In the Land of the Banal
Andrew Sullivan, prominent and long-time essayist, declared every person has a religion. By implication, this would include atheists, as most see themselves, likely, as a-religious within the referent frame of a-theism. This seems more wrong than right, and also appears to miss the basic nature of religion: handed down answers, or, rather, assertions bequeathed with dogma; where with a-religiosity, values become discovered, obviously confined within the cognitive-emotional bounds of living as a human being. Thus, the first-answer as to why everyone leans towards common values and the Golden Rule, within constraints.
He has written and published hundreds of articles in a variety of publications. In the view of Sullivan, the modern atheists take on the garb of a quasi-religion through their “attenuated form of religion,” as this is a “practice not a theory” view of religion (Sullivan, 2018).
He views the denial of God as absolute as others’ faith in God, but, in fact, he contradicts himself with the denial of God as views while the religions of those who believe in God amount to actions. This retains the similar tactical flavor of prominent evangelists of everything becoming referred back, in some manner or other, to Christianity or God.
He points to the values individuals live by in the world, including daily rituals, meditation, and prayer. He even points to secular people with Buddhist practices as part of their view of the world. Atheism does not imply Buddhism or Buddhist practices; it implies a non-belief in God. That’s it.
Sullivan stated, “In his highly entertaining book, The Seven Types of Atheism, released in October in the U.S., philosopher John Gray puts it this way: ‘Religion is an attempt to find meaning in events, not a theory that tries to explain the universe’” (Sullivan, 2018).
Religion becomes Confirmation Bias writ worldview. Sullivan argues for this as part of a self-knowledge of every individual member of the human species of their own individual demise, of absolute finality.
Thus, the reconciliation with the world comes in the form of the assertion of “meaning in events” and not as an attempt to “explain the universe” (Sullivan, 2018). He, quoting Gray, in essence argues for a why rather than a functional-how of the universe, of which religion provides the explanatory filler and, presumably, the evolved necessity of a search for meaning gives the cognitive filter.
He asserts, “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” (Sullivan, 2018). Take the temporality of the claims of science, this, to him, likely implies lack of ultimate meaning in time; take the spatial limits of the human body, this implicates a void in ultimate meaning in space; examine the limitations in mentation of all human beings, this derives eventual emptiness to meaning from the self and imaginary inventiveness of human beings.
The gap between the infinite, absolute, or ultimate meaning and any finite temporal or spatial meaning leads to a conclusion that religion gives ultimate meaning. However, when we look closer on the assertion of science not being capable of replacing religion, we can see the finite explanations of religion, in its practices — as Sullivan argues religion is actions.
Meaning does not exist as a constituent element of the universe, but, rather, in the relation of consciousnesses to the universe. Meaning remains derived rather than fundamental in this sense and, ultimately, constructed and finite, as this comes from the fundamental substructure of a mind’s transactional relationship with the cosmos (and other minds).
But even in the theories propounded by some sects of religions as natural world truths, they contradict the knowledge of the natural world provided via science, which remains the largest reliable set of epistemologies to derive better functional explanations of the cosmos. In this, religion becomes non-ultimate too; indeed, its assertions of the ultimate in meaning amount to assertions, of which non-religious people make commitments.
But back to the how of the universe, science works on the level of engineering to a significant extent, to the hows of the universe, but not on the whys. Art, literature, music, and religion comprise — not always practice — but sets of expression of the internal landscape of consciousness and perception in such a way as to have others see the world and feel about the world as the artist or writer sees and feels reality. None of this seems ultimate, including religion and its by-products.
The claims to the ultimate often are wrong as well. An ultimate meaning to the universe with the resurrection of the dead following the forgiveness of sins starting with the Fall in the Garden of Eden and the virgin birth of the Son of God, and then the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the Saviour of Humankind.
To this assertion of ultimate meaning in avoidance of an extrapolated heat death of the universe in an immensely deep time into the future, or the ultimate meaning in the transcendence of death via atonement of Original Sin to this, we can ask a question, “What direct empirical evidence for the Garden of Eden?” (Sullivan, 2018) Answer: none. Whence Original Sin?
Outside of literary import, akin to Shakespeare or European folktales and legends, e.g., King Arthur and Merlin and so on, the purported ultimate meaning provided within the, for example, Roman Catholic Christian Church tradition of Sullivan becomes non-evidenced and, thus, probabilistic, at best, and, by implication, non-ultimate, i.e., no ultimate meaning in it.
The sensibility of the transcendent and ultimate in meaning becomes a placeholder for chauvinism in specific religions and particular theological assertions within the faith: “Our faith, our religion, harbors ultimate meaning in theology, in practices, in scriptures, and in community living, unlike the non-religious or, even especially, the irreligious” (Sullivan, 2018).
It simply amounts to arrogance and chauvinism cloaked in another guise of the religious, in this case, Sullivan. Temporal and spatial, and cognitive, limits bound the nature of the discussions, discourses, and dialogues possible for human beings, and then claims to ultimate and transcendent simply tend to mean parochial religious assertions and limits of understanding, and reaffirmations of traditional religious practice.
Characteristic of the fearmongering of equality for others while still the dominant faith demographic by a long shot in much of the West, especially where Sullivan is housed in America. A slight loss in prominence breeds a reactionary tone in addition to the regular unfolding of epithets.
Sullivan states, “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” (Sullivan, 2018).
Secularism becomes post-Christian, which implies theocratic-leaning as more Christian or the reduction in the reliance on faith-based initiatives for health and secular means by which to achieve better material and wellness conditions becomes post-Christian, even with most of the nation adherent to a Christian narrative, as in America.
Even besides these concerns, Catholics may want to work less on demonizing others as a distraction of the horrific sexual scandals and abuses of nuns, of children, and others, and more on the asking of forgiveness of their victims, the national potentials they’ve destroyed through denial of contraceptives and family planning, the women who they have denied livelihoods in their opposition to safe, legal, and equitable abortion — as the Guttmacher Institute shows legalization lowers the rates of abortions (true pro-life, thus, should become pro-choice), imposition of theocratic rule in constitutions, and illegitimate abuse of religious privilege in societies to maintain political power, und so weiter(Guttmacher Institute, 2018).
Non-religion becomes “scientism” and “materialism.” On “scientism,” this term is a covert epithet of the non-religious and started with Friedrich von Hayek in 1943. Materialism relates to the outcomes of public relations and the industry devoted to the fabrication of wants, where I agree with him.
The campaigns to get kids to nag parents for unnecessary junk or to get pregnant women to smoke are evils, and a result of deliberate materialistic advertising and marketing campaigns to delude the public — and vulnerable sectors to boot.
As Sullivan correctly notes, “We have leveraged science for our own health and comfort” (Sullivan, 2018). Indeed, one big impediment to the reproductive health rights and technology of women has been the Roman Catholic Christian Church. Rather than focus on his own backyard, Sullivan, instead, aims at prominent writers and then criticizes abstracts including “reason.”
As has been said by others, perhaps, we need pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, but we should remain wary or chary of the obvious moral goods being ignored in the real manifestations of their consequences in the directly implicated deaths and injuries of millions of women through simple rejection of contraceptives, abortifacients, family planning and associated educational provisions, safe and legal abortion, sexual education including consent, and so on.
Sullivan argues humans are religious creatures. This seems, in part, true, but, probably, more reliant on superstition and ignorance and myths as we remain an evolved and cognitively flawed species. He also argues humans seek meaning as part of our nature. This, once more, seems to identify a bug in what we may view as a benefit or a plus.
It depends on the orientation of the meaning sought by the individual or the group. As well, he draws attention to some non-religious individuals with too much emphasis on reason. This begs the question as to what reliance on emotionalism can derive for the truths about the world outside of the social relations.
In fact, this Vulcanization of the opposition — the non-religious — seems like another stereotype and asserted with thin evidence, except within the general derogatory statements about and odd opposition to the fundamental premises of rationalism with “reason.”
But this leads back into the notion of religion as actions or practice, mainly; however, Gray and Sullivan seem flat wrong here. Religion, in most contexts, amounts to beliefs plus suggested practices, where core a priori beliefs necessitate the faith and suggested practices can be adhered to varying degrees of seriousness: Jesus rose from the dead (core belief) and can perform miracles with enough serious and sincere prayer (suggested practice). Muhammed is the last Prophet of the one true God, Allah, (core belief) and the Hajj is an incredibly important Pillar of Islam to partake in the life of a sincere Muslim believer (suggested practice).
Someone without these, in either case, simply lacks traditional religion. Otherwise, what defines the boundaries of religions, exactly? If nothing, then religion simply becomes moot as a concept. But we tend to realize the distinctions and, intrinsically, understand religion as real phenomena and the contents of it, and practices from it. The common phrase or description of these actions is the moving of the goal posts.
One can see this angle from prominent pastors and theologians in North America who see the negative implications of the term “religion” and then work to distance their particular denomination from it: “That’s not Christianity. That’s religion.”
Giving the game away, of course, religion is seen as bad by the public more and more, based on well-documented evidence in history and evidence right into the present, and then garners a bad public persona. Christianity then, must, get separated from it. Same for other traditional religions.
Another methodology is simply to denude the term “religion” of context by moving the goal posts to such an extent as to leave anything with long-term adherence as a religion: materialistic pursuits, practicing meditation in a secular context even, or utilization of the tools of science and medicine for the improvement of human wellbeing defined in modern and secular terms.
Selectively quoting some prominent non-believers in history, Sullivan tries to mount the argument with appeals of various forms, including emotional. Without formal religious institutions or, in some modern lines of thought, old Disney films and European folk tales to give structure, order, and meaning, what will become of the world and the nature of being? Are these attacks on traditionalism? Are these assaults on the fundamental substructure of the world, of being itself?
The same as has happened in proportion to the reduction of religious fundamentalism, more freedom of thought and story-making, and meaning-making, and focus on secular notions of well-being: societies become better. Some may point to the United States of America as a high standard of living nation while also retaining high religiosity; we can simply extend the examination internal to the nation.
As it turns out, the most religious states in America have the worst health and wellness outcomes, in general, compared to the more secular ones. Thus, the benefits come with the secular offerings and technological advancements as applied to the standard secular concerns for human wellbeing, e.g., vaccinations, healthcare, better food, easier lives, cleaner working conditions, maternal and infant care, reproductive health technologies, and so on.
This comes, in fact, from a rejection of the non-answers or excuses for the problems of the real world before us, often provided in the form of religious orthodoxy. The argument cropping or popping up more and more is the notion of atheists or non-religious people generally practicing a Christian metaphysics in spite of their protestations to the contrary.
That is to say, from these chauvinists’ views, to behave in a decent and honorable manner, you must be acting in a way reflecting Christianity; therefore, you owe a debt of gratitude to Christianity for behaving well and, in fact, only behave well since you act in a purportedly Christian way.
This is simply a way of saying even ‘atheists’ aren’t atheists because they are Christians or ‘atheists’ who are truly Christians acting out a Christian metaphysics who claim that they aren’t Christian. Assumption: if you act in a good way, then you are Christian; if you act bad, then you are a non-believer. Even if you are a purported or self-proclaimed non-believer, you act as a non-believer with a Christian metaphysics. The chauvinism is “anything Christian good” — presumably, even that chauvinism, though “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” — and “anything bad is not Christian” (The Bible: King James Version, 2018).
No one should play by the rules set out here because a) they’re false as our values predate the mythology of Christianity and b) it’s a simple dishonest Sophist tactic. Ethics is apart from religion. It can be incorporated into the moral systems, myths as guides, and stipulations of the faith, but hundreds of millions of people act well without religion and build better, more functional, and healthier societies with less religion as a heuristic — based on decades of evidence, thus not a hunch but not an axiom either.
There’s a joke among some Westerners with Indian heritage that their parents claim everything came from India. You point to some discovery in scientific or technological marvel, then the punchline is the parent claiming that this came from India.
One can also hear the notion, by analogy, that — quite astonishingly with a straight face said — separation of church and state came from Christianity, as a ‘miracle,’ seen in the statement, purportedly, by Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s,” which is from Matthew 22:21 (2018).
This one takes tremendous amounts of gumption and myopia on the part of the speaker, ignorance — if believed — on the part of the listener, and complicity in the gumption, myopia, and ignorance if journalists or others repeating it, at least uncritically.
Following the foundation of Christianity, we find one of the largest theocracies ever founded in the history of the world with the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity. The same idea can be seen in the analogy. The claim would be this is not true Christianity or real Christianity; that is to say in the former context, everyone behaving good acts in a Christian metaphysics.
Anyone not acting in such a way isn’t a Christian and, therefore, we come to the fallacy known as No True Scotsman. The sloppiness of the arguments is tiresome and the presentation of individuals making these arguments as our public intellectuals and best minds is both a travesty and a shame.
But even taking the issue of homosexuality, one which remains controversial for the hierarchs of the Roman Catholic Christian Church. Not in my words, the church’s own doctrine and positions, richly endowed statements on it, too.
As stated by the Vatican, the proper beliefs are “Sacred Scripture” placing homosexuality and homosexual acts as “acts of grave depravity,” “intrinsically disordered” or “objectively disordered,” “contrary to natural law,” “do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity,” where “homosexual persons are called to chastity” and “under no circumstances can they be approved” (The Vatican, n.d.).
Thus, the hard beliefs behind the firmly suggested practices are chaste sexual lives of homosexuals: men and women. Presumably, anyone engaging in this, within the tradition of Sullivan, become non-Christian; hence, sexually active homosexual (Roman Catholic) Christians becomes an impossibility, especially troublesome as the Good, to some, marks a Christian metaphysics — noted earlier.
Then Sullivan with the banal notions of religion as necessary for human beings states, “Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural” (Sullivan, 2018).
One need merely look, briefly, at the crypto-theocrats within the midst of the United States creating havoc and suffering in the lives of millions of women through blockades to fundamental human rights, as per a statement by Human Rights Watch, of equitable and safe access to abortion. Women get them anyway. However, in the rather desperate and clandestine process, women die and acquire varieties of injuries from unsafe abortions due to restrictions on the “equitable and safe access to abortion.”
To Sullivan’s (2018) question in his soliloquy, “So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed?” He asserts illiberal politics. In fact, the affirmation of fundamentalist Christianity has been an impediment to the liberal politics for a long time, straight into the current moment.
Christianity as illiberal in this interpretation, not in some abstracted and idealized notion but in the illiberal implementation of adherents since its foundation, whether now or with the majority of the German populace as Christian decades ago. That’s not “anchored in and tamed by Christianity”; that’s fanned flames of illiberalism by Christianity, from its origins (Sullivan, 2018).
Secular and humanistic frameworks have been the taming force on Christianity. The impotence of Christians’ love, rather than the simple love, has been a force by which the liberalism has flourished; whereas, when they could, Christians were burning people at the stake or imposing their religion as the state religion, including many who wish to impose Christianity as the state religion in the US and elsewhere — to save souls.
Christianity and Christian mythology formed an early cult in recorded history. Now, the more direct attacks on its supremacy are met with some spurious, but not all, arguments posited by Sullivan and others.
Some decent observations by Sullivan come from the idea of “tribalized… religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country” (Sullivan, 2018).
He seems correct here. Sullivan takes the stance of reduction in Christianity leading to the Trump Administration and others, or Christian truths. Then he uses this to equate or place on the same platform social justice activists, say a Martin Luther King, Jr., with President Trump.
Plentiful important moral work has been done by individual Christians and mass mobilizations by Christian ethical visionaries, but also in a secular social justice framework as well. The issue here is an ascendance not of social justice but, rather, of the obvious, of which the analogs are not many: Christian theocratic hopes tied to negative nationalism or populism. To link this to social justice activists, it amounts to poor journalism as a false equivalency characteristic of simply not seeing past the prejudices of the time.
One prior example of a Christian theocracy was mentioned, Constantinian Christianity is seen in the Roman Empire with the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Another can be seen in fundamentalist Evangelical Christians within the US.
The Bible is steeped in supernaturalism and with political acts and even concluding on a political execution. It is an ancient cult built over centuries. As a political tract and supernatural mythological, and quasi-historical, text, the orientation of Christianity has been political with the “kingdom of God” not necessarily as an other-worldly spatial location, but as a physical location and “kingdom” of the time as some kingdoms were around at the time, including the Roman.
Christianity never truly saw a split between politics and religion in this sense. Hence, the theocratic impulses seen throughout Christian history is the rule and not the exception.
He, once more, asserts, “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” (Sullivan, 2018).
The liberal movements, such as the Enlightenment, were a reaction to the superstition and bigotry of Christianity. The liberalism is anti-Christian in this sense. Now, to the modern fundamental claim of the individual or the purported ‘divine’ individual, or the individual conscience, as bound to the Christian faith, this assertion tends to come from individuals spewing epithets and complaining about identity politics and virtue signaling.
But if we take a moment to reflect, we can note some of the original identity politics in religious identification and virtue signaling prayers and other religious practices. This seems ironic. The Christian identity is one of a group, of a collective in the Body of Christ.
The idea of the social and moral worth of the individual started, in part, with democratic norms and institutions, but, as one can glean from the ideals imagined in Kallipolis by Plato or in the opinions of women by Aristotle, only for a select group of people — most often men.
Plato would be considered progressive for the time; Aristotle would be seen in some of the worst sexist terms today. In Christianity, the focus isn’t on the individual as an idea, but on an individual, Christ, and the collective as an idea, the Body of Christ.
Then the response pivot to this may be a divine spark or soul in each person. But this also predates Christianity, including Egyptians and the Chinese with the conceptualization of a dual-soul and in Aristotle, once more, with a tripartite soul. Epicureans saw the soul as tied to the material body. Platonists saw the soul as an immaterial substance. Duly note, each predating or co-existing with Christianity and having a notion of ensoulment of each individual human being.
The fundamental distinction is in the selection of values and ideas: to the non-religious, they’re chosen; to the religious believer, they’re pre-selected by authority and then given in advance. Sullivan et al simply miss this, often to the detriment of modernity based on their primitivity.
Guttmacher Institute. (2018, March). Induced Abortion Worldwide. Retrieved from https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-worldwide.
Sullivan, A. (2018, December 7). America’s New Religions. Retrieved from nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/12/andrew-sullivan-americas-new-religions.html.
The Bible: King James Version. (2018). Matthew: 22:21. Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+22%3A21&version=KJV.
The Bible: King James Version. (2018). Proverbs: 16:18. Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+16%3A18&version=KJV.
The Vatican. (n.d.). Catechism of the Catholic Church: Part Three, Life in Christ. Retrieved from www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Original publication in Humanist Alliance Philippines International.