Modern Tribalism and Nontheistic Religiosity

This article represents one view on a complex issue. For a different perspective, see Why We Can’t All Just Get Along.


At the outset, I am deeply skeptical of any suggestion that the uncompromising over-moralization of politics is a misstep exclusive to the left or to the right.  A common narrative suggesting the mentality is a conservative creature points to religion, the lines religious faith leads us to draw in the sand, and the deep refusal to compromise that can come with it.

In this, religion isn’t unique, nor is the Religious Right alone.  In fact, there seems to be some facet of American thought, often associated with religiosity, that the data suggests actually may transcend religion.  Consider a 2018 Pew study of religiosity in the United States and Western Europe.[1]  A remarkable finding from this study was that Americans who identify as atheists, agnostics, or don’t identify as anything at all are more religious than European Christians.

And when religion does leave, in the United States if not worldwide, something always seems to step in to fill the void.  Consider the Seattle Atheist Church, a church for non-believers that The Economist covered in a story last year.[2]  Seattle Atheists seem to be re-discovering what American conservatives have been touting for years—there are certain itches in human nature that religion does a great job of scratching.

While atheist churches plainly aren’t the norm, it is commonplace for other institutions and practices to take on many of the roles traditionally filled by religion.  In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Heidt has much to say about the moral realm of ‘sanctity.’  For the Religious Right, sanctity is the purview of the church.  The non-religious left today finds sanctity in notions of ‘natural purity’—organic foods, reverence for environmental sustainability, etc.

And for the left, sanctity finds perhaps its strongest footing in notions of bodily autonomy.  Progressive thought on abortion, for instance, has been all but consumed by this principle.  A pragmatic argument for abortion rights could appeal to the social and economic ripple effects of a systematically greater frequency of unwanted pregnancy.  For many progressives, however, such a justification would feel hollow, even offensive—‘how could you reduce something as morally sacred as bodily autonomy to consequentialist considerations?’

The effects of building a nontheistic religious system of values around this and other political platforms have largely mirrored what Ken Uva described as a symptom of Christian religiosity bleeding into conservative politics.  In particular, his words feel on point here when he says “[b]y claiming the moral high ground that those who disagree with you are wrong according to [our sanctity principle], how can there be compromise?”

Like the religious right, progressives have “legitimized the position that people with different views are morally wrong” in the eyes of the left’s nontheistic religious shift.  On these issues, the absolute unwillingness to compromise seems fully symmetrical.  Even the formerly standard view that abortion should be permitted throughout much of pregnancy but shouldn’t be permitted (with certain important exceptions) late-term—a position still held by a raw majority of Americans[3]—is regarded by many vocal activists on the left as ‘woman-hating’ and ‘an affront to bodily autonomy.’  

That isn’t to say an extreme position is necessarily wrong.  There’s a separate conversation to be had on the belief that women should “have the right to choose” up until the moment of birth, but it’s absurdly reductionist to suggest that anyone sympathetic to limiting late-term abortions must necessarily hate women or reject bodily autonomy.  This smacks of religious absolutism (and expedient straw-manning).  There are other important considerations that weigh in people’s beliefs on the subject and someone who cares deeply about gender equality and bodily autonomy may still come out the other way.

A similar lack of sensitivity for nuance can be seen in moves like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.  Cortez and others have been clear that the intent was to create a starting point for discourse—not to suggest a final policy proposal to put to a vote.  Nonetheless, the unanimous criticism of the plan’s disregard for a myriad of other institutional and economic considerations is illuminating.  American politics is finally moving toward a broader acknowledgment that we will need policy solutions to climate change problems, but there is (and should be) room for discussion in the details.  If those of Cortez’s ilk were left to drive the bus, ideological impasse would be inevitable and—what’s worse—we may regress in some of the progress we’ve seen in broadening support for addressing climate change.

The trouble with both of these examples (and others) is that the most vocal drivers of dialog on either end are a poor representation of the middle (and less vocal) majority.  Because most Americans just aren’t terribly politically active, issues like these—which get swallowed up by Christian politics and nontheistic religious politics alike—are driven by minority positions, unresponsive to nuance or the need for compromise.

An interesting feature of our ideological division today seems to be that each side thinks the other is the sole reason we can’t all just get along.


[1] “Being Christian in Western Europe.”  Pew Reseearch Center (May 29, 2018), available at https://www.pewforum.org/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/.

[2] “The elusive phenomenon of churches without God.”  The Economist (May 16, 2018), available at https://www.economist.com/erasmus/2018/05/16/the-elusive-phenomenon-of-churches-without-god.

[3] The percentage of Americans who identify as pro-life is currently (and has historically been) approximately equal to the percentage who identify as pro-choice, according to Gallup Polls conducted over the past decade (https://news.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx).  Despite this, more than 70% of Americans oppose late-term abortion- perhaps a lesson that political binaries don’t capture full pictures.T


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