Saturday, 7 November 2009

"God is back and Europe as a whole still doesn't get it"

I should really have given this post the proper title of Lord Sacks' lecture - "Religion in the Twenty-First Century".  Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi here in the UK, and his lecture was the 2009 Annual Theos Lecture. H/T to Auntie Joanna who put me on to this; the Daily Telegraph report, to which Auntie Joanna links, is here.

The homepage of Theos is here, and this page explains the aims of Theos. One can perhaps summarise the aims as being about research into and encouragement of dialogue between religious faith and contemporary society. A report of Lord Sacks lecture can be found at this page; a link towards the bottom of the page allows you to download the transcript of the lecture.

Lord Sacks asks first: Why has religion survived? He answers: because the human being is an animal that seeks meaning. He argues that four of the key components of contemporary culture and life do not provide an answer to that search for meaning: not the market, not politics and the state, not science and not philosophy.
So, if we search for meaning, we will not in the twenty-first century find it in the market, in the state, in science or in philosophy. It is that principled abdication of the search for meaning by the four great institutions of modernity that has created the space which religion has returned to fill, and which indeed it always did fill.
 Lord Sacks makes an interesting - and subtle - point about the failure of these four institutions in the search for meaning. On the one hand, we might view their failure in this regard as precisely that - a failing which could be corrected by including a search for meaning in their remit. But Lord Sacks asserts that it is quite correct that these four institutions, as he calls them, should retain an autonomy from the search for meaning.

This is because Lord Sacks sees religion as having its place in what we, today, would call civil society, and not in institutions of the state; indeed, religion needs a rightful distance from such institutions. [Pope Benedict would call this a "rightful secularity", not to be confused with "secularism", the banishing of religion from public life altogether.] Lord Sacks cites a nineteenth century French diplomat, commenting on his experience of the separation of Church and state in America:
What then did [Alexis de Tocqueville] see religion doing in the United States? He saw that it sanctified the family, that it created community, that it encouraged philanthropy, that it built schools, that it taught responsibility, that it brought people together for the common good. It created what Tocqueville called “the art of association” and another beautiful phrase, “habits of the heart,” which he described as “the essential apprenticeship in liberty.” He saw religion as the essential counter-balance to what he described – again 180 years ago - as “the greatest danger facing America.” It was a new phenomenon in those days and he had to invent a word to describe it, and the word he invented was ‘individualism’.

He in other words saw that religion was the counterweight to individualism, and because of that it sustained a free and democratic society. In the terminology of today, we would say that religion sustained the third sector that is not the state, that is not the market but it is civil society. ....[de Tocqueville] says: “In the United States, religion exercises but little influence on the laws and upon the details of public opinion, but it directs the customs of the community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state”.
 And Lord Sacks continues:
So, we would expect, if Tocqueville got it right, to be able to test that in practice. If Tocqueville was right, then we would expect any society in which religion declines, in that society, civil society would decline. Families would become fragile, marriages would decline, communities would atrophy, society would cease to have a shared morality. And by those tests, 100 years later, Tocqueville got it exactly right.
I don't think we can find a more accurate description of the societies of Europe today than this.

Lord Sacks interestingly identifies the unwillingness of many in European nations to make the sacrifices necessary to bring up children in families as a major issue for the future of European culture. In that sense, the population of Europe is dying out for want of generosity of its members for the generations of the future. One thing that a religious culture will give is a generosity for larger families. I recall being struck by much the same thought when listening to recent media coverage of research into the numbers of children being conceived with Downs Syndrome - that in the UK some 90% of babies considered to have a risk of being born with Downs Syndrome are aborted, and that, in many cases, the potential parents have decided for abortion purely after communication of the risk factor for Downs Syndrome and before any consideration with their medical practitioners of the life opportunities of their baby, spoke to me of a huge failure in generosity. Not so much that this failure of generosity occurs on the part of the potential parents involved; rather they are the manifestation of a lack of generosity towards someone who is weaker or less well off that is systemic to our society as a whole.
So to repeat. Tocqueville was right: the place of religion is in civil society where it achieves many things essential to liberal democratic freedom, but two in particular: Number one, it sanctifies marriage and the family and the obligations of parenthood; and number two, it safeguards the non-relativist moral principles on which Western freedom is based. That is why Tocqueville described religion as “the surest pledge for the duration of freedom.”

It may not be religion that is dying, it may be liberal democratic Europe that is in danger, demographically and in its ability to defend its own values.
 When turning to the opportunities and imperatives for the future, Lord Sacks, in passing, comments on the way in which conflicts that would at one time have been seen as political have come to be "religionized". This is why he has earlier recognised that religion should not be political. An intellectually open and tolerant religiosity is necessary to respond to this fundamentalist religion. Lord Sacks calls for a new dialogue between religion and science - recognising that, though science in itself is not providing the answer to questions of the meaning of human existence, its discoveries do nevertheless have deeply religious implications. He argues that religions, having an international character, are in some ways better placed to mobilise energies on a global scale than are nation states - issues such as global warming and international debt relief are examples he cites. Religions can engage with politicians, scientists and economists on issues like this.
Finally, religious groups in the liberal democratic state must be prepared to enter into serious respectful conversations with secular humanists, with charities, with other groups in civil society about the nature of the common good and the kind of society we wish to create for our grandchildren not yet born. At the moment we don’t fully have this. At the moment in Britain I would say that religious groups tend more to act as pressure groups or lobbying groups than as conversation partners. But, that conversation is there to be had and I hope Theos will play a part in facilitating it. It is doable.
 Lord Sacks is, I think, more optimistic than I would be about the possibilities of this last point. Secular humanists are not necessarily themselves open to this conversation - the National Secular Society, for example, demonstrate a strong hostility towards religious belief rather than a certain neutrality that would show openness to dialogue. The political state also seeks to impose a secular morality - via government "five year plans", targets, and the like - that puts limits on the operation of religions in civil society.

1 comment:

ClayBarham said...

America and Europe differ as to the roots of their civil behavior. America began with pilgrims landing in Massachusetts with their Geneva Bibles as their constitution ( Christians were brought up with a direct line to their Savior and Heavenly Father, not with a priest or mullah in-between to define right and wrong. They had to stand on their own, grow and survive, caring for their close famiies and community, which accounts for their soveriegnty of local government. Lafayette told Tom Paine, after America had separated from Britain, that the American way, 150 years old then, would never work in Europe, as the tradition was longer established and rooted in a few ruling the many, while in America, it was the individual ruling himself.