Catholic apologist, fervent Iraq war-cheerleader, and Bush-Cheney booster Andrew Sullivan has a long article where he ruminates on how only religion can save us from tribalism. That alone should set off warning bells because religion has been one of the major drivers of tribalism. This article reveals clearly the kind of apologetics that Sullivan specializes in, whether it be for warmongering or political opportunism, where he starts from his desired conclusion and then works his way back to the beginning.
He gets off to a rocky start and actually begins his piece by making the broad statement that everyone has a religion and hence that atheism is also a form of religion. Already we are in silly territory because when you say that something like religion is so universal that everything, including its negation, falls under its umbrella, then the word ceases to have any meaning.
So what does he mean by the word religion?
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).
That is question-begging on a grand scale. I can choose to live in a particular way, because it satisfies me for various reasons that I acquire from the experience of living. I can call the reasons for that choice ‘meaning’. But in that case, meaning drives the choice of the way of life, not the other way of around. How can a way of life, by itself, give meaning? To say so implies that one randomly chooses a way of life and voila! suddenly why one did so reveals itself. And to top it off, he claims that the meaning arrived at reveals a ‘transcendent value’.
So basically, his real argument (as opposed to the backwards construction he uses to imply that he arrived at his god’s existence by deductive reasoning) is to say:
Only gods can provide meaning
We all have/need some meaning in our lives.
Hence we all believe in gods
Fortunately, Mike Pesca and Ezra Klein save me the trouble of rebutting Sullivan in detail. Pesca has a wonderfully brutal detailed takedown of what he call’s Sullivan’s ‘twaddle’, pointing out all the flaws in his reasoning. As Pesca says, “The essay combines sophistry with circular reading to achieve as pure an expression of pseudo-intellectualism as you will ever read.” Meanwhile Vox’s Klein is more polite but no less critical. (Thanks to reader Robert for sending me all three links.)
The articles by Pesca and Klein cover pretty much all the ground but I wanted to briefly focus on just a few more points. Sullivan name-drops well-known atheists such as Sam Harris, Robert Wright, and the late Christopher Hitchens, referring to all of them as his ‘friends’ to show that he has no animus towards atheism and that his objections to it are purely intellectual. It is a variant of the old “Some of my best friends are blacks/Jews/Muslims” pre-emptive defense against accusations of bias.
He then brings up a hoary old chestnut that science, while good, is incomplete and can never be sufficient for people because science does not provide people with meaning but only religion does. I can do no better than this cartoon of Jesus and Mo in dealing with that point.