Andrew Sullivan is an interesting commentator and journalist in American society. He’s written for many of the most respected and well-known media in the country. And, for instance, he’s married another man, and was a leading voice for the legalization of same-sex marriage, yet he considers himself a faithful Catholic. While I understand the clear tensions here, I don’t mention his biography to set him up for any personal attacks. Rather, I think it clarifies how interesting it is that he published, in New York Magazine, an article headlined “America’s New Religions” this weekend.
First, Sullivan acknowledges that we are homo religiosus - the religious human:
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).
This is, I think, an opening point for dialogue with many people. We can identify our common ground. Then we can ask: what is the most legitimate and rational grounding for the transcendent value we both experience and share together?
Second, because we are all religiously oriented, he points out that the modern atheistic movement has religious features. In this, he is drawing from John Gray’s arguments in his latest book Seven Types of Atheism:
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 think there are a lot of opportunities for good spiritual conversations if we can humbly, and gently, name and discuss the modern faith in progress and reason. Yes, we aspire to rationally chart a better future. But why do we trust our brains to guide us? And on what basis do we believe the future will be better? And why do we think that the concept of ‘humanity’ is anything substantive (rather than warring individuals or tribes)? Sullivan and Gray are raising some very critical questions for the secularist way of life.
As Sullivan opens it up,
I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said “Loving kindness is my religion.” But the salient question is: why?
Who will argue against ‘loving kindness’? But still - how does this fit into the picture of a world without God? What is the apologetic argument, if you will, for loving kindness being our true purpose in life?
Sullivan also candidly acknowledges what a distracted age we live in:
Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from the sort of existential moments experienced by Mill and Russell. 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 — until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes. Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives.
This is another opportunity for conversation. Why do you spend so much time on Netflix? What draws you to Twitter? Have you taken any time to reflect upon the meaning and significance of your life? Why not? And so on…
He also challenges both the right and the left of American politics, describing in a clear outline, the “total and immediate commitment to save the world” that both parties require of their adherents. Utilizing religious language and categories, he re-imagines political activism as a new kind of religious devotion.
Which leads to his concluding point:
And so we’re mistaken if we believe that the collapse of Christianity in America has led to a decline in religion. It has merely led to religious impulses being expressed by political cults. Like almost all new cultish impulses, they see no boundary between politics and their religion. And both cults really do minimize the importance of the individual in favor of either the oppressed group or the leader.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to all Democrats or all Republicans. But, we can see examples of this kind of intense political partisanship across the political spectrum.
This leads to the question: how successful is politics as religion? How can our political projects justify themselves? Do we have to ‘take it on faith’ or is there evidence that one - or the other - party has an accurate grasp of the truth on a particular issue? Also, when politics becomes the narrative of our lives, how does this work out in terms of finding a way to meet the American slogan of ‘e pluribus unum’ - out of many, one?
Finally, he argues that Christianity has played - and needs to continue to play - a central role in providing stability and direction in our national life.
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.
Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t. And won’t.
Whether you would agree with all of his argument or not, I commend it to you as a fascinating reflection on American society and our religious impulses. I also think it could lead to many good, trust-building spiritual conversations with friends.
I’m eager to hear from you about this! As it is a related issue, I’ll especially invite the @Interested_in_Government group to join in!