After God

I came to the BBC docu-series The Sea of Faith by way of the Samuel Barber musical setting of the Matthew Arnold poem which its title references. I later discovered it’s author and narrator, Don Cupitt, was a prolific writer and former priest. I’ve been familiar with his work long enough to cherish his contributions to religious thought but I only recently revisited After God, a stunning gem of a book which is made even more remarkable by how prescient it seems nearly 25 years after its publication.

Cupitt’s writing is so unusual because he splits his attention between laypeople and academics yet never fails either. His references to the philosophical canon are deep, yet if you don’t know the citation you’re immediately made aware of its importance without his ever being patronizing. He is fluent in the technical language of Kant but speaks as directly and colloquially as a friend.

His writing, viewed some 25 years later, rarely feels dated. His interest in Derrida, Foucault, and the post-structuralists feels of it’s time: those writers today are relegated to a historical tradition which doesn’t place them much higher than other writers, but much of the writing from the later half of the 20th century feels like a direct response to them. His construction of religion as language feels steeped in Wittgenstein; I don’t think a contemporary writer would try to frame his argument thus nor rely so heavily on the construction of language.

The prescience he demonstrates in his examination of religious history is culminated in his remarks about literalism. He nearly predicts our current climate of intensely divided ideology. He links this dying conservatism to authoritarianism, which is clearly demonstrated in a current day Republican Party which follows no ideology but seeks only power-for-power’s-sake. He presages the continued decline of religion- since he wrote in the 90s, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has probably doubled, or more. What seemed like a crisis in the 90s today is an unabated trend.

And yet there are still believers! I agree with him that, in the future, all philosophy will be naturalistic. Yet we’re still arguing those basic points today! The Sea of Faith has ebbed but not emptied. Its supporters believe it can be refilled, without any major reformation. His writing is unequivocally one of the greatest influences on my own belief in The Catholic Atheist, and yet he, and I, remain somewhat lonely in our crusade to de-mystify religious theology and reform religious life. Why isn’t Cupitt a worldwide sensation? Why hasn’t he changed our world, the way he’s changed mine?

If I knew the answer to this, perhaps I could get my book published. In the meanwhile, it is worth noting that Cupitt’s plea to begin the creation of a worldwide religion has been largely unheeded. What is needed is not a new Catholicism, but a global sense of unity, tolerance, and inclusivity which defines a new world religious sensibility. We can keep our tribal sects, we should embrace our beautiful differences. But the only path forward is one in which religious traditions drop the dogma and embrace pluralism, one where theology is supplanted with self-examination, where absolute truth is replaced with the Blissful Void. “What of all this deserves to survive will survive.” But only if the process of post-modernization doesn’t destroy that which we already value.

Unfreedom of the Press

My dad asked me to read Mark Levin’s book Unfreedom of the Press. It was really, um, shocking. This is the message I sent him about it:

I finished the book you gave me and I wanted to ask you a few questions about your experience reading it. I tried to approach the book with an open mind, so I don’t want you to confuse my critique with partisan defensiveness. In fact, there are a variety of points which Levin attempts to make in the book which I would also argue! The problem is that Levin never makes his point; he hardly draws any well-supported conclusions, despite the length of the book.

I suppose my question for you is: what part of this did you find persuasive? I can understand why you would find it compelling, because he’s obviously arguing some points which I already know you hold to be true. But what argument of his did you find well made, compellingly argued, or interesting?

Again, I don’t want you to think that my critique of his work is rooted in a dislike for his politics. In fact, I don’t have much to say about the content of his political worldview. My critique is about his ability to form an argument and about the many, many logical fallacies he commits. His total inability to actually support even his most basic conclusions is the sort of sloppy writing that would have gotten me laughed out of Oxford. I had to reread several passages, assuming that I was simply reading him incorrectly, only to find that time and time again the argument that he was supposedly defending was totally absent from his writing at all. Then, in the next paragraph, he writes as if he has conclusively proven that conclusion! It’s a truly bizarre rhetorical style, but one which has become increasingly common for the president and his lackeys; they constantly just say unproven or false things again and again until it seems like they’ve proven them (this fallacy is called ad nauseam). I think its necessary to show you exactly what I mean so that you can see that this isn’t simply some ideological difference.

His central thesis is that the media is largely biased in favor of the Democratic Party. His first chapter opens with a couple pages of rhetorical questions which he abandons immediately without discussing. He begins to address his central thesis by quoting a variety of surveys in which people say they think the media is biased. This is a logical fallacy called “affirming the consequent,” by which he assumes that because people think there is bias, then bias exists. Then, he notes that some journalists have gone on to serve in partisan politics and thus cannot be objective in their reporting. This is called the fallacy of the undistributed middle, because he never proves the premise that a reporter who, at some time in their life, works for a partisan politician, cannot also report facts objectively. He makes some appeals to authority, a logical fallacy where he assumes as true something just because someone fancy said it; the problem is the he never quotes the sections of those peoples’ work where they prove the point, he only quotes the conclusion. Levin even acknowledges the inadequacy of his arguments when he says “the questions raised at the opening of this chapter are more or less answered…” (pg. 43) a wishy-washy defense of his own argument if ever there was one.

One of his most interesting rhetorical questions is whether it is possible for a journalist or a news outlet to be truly objective in their reporting. This is essential to the crux of his argument: do journalists have the ability to present unbiased information, or must all reporting necessary be influenced by the political views of the reporter or outlet? He touches this briefly and poses it rhetorically, then abandons the concept totally, ignoring the important ramifications on his argument. He asks the question, “are journalists nonetheless able to put aside their progressive ideological mindset… in a relatively objective or impartial pursuit of news?” (pg. 25-26) and answers by quoting a study which concludes that most major news outlets characterized Trump’s first 100 days in office by negative coverage, while Fox’s coverage was fairly split. Levin doesn’t bother to note the parameters of what qualifies as “negative coverage” in this study, which seems relevant (this could be an example of the logical fallacies of changing the bar, or perhaps the fallacy of the straw man). He doesn’t explain whether the coverage in question counts hard news or opinion and editorial as well. Perhaps most significantly, he doesn’t note whether the coverage is negative because the news is “negative,” he doesn’t prove that the negative coverage is from media bias rather than from negative public opinion or negative events.

This isn’t just a quibbling detail that he fails to totally illuminate. This is literally his central thesis, and he doesn’t even bother to define the terms he’s working with. He doesn’t define what bias looks like, or what negative coverage entails (he does list a variety of scandals the White House has been embroiled in, but he doesn’t explain how the reporting on those is biased. If anything, he proves his own bias by failing to even mention the objective facts in each scandal). The lack of explanation about his use of “bias” is a fallacy from etymology, but it is his fallacy from equivocation which is fatal to his argument and pervasive in his book: although he brings up the difference between editorial (or opinion) coverage and objective hard news, he frequently muddles the two for his own purposes. He occasionally points out that editorial boards and reporters bullpens are separate entities even under the same umbrella of a news outlet, but he only differentiates when it serves him and conveniently equivocates in other passages.

One very simple way to prove bias in reporting would be to compare news articles side-by-side against the objective facts. He never does this. If he were to take only one story he might be accused of cherry-picking, but comparing news stories across outlets would be an incredibly simple and effective way to prove his point. The only moment where he gets close to this is in his description of the New York Times treatment of Israel and the Jews in World War II. This is a truly bizarre chapter, if only because of his radically zionist interpretation of things, and he gets so far afield of his thesis that by the end of the chapter I wasn’t sure what point he was even trying to make. 

You mentioned that you were particularly taken by his extensive footnotes. The number of footnotes isn’t necessarily excessive for the length of this book, but I can see why it looks well researched. The first red flag I noticed on his footnoting was that his only footnote for the introduction is the most famous line in the preamble to the constitution: why footnote that obvious quote, but not footnote any of the other radical claims he makes? Of course, footnoting an introduction isn’t always standard, but then why footnote that one quote? It doesn’t make sense. Neither do many of his footnotes, I found. Of course, he frequently leaves some of his grandest claims unfootnoted, but there are times when he footnotes websites that are less than reputable as authorities. In one particularly busy section of chapter 7 (pg. 178), he footnotes his list of each news organization which he claims to have printed false stories, but those footnotes don’t lead to those stories or explanations of why he considers them false, just links to the Federalist and some other sources which don’t seem to be related to the topic at hand.

Of course there’s the several chapters which don’t seem to relate to his thesis at all, as if he simply googled “bias in the media” and then did a book report on the wikipedia articles he read to fill up extra pages. The second chapter (second!) is a boring history lesson in revolutionary pamphleteering, which is neither illuminating about our current media state nor related (if it is related, he never makes that connection). His examples of other presidents who have threatened the autonomy of the press? John Adams starts us off, in a comparison to which he never draws any connection. In chapter 7 he brings up some of the most salient and pressing scandals of the many which this White House has faced, but instead of explaining how it relates to bias in the media, he simply states the nature of the scandal, writes about it with breathless indignation without presenting the proper facts (the section on collusion is particularly galling, where he not only misquotes the Mueller report but even takes portions of Barr’s letter about the report before it was released out of context), and never relates any of it to the purported subject of the book. In the section on the president’s character in chapter 7, he raises the issue of the president’s propensity to sexually assault and rape women, which has been well documented. He notes the over 20 women who have credible rape and assault accusations against him, he notes the president’s own proclamation that he does indeed engage in sexual assault because he can get away with it, and he notes the time the president cheated on his pregnant wife by having unprotected sex with a porn star (and then paying her campaign money to keep her quiet), and then he writes off all of these as insignificant because John Kennedy was also a philanderer. This is a fallacy called tu quoque, or more commonly “whataboutism,” which ignores arguing the point in favor of shifting the argument to another subject. He also notes that Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh probably raped a woman or two. As I was reading, I expectantly turned the page, interested to see how he defends these actions and how they relate to his central thesis, but I was frustrated to find that that was the end of the chapter. He literally brings up the heinous allegations brought against Kavanaugh and then… ends the chapter. No defense, no relation to his thesis, no explanation why he even broached the issue in the first place. At this point I genuinely wondered if I was being trolled, either by you or by Levin.

When I closed the book, frustrated by the total inability of the author to make a cogent point but relieved that I’d never have to open the book again, I noticed that the blurb on the back is taken from the introduction. Normally, jacket blurbs are from famous people to sell the book- putting a section of the book on the back jacket is unusual. In fact, there are no blurbs anywhere, which leads me to believe that this sloppy attempt at a book was rushed to print before they could even pay someone to say something nice about it.

Most importantly, Levin shows no self-awareness or sense or irony that he is guilty in this book of the exact same propaganda which he claims to be excoriating. In chapter 5 he takes propagandists to task for misrepresenting facts, creating a partisan echo chamber, and misinforming, but this is what Levin does again and again when presenting scandals involving the president.

He shows his true aim in one passage where he says that “the consolidation of news outlets may or may not threaten the independence of news reporting” (pg. 15).  In this one paragraph, he shows that he doesn’t mind bias in the media so long as it is his media outlet which holds the power. He is very careful to absolve Fox News of any impropriety and even advocates that a partisan news source can be useful, which is not only contrary to conclusions he draws in other chapters but insidious in his propaganda. He discounts the possibility of objective reporting so that you have no choice but to trust him; he disregards the possibility of real news and demands your unquestioning fealty to his media empire.

Anyway, maybe you can tell that I didn’t like it. But I hope you can see that my problem isn’t because Levin is a partisan hack, but because he’s an entirely inadequate writer who can’t form the simplest argument without stepping into an obvious logical fallacy. So my question is, did you like this just because it was telling you something you already believed or because you attributed something to this that wasn’t actually there?

Faithiest

An acting teacher once told me, “no one wants to see your stupid, little life on stage. People aren’t interested in the boring things you do. When something gets dramatized, its because it’s a big, exciting thing!”

I think about that a lot when I read memoir. In biography and history, someone decided that some event or life was notable enough to be worth reporting. In memoir and autobiography, the author decides what counts as dramatic. Usually, things that feel really notable to us personally just aren’t that interesting.

That isn’t to say that Chris Steadman’s very good book isn’t interesting! His coming out story and struggle with religion are at the same time detailed in how personal they are and yet universal in their overall arc. Sometimes its just nice to know there are other people dealing with the same shit you’re dealing with.

But writing anything like a memoir in your 20s seems a little foolhardy, which becomes apparent in the later chapters of Chris’ story. He recognizes this, of course. He is, like everyone, a work in progress and he doesn’t claim to have all the answers. A lack of answers is somewhat unsatisfying in a book, which we generally turn to for answers! I don’t know if that means he should have written this book in a different way, the memoir aspect is a large part of what makes this engaging. But maybe giving it a few more years he might have found a stronger punchline to the end of the story.

If there is a conclusion to his thesis, it is that we’re better off interfacing with people of disparate religious traditions rather than shunning them. The conclusion is: “Interfaith dialogue is good.” I don’t think that was in question, of course, and it seems a little reductive to take all of his struggle and pain through adolescence and reduce it to: now I can talk to religious people for my job.

Chris does a great job of promoting humanism in a personal way, even at the expense of a harder philosophical approach. The logical, argumentative way hasn’t worked, clearly. Philosophers and pundits have very clearly destroyed every premise upon which traditional religion rests, and yet still the vast majority of people continue to believe. Chris’ personal stories give us an alternative to the militant “new atheism” that has previously been popular (well, among atheists at least), even if it stops a little short of prescribing a template for how others can universalize this experience.

At the end of the book Chris explores two challenges to including atheism in interfaith work. One is that doing so validates religion in a way which more combative strains of atheism refuse to do, the other is that including atheism in interfaith work denigrates atheism and humanism as “just another religion.” Chris answers both of these in a practical way: that it is better to engage in the dialogue than not. He doesn’t, though, necessarily engage with the logic of the argument. These issues are the reason why atheists seem so angry! It isn’t just that they don’t like the religious, they know them to be actively propagating a lie. A lot of interfaith dialogue rests on the assumption that we have more in common than not, and atheists could be included in this assumption. The problem is the only way to those commonalities is for theists to abandon or at least recognize their fundamental rejection of material reality, otherwise the dialogue is hardly in good faith. An interfaith dialogue where the parties hold to different epistemological rules is useful in a facile way; it might allow everyone to leave each other alone enough to happily co-exist. Unfortunately, it will never ultimately reconcile the disagreement at the root of their confrontation.

I’m guilty of taking the side of the “new atheists” to which Chris is trying to voice an alternative, of course. I don’t recommend the sort of aggression or Islamophobia or intolerance which some “new atheists” are guilty of, so I respect Chris’ search for a middle way. Maybe he’s offering the beginning of the path to which I can’t see the end and I need to trust his work in the field as evidence that there’s a better outcome than I can imagine. I certainly appreciate his gentle approach to validating the atheist and humanist experiences. I just can’t help but think that, like most compromises, this one leaves all parties unsatisfied.

Searching for Sunday

My Twitter feed was never better than when Rachel Held Evans was active in it; I found the oddest confluence of beliefs in her retweets and mentions, from evangelical hardliners to progressive atheists and everything in between. I first read Searching for Sunday years ago but in browsing it again I was struck quite emotionally by her fearlessness and vulnerability. Her sudden and tragic passing recently makes this feel less like memoir and more like manifesto.

Searching for Sunday is really three books combined, each chapter rotating the category. It is a poetic devotional of the type she grew up with and no doubt read often, and her prose is beautiful but simple. It is memoir, and I found myself wanting to skip chapters to follow the narrative of her “faith journey,” even though I knew it was just going to end with “I guess I’m Episcopalian now.” It is also a survey of her community, a telling of some stories from her followers and readers as well as the thinkers and writers from whom she found inspiration.

As a devotional, her rhetoric is exactly the kind found in contemporary theology. I always remember being shocked by reading assignments in my religious studies courses in college; I was used to reading the hard logic of my philosophy classes, but contemporary Christian theological writing is decidedly more poetic. Of course, this is part and parcel of the entire enterprise hinging on a proof-free “faith,” and that faith being a prime virtue above all others. 

There’s no argument made in this type of theology, there’s just poetry. It’s almost astrological in its application; there seems to be a method of interpretation that suits anybody. These chapters are beautiful in Rachel’s prose, but I sometimes find myself wishing she could offer more insight into her imagery. Unfortunately the lack of answers is a big part of her message.

I constantly wondered why her doubt never led her to question more fundamental aspects of her faith. She falters in her relationship with the church or the evangelical tradition of her childhood, but she doesn’t really ever entertain agnosticism. Of course, the entire chapter on Confirmation is an exploration of doubt, which she obviously experiences as acutely as any of us. She never tries to philosophize her way out it things, and she doesn’t ever try to provide explanations for her faith in Christianity specifically. I don’t know if this is a feature or a bug.

Her memoir is most compelling in the story of her failed church mission, probably because it’s also the most unique. The rest of her story is most compelling in its universality: so many people drawn to her work have the same conflict. There’s a good reason why her story returns several times to LGBT people in the church even though she doesn’t identify as part of that community: the conflict over LGBT people in Christianity is one of the primary ways in which people come to question their churches today.

In particular, I resonated with how much she loves church. I love church too! A lot of justifying our difficult journeys through faith is reconciling how much we like the community, the ceremony, the history, the art, and everything else about church even as we butt up against bad people, bad dogma, bad relationships, and bad philosophy within it. By the end of this part of her story, Rachel has found the answer “for now,” which is pretty unsatisfying! Although she is obviously very happy at the Episcopal church she now attends, and while it affords her the spiritual freedom to continue to explore and grow, it isn’t really a universalizable answer outside of “just find a church you can put up with that lets you figure it out.”

It’s in her stories of others that she truly ties things up, because her ultimate point is her final line: “let’s find out together.” This is as much call to action as we get in this book, but what other call to action could she justifiably make? It’s powerful, the type of community she both craves and attempts to create, and she knows it. She doesn’t go as far as to say this, but the “Sunday” she’s searching for, the resurrection, really is in the community she’s created around this progressive approach to faith and church. It’s personal, it’s communal, it’s everlasting, and now that she’s gone, it really is the way in which she’s gone on to everlasting life.