahms composition beats a Brandenburg concerto anytime….the second piano concerto even more so. Anyway, there’s no accounting for taste…..Bach was a great composer, admittedly. But in my CD stash it is Brahms all the way down (like those turtles William James referred to). For Bach it is the St. Matthew Passion that triumphs in his repertoire.

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