Read original article: America’s New Religions
Everyone has a religion, regardless of whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Capitalism, Communism, or Taylor Swift.
Religion is not just God, creation theories, and the afterlife. A religion is any idea, practice, or way of life that gives meaning.
Sullivan defines it as:
“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 transcended value, undying “Truth, or God (or gods).”
I prefer Yuval Noah Harari’s definition from Sapiens:
“A system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in superhuman order.”
That superhuman order may be God. It may also be human rights, equality, or the invisible hand.
A religion gives ultimate meaning to your existence.
“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.”
Further, whether religion is good, bad, true, or false is independent from the behavior of its adherents. Sullivan recalls an exchange between him and Christopher Hitchens about Hitchens’s book, God is Not Great.
“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.”
Sullivan next argues that Christianity specifically has greatly aided democracy.
“Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality.”
Where liberalism can provide structure to running a society, in the United States, Christianity has historically been what provides meaning.
Why does this matter? Because with religion, your meaning is derived from faith, not politics. And without religion, meaning is derived from politics, not faith.
What happens when the fervor, conviction, and emotion that used to be dedicated to religion is instead expressed in political extremes?
“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.”
(Emphasis my own)
Sullivan argues this is a contributing factor to why Americans have become so rooted in political extremes. Human impulses traditionally reserved for religion are finding a new home in 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.”
The superhuman order on the Right is nationalism, freedom, and security (borders, guns). The superhuman order on the Left is inclusion and security (health, financial).
The Left’s social justice ideology mirrors religion awfully closely. It provides an explanation for the world as it is—that it is a result of social power structures. It suggests practices for overcoming this, ranging from regulation to safe spaces to imposing political correctness.
“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.”
My friend Brenner Spear had a great tweet that nicely illustrates this trend:
Much like past tensions between traditional religion and science, the modern Left and Right are selective about the science they believe. The Right denies science when it conflicts with their fossil fuel agenda. The Left denies science when it conflicts with their views on DNA and race.
Without Christianity, liberal democracy has a crisis on its hands as our religious, tribal energy seeks a new home.
Sullivan seems split about this situation. On one hand, he makes a dark prediction:
“Will the house still stand when its ramparts are taken away? I’m beginning to suspect it can’t.”
On the flip side, these religions are new and evolving, which is why they are rough around the edges, and with time, they’ll have a clearer shape and balance.