The Limits of Secularism

British Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks claims to know The Limits of Secularism, but he seems to be confusing secularism with science rather than just considering it as freedom from religion.

The two essential roles that he reserves for religion are the answering of big questions and the support of community and fellow-feeling. But he seems unconcerned as to whether the purported answers are in fact true, and is blind to the way that faiths which unite their adherents divide them from others.

He starts by crowing a bit about the (perhaps surprising) persistence of religion after the 18th century’s enlightenment and after periods of localized attempted suppression in the 20th century. (He cites this as “evidence that intellectuals have systematically misunderstood the nature of religion and religious observance and have constantly been thinking, for the better part of three centuries, that religion was about to disappear” – which is really quite an egregious confounding of separate issues. Of course some “intellectuals” may have been mistaken as to the staying power of religion and others may have been mistaken as to its nature, but they don’t necessarily go together. The appeal and staying power of religion owes at least as much to the nature of its adherents as to the nature of religion itself, and the misunderstanding in some of those cases is more likely to have been regarding the former than the latter.)

Sacks says “Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.”  But I have serious problems with this as I think science does give partial answers to the first two and as to the third I find the answers of most religions to be largely wrong. And the claim to be providing a true answer when one does not is, I believe, quite as monstrous an evil as Richard Dawkins and others like to say it is.

Remarkably Sacks acknowledges that “Religion isn’t the only source of answers; there are other spheres that offer them, such as literature”. And he limits his claim to the assertion that “religion remains the main repertoire of those meaning-based questions.” – which would be even better if he said “a” rather than “the”, but even as it is, unless one misdefines secularism as excluding the arts, it seems to leave the secularist with access to sufficient resources for a complete life.

He goes on with a rather simplistic left brain vs right brain analogy which is reminiscent of Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” and can be traced back to Hume’s position that reason alone cannot give value. I do agree with Hume on that (contra Harris who doesn’t understand the difference between giving value and predicting what we will value). But although I agree with Hume that reason and science can’t give value I don’t see any validity in Sacks’ claim that religion is necessary for that purpose (and he actually makes no argument in support of the answers that religions do provide – many of which are manifestly evil and wrong)

When it comes to fostering community, the positive contributions of religion to binding communities together are almost always more than counterbalanced by the wedges it places between them.

Sacks makes much of an alleged statistical correlation between religiosity and community identification – as if it wasn’t something that should be expected from causality in the opposite direction given that religious practice is largely a group activity and so participation in the ambient religion would be at least as likely to be a result from community-orientation as to be a cause of it.

And on the same topic he makes appreciative reference to Robert Putnam who “argued in his book American Grace, that what makes the difference to people, turning them into good citizens and good neighbours, is belonging to a community, rather than what people believe. He wrote that an atheist who goes regularly to synagogue or to church is likely to be a better human being than a religious believer who never joins a community”. But again, even if we accept that the gregarious is inherently a “better human being” than the solitary, the religious participation is a result not a cause of that tendency.

Now I don’t deny that many religions have included ideas of great value and have literature that is still worth mining (albeit with a critical eye), but I don’t agree that any of them is the only path, and indeed the claim that they are is what turns them all to ashes in the mouth. The one true religion, if it ever exists, will make no claim to either uniqueness or truth.

But a statement like this:

“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.”
is just horribly arrogant nonsense.

Less arrogant, but still open to question is the following bit:

“individuals may live good lives without religion — the moral sense is part of what makes us human — but a society never can, and morality is quintessentially a social phenomenon. It is that set of principles, practices and ideals that bind us together in a collective enterprise. The market and the state may be driven by the pursuit of interests but societies are framed by something larger and more expansive, by a shared vision of the common good. Absent this and societies begin to fragment. People start thinking of morality as a matter of personal choice. The sense of being bound together — the root meaning of “religion” — in a larger enterprise starts to atrophy and social cohesion is lost. ”

This may not be true but it is worth considering.

Commenter ‘Shane’ suggests that  “perhaps faith is incidental to positive social and moral effects associated with church attendance. The religions have long established social networks and institutions that these foster positive effects by bring people together, hopefully over time we can reestablish these networks in such a way as to bring in those who find their meaning without religious faith.”


Sacks concludes with “I once defined faith as the redemption of solitude. It sanctifies relationships, builds communities, and turns our gaze outward from self to other, giving emotional resonance to altruism and energising the better angels of our nature. These are some of the gifts of our encounter with transcendence, and whether it is love of humanity that leads to the love of God or the other way round, it remains the necessary gravitational force that keeps us, each, from spinning off into independent orbits, binding us instead into the myriad forms of collective beatitude. A society without faith is like one without art, music, beauty or grace, and no society without faith can endure for long. ”

But for now my secular faith remains that we can indeed maintain share and extend our human values without either the trappings or the leadership figures of traditional religion and that we would be better off to free ourselves and our fellow humans from their authority.

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