interesting times

America’s New Religions

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.

What’s Left?

Here are a couple of questions for Democrats about two of their potential 2020 candidates: What motivated Kirsten Gillibrand’s widely noted tweet this week? And why is there so much discontent on the left with Elizabeth Warren?

On Tuesday evening, Gillibrand tweeted: “Our future is female. Intersectional. Powered by our belief in one another. And we’re just getting started.” I get the point: Women are succeeding more than ever before, are poised to do even better, and this is a great thing. But why express this as if men are also not part of the future? And “intersectional”? It’s telling that, in Democratic circles, this is such a mainstream word now that she doesn’t have to explain it to anyone.

Gillibrand’s evolution, of course, has been long in the works — and reveals, I’d say, where the Democrats are going. When Gillibrand was a member of Congress, she identified as a Blue Dog conservative Democrat. She once campaigned in defense of gun rights, was in favor of cracking down on illegal immigration, voted against the 2008 bank bailout, and opposed marriage equality. Fast-forward a decade and look at the change.

She first reversed her previous anti-gay positions, and was even instrumental in ending the gay ban in the military. By 2015, she invited Emma Sulkowicz to the State of the Union, a person who alleged they had been raped at Columbia University, despite Columbia’s, the NYPD’s, and the district attorney general’s investigations ending without a finding of rape, indeed finding “a lack of reasonable suspicion.” On social media, Sulkowicz was known as “Mattress Girl,” carrying an extra-long twin around the campus to exemplify the burden they felt (Sulkowicz identifies as nonbinary) and to pressure Columbia into expelling her alleged rapist. Gillibrand, who once opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get driving licenses, is also now a supporter of abolishing ICE.

And, of course, she famously engineered the resignation of one of the more talented Democrats in the Senate, Al Franken, because of a forced stage kiss, allegations of groping, and a photo of him pretending to grab a fellow USO entertainer’s boobs. We won’t ever get to the bottom of all that because Gillibrand demanded Franken’s resignation merely on the basis of allegations, and within a day, Franken had resigned, before the Senate Ethics Committee had finished an investigation. “Enough is enough,” she declared, invoking the “existing power structure of society” to end due process for Franken. I do not begrudge Gillibrand for her transformation, but it is hard to believe that political calculation was absent. She’s running for president, and invoking the language of critical gender theory, she seems to believe, will help her in the primaries.

Then there’s the Democratic backlash against Elizabeth Warren. You’d think it would be about her terrible political judgment, as demonstrated by her spectacular self-immolation on the “issue” of her claimed Native American ancestry. But no! The reason many Democrats have turned on her is that she used a DNA test at all to prove her family lore. From the New York Times: “She has yet to allay criticism from grass-roots progressive groups, liberal political operatives and other potential 2020 allies who complain that she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science — and, in doing so, played into Mr. Trump’s hands … Ms. Warren has also troubled advocates of racial equality and justice, who say her attempt to document ethnicity with a D.N.A test gave validity to the idea that race is determined by blood — a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.” The social-justice movement’s suspicion of science, especially genetics, is at work here. And it is not “racial science” to examine your DNA to see which genetic subpopulation in the world you belong to, or where your ancestors lived. It’s science.

So if you send off for a 23andMe test, in the view of many Democrats, you’re a white supremacist! This seems to be where the Democratic Party now is. Hunker down for a second term of Donald J. Trump.

A Moment of Truth

I almost never cry in movies, even tear-jerkers. But the other night, I sat down and watched Darkest Hour, the movie, now available on HBO, that follows (well, kinda) John Lukacs’s account of the five days in May 1940 when Britain, its entire army stuck in France and its air force still woefully unequal to the Luftwaffe, stared into the abyss. Many in the elite believed that some kind of accommodation with Hitler was the only option — keeping him at bay and preserving much of the Empire. That policy of a peace treaty was, to my mind, a highly persuasive way forward in the naked short-term interest of the United Kingdom. Lord Halifax famously championed it in a vital cabinet meeting.

Something in Churchill resisted. There’s a factually ridiculous but dramatically powerful scene when Winston jumps out of his official car and into the tube, where the passengers greet him first with British politeness (no mass selfies back then), and then begin a conversation. Churchill lays out the reasons for a peace treaty and asks the Londoners what they think of dealing with Hitler this way. “Never!” they shout back. “Never!” Interests be damned. A figure like Hitler has to be confronted and defeated. To slink away from this moral obligation violated their sense of patriotism, their understanding of what Britain meant to a world suffocating in tyranny. The great symbol of this refusal to appease was, of course, the rescue of the troops from Dunkirk by hundreds and hundreds of ordinary Brits in various boats and ships, defying Nazi control of the air to save their “boys” as they called them. It was an upwelling of moral purpose, of real grit against all the odds, and as I watched Gary Oldman deliver the “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat” speech that Churchill gave in the Commons, my eyes were swimming.

Why had my response been so intense, I asked myself when my bout of blubbering had finally subsided? Part of it, of course, is my still-lingering love of the island I grew up in; part is my love of Churchill himself, in all his flaws and greatness. But I think it was mainly about how the people of Britain shook off the moral decadence of the foreign policy of the 1930s, how, beneath the surface, there were depths of feeling and determination that we never saw until an existential crisis hit, and an extraordinary figure seized the moment.

And I realized how profoundly I yearn for something like that to reappear in America. The toll of Trump is so deep. In so many ways, he has come close to delegitimizing this country and entire West, aroused the worst instincts within us, fed fear rather than confronting it, and has been rewarded for his depravity in the most depressing way by everything that is foul on the right and nothing that is noble.

I want to believe in America again, its decency and freedom, its hostility, bred in its bones, toward tyranny of any kind, its kindness and generosity. I need what someone once called the audacity of hope. I’ve witnessed this America ever since I arrived — especially its embrace of immigrants — which is why it is hard to see Trump tearing migrant children from their parents. That America is still out there, I tell myself, as the midterms demonstrated. It can build. But who, one wonders, is our Churchill? And when will he or she emerge?

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: America’s New Religions