This may be the biggest war of them all

War of ideas between Andrew Sullivan at NY Magazine and Ezra Klein at Vox.

Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine Dec 7, 2018.

America’s New Religions
trump-religion-cult.

Political cults are filling the space left by the decline of organized faiths.                              Photo: Loren Elliott/Getty Images

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.)

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.” It 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.

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.

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.

But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs. And this matters. We are a meaning-seeking species. Gray recounts the experiences of two extraordinarily brilliant nonbelievers, John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell, who grappled with this deep problem. Here’s Mill describing the nature of what he called “A Crisis in My Mental History”:
“I had what might truly be called an object in life: to be a reformer of the world. … This did very well for several years, during which the general improvement going on in the world and the idea of myself as engaged with others in struggling to promote it, seemed enough to fill up an interesting and animated existence. But the time came when I awakened from this as from a dream … In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions that you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: ‘No!’”

At that point, this architect of our liberal order, this most penetrating of minds, came to the conclusion: “I seemed to have nothing left to live for.” It took a while for him to recover.

Russell, for his part, abandoned Christianity at the age of 18, for the usual modern reasons, but the question of ultimate meaning still nagged at him. One day, while visiting the sick wife of a colleague, he described what happened: “Suddenly the ground seemed to give away beneath me, and I found myself in quite another region. Within five minutes I went through some such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless.”

I suspect that most thinking beings end up with this notion of intense love as a form of salvation and solace as a kind of instinct. Those whose minds have been opened by psychedelics affirm this truth even further. I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It said “Loving kindness is my religion.” But the salient question is: why?
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. 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.”

But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.

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.

So what happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed? I think what happens is illiberal politics. The need for meaning hasn’t gone away, but without Christianity, this yearning looks to politics for satisfaction. And religious impulses, once anchored in and tamed by Christianity, find expression in various political cults. These political manifestations of religion are new and crude, as all new cults have to be. They haven’t been experienced and refined and modeled by millennia of practice and thought. They are evolving in real time. And like almost all new cultish impulses, they demand a total and immediate commitment to save the world.

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.

The same cultish dynamic can be seen on the right. There, many profess nominal Christianity and yet demonstrate every day that they have left it far behind. Some exist in a world without meaning altogether, and that fate is never pretty. I saw this most vividly when examining the opioid epidemic. People who have lost religion and are coasting along on materialism find they have few interior resources to keep going when crisis hits. They have no place of refuge, no spiritual safe space from which to gain perspective, no God to turn to. Many have responded to the collapse of meaning in dark times by simply and logically numbing themselves to death, extinguishing existential pain through ever-stronger painkillers that ultimately kill the pain of life itself.

Yes, many Evangelicals are among the holiest and most quietly devoted people out there. Some have bravely resisted the cult. But their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith, and much of their flock — a staggering 81 percent voted for Trump — has signed on. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump. He may be the least Christian person in America, but his persona met the religious need their own faiths had ceased to provide. The terrible truth of the last three years is that the fresh appeal of a leader-cult has overwhelmed the fading truths of Christianity.

This is why they are so hard to reach or to persuade and why nothing that Trump does or could do changes their minds. You cannot argue logically with a religion — which is why you cannot really argue with social-justice activists either. And what’s interesting is how support for Trump is greater among those who do not regularly attend church than among those who do.

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.

And this is how they threaten liberal democracy. They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise. They demonstrate, to my mind, how profoundly liberal democracy has actually depended on the complement of a tolerant Christianity to sustain itself — as many earlier liberals (Tocqueville, for example) understood.

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.

To read the full article go HERE

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Ezra Klein at Vox, Dec 12, 2018

The political tribalism of Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan’s essay on political tribalism  shows he’s blinded by his own.

Andrew Sullivan
The problem with Andrew Sullivan’s diagnosis of political tribalism.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

I knew when we launched Vox that there would be criticisms I didn’t anticipate, but I’ll admit, I never foresaw one of them being that “writing explainers” doesn’t satisfyingly replace the role of religion in people’s lives. Yet here we are:

“But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.”

Rats. Foiled again!

That was Andrew Sullivan writing in New York magazine, and while the column caught my attention for that line, which I will now have needle pointed on a pillow, the broader piece is wrong in more important, less amusing, ways.

Sullivan claims that the modern West has lost Christian practice and gained, in its place, a monstrous political tribalism. It’s a looping, strange argument in which he stitches together eloquent reflections on the hollowness of human existence, musings about electronic distraction, and concerns that an ethos of materialist progress has replaced an appreciation of metaphysical awe, all to end in a slashing justification of his own political resentments.

To be clear, I have no interest in litigating anyone’s faith. What I am interested in is American politics, and in this essay, Sullivan offers a nostalgic analysis of our current problems that has become popular among a certain class of pundits — David Brooks calls Sullivan’s essay a shoe-in for his annual Sidney Awards — but that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny, and in fact displays the very biases it laments.

Let’s begin here, with Sullivan’s thesis:  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.

To put this more simply, Sullivan is saying that Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict. A politics moderated by Christianity is merely procedural because the fundamental questions of human dignity have been answered elsewhere.
Absent the calming effects of Christianity, he continues, Americans look to politics to find their meaning, and that escalates the stakes of political conflict. Politics ceases to be procedural and becomes fundamental. Boundaries must be drawn and tribal membership policed. This is Sullivan’s diagnosis of our current divisions. He writes:
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.

This is a relentlessly ahistorical read of American politics. America’s political past was not more procedural and restrained than its present, and religion does not, in general, calm political divides. What Sullivan is missing in these sections is precisely the perspective of the groups he’s dismissing.

But if Sullivan’s essay fails as historical analysis, it succeeds as a metaphor for our times. What he has done is come up with a tribal explanation for political tribalism: The problem is not enough people like him, too many people unlike him. Speaking of what he calls American’s “political cults,” Sullivan writes: “They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise.
Political tribalism is first and foremost a psychological phenomenon, a way of looking at what you’ve defined as your out-groups and seeing in them something very different from what you see in your allies.”

Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in “political cultists” who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with. This is not an analysis of the thinking deepening our political divides, but a demonstration of it.

When was American politics merely procedural? The simplest objection to Sullivan’s narrative is that American politics has never been merely procedural — and, indeed, the more procedural it has felt, the more fundamental its internal conflicts have often been. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it well in our podcast conversation. “A lot of what people nostalgically consider eras without tribalism are in fact moments in American history where people of color, particularly black people, have been deprived of political power, and so things like ethnic and racial lines became less salient.”

I have written about this before, but politics was certainly not mere proceduralism in the country’s early years, when new arrivals from Europe drove out the Native Americans, brought over millions of enslaved Africans, and wrote laws making women second-class citizens.

Presumably, Sullivan isn’t thinking of the runup to the Civil War, either. He can’t possibly be describing the Civil War itself as a period of procedural politics calmed by Christian practice. There’s no way it could’ve been the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, when Southern whites reestablished control of their territory through a campaign of state violence and political repression.

That brings us to the 20th century, when partisanship did indeed ebb as the Dixiecrats’ commitment to white supremacy scrambled the parties ideologically. But this was hardly a calm era in American politics. For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were murdered across the American South. Suffragists were beaten and tortured for seeking the franchise. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack.

“What happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed?” asks Sullivan. “I think what happens is illiberal politics.”

Here, too, the evidence contradicts his thesis. The consensus is that American politics was far more illiberal in our past than in our present. The Varieties of Democracy project, which has been surveying experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, gave the US political system a 48 on a 1-to-100 scale in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. It was only after the civil rights movement that America began scoring in the 70s and 80s, marking it as a largely successful democracy.

The US has lost a couple points in the past few years, to be sure, but its 2017 rating was still 73. The era Sullivan looks back on fondly was, by almost any measure, more illiberal in its politics and more fundamental in its conflicts, in part because the meaning of America — who got to participate in it, and whose claims it heard — was so deeply contested.

But if Sullivan’s sense of history is wrong, it’s not unusual. He looks back on American history and sees a politics of becalmed proceduralism, which was often — though certainly not always — true for white men. He looks around now and he sees identity politics everywhere, political cults warring over fundamental questions of dignity and belonging.

This speaks to a paradox of American politics: It often feels most stable when it is least just, and it often feels least stable when progress is being made. This is a point Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make powerfully in their book How Democracies Die:
The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights — and America’s full democratization — off the political agenda.

Sullivan’s essay is animated by animus at the “woke” warriors he loathes. “‘Social justice’ theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin,” he writes. That’s one way to put it.
Another way to put it is that social justice theory encourages the consideration of privilege in order to prevent people from being so blinded by their own perspective that they look at America’s political past and declaim this the era in which we departed from political proceduralism and collapsed into illiberalism.

To read the full article go HERE.

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Now, if you are still with me I would ask are you with Sullivan or with Klein?

What do you feel about the times we live in, are our times different from past times in being primarily, as Sullivan would have them, procedural, that is battles of procedure rather than differences of underlying beliefs, our beliefs disappearing? Our times, and lives of course, if  without an underlying meaning or religion become as a result tribal wars of “procedure,” characterized by, for example, the endless shouting and tweeting of differences by the Trumpists on one side and the fake news journalists on the other.
Even as I write this I realize just how little I’m with Sullivan whose diagnosis of our times as being the “flowering” of an ugly political tribalism resulting from our being no longer under the restraining influence of Christianity. And just how much I’m with Klein who reminds us that this country’s past, while it did seem more serene, this was only because the no less real and sharp underlying political differences of then were kept well bottled up — blacks, women, native Americans, and any number of others, Japanese during the second world war for example, were confined to the barracks, to the reservations, were kept working long days in the cotton fields.

While in the past there were no fewer “procedural differences,” the disagreements over the theft of the land from the native Americans, the enslavement of the Blacks, later the second enslavement by the creation of Jim Crow laws in the South, were closeted. Kept out of sight by Christianity, and even more, probably, by attendance at the only one church, all of which served to create a superficial serenity (Sullivan’s restraining influence of Christianity). Many of the real differences, the places held by native Americans, blacks, and yes, women, greater differences than those of today, were not yet out in the open, not easily seen. They would be much more visible later,in our time, but not then.

Yes bottling up of huge numbers of Americans did make things calmer then than they seem to be today, at least for those at the top. Today’s unruly tribalism, as one group after another seeks to find its rightful place in the scheme of things, while this does bother Andrew Sullivan, is, I think, a good thing. For aren’t we finally overcoming our prejudices, giving room to our differences, allowing these differences to come out and be seen and heard?

In this sense compared to past times when blacks, women, native Americans, immigrants, the “other” as it were, were put down, held down. That is no longer the case and ours in comparison to then is a good time. Why, no longer do white males lord it over everyone else. And none of this has anything to do, as Sullivan would have it, with the declining influence of Christianity, or of any religion at all. It’s today that the diverse peoples who make up America who are bringing about the changes. Perhaps the declining place of religion in our lives has also helped to bring these good things about.

Andrew Sullivan’s “new religions” may very well make up a new awakening, or as they now say an “awokening.” And if these new “religions” were to address some of the real problems confronting us, global warming, inequalities, and the degradation of the environment and the extinction of more and more life forms, well then we might look to a future without religion with renewed confidence.

One thought on “This may be the biggest war of them all”

  1. Hi Philip,

    My cousin E fits the description of the liberal cult as described by Sullivan. Does not allow for doubt or reason, no compromise, etc.

    I agree with Sullivan’s identification of a problem, that there is a group of people who are irrational/tribal about politics. I’m not quite so convinced that for them it’s a substitute for religion.

    Klein, meanwhile, does not speak to the degree to which he believes there are many such people…he seems to confine his argument to simply disproving Sullivan’s proposed “cause.” I think many of his customers are “woke liberals” and Klein does not want to rattle the cage, even though 10 years ago he would have had contempt for them.

    E’s mom, D, had the same politics as E. Also strongly felt. But D spent her hours differently.

    E pours many hours per day…I’d estimate 5 per day…3 at her job, 2 at night on her phone…consuming the avalanche of liberal outrage, and interacting with it on her Facebook page.

    By contrast, D (a school psychologist) didn’t have the internet at work. And at night, D would spend more energy arguing with her husband and kids, not of course on her phone.

    D probably invested 3 hours per week into Judaism that E does not.

    By contrast, E spends perhaps 35 hours per week on the religion of liberal anger. Where does that time come from? Much from workplace inefficiency. Also from evening substitution of live interactions about the mundane for online interactions about politics.

    My question is more about how many such people there are on both sides, putting this much time into the religion of politics.

    Like

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