Andrew Sullivan: the bad (atheism-bashing and religion-osculation) and the good (seeing American ideologies as religions)

Several people sent me links to Andrew Sullivan’s latest column in New York magazine (click on screenshot below). The curious thing is that half the senders thought the article was great while the other half despised it.  After reading it (it’s long, but read it anyway), I can see why. His opening attacks on atheism as a dysfunctional religion are deeply misguided, but his criticism of both Right and Left extremist ideologies as religions is trenchant and on the mark. And the last bit, where Sullivan talks about the new Churchill movie Darkest Hour, shows Sullivan at his best, a thoughtful person and a writer who can be moving.

I used to get into fracases with Sullivan, and it was always over religion. Now that he writes less about it and more about politics—in which he’s moving left towards becoming a centrist—I like him better and read him more often. But his reversion to atheist-bashing is simply, as Wayne and Garth would say, “heinous.” In my view, Sullivan gets atheism almost completely wrong.  I’ll put up some excerpts (indented) and my take on them (flush left).

Sullivan starts off badly:

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion. Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God, and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer. (There’s a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God.)

Note the link in the first sentence, which doesn’t at all show that religion is “in our genes”—whatever that means. We don’t know of any “God genes”, and if by “religion genes” Sullivan means either “we like to look for greater meanings” or even “we have a tendency to accept the delusions of our elders,” well, yes, that’s probably true. But if religion is in our genes, how come so many people don’t express it? Or have those “genes” been selected out of the population of northern Europe?

But Sullivan claims that there aren’t really atheists: all of us, churchgoers or nonbelievers, he argues, are fundamentally religious. There are many responses. First, we atheists don’t deny God as absolutely as others believe in gods. Most atheists simply reject the notion of God because there is no evidence for one. Many of us, including the scientifically minded, reject God in the way we reject the Loch Ness Monster: there could have been evidence for both creatures, but none has shown up. There is evidence that could surface that would convince many of us—I am one, Carl Sagan was another—that a divine being existed. But we haven’t seen any such evidence. In contrast, for many believers there is no evidence that would dispel their notion of God. If evolution, the Holocaust, and the persistence of evil and physical disasters didn’t do it, then nothing will.

Nor does atheism entail a set of values to live by. Many of us become humanists, realizing that because there’s nobody Up in the Sky, our best bet is to live our lives helping fellow humans and other creatures. But not all atheists are humanists; some are Republicans.  The fundamental difference between atheists and believers is that the former don’t accept the existence of the supernatural or the truth claims of established religions. If religion is construed, as Dan Dennett sees it, as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” then no, atheists aren’t religious at all.

As for Buddhism, well, the forms embraced by atheists are philosophies rather than religions, since they don’t deal with the supernatural. And that philosophy can provide quietude in your life and a way, as Yeats wrote, to cast a cold eye on life and on death. I know that’s the way Sam sees it, but I can’t speak for Robert Wright—nor would I want to.

I’ll pass charitably over Sullivan’s praise of John Gray’s latest atheist-bashing book, and show Sullivan’s disdain for progress and science, at least as substitutes for religion (which they aren’t):

[Religion] exists because we humans are the only species, so far as we can know, who have evolved to know explicitly that, one day in the future, we will die. And this existential fact requires some way of reconciling us to it while we are alive.

This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live, or what life is about; it can provide hypotheses and tentative explanations, but no ultimate meaning. Art can provide an escape from the deadliness of our daily doing, but, again, appreciating great art or music is ultimately an act of wonder and contemplation, and has almost nothing to say about morality and life.

Well, yes, surely some religions are in place because of our knowledge of mortality, but not all religions posit an afterlife (many Jews, for instance, reject that notion).  And Bulletin to Andrew: we don’t see science as a replacement for religion, at least not most atheists. We like science, we enjoy learning about it, and it even provides some awe—”spirituality,” if you will. But it’s not the supernatural, we don’t take it as absolute truth, and it offers no moral guides. The substitute for the bogus morality pushed by religion is not science, but secular morality and humanism. Those involve reason, not the diktats of the big guy upstairs.  As far as giving us “meaning,” yes, religions do, but different faiths give us different meanings, and a given faith can mean different things to different people. To many Catholics, abortion is murder and homosexuality a sin; the more liberal Sullivan rejects these notions.

And what is ultimate meaning, anyway? One of the most popular posts I put up was a short one asking readers “What’s your meaning and purpose?” There are 373 comments, and, as I recall, most people say that this is either a meaningless question or that we rationalize our “meaning and purpose” by elevating the things we simply like to do to that noble three-word phrase.

As for “ultimate” meaning, well, that’s a notion that’s intimately connected with God, and so the question answers itself—and wrongly. With no evidence of a God, there’s no use asking for an ultimate meaning and purpose. All we can do is answer that for ourselves but not others.

Sullivan continues, going after Hitchens:

Ditto history. My late friend, Christopher Hitchens, with a certain glee, gave me a copy of his book, God Is Not Great, a fabulous grab bag of religious insanity and evil over time, which I enjoyed immensely and agreed with almost entirely. But the fact that religion has been so often abused for nefarious purposes — from burning people at the stake to enabling child rape to crashing airplanes into towers — does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true. It is perfectly possible to see and record the absurdities and abuses of man-made institutions and rituals, especially religious ones, while embracing a way of life that these evil or deluded people preached but didn’t practice. Fanaticism is not synonymous with faith; it is merely faith at its worst. That’s what I told Hitch: great book, made no difference to my understanding of my own faith or anyone else’s. Sorry, old bean, but try again.

Note the bit where Sullivan says that God is Not Great “does not resolve the question of whether the meaning of that religion is true.” What, exactly, does he mean by “meaning”? If he means “the factual claims about gods and prophets made by Scripture,” then yes, Hitchens’s book makes hash of those. If he means “how I interpret and accept the morality that comes from religion?”, then that is not a true-or-false question, since there is no objective morality. Morals are a result of preference—preference for what kind of world we want, combined with some empirical evidence for how to achieve that world. Science doesn’t give us morality, nor does it purport to. Its purpose is to understand the world, not to change it. (That’s what technology is for.)

And Hitchens’s book should certainly have caused Sullivan to at least question what he believes. Does he think Jesus was not just based on a real person, but was really God’s son? And that said Jesus was crucified and resurrected? What about the other claims of Catholicism? If Sullivan doesn’t accept those claims, why is he still a Catholic? Does he like the music and incense? Because for sure, Catholicism is about the least gay-friendly faith going, and Sullivan is gay.

Then, like Gray, Sullivan bashes progressivism, conflating it with material well being and neglecting the moral progressivism that is largely the subject of Steve Pinker’s last two books. In fact, Sullivan construes Pinker as being deeply religious!

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.

I’ve addressed the notion of “faith in reason” before, and rejected it. As I wrote in Slate:

What about faith in reason? Wrong again. Reason—the habit of being critical, logical, and of learning from experience—is not an a priori assumption but a tool that’s been shown to work. It’s what produced antibiotics, computers, and our ability to sequence DNA. We don’t have faith in reason; we use reason because, unlike revelation, it produces results and understanding. Even discussing why we should use reason employs reason!

I won’t reproduce Sullivan’s attack on materialism (he mentions kale, Netflix, and Pilates), though of course Sullivan is a member of the liberal elite (well, “centrist elite”) that he decries so loudly:

And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in — and you have to look at what they do most fervently — you discover, in John Gray’s mordant view of Mill, that they do, in fact, have “an orthodoxy — the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”

That is not “faith” in the sense of “faith in Catholicism”—not by a long shot.  The “belief in improvement” is simply a hope and a wish that the world gets better, and even Sullivan surely adheres to that. It’s not “unthinking” by any means. The belief in progress is simply confidence that the exercise of reason will improve things. As I said, reason is neither faith nor religion.

I don’t know why Sullivan got things so badly balled up here, but I was saddened to see him make the same mistakes as so many less thoughtful atheist-bashers. But of course Sullivan is a Catholic, and that surely played a role in his polemic. “Give me the boy. . .  .” said the Jesuits.

So that’s the bad bit. Sullivan improves dramatically when he compares both the Far Right and the Authoritarian left to religions, but I’ll let you read that for yourself. One teaser:

Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

For many, especially the young, discovering a new meaning in the midst of the fallen world is thrilling. And social-justice ideology does everything a religion should. It offers an account of the whole: that human life and society and any kind of truth must be seen entirely as a function of social power structures, in which various groups have spent all of human existence oppressing other groups. And it provides a set of practices to resist and reverse this interlocking web of oppression — from regulating the workplace and policing the classroom to checking your own sin and even seeking to control language itself. I think of non-PC gaffes as the equivalent of old swear words. Like the puritans who were agape when someone said “goddamn,” the new faithful are scandalized when someone says something “problematic.” Another commonality of the zealot then and now: humorlessness.

And so the young adherents of the Great Awokening exhibit the zeal of the Great Awakening. Like early modern Christians, they punish heresy by banishing sinners from society or coercing them to public demonstrations of shame, and provide an avenue for redemption in the form of a thorough public confession of sin. “Social justice” theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin. A Christian is born again; an activist gets woke. To the belief in human progress unfolding through history — itself a remnant of Christian eschatology — it adds the Leninist twist of a cadre of heroes who jump-start the revolution.

After vetting some of the proposed Democratic Presidential candidates for the 2020 election, Sullivan recounts how he teared up when he saw the movie Darkest Hour, which I also liked (Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Churchill). Here Sullivan’s writing is excellent and positively elegiac:

Why had my response been so intense, I asked myself when my bout of blubbering had finally subsided? Part of it, of course, is my still-lingering love of the island I grew up in; part is my love of Churchill himself, in all his flaws and greatness. But I think it was mainly about how the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure seized the moment.

And I realized how profoundly I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to delegitimizing this country and entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.

I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?

Good writing and a great final question—one that only time will answer.

Andrew, O Andrew, pray give up your foolish faith and join the Reasoning Heathens!

108 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I find the claim that religion is fueled by the realization that we will someday die to be laughable. Most people do not consider their own mortality, other than in the event of a near-miss accident or other, until they are quite old. I had no fear of death and still do not. I, like Woody Allen, am not anticipating with glee the “dying” or painful part, but death is just an ordinary fact of life.

    And how does a fairy tale (that we live again after we die) that has no basis in reality help with that? (Quiet please, I am savoring my delusion. Be respectful.)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      As the Woodman once quipped, “I do not wish to achieve immortality in my work; I wish to achieve immortality by never dying.”

  3. Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    It’s notable how often those defending religion (or God) do so by making “religion” mean something other than “religion” (or “God” mean something other than “God”).

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      That puts it *very* succinctly.
      +1

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, when you do that and then tell atheists that they aren’t atheists, you are behaving like an arrogant Oprah.

      • Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        “Arrogant Oprah” is redundant.

        • Posted December 10, 2018 at 12:00 am | Permalink

          +1. Contemplating Oprah as President scared me almost as much as Trump.

          • Posted December 10, 2018 at 1:50 am | Permalink

            But at her inauguration, Oprah would leave gifts under everyone’s seats.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 10, 2018 at 7:32 am | Permalink

              😎

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    Frankly, I think the yearning for a great leader is part of the problem. We expect someone to come and make it better, and to fix things. Our contitutional structure makes that an impossible task for a single man (and rightly so). At the same time, though, we are too prone to invest too much hope into a single person, and are unwilling to admit their mistakes and limitations. This, of course, is not merely true of Presidents, but also of other elected officials. The reactions to various Congrssional candidates in this election cycle showed the same symptoms. We expect too much from government. We must stop looking for great, and look for good.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      I, too, thought “Darkest Hour” worth ruminating on.

      There is the old slogan, “Fascism means war”. Any glance at Hitler’s book will confirm that. Yet the war was there to install the slave economies and totalitarian empire state which was the Nazi ideal. It is by no means clear that Churchill’s refusal to submit was historically inevitable. There is no reason to believe that the comforting adage, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is necessarily true. One hesitates to compare every instance of horror with Nazism, but we can say that Ba’athism means mass-murder of one’s own people plus as a client state the submission to, and complicity of, the USSR or Russia. That experiment has been run twice, in Iraq and Syria. In only one case did a man – or even any international organization – cometh in time to halt the atrocities.

      “Darkest Hour” teaches the capriciousness of history. The dice are cast and it is a matter of chance how they fall. Take the pivotal battle in the Pacific theatre, the Battle of Midway. The Americans won largely because of the inferiority of Japanese radar. Yet, German radar was as good as that of the US and UK: had the Germans and Japanese shared the technology, it is likely that the eastern Pacific rim and the hinterland would have been enslaved by the Japanese Empire for many more years. This looks like the arbitrary failure of Hitler and Tojo to coordinate their technologies and self-interests. Luck, in other words.

      You can play the game further. Imagine if the UK and Hitler had come to an agreement in May 1940. Hitler would have been free to invade the Soviet Union without diverting resources against an attack from the west, and the Japanese could have resumed their war against the U.S.S.R coming from the East to ensnare the Russians in that huge pincer movement. And all the northern latitudes of the Eurasian landmass could have been under Axis control by, say, the end of 1942, with no prospect of a second front opening up from the Atlantic against the totalitarian states. Britain would eventually have fallen as the sole potential problem for thousands of miles, the southern Asian landmass would have submitted to Japan, and the U.S.A. would have been left as an island of democracy fortifying its western coast against the Japanese Navy.

      Perhaps it is too much to assert that the decision by Churchill and the majority of Parliament to continue defying Hitler turned the war but it does look like it was a necessary but not sufficient condition. War films, from Midway to Star Wars are usually tedious affairs: Darkest Hour is an intelligent attempt to analyse a crucial decision.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

        It was also a matter of luck that the US carrier fleet was off on maneuvers on Dec. 7, 1941, and, thus, spared the carnage of the attack on Pearl Harbor — and, consequently, still in existence so as to fight at Midway.

        • Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

          I have heard many people say that those maneuvers were, by far, the luckiest circumstance of that terrible attack.
          When the war was over and we realized the fundamental importance of that absence, I could afford to joke that the real reason for the three aircraft carriers preferring the open sea over Pearl Harbor was an exhibition to celebrate my 10th birthday.
          I was born on December 7, 1931 indeed.

          • Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

            They were lucky, but this omits the sped-up production of U.S. warships, airplanes and aircraft carriers between December ’41 & Midway: that was not luck, that was planned. The Americans also had better procedures in place for when their carriers got hit: they could recover quicker than the Japanese carriers & get their planes back up quicker.

            Basically, the Japanese knew too late where the Americans were, as their radar was inferior & their communications – hence intentions – were intercepted by the Yankee nerds, & their ships recovered from setbacks relatively sluggishly.

            • rickflick
              Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

              Another advantage for the US was the Navajo code talkers communications system. The Japanese had no clue.

            • Posted December 11, 2018 at 1:16 am | Permalink

              I remember hearing that fire control on US ships was a huge advantage over the Japanese.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Sullivan’s premise that “religion” can take many secular forms isn’t particularly novel. It was the premise of much of Tom Wolfe’s early New Journalism in the Sixties, in which he explored the religion-like aspects of several American subcultures, from hot-rod car aficionados (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) to surfers (The Pump House Gang) to ur-hippies (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

    To the extent there’s an innate religious impulse among humans, I think it’s related to the innate human drive to experience altered consciousness — a drive from which one can abstain (as one can abstain from the sex drive or, temporarily, from the hunger and thirst drives) but which seems to be near-universal across cultures. This, too, was covered some time ago, by Andrew Weil (back before he devolved into a Deepak-like figure) in his book, The Natural Mind.

    • Christopher
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Reading Oliver Sacks, specifically Migraine and Hallucinations, I’m pretty convinced that much of humanity’s religious belief is due not to any “god gene” but to the brain malfunctioning in fairly predictable ways, along with our ability to misinterpret things. Add psilocybin or LSD or some basic stressors (lack of food and sleep) and you’ve got yourself a nice little god experience to build a church on.

    • Historian
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      Yes, the premise that religion can take secular form is not new. This took place at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century in the forms of Marxism and Social Darwinism. It does seem that some people (what percentage I don’t know, but it is probably very high) require an infallible guide to living to achieve psychological peace. If religion doesn’t do the trick then secular ideologies can serve the purpose.

  6. DrDroid
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Brilliant! As I read Sullivan’s post I thought “this deserves a response”, and here it is. I like Andrew, I really do. He can write with such eloquence, his writings on politics are usually spot on, and he does not toe the line on the dogma of any political tribe. It is only on the subject of religion that he loses his ability to think clearly. No doubt this is a result of his Catholicism, which causes him to long for an “absolute” morality. Unfortunately, moralities built on religious dogma and holy books backed by no evidence are often downright scary, a fact which he needs to spend more time contemplating.

  7. Claudia Baker
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    “You cannot argue logically with a religion”

    Well, he’s got that right. Including your religion Sullivan.

  8. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Maybe Sullivan spends too much time defining others and less time on himself. As a life long atheist I have a very good idea of why I am but if asked to explain why religious people are what they are, I am pretty limited. Having never been one makes a difference. He gets it wrong when he says atheists are religious or that it is a religion. It is just like saying bald is a color.

    I would much rather have him explain why truly religious people can do such bad things or be talked into following other really bad people while having this strong religion. Pence to Trump comes to mind. Who wants to explain that one?

    To put Churchill on too high a pedestal from the movie Darkest Hour is easy to do and is also incomplete. Yes he did great things at this particular time but we can also say it was Churchill’s finest hour and all to come were not always so fine.

  9. Historian
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    There is much that one can dissect in Sullivan’s extended piece. I will focus on his characterization of Pinker as deeply religious in the sense that he has “faith” in reason because he worships at “the banality of the god of progress.” Sullivan argues that “the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. “

    These views articulate Sullivan’s inherent conservatism: material progress does not give true “meaning” to one’s life. Sullivan argues that the lack of meaning in life, some inner void in people’s lives, allow the rise of demagogues such as Trump who promise to fill the void. He argues that “religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults.” In other words, Sullivan seems to believe that the modern world, enthusiastically endorsed by Pinker, has resulted in the jettisoning of a world where people found meaning through religion, specifically Christianity. Sullivan seems to imply the wonders of the modern world in such realms as health and sanitation are not worth the cost. This is what Sullivan believes has been lost by the decline of “real” Christianity, i.e., Christianity has Sullivan defines it:

    “It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power. It was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project, thus renewing it. It was on these foundations that liberalism was built, and it is by these foundations it has endured. The question we face in contemporary times is whether a political system built upon such a religion can endure when belief in that religion has become a shadow of its future self. “

    Although Sullivan may have moved more to the center in regard to certain political issues, at his core he is a philosophical conservative: he doesn’t like the tenets of the modern world. He doesn’t seem to believe in the possibility that the wonders of the modern world can be reconciled in a world where people feel they live lives of meaning. It would have been useful if Sullivan devoted more space to elaborating on what he conceives a life of meaning to be. In any case, I differ from Sullivan in that I think the modern world, created by fetishizing individual selfishness, can be reconciled with individual meaning. The dominance of traditional religions, such as Christianity, need not be included.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      Characteristically, Historian, this is a probing essay. I’ll simply make a comment or two on the penultimate paragraph, where you quote at some length from Sullivan’s piece.

      Six assertions regarding Christianity’s positive role in Western history come tumbling one after another. But are any of these true? I find every one doubtful at best. Yet Sullivan is far from alone in using this rhetorical/logical ploy in Christian apologetics–that of assuming the truth of assertions that must be first be argued. . . but won’t be (the ‘cardinal’ one being that god exists). The irony of the first of these–’It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective’–should be painfully self-indicting to a Roman Catholic who authors such a thing in 2018.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        “It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights.”
        Gay Marriage.

        “It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown.”
        Spanish Inquisition.

        “Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar”
        Evangelical Right.

        Claiming that there is some good in Christianity is not a reason to adopt Christianity; it is a reason to examine it, to find the good in it, to separate the good from the abundant chaff, and then to make use of the good.

        • Robert Bray
          Posted December 9, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure what you’re propounding here. Your three examples from Sullivan (with glosses) appear to endorse my post; yet your conclusion points the other way. I would only say that what you call ‘chaff’ in Christianity has been, and is, poisonous to progressive society. And where is the kernel (of truth) when the grain is winnowed and the mountains of chaff set afire?

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 9, 2018 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

          The Evangelical Right now worships the golden calf who sits at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

        • rickflick
          Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

          “separate the good from the abundant chaff”

          Amen.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Well put. I wonder how Sullivan would characterize the ideal society. Would he be content to live in a primitive (to us) society where there was no interest in what we know as progress?

      • rickflick
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        It he claims “health and sanitation are not worth the cost”, then there would be a lot less of humanity to enjoy his ideal society.

  10. Claudia Baker
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    “a photo of him pretending to grab a fellow USO entertainer’s boobs”

    This, from the segment where Sullivan talks about Al Franken. Please! Don’t refer to women’s breasts as “boobs”. It’s juvenile and insulting. I know some women do it too and it’s just as annoying. It’s not respectful of our bodies and Sullivan using this word knocks him down a few more notches in my estimation. Grow up Sullivan.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      I believe the windmill you wish to tilt with is over that way.

      • Claudia Baker
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Sullivan often has a misogynistic undertone. Right in keeping with his dearly-held catholic beliefs. So, no, not tilting at windmills. And I wonder why you choose to be rude in your comment instead of saying what you really mean.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:05 am | Permalink

          I agree that he has a sexist if not misogynistic undertone.

  11. dd
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I was delighted to see Sullivan’s essay. What he writes about is a view that many of us have come to. And what brought that focus wasn’t Trump, it’s the college protest and “social justice warriors”.

    Various writers (Jonathan Haidt, Ayaan Hirsi Ali) have touched on how much SJW ideology represent certain transpositions from Christianity and other theistic religions onto a secular fundamentalist domain.

    So, as example, “hate speech” is heresy; bigot equals heretic; intersectionality is a cathecism; privilege equates to sin, and the great carriers of that sin and cis-white males, instead of humanity, and on and on.

    Interestingly enough, I know several very liberal, educated, super-high income people that because first inhabitants in the Americas are called “indigenous”, that they trully are from here….meaning they evolved as distinct homo sapien species in the Western Hemisphere.

    In fact, “indigeneity” plays a part in this non-theistic religion that Adam and Eve play in theistic ones.

    I, too, believed the usual line of the secularization brought about the Renaissance and so on. I am skeptical of that and think that one of the great innovations of the 20th century is religion that has no need for gods.

    • dd
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Let me clarify: by “god” I mean a transcendant entity. Instead, we have, for example, the Maos of the world

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      It sounds like you are saying that any strongly held belief is a religion. I think this is the biggest mistake Sullivan makes in his article. Of course, it is difficult to argue over definitions of words but my definition of religion includes the idea that one who has religion accepts unseen forces and/or gods to explain the unknown. They have faith, which is different than belief.

      • dd
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        I am saying that it is a religion because many of the things believed by “social justice warriors” are indeed based on faith. Here is one:

        Both race and gender are social constructions, if so, Can a person be race fluid? gender fluid? In other words, if K. Jenner can be a woman, Why couldn’t Rachel Dolezal, or any other person identifying as such, be black?

        Particular note of the very different public fates which each person met and overall, the vary notion of gender and race fluidity.

        • Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          Ok, but doesn’t that simply mean that anyone who has a strongly-held incorrect belief can be called “religious”? I’m having trouble divining your precise criteria for labeling a belief as religious.

  12. Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    All this writing is a sad attempt by an intelligent person to rationalize the nonsense with which people brainwashed him as a child.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Yes, the unspoken word is indoctrination.

  13. A C Harper
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being.

    Just no. If he had written

    “Every-ones brains have evolved to seek the significant (or meaningful) from the welter of insignificant and messy sensations – and this has historically been co-opted by Religion and other social practices.”

    then he might have a firm place to argue from.

    Our embodied brains *must* seek meaning and certainty and as long as the meaning and certainty they find does not, on average, negatively affect each individual’s evolutionary fitness then the ‘truth’ of those findings doesn’t matter. It could be ‘god’, a religion, superstition, folk science, a philosophy, an ideology or regular access to desired things.

    So do some atheists do seek certainty and meaning in their atheism? Yes, but I don’t think it is a high proportion.

  14. Jon Gallant
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Sullivan either rejects the idea that there has been moral improvement since the enlightenment, or he claims it as a form of religion: “the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.”
    In contemplating this “unthinking faith”, he ought to notice two facts. (1) Post-enlightenment Western Europe (first Britain, then others) was the first human culture to reject slavery and the slave trade; religious civilizations, such as pre-enlightenment Europe or Islam, did not. (2) The secularized modern Europe has completely rejected imperialism, and it is fashionable for the young to denounce the European imperialism of their own ancestors; attitudes like this were and are almost entirely absent in religious civilizations. Even today there is no fashion among Turkish youth to denounce the Ottoman Empire, the way Anglo-American youth retroactively denounce the European empires; and in the rest of the Islamic world, the first Arab/Islamic Empire is generally viewed, if anything, with adoration and a kind of nostalgia, rather than guilt.
    Therefore, either there has been moral progress. Or else, on Sullivan’s terms, the religion of secularism has done better for human moral progress than any of the supernatural religions have ever done.

  15. Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    It’s the worst article by Sullivan I’ve seen. It has always been clear that Sullivan has the God gene but he really let it have full reign here.

    Yes, I do believe there is a God gene but it would probably be better called a Faith gene or a Karma gene. Virtually every person seeks a code by which they live. There’s undoubtedly a gene for that but it’s not the God gene. The God gene, as I see it, confers on its owner a need to, and an acceptance of, unseen forces to explain things. They are unable to accept that there are things we don’t know. They always look for some explanation.

    One of the side-effects of the God gene is that its owner will not understand atheism. Sullivan demonstrates that in this article.

    Sullivan still writes well and I will still have respect and interest in what he has to say, but as soon as he mentions religion, I will listen with great skepticism.

    • SecMilChap
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Dean Hamer, in *The God Gene*, makes a strong case for a “spiritual” aspect in the human brain. Indoctrination seems to rule on *how* each of us responds in the functions of our brains and bodies as that gene causes us to perceive or feel. It’s clear why religionists work to have all of us afflicted by *their* belief systems, “rice bowls” for them; it’s also telling that they oppose good education (including critical thinking). If they had a “truth” to sell, they’d encourage doubtful analysis.

      • Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

        Sure, people who learn science and rational thinking often abandon their religious beliefs but that seems more about gaining knowledge. What I am talking about is how a person thinks about the unknowns. Someone with the God gene can accept “knowledge” without proof.

  16. Larry Smith
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Thanks as always for taking the time to comment on such articles. Your patience in once again slowly taking apart Sullivan’s arguments and assumptions is commendable.

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      +1

  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    But his reversion to atheist-bashing is simply, as Wayne and Garth would say, “heinous.”

    Guess you could get public-access from Aurora on that tv contraption you posted about earlier. 🙂

  18. Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Oh, one more thing. The more I hear about Kirsten Gillibrand, the more I dislike her. She seems to embody the worst of the Democratic Party. This seems to be one of things Sullivan got right in this article.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      American Robespierre.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Re Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens:

    I used to get a kick outta the bromance appearances the two would make together on Book TV (see, eg, here). But then, like a lotta Yanks, I’m a sucker for a posh Oxbridge accent and flashy Oxbridge erudition. 🙂

  20. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    “… without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

    Assumes a fact not in evidence, Mr. Sullivan: that this purported (but unproved) “wisdom and culture and restraint” outweighs on balance the suffering and oppression and benightedness Christianity has engendered.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      If the history of the Catholic church over the last two thousand years reflects the “wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided,” I am quite happy to do without it.

  21. Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Religion ‘in our genes’? Funny how genetics so often gets equated with genetic determinism, and then either damned (if it says that X is genetically based) or promoted as ‘science’ if it says our genes make us believe in God.

    And regarding Hitch, the strongest chapters in God is not Great are (in my ill-informed and humble opinion) the latter ones dealing with the role of religion in twentieth century politics — something I’ve never read any religious person serious contest or confront and deal with. The weakest chapter, on the other hand, was the one about eastern religions, where he described his visit to an Indian ashram in the late 1970s, where he was more interested in drinking and chasing women than in meditation, and which included a list of factual errors about the resident guru. He dismisses Buddhism quite glibly, compared to his systematic demolition of Abrahamic religions, but his critics pass over that almost approvingly.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      His critique of buddhism was ignorant, glib, and rested far too heavily on the buddhist priesthood that had been coopted by Imperial Japan.

  22. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    As misbegotten as is his take on atheism, the whole thing is a nice piece of writing by Andrew Sullivan, especially (as you’ve observed) the last section regarding Darkest Hour.

    Pretty nifty piece of writing and analysis yourself, Jerry, in breaking down Sullivan’s column.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, he is a good thinker if sometimes not a clear one in that he makes errors in his foundational thinking. I find I disagree with things he says about women as well.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        I think it’s a good piece of writing qua writing by Sullivan. Goes to show, you can write well and be wrong (as Sullivan is in several respects in his New York piece). You can’t write well and be confused.

      • rickflick
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

        Could be a Catholic hangover.

  23. rickflick
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    sub

  24. Tom Besson
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Alan Watts describes myths simply as grand ideas that help us make sense of the universe. Joseph Campbell more thoroughly defines myths as “Organizations of symbols, images and narratives that are metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time.” If we accept religion as myth, then we don’t have to head off into all the tangents people like Sullivan point us towards.

    • Posted December 10, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Those would make pretty good definitions of “religion”, too. (Maybe that’s your point, in which case sorry for not getting it, or maybe you think religion is a subset of myth.)

      Certainly they would make better definitions of “religion” than ones that would misclassify Buddhism.

  25. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “….gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism….”

    I think this is where the reasoning falls a part (besides conflating religion with everything human). The journey the West took post Enlightenment isn’t a substitute for monotheism. This actually suggests that you can’t have peace and prosperity at the same time as monotheism. But actually neither are related to one another. The Abrahamic religions, one could argue, are inimical to peace and prosperity but our modern society is really, I think, unconcerned about religion and more concerned about how we treat one another and how we want to live – religion just somehow gets mixed in with it because it clashes with those value sometimes. No one set out to replace a religion. This whole line of reasoning comes across as against modernity.

  26. rickflick
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m willing to go along with Sullivan in his insistence that atheists have a religion of practice based in their behaviors that give meaning to life. To and extent. Yes, we do things that give us a sense of purpose. Why not? The word religion doesn’t mean just something that gives life meaning. It has to be associated with a reliance on faith, the acceptance of superstition and the supernatural. Otherwise, we are talking about how secular life can be meaningful. Which isn’t hard to demonstrate.

    “But not all atheists are humanists; some are Republicans”
    This deserves a copyright.

    What strikes me the most is that many of Sullivan’s points are trivial, tired, and I think he knows better. I’d say he’s operating like someone trying to make a decent living by writing book, etc. He’s hit on a salable formula and will run it into the ground as long as they keep sending royalty checks.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and one of those things I think he knows better about is suggesting that science replaces religion for atheists. I’m glad Jerry called this out. Science is not my religion. It’s a reliable method for figuring out if something about the world around us is true. As Dawkins says “planes fly, cars drive, computers compute”. If you recognize science as the best basis for figuring out the natural world, you’re reasonable but that doesn’t necessarily make you an atheist and not all atheists are reasonable – some put jade eggs up their vaginas.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Everybody’s gotta believe in *something*.

        Any old shit will do (unfortunately).

        cr

      • rickflick
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        The corollary to scientific methodology is, of course, skepticism. Some brains are simply missing that module.

      • Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        Nor are scientists our ‘priests’. (If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard Dawkins described as our ‘Pope’, I could retire.)

        Unlike the pontiff, we recognize scientists are fallible, and can produce work of great merit yet still get other things completely wrong. Hoyle and E.O. Wilson come to mind.

  27. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  28. Posted December 9, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I was modestly outraged when I read his commentary, after it was warmly recommended by others. The chief problem I have is that he provides fiction with little resemblance to reality.

    a) nobody defines religion his way, not even sociologists who already treat it as a purely sociological phenomenon, and ignoring the supernatural elements. Non-sociologist generally associate religion with belief in the supernatural.

    b) His portrayal of Christianity is purely fictional. He never opened a single history book, and that is my charitable take on it. In reality, Christian clergy was the elite, an own estate that very much had control over anyone lower, and even down to personal matters. Of course, Popes crowned kings and emperors.

    c) “They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.” Pure fiction, or extreme delusion. Open a random history book on any time in the centuries of absolute Christian rule. Also, it’s the religious right that is supporting Trump the most. Such religious groups pretty much always rallied behind dictators, tyrants, absolutists and so on. Every fascist could count on a Catholic priest for moral support, or a “rat line” to get away.

    d) Also pure fiction that Christianity’s separation from rule let to the Wall of Separation. Again, reality tells a different story. The Reformation broke the absolute Catholic phobocracy, the reign of psycho-terror that became unbearable in the early 16th century. Quick reminder: Christianity, i.e. Catholocisim was absolutely intolerant and stamped out all sorts of “heresies”. The Reformation allowed again a proliferation of sects and cults, and rival denominations that — just as usual — naturally embedded themselves into power politics. Religious wars broke out that devastated Europe (of course with usual worldy reasons to increase one’s influence, gain resources etcetera). In the end, with the peace of Westphalia, it was clear that some form of new tolerance must be created. The “Founding Fathers” saw that the US was attracting diverse people of many creeds and cults, who may have fled from persecution (of a major Christian denomination), and saw that they have to keep religious intolerance away somehow.

    e) No, Christianity did not enable moral progress, but fought it at every step. We can still see that today, how progressive the Catholic Church is. Still today, there is a notable correlation between bigotry and intolerance with the faithful. Somehow the most religious areas in the US were also the most in favour of slavery (and used scripture to justify it). It is depressingly mostly the same picture (the few counter-examples are happenstance, or because the tyrant saw the faithful’s loyalty to their celestial dictator as a rival).

    f) Also, most people don’t “sequester” their elderly to nursery homes because they don’t want to be reminded of death. We don’t sequester the children to kindergardens either, because we don’t want to be reminded of childhood. The reason is that they need specialist care, the Right Wing coterie, especially the religious ones, make sure that most people must stay productive and can’t take time off to care themselves.

  29. Roo
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Methinks Sullivan was (maybe subconsciously) doing a bit of button-pushing with the “Atheism is a religion too!” meme. It’s been kicking around for long enough and has produced predictable responses in enough places that he must be familiar with it. If his goal was to carefully get people to consider the role of ideology in human culture, he would have just used that word – ideology (it is in fact very hard to deny that all large human groups have an ideology of some sort, of which religion is a subset.) But, that’s why he’s a professional writer who knows how to attract an audience, I suppose – he knows how to fire people up just a little with a dash of polemics and then make some interesting points.

    Where I agree with Sullivan is that I feel fairly strongly that contemplative practice and mysticism are important; where I disagree is in the idea that these practices have to be Christian in order to ‘work’ (the consensus from near death experiences seems to be something like ‘finding a path to love is what is important, not defending the earthly specifics of any particular religion in a tribal way’). I am now reading what is essentially an introductory text to my religion of birth and am *very surprised to find that, if I swapped out a few specific vocabulary words (‘God’ and ’emptiness’; ‘spirit’ and ‘Buddha nature’; ‘sin’ and ‘delusion’) that I could very well be reading a Buddhist philosophy text. That’s not creative interpretation on my part, it really is extremely similar (I attended church for many years and never got such an impression before.) The difference being that the book, so far as I can tell, is based on later revelations and writings of saints, ascetics, monks, nuns, and so on. Who apparently came to very similar conclusions. Same thing, again, with those who report mystical experiences, NDEs, use of conscious-altering drugs – you often really do get the same story time and time again. It is that story that I am interested in, and where I agree with Sullivan that society will suffer if people become materialistic, selfish, and in general driven to fulfill nothing but passing sensate desires.

    That said, I don’t see any reason to really think we’re on this path. Yes, people are tribal to the point of being irrational and even abusive in 2018, but people have always been tribal to the point of being irrational and abusive. Reading the exposes of what was going on at things like Catholic orphanages in the earlier part of this century is not an inspiring example of how the religious or monastic life simply equates to goodness – however much SJWs can irritate the crap out of me, there’s no doubt those kids would have been better off with today’s SJWs than yesterdays nuns, in that particular situation. Not because today’s SJWs are inherently better people but simply because we know more and our education and knowledge as a society has improved (to be fair, I’m sure many of the nuns did a fine job, but one hopes we simply have better child welfare systems in place now). Second, rather than eliminating the contemplative life, there is a huge push to study, fund, and promote it. Just look at the work of Richard Davidson, for example.

    Sometimes when I see news story after news story about horrible fringe behavior I also start to think I live in a world of scary fringe types. But while our society does have its ‘teeth and claws’, there’s also a growing focus on supporting one another and kindness (sometimes a little too much – one cannot walk through a Target without being bombarded with cosmetics bags, cards and tee shirts that command one to sparkle, shine, be kind, love, live, dance, love some more, etc.) Exclusion used to be the norm for people with special needs, now inclusion is the norm and the average person would be horrified at the thought of treating a person with special needs badly. Bullying and fist fights used to be ‘just a part of growing up’, now schools focus on creating a positive environment. I’m not saying the balance is entirely right or that we don’t have plenty of problems (kids may be *too insulated from strife, in some ways; mental health issues seem to be on the rise even as crime is on the decline), but I don’t agree with the idea that we are headed for some kind of Postmodern And / Or Tribal Hell, as many seem to think these days. I think when you look at the big picture, 2018 is ‘more of the same’ for humankind.

  30. WW
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Wayne and Garth never said “heinous”, that was a Bill and Ted thing.

  31. Vaal
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    One of the things that got me interested in looking in to and discussing religion early on was this strange phenomenon:

    I could be talking to a person about any range of topics, and we would be using normal methods of reasoning – often to the degree I’d think the other person smarter than I am.

    But if the subject turned to that person’s religion, suddenly this previously rational person could make no sense, and obvious train-wrecks of reason flew out of their mouth. It was as if the person where having a stroke right in front of me. This previously sharp minded person turned in to someone needing help with basic reasoning.

    This strange and disconcerting experience, so repeatable when discussing religion, was part of what got me fascinated by religion.

    Andrew Sullivan represents this disconcerting phenomenon generally and this new essay is an instance in the particular.

    • Roo
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like you actually agree with Sullivan’s definition of ‘religion’… personally, I think people have the capacity to flip a “La la la la I can’t heeeeear you” switch on many topics, and actually think academics, allegedly upholders of reason, can be some of the worst offenders. (Because Jerry Coyne is a professor let me be clear this is not a veiled swipe at him – I assume he does not do this, although honestly I don’t know enough about biology to know based on what I read here. But in fields such as psychology, forget about it.)

      Wait, now that I think of it, Sam Harris did a piece on this awhile back:

      https://samharris.org/the-fireplace-delusion/

      • Vaal
        Posted December 9, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

        I don’t see how you draw the conclusion that I agree with the way Sullivan uses the term “religion.” I agree with Jerry: it’s a semantic game, similar to the old Christian apologist trope “everyone has faith” which equivocates away the relevant differences.

        Certainly everyone is capable of falling to bias and poor reasoning. The problem with religion that I indicted is the utterly reliability with which it adduces the “just had a mental stroke” phenomenon in otherwise reasonable people. It’s that reliability factor that makes it so intriguing.

        • Roo
          Posted December 9, 2018 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          I think you agree in that you see a sudden absence of traditional logic as a defining factor in what makes something a ‘religion’, or at least this is what I understood from your post. I would say this absence of logic on specific topics is not particularly unique to religion. To my mind one sees that particular flip switch in people relatively often, when it comes to conspiracy theories; things we would rather not believe; academic paradigms that people have become deeply invested in (try talking to a hardcore Skinner-head sometime…); politics; miscellaneous topics like vaccinations and global warming… I think it’s quite a long list. Maybe we just hang out with different people. It’s rare for me to get through a day without a social media friend telling me that clary sage oil cures asthma or some such thing, and frigging woo to you if you disagree. You will not get off with a ‘mental stroke’, you will get some claws.

          I actually have no problem with religion not making logical sense to the degree that it is meant as a subjective paradigm and philosophy. Subjective experiences are meant to be subjective, they’re not logical or illogical, they’re alogical; and *certain portions of religions are yet-to-be-proven-or-disproven philosophies. That various religions converge most closely in the realm of mysticism is why this particular aspect of religion interests me the most. But it is difficult to say that mysticism simply *is religion, when in many times and places religion has been little more than the most overt kind of tribalism. If you view religion primarily as irrational tribalism then yes, that does exist in many places and it sounds like you and Sullivan would agree on that. The Far Right and Far Left and Far Anything can certainly show approximately the same attitude when discussing politics. If you view it as a mixture of pragmatic tribal customs and mystical traditions, it depends on which part you’re talking about.

          • Vaal
            Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            “I think you agree in that you see a sudden absence of traditional logic as a defining factor in what makes something a ‘religion’, “

            No. There’s an implication in the way you phrased that which is misleading.

            The absence of traditional reason does not “make something a religion.” Rather, it’s a feature one regularly finds in religious belief.

            There’s a huge difference there.

            Being very tall and athletic is a feature one reliably finds in professional basketball players.

            But being very tall and athletic isn’t “what makes someone a basketball player” since you can be tall and athletic and not be a basketball player. That it’s a feature of basketball players doesn’t mean it “defines what a basketball player is.” It’s a feature you can find outside basketball…but much more reliably within basketball.

            Same for biased and fallacious reasoning. Everyone suffers from it here and there, but a conversation with a religious person defending their beliefs means you’ll see this pretty reliably.

            The question becomes which was does the causal relationship run: is religion the result of irrationality, or does religion cause irrationality? From what I can tell, it can run either way, and everything in between in a sort of feedback system.

            • Roo
              Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

              Well, like I said, maybe we just know different people. To my mind this is like saying “I’ve noticed that basketball players are human so I’ve concluded that there is a strong link between being human and being a basketball player.” This is not untrue, but it’s an extremely broad observation. Humans play basketball but they also play every other sport, just as religious thinking can be irrational but people can be irrational in almost every other area of life. So – again, just my worldview, your experience may vary – I do not see most people as suffering from irrationality ‘here and there’ with the exception of religion. I see people being both irrational and rational in many endeavors, including religion. Again, that is *when you separate the mystical, contemplative aspects of religion from allegorical stories and legends – but even then, I think there are other forms of tribalism that are so similar in the myth department that it’s really six of one half a dozen of the other in some cases – and I think those are the cases, specifically, that Sullivan is talking about.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Once and X-Catholic, always and X-Catholic. Or something like that.

  32. denise
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m always surprised that the example of the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t more effective at getting through to believers. If you don’t believe the FSM exists, it ought to lead you to grasp how the lack of a belief is not just another belief – also to understand calling oneself a nonbeliever rather than an agnostic, even though you can’t prove its nonexistence.

    Yet it doesn’t seem to work that way. This mystifies me.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

      Ah…the mysteries of religion!

  33. FB
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    To see reason as just another religious belief is similar to the mistake of the ontological argument, that sees existence as just another attribute of God.

  34. aljones909
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    What is this obsession with finding “meaning” in life? I just get on with it. I can’t see how indulging in fantasies about eternal life is a superior, more worthy, state of mind.

  35. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    There’s something about using the word “atheists” that bugs me, and in this piece, but I can’t put a finger on it.

    It’s just a word, and it’s not many words here, but what is it…

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted December 9, 2018 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

      Simple. We don’t need a high-falutin word for simple skepticism about assertions which are both fantastic and unproven. I don’t believe there is an invisible dragon in the garage, but this should not have to rise to a philosophy of adragonism.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:25 am | Permalink

        That’s part of it

        There’s a difference between a conclusion – “I conclude there are no real dragons…” and the person making the conclusions. “… I enjoy my dragon club every Saturday.”

        Likewise there’s supposedly atheist Hindus. And we all know that certainly some fraction of Christians are just going through the motions, and must be behaving as if there are no gods – they might as well have concluded there are none.

        Is it more meaningful to point at the individuals in those cases, or to their conclusions?

        … still thinking about this….

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        How about this:

        phlogiston

        invented by people to explain light. (God is also a human invention). Later had to reject it. (Actually both). Made more sense.

        While I COULD go around calling everyone an aphlogistonist, I won’t, as a general rule. And there’s more to life than the nonexistence of phlogiston – or phlogiston apologetics.

        Sullivan plays the game of being way into his own god, while saying “hey, it’s all good” about gods and religions he is utterly unconcerned with. Thus I think he’s aware he’s one of the atheists who hasn’t gone one god further – but for some reason it’s not an -ist he’s happy with.

        • Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          It must be terrible to be born both intelligent and with the God gene. I thank God everyday that I was spared that burden. Well, maybe not God, but you know what I mean. 😉

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

            Ha ha – in thanking God, now it looks like you’re suggesting you are thankful you weren’t born intelligent.

            • Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

              I knew someone would go there. I’m much smarter than those cats and crows … I think.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                😀😸

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted December 10, 2018 at 11:24 am | Permalink

            One person’s god jeans is another’s phlogiston genes.

            if my humor misses the mark like usual, I’ll take this one…. mom jeans… dad jeans… hey, Saturday Night Live started it.

    • Posted December 9, 2018 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      Might the bothersome thing be that we are used to -ist words associated with a belief in something that exists, not the non-belief in something. There is also the confusion between non-belief in something and belief in that same thing’s non-existence. The complexity of language can introduce all kinds of illusions.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        Right

        One thing that bothers me about this part of Sullivan’ piece is … hard to type in here. Let’s try:

        I don’t go skydiving. Never have. Really not interested. Lots of good reasons not to. If everyone wants to, great. Go for it. My kids might even learn about it and grow up to be skydivers. But I’m not going to encourage it. These are not beliefs – it’s more of a policy, or position.

        Now let’s say a skydiver writes an otherwise good-willed essay, with me in the audience, and to bring me in, says “… this will help everyone, even people against skydiving.”

        … I have to stop because I don’t think I’m making sense…

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 10, 2018 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        Yes, sort of suggests we have a monolithic way of thinking and therefore all carry the same opinions when it’s quite the opposite and really the only thing we have in common is our lack of belief in gods….which is really the word’s meaning but of course the “ists” does, as you say, suggest a commonality beyond the simple definition.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Some Mencken quotes for my quibbling over a word ::

      “To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies — the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said — there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.”

      …. there’s supposedly one of his quotes that’s a take on fly in the ointment – cockroach in guacamole. But might be made up. So I just point it out here.

      Bonus quote for Mencken fans:

      “To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.”

      … I’d correct that to be “hypothesis”, not “theory”.

      Source :

      https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/H._L._Mencken

  36. revelator60
    Posted December 9, 2018 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    This piece demonstrates why I very little use for Sullivan. New York Magazine, which Sullivan writes for, has several excellent writers on politics—Jonathan Chait, Frank Rich, Eric Levitz, etc—who are left of center and free from the “the cult of social justice on the left.” None indulge in idiotic atheist bashing either. And they are free from Sullivan’s simplistic centrism, which seems to think some woke idiots on college campuses pose the same threat to the republic as the people currently running it into the ground.

  37. Jimbo
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 5:45 am | Permalink

    Too much conflation of ideas and non-sequiturs for my taste. To transmute our every noble, intangible notion/ideal/ethic/value into the common base metal of religios faith is pure alchemy. A “transcendent value that gives one’s life meaning” like faith in reason or democracy or the rule of law or the kindness of strangers is not like religion for the simple reason of evidence. The value I place in certain high ideals like protect the innocent is based on personal and societal evidence of its utility toward desired outcomes that I and my culture cherish, and with good reason. Religion is based on a useful lie that has no evidence.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted December 10, 2018 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      “To transmute our every noble, intangible notion/ideal/ethic/value into the common base metal of religios faith is pure alchemy.”

      Nicely put.

  38. Posted December 10, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    With respect to why religion, so obviously nonsense, remains widespread, we must not forget a major contributing factor: it directly provides a very agreeable living for some people — and this was especially true in the past — and it traditionally has provided support for the existing social order. Where the latter was not true, it provided comfort and inspiration for those trying to overthrow an existing social order — as Macaulay noted, Cromwell’s supporters humbled themselves in the dust before their God, the better to set their foot on the neck of their king.

  39. Posted December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Sullivan defined religion so broadly that it effectively has no meaning. As rationalists say, it proves too much.

    An actual working definition of religion would be something akin to the belief that reality itself is ontologically mental. That is, the fundamental fabric of reality is based on actions between mental agents: Reality is literally the belief that the universe is socially constructed. And you can curry favor or disapproval of the universe itself by way of some social supplication or social/moral failure.

  40. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 10, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Can a deist be an atheist?

    Can a theist be an adeist?

    It sounds stupid but I think it’s possible.


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  1. […] via Andrew Sullivan: the bad (atheism-bashing and religion-osculation) and the good (seeing American ide… […]

  2. […] Coyne, for his part, argues that there is nothing in our genes to make us religious. I didn’t elaborate this point, but […]

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