Uh oh, head for cover! Andrew Sullivan is having deep thoughts again


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.

Comments

  1. consciousness razor says

    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.

    I’m not sure if Wright is an atheist. He’s very hard to pin down, on basically every issue … possibly the biggest waffler the world has ever seen. I don’t mean the good kind of waffles.

    He’s not a traditional theist, more of a vague spiritualist type. But in his vlogging interviews with philosophers and such,** it’s pretty clear that he’s got a core set of supernaturalist beliefs that he doesn’t want to let go of, while trying to make it feel a bit more naturalistic than Christianity (which isn’t saying much). Or at least he wants to it to seem a bit sophisticated, intellectually respectable, not easily refuted, etc. He loves to argue about these things but is also very stubborn, so I often come away thinking the whole exercise was pointless. He’s a radical centrist/agnostic — a person who is purportedly lacking an extreme set of views (or one might say a coherent set of views), who will go through any number of absurdities to hold onto them.
    ** Yes, I’ve suffered through a bunch of them, because the people he’s interviewing can usually manage to say a few interesting things.

  2. Mano Singham says

    consciousness razor,

    I agree that Wright is a bit hard to pin down. But in his latest book Why Buddhism is True, he seems to be an advocate of Buddhism as a form of practice without any of the supernatural elements. In a note to readers he explicitly makes this point.

    I am not talking about the “supernatural” or the exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation for example – but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy.

    It seems to me that he is coming about as close to being an atheist as you can get without explicitly saying so.

  3. consciousness razor says

    It seems to me that he is coming about as close to being an atheist as you can get without explicitly saying so.

    Sure … he may be close, but still isn’t quite hitting the mark. That’s what you meant, right?

    I don’t know what to make of statements like this:

    I am not talking about the “supernatural” or the exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – reincarnation for example – but rather about the naturalistic parts: ideas that fall squarely within modern psychology and philosophy.

    Well, okay… modern philosophy is the place to go for exotic metaphysics. (Older philosophy used to be the place to go, back when it wasn’t so old.) I mean, there’s no general problem with doing metaphysics, but it’s not all naturalistic just because it’s done outside of a theology department. So does he think anything in particular is really being excluded by that?

    Clearly, he’s not in favor of specific things like reincarnation…. But dualism? Sure, he doesn’t see that as a problem and would resist calling it supernaturalism. Libertarian free will? Yeah, that’s fine too. Teleology or some sort of cosmic meaning/purpose? No problem. As long as people don’t ask him too much about what he means by “naturalistic,” much like what Sullivan means by “religion,” then that’s how he’d like to brand it. It seems like he wants to water the term down, to the point where it’s merely about accepting a few basic facts in the natural sciences (e.g., evolution, big bang cosmology, climate change), because that’s where he happens to stand on those topics. But beyond that, it’s pretty much anything goes — and crucially, he doesn’t want it to be connected with physicalism or reductionism.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Bush-Cheney booster Andrew Sullivan…

    Just for for-the-record fairness, pls note that Sullivan did turn against the “enhanced interrogation” torture program, with some well-phrased and -researched comparisons to its Third Reich precedents.

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