Is religion crucial to civilization?

Some believers are like loud children, banging on their drums of faith in an insistent, unchanging, ultimately numbing rhythm.

Others, like the British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Lord Sacks, are more nuanced, and they can produce beautiful melodies that make their claims seem natural and desirable.

In the end, alas, the basis of the Chief Rabbi’s music, of his faith, is as vain and insubstantial as is that of the beaters and bleaters.

Sacks’s views on the necessity of religion were published by Standpoint early this year, in an article titled “The Limits of Secularism.” The rabbi’s tone is tolerant and compassionate. He doesn’t berate non-believers; he feels sorry for them. He calls thorough-going, consistent atheism a “tragic” stance, for it demands the total abandonment of meaning and dignity.

Well, from his point of view it clearly does, but unfortunately he places his faith in just such a nothing, a conceptual grasping for an explanatory, ennobling figure. That figure may be a bluntly anthropomorphic father in the sky, or it may be something considerably more subtle. In any case, that figure is a wish-fulfillment, for which there is not the slightest shred of empirical evidence.

Sacks quotes Ecclesiastes that without God “all is vanity” (although Sacks varies from his usual stylishness by abandoning the King James Version and using the Common Bible translation, “all is meaningless”). However, he never addresses the actual vanity of belief in an imaginary creator, in a gratuitous illusion. He avoids the issue of whether God in fact exists, focusing instead on what he believes to be religion’s human purpose, which is to offer answers for those questions which the material culture cannot answer. That the answers are based on a faith that is fanciful in general and wrong in particular doesn’t seem to bother him.

Sacks briefly and helpfully outlines all of the reasons that we no longer need religion to answer the practical questions of our physical existences:

Think about it: every function that was once performed by religion can now be done by something else. In other words, if you want to explain the world, you don’t need Genesis; you have science. If you want to control the world, you don’t need prayer; you have technology. If you want to prosper, you don’t necessarily seek God’s blessing; you have the global economy. You want to control power, you no longer need prophets; you have liberal democracy and elections.

If you’re ill, you don’t need a priest; you can go to a doctor. If you feel guilty, you don’t have to confess; you can go to a psychotherapist instead. If you’re depressed, you don’t need faith; you can take a pill.  If you still need salvation, you can go to today’s cathedrals, the shopping centres of Britain — or as one American writer calls them, weapons of mass consumption. Religion seems superfluous, redundant, de trop.

Why, then, he asks, does religion persist? The answer for Sacks is that religion answers three questions that the merely physical can’t: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

It needs repeating that the rabbi’s assumption that the answers religion offers are worthwhile answers is pretty clearly false. Who am I? To answer, “You are a child of God” begs the question, “Who is God?” And not one of the usual answers has any demonstrable truth. Why am I here? To answer, “God put you here so that you could love/glorify/understand/obey/be like Him” again offers no substantive content.

Many theists believe that the last question, How then shall I live?, can’t be answered without reference to an external, prescriptive moral code — usually complete with a rewarding and punishing judge. They argue that without God, without a divinely-ordained list of commandments and other rules, there would be no morality. This is again an assertion without proof, and it’s a claim that is disputed by every modern discovery about the psychoneurological dynamics of morality.

In short, even if one agrees with the rabbi that science, technology, and the rest can’t answer the big “Why?” questions, that is no evidence — there is no evidence — that the myth stories of religion do a better job.

Again, Sacks never comes to grips with the truth value of religion. Like many thinkers, he believes that the benefits of religion — particularly, the knitting together and regulation of society — are so great that to lose religion is to lose all civilization:

We stand to lose a great deal if we lose religious faith. We will lose our Western sense of human dignity. I think we will lose our Western sense of a free society. I think we will lose our understanding of moral responsibility. I think we will lose the concept of a sacred relationship, particularly that of marriage, and we will lose our concept of a meaningful life. I think that religious belief is fundamental to Western civilisation and we will lose the very heart of it if we lose our faith.

Sacks is too clever really to believe that hitching your civilization to a myth is the only way to have a civilization at all. Perhaps what he really means is that religion has been a central part of Western civilization all along, and he can’t think of how it could be replaced.

The idea that replacing belief in a non-existent deity with commitment to the essential unity of all people seems never to come to his mind. Yet this change certainly is the way forward for civilization. And it’s precisely the science, the technology, and the social institutions in which Sacks despairs that can lead us to a more reality-based future, one that replaces the fanciful illusion of a father in the sky with the concrete fact that we are one people on the Earth.

Note that I am not at all denying that religion, whether an adaptation or a spandrel, has long been the major driver of social cohesion. What I am denying is the pair of ideas that religion is (1) the only or (2) the best way of organizing human societies.

Consider the example of the Nordic societies of Europe. They are among the most unbelieving and, at the same time, civil and humane cultures anywhere. How is this possible, if religion is the necessary underpinning of civilization? There’s no disputing that it was the undercarriage of civilizations that developed before science, before technology, before democracy. But we don’t need that particular crutch anymore.

In the memorable phrasing of University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan:

These societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world – have climbed religion’s ladder and then kicked it away.

Lord Sacks appears to be a thoughtful and sincere man. His writing shows the depth of his thinking and the breadth of his learning. I believe that he’d be an easy man to like.

All he lacks is the will to kick away the ladder.


4 thoughts on “Is religion crucial to civilization?

  1. I suspect you are being a little premature in your analysis. For example if you were to take the concept of God is love (which you would find in the New Testament King James or NRSV) “God” then becomes a concept grounded in the finest of human ideals. It also makes it rather silly to assume that since this is a concept therefore it shouldnt exist or that it is a concept that can have no meaning. If you relaxed somewhat and understood that people are the product of both heredity and environment those born in an historical tradition are bound to be influenced by that tradition.
    To find one like Lord Sacks who can find tolerance emerging from his tradition can only be helpful
    and his influence is clearly recognised by many others. You may well be tolerant yourself, although your lack of empathy with Lord Sacks suggests limits. Next time you are asked by the BBC for a broadcast slot on Thought for the Day let me know and I promise to tune in to find what you are saying that is positive.

  2. Of course people are influenced by the traditions of their cultures. I have never denied that, here or elsewhere. My rejection of religion is specifically a recognition of the complete lack of credible evidence for the god of the Bible. Concepts certainly can refer to things that exist, but not, I’m afraid, in this case.

    But if one wishes to define “god” in a way that doesn’t make truth claims about actual existence, I’m fine with that. If one wants to refer to a world view grounded in “the finest of human ideals” with the word “god,” or the word “love,” or some other word, what is there to which to object?

    And my sole criticism of Lord Sacks, who seems like a very fine man, arises from his apparent need for external validation of his humanity, a need that my article was written to dispute.

  3. Sweden or Norway are not atheistic states. That is false reasoning or wishfull thinking.
    “These societies with atheist majorities – some of the most cooperative, peaceful and prosperous in the world ” – Do you mean for examle Albania with its state atheism?

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