This piece is adapted from The Gist.
In his latest work in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan argues that America has a new religion, and it’s modernity. Or irreligion. Or possibly social justice—or, as he sees it, “social justice.” The essay combines sophistry with circular reading to achieve as pure an expression of pseudo-intellectualism as you will ever read.
“America’s New Religions” has drawn opprobrium and approval in just about equal measure from exactly the readers you’d expect to either cheer or scoff. Because the piece is a defense of religiosity—Sullivan’s Catholic—other prominent opinion writers who are guided by faith (David Brooks, Bari Weiss, Charles Murray) applauded him loudly. The liberal voices who loathe most everything Sullivan writes did not like it. Because the piece singles out Vox, Ezra Klein issued a satisfying rebuttal.
What I wanted to do was to go through the essay, concentrating on its flawed premise, in order to analyze what went so horribly wrong. This differs from what other critics are picking on but also offers a rumination on why the entire thing is more meaningful than just one failed essay on meaning.
Let’s break it down:
“Everyone has a religion.”
Since I don’t, and I do consider myself part of “everyone,” I was curious to see how Sullivan cleared the quite significant hurdle of making a flat-out false assertion about me in the first four words. It would be a thrilling act of rhetoric to clear this hurdle. Instead, Sullivan not only fails to clear it, he installs a water trap in front of it. He’s now running the steeplechase, because his second and third sentences are “It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being,” thus perhaps suggesting that I am a musk ox or a robot or a robot musk ox. He then asserts, “It’s in our genes.”
“By religion, I mean something quite specific.”
I’m glad that by religion Sullivan means something specific, because religion is a word that has a specific definition. I will accept even the most expansive definition of religion, something like a set of beliefs, usually about the supernatural, that explains life and death or a system of faith and usually worship that provides an explanation for the mysteries of life. Being unprovable in an attempt to explain the unknown also seems to be a common element to every religion I’m aware of. But let’s see how Sullivan defines it.
“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).”
He’s saying religion is a set of lived beliefs that rely on truths. I already disagree. That’s not a religion; that is a belief system. Perhaps a creed, could even be a value system. Yoga would qualify as a religion under this definition. So would transcendentalism or white nationalism. Goth and emo come close. So Sullivan defines religion as something other than any definition of religion that is in existence already. And it’s also not very specific, even though he says he means something quite specific, but let’s go on.
“Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion.”
So he asserts that the opposite of religion is also a religion. A weak one, sure, like eating a steak is a weak form of vegetarianism. Or that flapping my arms and clucking makes me an attenuated form of chicken. This is philosophy at the level of Rush lyrics. Atheists are the most religious of all; if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Perhaps not knowing that Antananarivo is the capital of Madagascar is the true knowledge of the capital of Madagascar.
My friends, what is going on here has a specific word, unlike his definition of the word religion. That word is twaddle. What we’re engaged in is much closer to the known and accepted definition of twaddle than it is religion. Twaddle is foolish speech or writing. Religion has to do with worshipping and explaining life’s mysteries. Religion is not atheism. Atheism literally means “not religion”—or in twaddle world, “the most religion.” We’re five sentences into the piece, and Sullivan’s laid out false premises, concocted definitions, and said that the opposite of a thing is a thing. I highly doubt from this foundation that good arguments can spring. I also doubt that if the argument that follows were to be a real bang-up argument, it wouldn’t rely on the foundation of crap and spackle that he’s provided. But Sullivan goes on.
“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.”
I’m not going to get into a debate between faith and atheism. I am going to point out that Sullivan is contrasting the validity of religion versus irreligion, based on the passion of the adherents to each set of beliefs. I doubt there are many other areas that Sullivan opines about where he would find this kind of thing compelling. Would he say that scientists concerned with global warming are just as passionate as deniers? Would he say that people who hate gays have as absolute a faith in their belief as gay people?
“This is why science cannot replace it. Science does not tell you how to live.”
Religion does not tell me how to live.
“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.”
That last sentence, “[art] has almost nothing to say about morality and life”—none of the people who cheer this essay on could possibly believe this. I guarantee that if you go through the works of each of the public intellectuals who back Sullivan, he or she has written extensively, maybe whole essays or books, about the value of art or music, how it does exactly what Sullivan says it cannot do, how it can very much explain morality and life. But why does he have to say such an obviously incorrect thing? Because if he didn’t attempt to bat away the value of art, there’d be a gaping hole in his twaddly argument. I suppose he thinks he’s pre-addressing any critiques that might come his way.
Then Sullivan slams materialism a little bit, which is a crowd-pleaser to the left and the right. Criticizing abundance seems to make you edgy, but it’s a little like criticizing elitism or moral relativism. There’s no one actually on the other side of that argument. Maybe with materialism there’s some Kardashian or an imagined person waving the bespoke banner, but in general the notion that we, in America, have too many things is something that every single person in society agrees with yet suspects that most of the rest of society doesn’t.
“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.”
If a belief in complex systems and mastery of detail is the way you order your universe, then by that definition Bill Belichick is one the most religious thinkers of our day. If my bullshit definition of religion centers on an assertion of the self, the centrality of identity, then RuPaul is the greatest theologian of our age. If I made up a definition of religion, I could come up with someone who inhabits that definition.
“Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create a world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning.”
Does that mean that a TV with rabbit ears, sweating on the porch on a hot day, eating iceberg lettuce, listening to 45s, and reading the New York Herald Tribune are the means to enlightenment? OK, that’s a bit glib, but a list of distractions doesn’t really make a case so much as update the specifics of professor Harold Hill’s patter from The Music Man.
I’d also like to address the presence of kale in that list of modern menaces. It stands out because it’s not an example of scary, new, distracting technology. It’s an example of roughage. It’s not religion. Kale has nothing to do with revealing a deeper meaning. It has nutrients, but not as much as watercress, which escapes Sullivan’s scorn.
None of these trendy distractions have anything to do with religion. Pilates is a way to stretch. Tinder gets you laid. Spotify provides the seductive soundtrack while you pursue that endeavor as you watch Netflix—and, thanks to air conditioning, chill. Twaddle, twaddle, twaddle. Ever since we had modern inventions, we’ve had critics saying they are making us further away from God or they are new God. We’ve had messianic figures decrying the butter churn or the printing press as mindless obstacles to true enlightenment.
What we’re engaged in here is a dressed-up, modernized sermon in the mode of Jonathan Edwards telling us we’re all sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our God is not Alexa. Alexa just knows that when you ask her, “Is there a god?” she knows to answer, “People all have their own views on religion.”
That’s a hell of a lot smarter thing to say than anything Sullivan does. True, he takes a digression into criticizing social justice activists. That seems to be the core of his argument: that social justice activists have gone too far, and they have the zeal of zealots, and zealots equal religion. Why not just concentrate on the excesses of social justice warriors? Why not call their extreme mindset a cult? Then it’s fine—it’s what you’ve been writing for the last five years. There’s no need to say, “Not only is that a cult, but let me tell you about this true cult, er, religion—Christianity. It is the light and the way and the truth. Contrast that to Snapchat. I rest my case.”
“Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth.”
The Heimlich maneuver is a set of procedures, not a manifestation of truth. Friday Night Lights was a TV series with a hole in Season 2, not a manifestation of truth. But that’s OK because neither the Heimlich maneuver nor Coach Taylor are supposed to be a manifestation of truth. Liberalism is a way to achieve a social good, which is, generally speaking, things like freedom, fairness, material comfort, health, the chance for happiness and advancement.
“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.”
Look, I think Ben Shapiro should be allowed to speak on campuses, and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” should be played on the radio. I don’t need to call atheists “religious” to get me to those conclusions. I don’t have to give a prescription of society as forever debauched and not even raise global warming as I indict society for excesses. I don’t have to malign kale or implicate Pilates to make my grand theory. Sorry, not theory, twaddle. Or maybe it’s not-twaddle. I only raise that possibility in the event that it turns out that not-twaddle is the twaddliest thing of all.