Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is not happy. He’s told Anglican bishops that humanity is ‘living through one of the most fateful ages of change since Homo sapiens first set foot on Earth’. According to Rabbi Sacks:
Globalisation and the new information technologies were fragmenting the world ‘into ever smaller sects of the like-minded’. At the same time, the fast flow of information was forcing people together as never before.
Terry Sanderson has already noted the irony of a religious person berating society’s tendency to split into small interest groups. But what is the cause of this dangerous new change? Go on, have a guess:
Almost all of Britain’s social problems are caused by a loss of religion… Societies without religion disintegrated and people succumbed to depression, stress, eating disorders and alcohol and drug abuse, Sir Jonathan Sacks told 650 bishops and their spouses in Canterbury.
Sir Jonathan, the first Chief Rabbi to address the Lambeth Conference, said that a society that lost its religion lost ‘graciousness’. ‘Relationships break down. Marriage grows weak. Families become fragile. Communities atrophy. And the result is that people feel vulnerable and alone.’
He continued: ‘That is where we are.’
That is where we are: we’ve lost the still, small voice of God in our hearts; replaced belief with ennui and cynicism. Where in a gentler age we used to belt out hallelujahs at the Sunday service before frolicking off to the pavilion for beer and cakes, now we sit in Urban Splash developments self-harming, watching Paramount and eating sugar from the bag. It’s the same Daily Mail rallying song, although Oliver James’s Affluenza has set it to a pleasing liberal tune.
The great poet T.S. Eliot might have agreed. His play The Rock is a similar tirade against secular modernity. Here are some choruses:
The Word of the LORD came unto me, saying:
O miserable cities of designing men
O wretched generation of enlightened men
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions
I have given you hands which you turn from worship
This is the world T.S. Eliot saw: one ‘confused and dark and disturbed by portents of fear’; where people ‘dash to and fro in motor cars… and daughters ride away on casual pillions’.
But Eliot was writing in 1934 when the church was still relatively powerful. How far back would the clock need to be turned to satisfy Sacks or Eliot? Pre-Enlightenment? Perhaps the Medieval Age? Even then perhaps some Jonathan Sacks equivalent was saying, ‘God, we’re becoming so materialistic. Not enough people are coming to the witch pyres.’
The idea that people could be bored or miserable when religion still ruled evidently hasn’t occurred to Sacks. If it had, he would have to consider abandoning his easy answer to society’s problems – that they are caused by a lack of religion – and reflect that perhaps a capacity for disillusion and unhappiness is one of the many aspects of the human condition.
Is today such a godless age? It seems an article of faith that materialism is bad, and many secular liberals pay a lip service to religion that is seldom justified. Even when reason is defended, it is often in the context of religion: thus, reviewing his boss Chris Harman’s book A People’s History of the World (subtitle: How the SWP Invented Fire) Richard Seymour states that ‘the Islamic contribution to Enlightenment thought is duly registered in a way that frustrates attempts to claim the Enlightenment for ‘the west’.’ Modish thinker John Gray makes a similar claim, that there would be no Voltaire without Christianity.
There’s little discussion on the claims of religion but a general Straussian view that it is needed for social cohesion (and they do so much for charity, you know). Religion may be dying, but there is no shortage of efforts to reanimate the corpse.
Terry Sanderson takes apart Sacks’s claims in the Guardian. He begins by noting that America has many of the same social problems but a much higher level of religious observance than we do. He also points out that some of the things Sacks complains about are not necessarily problems:
The rising divorce rate could simply be an acknowledgment that marriage doesn’t work for everyone. It is only since we have been released from the shackles of religion that we have we been able to do anything about it. In days of old, when religion ruled every aspect of our lives, divorce was not an option, except for the very rich.
And so millions (mainly women) endured lives of utter misery in marriages that verged on torture.
Obesity is a sign of our affluence, not of our atheism. In deeply religious countries in the developing world there is little obesity. But that has nothing to do with religion restraining people’s greed, it is to do with poverty and lack of opportunity.
Finally: what is the Chief Rabbi’s solution to social issues? It seems to be the ‘god of the gaps’ – any blank space in our knowledge or happiness must be filled by religion. Just as creationists try to use ‘intelligent design’ to explain the problems in evolutionary theory, so Jonathan Sacks wants the void in people’s lives to be filled by God. In Sanderson’s words: ‘Rabbi Sacks thinks we should all troop back to church/synagogue and all the problems would be solved.’
Yet history tells us that religion isn’t always the guarantor of human happiness – to put it politely.