Rules Are for Schmucks: Fact-checking The Atlantic

This month’s Atlantic magazine features an article by Peter Beinart called “Breaking Faith,” arguing that the rise of secularism and the nones who have no religious affiliation is “making America’s partisan clashes more brutal.” Furthermore, “it has contributed to the rise of … Donald Trump.”

It has?

You might simplistically think, if you were reading an article about, say, mammals, that the author might cite some actual data about mammals, rather than citing only data about, say, fish. You might think, just as simplistically, that an article denigrating secular people would cite some actual data about secular people, rather than citing only data about religious believers. Data, for example, like the exit polling showing that the “religiously unaffiliated” voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump—in contrast to the white evangelicals and white Catholics, who voted overwhelmingly for him.

Beinart doesn’t do that. Instead, he cites data only about people within the shrinking universe of those who claim to be religious believers, arguing that believers who don’t regularly attend church were more likely to vote for Trump than believers who do.

If it’s church attendance that interests Beinart, rather than mere belief, he could have spent another several seconds of research time in the exit polls, and discovered that those who attend church at least once a week voted by nearly a 3-2 margin for Trump, and those who never attend church voted 2-1 against him.

Does The Atlantic employ any fact checkers at all?

Most of Beinart’s analysis is based on the single data point that even though “evangelicals” overwhelmingly supported Trump, within that minority group, he did even better among self-described evangelicals who don’t attend church regularly than among those who do. That’s pretty much it. He somehow stretches that little trivia factoid into two thousand words, honored in one of the most prestigious publications in the United States. I bet he even got paid for it.

Beinart then proceeds to slander these non-attenders. “Americans who are disengaged from church experience less economic success and more family breakdown,” he tells us, adding that “those who don’t regularly attend church are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress.” These lowlifes, in Beinart’s view, proceeded to vote for Donald Trump.

This is about as breathtaking as the discovery that water runs downhill. Has it possibly occurred to him that it’s the other way around? That those who “suffer from divorce, addiction, and financial distress” are a little less likely than their affluent neighbors to wake up early on Sunday mornings, get themselves all polished up, and go to a boring meeting with a boring leader spouting incredibly boring platitudes? That people who are genuinely hurting were more likely to vote for “whoever is behind Door #2” than to vote for a candidate who offered, despite her immense qualifications, a platform that was essentially “more of the same”?

Did it occur to him that even though Karl Marx may have somewhat overstated the role of economic determinism, it is the failure of economic hope that has led to both the blue-collar support for Trump and the blue-collar decline in church attendance, even among people who say they still believe?

There is one genuine surprise in the data Beinart does cite—and it cuts directly against his argument. Leaving secular people out of the equation, and focusing only on evangelicals, it is true (and not surprising) that the lower socioeconomic folks who don’t attend church as often are also (by a small margin) less tolerant of immigrants, Hispanics, and blacks then the more affluent regular churchgoers are. No huge surprise there—the white working class has been complaining since long before the rise of the nones about having to compete for increasingly scarce jobs against immigrants, Hispanics, and blacks that in the “good old days” they didn’t have to worry about. Yet these same less educated, less affluent Archie Bunkers are actually more tolerant of gay people—who aren’t seen as economic competitors—than are the regular churchgoers Beinart so exalts.

Could it be that listening to week after week, year after year of sermons bashing homosexuality have actually had some effect on people who attend church?

After utterly—deliberately?— misinterpreting cause and effect in the data, Beinart proceeds to trash the intelligence of ordinary people, who are incapable of thinking for themselves. What they really need is “religious elites” to do their thinking for them. They need to be led by the noses by “The values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition that churches instill.” You remember religious elites, don’t you? The guys who gave us segregation, subhuman status for women and gays, and Vietnam? The guys who, more recently, backed Trump through thick and thin? I’d rather rely on the wisdom of ordinary folks, who actually voted against Trump by nearly three million votes and whose will was only thwarted by the quirk of the Electoral College.

The God industry is shrinking—deservedly so, because it has little of value to sell. America is headed toward the model of western Europe and eastern Asia, where most people don’t care what con men who claim to speak for God have to say. Along the way, you can expect to encounter more kicking and screaming about “what we’re losing” like this Atlantic article, and like the so-called “rise of the Religious Left” that was so thoroughly debunked by Daniel Schultz that there’s nothing else for me to say about it (you should read the piece yourself). We humans need to grow up and rely on ourselves, not on fading religious elites bellowing about a spirit in the sky.