Everything is a religion, according to Andrew Sullivan


I’m away. I’m on a break. I’m distracted by an adorable baby granddaughter. But even with those diversions, the stench of Andrew Sullivan’s latest column has disturbed my rest. It is just too stupid. I was stunned by the first paragraph, staggered a little further, and collapsed in defeat.

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.

I’ve seen this a thousand times before, and I know what will follow. Sullivan is going to give us his own, personal, idiosyncratic definition of “religion” that he has made so broad and nebulous that he can assign it to everyone, no matter how godless they might be, and he’s going to rely on general human properties that he can then interpret as “religious”.

By the way, no genes for religion have been identified. Not one. He’s lying, unsurprisingly for someone who liked The Bell Curve. He links to a book by some guy named Dominic Johnson, who does have a degree in evolutionary biology, and from what I can see relies entirely on bullshit evolutionary psychology to make his claims.

Here comes his redefinition:

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).

I see that he has also redefined the word “specific”, because that is broadly vapid nonsense, not specific at all. A “practice”? So is writing garbage for NYMag his religion? Appearing on Bill Maher’s show is a religion? Except that it is specifically not a theory, but at the same time it requires a “transcendant value” that gives “meaning”. This is such a muddled mess of contradictions and immeasurable assertions that it in itself gives the lie to the idea that it could be based on something as concrete as a gene. He really wants us to believe that this wobbly bullshit is a load-bearing pillar…of jello. And it’s all set up to support this groaner of a familiar assertion by theists.

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion.

If your definition of religion is so amorphous that you can claim everything is a religion, then you’ve said nothing useful. You’ve turned religion into white noise. Religious people ought to find that as offensive as atheists do.

Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God,

Wait. I thought religion was a practice, not a theory. But now he’s including “faith” and ideas about a hypothetical concept. He can’t even stick to his own definition!

…and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer.

So now it’s defined by daily rituals? I get up in the morning, brush my teeth, have a cup of coffee…this is now, in the mind of Andrew Sullivan, a religion. Hey, if I didn’t get out of bed, my life would be meaningless, if I never brushed my teeth, I’d be disgusting and would die of dental disease, and no coffee…that would be an unimaginable hell.

Also, my spiders spend their days in the endless ritual of maintaining their webs, and their lives would end without them. Therefore, spiders are religious. Maybe they don’t have a concept of a god (which I don’t know for sure), but remember…religion is a practice that gives meaning to life. And is genetic. If you can claim that atheists who explicitly reject gods and religion are religious, we’re at the point where you can’t stop me from claiming spiders are religious.

…(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.)

OK, I’m done. I can read no further than the point where he claims Sam Harris is a brilliant atheist because he follows some Buddhist practices.

When will NYMag wake up to the fact that they’ve got a columnist who writes drivel? Probably never, since the NY Times has a similar problem, and will never change.

Comments

  1. says

    My way of life that gives meaning can only be defended without transcendent value or undying truth. It can be defended with a god but only if we agree that god can be me and there’s no reason to actually go there.

  2. says

    Everything is a salad. By salad I mean something specific: a practice, not a theory; a way of tossing together ingredients, and then eating them. Even today’s magazine columnists are expressing an attenuated form of saladness. Their use of words is as absolute as others’ romaine lettuce.

  3. nathanieltagg says

    I’ll believe he means this when I get tax exempt status for looking through my telescope.

  4. Big Boppa says

    Listen very closely. The spiders are chanting “All hail the bearded one, the giver of bugs”.

  5. bcwebb says

    @Siggy: believing in Romaine right now is just an example of how dangerous some of these religious practices can be.

    However, having talked about salad, I believe I’ll practice some lunch.

  6. ardipithecus says

    I get out of bed to pee. Once up, I often stay up. Momentum. I strongly suspect the cosmos would shift if I found some deeper meaning in the ritual.

  7. jerthebarbarian says

    There goes Andrew – once again unable to believe that anyone exists who isn’t him.

    I do have a belief that I live my life by, but I don’t think it’s a religion. It’s “try not to be shitty to other people”. My defense of it is “I don’t want to live in a world full of shitty people, so I do what I can to make the world less shitty.”

    I don’t know if there’s an underlying “transcendent value” there – it’s similar to the reason I don’t take a dump in my main drinking water supply or throw candybar wrappers on my lawn. Certainly I don’t think there’s a supernatural entity enforcing this behavior – if there were I suspect that there would be far fewer shitty people in the world…

  8. says

    “have a cup of coffee…this is now, in the mind of Andrew Sullivan, a religion”
    Many of us would surely agree with him in this specific practice—excuse me I need another cup…….

  9. stevewatson says

    This is just the squishy liberal version of something an evangelist once said to me: “Every man lives according to his concept of God, even atheists”. I was still figuring out where I stood on some issues at the time, and as usual I don’t think well on my feet, so of course it was only later I came up with some appropriate replies (by which I mean: perfectly civil, but firmly repudiatory). But that particular conversation had one good outcome: It made me realize that I was finished being a hesitant agnostic; I was an atheist and I was fine with that.

    Now I can think of some things that have taken the place in my life that religion (both belief and praxis) used to occupy, but they don’t count as “religion” by any reasonable definition (though one might very loosely apply the term “spiritual” to them, but I don’t).

  10. Zeppelin says

    I’m an anticoffeeistic acoffeeist, myself.

    (Seriously though, there’s a coffee shop I walk past sometimes with a sign outside that says “never trust someone who doesn’t drink coffee”. And it genuinely annoys me because I suspect they’re working under the assumption that everyone drinks coffee and that it’s therefore a victimless insult. Is that the beverage equivalent of Sullivan’s “everyone is religious” myopia?)

  11. voidhawk says

    To arguments like this, or definitions of ‘God’ which are similarly nebulous, I’m tempted to say: “Fine, so what?”

    Yes, by your broad definition of religion, I have a religion, but what conclusions can we draw from this? What’s the use?

  12. Jazzlet says

    I don’t actually think life does have meaning. Ultimately we all die, and even those who do things that make them famous for a time will be forgotten when humans cease to exist. It’s no big deal, just the way the universe seems to be.

  13. brucegee1962 says

    I spend a lot of time trying to persuade my students that, if they’re going to state some opinion or belief or claim in an essay, they ought to have evidence to back it up.
    That is my definition of the difference between religion and non-religion. Religious creeds don’t require any evidence — in fact, religious folks are quite proud of their ability to belief things without any evidence whatsoever (extolling the values of “faith”). Non-religious belief requires evidence.
    Heck, I think I’ll just go with Mark Twain’s definition: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

  14. willj says

    meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God

    Philosophers have argued about meaning, value, truth, and God for centuries and he’s managed to use them all in one phrase. Transcendent is another nebulous word, but it sounds cool.

  15. Holms says

    If your definition of religion is such that applies to everyone on the planet, and in no way resembles the operative definition for virtually all english speakers, maybe… choose a different word.

  16. Akira MacKenzie says

    …a way of life that gives meaning…

    Who’s going to tell Andy that life has no “meaning…” whatever that means.

  17. says

    I am pretty sure picking on Sullivan counts as a ritual.

    Anyway, I am not sure about religion but I do find it odd that atheists don’t like it when you point out that atheism is an answer in theological matters.

  18. Sastra says

    Whenever someone who loves religion defines it so loosely that it encompasses any general value system, guiding principles, or habit of behavior, you can be darn sure that at some point they’re going to walk it back and mean religion when they say “religion.” It’s a sort of bait n switch tactic which tries to justify supernatural beliefs by association. Everyone believes something: therefore, my belief that God exists is on the same level as your belief He that doesn’t, his belief that coffee is delicious, her belief it isn’t, and their belief that the earth goes round the sun. Who’s to know? It’s all faith. It’s all religion.

    So atheists need to get some humility and shut up. We all need religion because God is calling us.

  19. thirdmill301 says

    You know, I actually don’t like the word “atheist” because it defines me by what I don’t believe rather than by what I do believe. Also, there’s a long list of things I don’t believe — leprechauns, weather predictions by groundhogs on February 2, astrology, palm reading — and my disbelief in those doesn’t have a special word, so why should gods get special billing?
    On the subject of defining religion, one of my college philosophy classes devoted two full weeks to how words are defined. As much as I remember is that a definition must include all members of what is being defined, only members of what is being defined, be positive in terms of stating what something is rather than what it is not, and include both a genera (the class of things to which the term belongs) and a differentia (what distinguishes it from other members of the same genera). So, for example, “religion” is “a belief system based on the supernatural”. “Belief system” is the genera, “based on the supernatural” is the differentia. And I’m quite certain my old philosophy professor would take one look at Andrew’s definition and give him an F since it doesn’t seem to meet any of those requirements.

  20. Akira MacKenzie says

    Andy’s mind-fart is odd considering that he supposedly stands under “reals before feels” banner. Aren’t you suppose to be about cold hard facts instead of those filthy emotions? You shouldn’t care whether or not prayer and meditation make people feel good, you’re suppose that demand whether or not the cosmic super-being you’re communing with is real or not!

    I suppose right-wing (ahem) “rationality” only applies when you’re not trying to defend the opiate of the masses.

  21. asoricaho says

    As I said when commenting on the Eric Sprankle post, our host and other atheist commenters resent it when believers tell us what we believe instead of asking us what we believe. But then some atheists turn around and do exactly the same thing to believers, Eric Sprankle to wit.

    In their myth, Christians believe that Mary consented to the birth of Jesus:
    https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/let-it-be-marys-radical-declaration-of-consent/266616/
    Atheists telling Christians that they should believe a different version of their myth so that they can denigrate Christianity is the same as Christians telling atheists that atheism is a religion so that they can denigrate atheism.

  22. Ed Seedhouse says

    I think this is just an ancient fallacy. If we say “everything is x” there is nothing to contrast “x” to and so it actually has no meaning. Sullivan “wins” his argument by depriving the word “religion” of all meaning. He might as well say “Everyone is xclagious”.

  23. Owlmirror says

    @asoricaho:

    It’s more consistent to respond to points in the original thread that that the topic arose in, rather than reposting it in a different thread. It might make a little more sense if the older thread had been closed, or at least pushed off the sidebar, but it’s still open and right there.

    Anyway:

    In their myth, Christians believe that Mary consented to the birth of Jesus:
    […]
    Atheists telling Christians that they should believe a different version of their myth

    That’s not what Eric was doing, though. He was saying that in their own myth, Mary was a young girl under implied duress, and that consent under duress is not meaningful.

    Christians might disagree about her being under duress, but the duress is implied by every story in the bible were God punishes people with death for disobedience. In the story of Luke 1 itself, just before the scene with Mary, Zechariah is punished with muteness just for expressing concerns about his age and his wife’s age.

    Mary is presumably not ignorant of all of those stories of what God does to those who do not agree to do what he says, and is therefore under duress.

  24. says

    @24

    That is exceedingly uncharitable to what Sprankle said. He did not claim Christians believe Mary didn’t consent. He said the biblical text doesn’t support the notion that Mary consented and that is very horrifying. No one is under any obligation to accept anyone’s interpretation just because they say so.

    A lot of Christians believe the sin of Sodom was (consensual) homosexuality-it is why the word ‘sodomy’ exists-however if you pay close attention to the text that reading doesn’t really hold up that well. Am I allowed to have my own take on the text or must I simply submit to Christians’ (and whose?) interpretation.

  25. asoricaho says

    @Owlmirror You are telling Christians that they should believe a different version of the myth they believe in, so that you can then assault them for that other belief. The Christian myth isn’t that Mary gave fake consent because she was under threat, it’s that Mary gave her consent, period. The Virgin Mary as envisioned by Christians does not exist and never existed, so arguing that this non-existent person was “really” scared and gave unwilling consent is just beyond silly.

    Oddly enough, consent under threat is well-established Jewish myth. The bible has a Hebrew phrase translated as “the Israelites were at the base of (Mt. Sinai)” but can be read over-literally as “the Israelites were under (Mt. Sinai).” The exegesis has it that God raised the mountain over the Israelites and would have buried them under it had they refused to accept the Torah. And this is nevertheless not construed as in any way invalidating the consent the Israelites gave!

  26. consciousness razor says

    The Christian myth isn’t that Mary gave fake consent because she was under threat, it’s that Mary gave her consent, period.

    So what is that supposed to mean? They believe that somehow there isn’t an enormous power differential between God and Mary?

    It could be a point of religious doctrine that “God” is just some dude who is able to engage with Mary on equal terms, without coercion, etc. They’re just two ordinary entities. Mary’s a human as usual, and God isn’t the powerful creator of the universe who routinely threatens people who fail to do whatever it wants. Is that what they think? Or what exactly do they think?
    It’s not a point of religious doctrine that consent doesn’t work in a meaningful sense when it involves people who are not on equal terms, etc. That’s simply not what we people mean by “consent,” when they are fluent in English and have a basic understanding of the issues involved. And when we criticize them for something, it’s for that thing, which is expressed in our shared language that applies to the real world. It’s not going to be for what they wish our criticism was about, so that they can thoughtlessly dismiss it.
    If they have a different concept (let’s call it “Christian-consent-which-makes-God’s-actions-seem-okay” for lack of a better term), then they can have it, but that’s not what anybody talks about when they use the ordinary concept of consent, nor is it what we’re talking about when we criticize Christianity in this regard. We can obviously put the criticism in our terms, even if they do invent some bizarre set of terms which may be totally irrelevant.

  27. asoricaho says

    @27 I don’t think I’m being uncharitable at all. He tweeted “The virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen. There is no definition of consent that would include that scenario.” Saying that this is what the story “is” about is a clear attack on Christianity as being bad (as opposed to false), not just his own interpretation of the bible.

    In any case, he’s not even right on his own terms. An all-knowing deity would know (duh) whether or not Mary’s consent was genuine.

  28. nomdeplume says

    A related problem to the Sullivan one is the use in the media of terms like “spirituality” and “sacred” and “mystical” as if these were uncontroversial widely accepted concepts in the real world.

  29. zetopan says

    The incurably religious have to reduce everything to religious belief since that is the only chance they have of winning their argument. If it is a matter of religious belief, the person with the most conviction “wins”. As history has clearly shown, without a belief in magic, religion quickly sublimes away. Hence the gawds are always the ultimate magicians.

  30. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the NY Times has a similar problem, and will never change.

    The NYT‘s religion apparently consists of both-sides-ism, with the first commandment saying “Thou shalt not speak ill of wingnuts!”

  31. thirdmill301 says

    As for whether Mary consented, having been raised all her life to believe that God’s will is good and righteous, I suspect that Mary would have felt so honored to have been impregnated with Baby Jesus that she would have been thrilled to give her consent, power differential or not. Especially also given that she had been raised in a culture that taught her from childhood that a woman’s only real value was having children.

    There are far worse problems with Christianity than whether Mary consented. On the list of problems with Christianity, this one is way, way down on the list.

  32. Zeppelin says

    @asoricaho

    And this is nevertheless not construed as in any way invalidating the consent the Israelites gave!

    You’re right, God does a lot of fucked-up and coercive things in various accounts of him, and the authors of the Bible don’t bat an eye! Which lends further credence to the idea that Mary’s consent, as we understand the concept, was irrelevant to the tellers of her story and to God as they envisioned him. Mary is virtuous because she obeys God. And there’s a reason people who obey God are called “god-fearing“.

  33. asoricaho says

    @29 “Or what exactly do they think?”

    They think that despite God being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, He has given people free will to accept Him or not, as evidenced by the fact that so many people, both in the Bible and in the world, do in fact reject Him and disobey His will. They think that Mary bookends the story of Eve. Eve used her free will to reject God’s will and brought sin and death to the world, and Mary used her free will to choose bear the Savior who brought salvation and eternal life.

    Christian theology has had a millennium and a half to deal with philosophical issues like this. Cherry picking a quote from the Bible and treating it as some major riposte against religion is behaving exactly like creationists who cherry pick some fact from biology and treat it as “proof” that evolution is fake. In terms of the Courtier’s Reply, it’s OK for you to say that the emperor is naked without having read all the tailoring books, but if instead you say that the emperor’s clothes are ugly, those books become very relevant.

  34. willj says

    #36 “They think that despite God being all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, He has given people free will to accept Him or not, as evidenced by the fact that so many people, both in the Bible and in the world, do in fact reject Him and disobey His will.”

    If God created something he can’t control, whose fault is that? So he gives you free will and then punishes you for actually using it. The Flood story is that of a child playing with legos who didn’t like what he made and then smashed it.

  35. Owlmirror says

    @asoricaho:

    You are telling Christians that they should believe a different version of the myth they believe in

    No. I can’t make anyone believe anything. Heck, you’re misreading me so badly I can’t seem to make you believe what I’m trying to say!

    The Christian myth isn’t that Mary gave fake consent because she was under threat, it’s that Mary gave her consent, period. The Virgin Mary as envisioned by Christians does not exist and never existed, so arguing that this non-existent person was “really” scared and gave unwilling consent is just beyond silly.

    Actually, the story implies that she’s scared. The angel says “Do not be afraid”, implying that her natural reaction is fearful.

    If you’re going to talk about characters in a narrative, it’s meaningful to discuss what they know and feel, as characters in the given context. If Dorothy is a little girl from Kansas, it’s reasonable to say that she is afraid of the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz when she first meets him, given what she’s been told about the Wizard.

    If Mary is a girl who has grown up as a Jew in Roman Judea, it’s reasonable to say that she knows the stories about her religion. If those stories describe God as doing horrible things to people who disobey him, it’s reasonable to say that Mary knows that something horrible could happen to her if she disagrees or balks at God telling her what he wants her to do. If Mary knows that something horrible could happen to her, she knows enough to be afraid.

  36. raven says

    Andrew Sullivan is an idiot.

    Everyone has a religion.

    No they don’t.

    …a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

    No they don’t.
    Tens of millions have lives with meanings they created that have nothing to do with god or gods, or any Transcendent value, whatever that means.
    Sullivan is simply lying.
    He is making factual claims that are just obviously, verifiably wrong.

  37. chrislawson says

    Owlmirror, feel free to ignore asoricho — just another angela78 who deals with getting their asses handed to them in one thread by derailing an unrelated thread with their previous bunkum regurgitated and with a self-declared victory speech. I wouldn’t be surprised if they buy fancy certficate paper just so they can print out their own imaginary awards.

  38. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    ugh, I made it through that sludge by Sullivan. He keeps making indivudual points that at first seem reasonable and then tryies to bundle them all up into a sludge heap of dung.

    He attacked the cult of “45”, then stated attacking their biggest opponents. Being a fan of Warren, I’ll take on this chapter of his.
    First he continues the myth she made a big point of her Native American Heritage. As I said, a myth, she only mentioned it in passing, and never used it to get into college nor get grants, nor appointments to faculty positions. HE then complains she took the 23&Me test top prove her assertion. No she took it discover herself whether her parents had lied to her unintentionally by passing on family folklore. She shared the results to finally get it out of the way when trying to focus on more relevant issues. He says by taking the test she played intoe Trump’s hand” dot dot dot. I ask myself, what would he be saying had she never shared the results, or never taken the test. I think He would still accuse her of hiding the results, or refusing to learn the truth.

    so on and so on

    he attacks both sides trying to say our built-in need to have answers to difficult questions make us latch onto any convenient system, either theism, or politics, or atheism, an anarchism; this is the true_meaning of religion and we’re fucked.
    — he makes no coherent sense, stringing individual sensible arguments to make a mash of sludge
    .
    thank you

  39. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    typos @47:
    then stated attacking… <–then staRted attacking…
    inoe <– into
    He keeps making indivudual points that at first seem reasonable and then tryies to bundle them <– individual // tries

  40. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Mary was raped. [full stop]. Regardless of physical penetration, Gawd planted a child in her womb with the lifelong responsibility of raising it. She didn’t ask for it, simply accepted it as her fate, or gift, or etc. Rape is not only the act of physical penetration, or dominance of wills. Rape has many aspects.

  41. says

    @30

    It is an attack on Christianity sure. but to claim a story is about X is, implicitly, to say the speaker thinks the story means X in common practice. If I say Midnight Cowboy is about alienation, I am clearly giving my interpretation of the film. That says next to nothing about the belief that Midnight Cowboy is about sex work. I am well aware of the various interpretive and philosophical schema Christians use to deny or evade the issue. I am under no obligation to find them convincing.

    Also as point of concept, God knowing Mary consented (or not) does not entail caring if she did.

  42. vucodlak says

    @ asoricaho, #28

    The Christian myth isn’t that Mary gave fake consent because she was under threat, it’s that Mary gave her consent, period.

    As I said in the thread that was actually about that, this is not true. It wasn’t true in the church I was raised in. It isn’t true in any church of the denomination (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) I was raised. It is untrue in many other denominations, like the Southern Baptist churches I visited with friends, growing up.

    Some Christians may believe Mary consented, but I don’t think they’re in the majority. That’s not the way the story has ever been taught anywhere I’ve heard it. That’s not the way it’s written in the Bible. Mary was chosen- if she had any choice at all, it was made under extreme duress. That she chose not to suffer some other, more horrible, fate doesn’t mean she gave real consent. “Obey me, or get eaten by a big fish” is no better than “obey me, or I’ll shoot you.”

    There is a reason many Christians label themselves “God-fearing.”

    Many Christians probably don’t think about whether Mary consented or not. That’s not the same as believing that she did consent. Nor does the fact that this lack of consent is usually glossed over in the adapted versions of the myth excuse willful ignorance.

  43. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    corroborating @51:
    In my RCC childhood the story of Mary never mentioned anything about consent, only that she was told by Gabriel that she was chosen to bear the son of god. She simply accepted it silently with no objection.

    The point that she did not object, does not lift the charge of rape in its more generic definition. She was suddenly presented with a life altering burden without informed consent.

    that is all

  44. Kamaka says

    Do these religionists have any self-awareness at all? Arrogant fucks who pretend to know my thoughts and feelings?

    So here’s some arrogance for you, Mr. Sullivan:

    Projecting your god-belief and making it all mushy and indefineable in no way makes me a “believer” of any stupid supernatural nonsense.

    Here’s the cold hard truth Andrew: There are no gods. Religion arises from the fear of dead people we dream about.

    You and I and all of human existence will, in time, fall away and be totally unnoticed by an uncaring universe.

    Too bad for you that you make shit up (for you and me both) so you can avoid accepting life as it really is.

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