It is said that 1989, the year of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, marked the final act of an extended drama in which first religion, then political ideology died after a prolonged period in intensive care. The age of the true believer, religious or secular, was over. In its place had come the market economy and the liberal democratic state, in which the individual and his or her right to live as they chose took priority over all creeds and codes. The hymn of the new dispensation was John Lennon’s Imagine, with its vision of a post-ideological, post-religious world with “Nothing to kill or die for”.
It was the last chapter of a story that began in the 17th century, the last great age of wars of religion. The West had undergone a process of secularisation that had taken four centuries.
First, in the 17th century, came the secularisation of knowledge in the form of science and philosophy. Then in the 18th century came the secularisation of power by way of the American and French Revolutions and the separation – radical in France, less doctrinaire in the United States – of church and state. In the 19th century came the secularisation of culture as art galleries and museums were seen as alternatives to churches as places in which to encounter the sublime. Finally, in the 1960s came the secularisation of morality, by the adoption of a principle first propounded by John Stuart Mill a century earlier – namely that the only ground on which anyone, including the state, is justified in intervening in behaviour done in private is the prevention of harm to others. This was the beginning of the end of traditional codes of ethics, to be replaced by the unfettered sanctity of the individual, autonomy, rights and choice.
By the late 20th century most secularists had come to the conclusion that religion, if not refuted, had at least been rendered redundant. We no longer need the Bible to explain the universe. Instead we have science. We do not need sacred ritual to control human destiny. In its place we have technology. When we are ill, we do not need prayer. We have doctors, medicine and surgery. If we are depressed there is an alternative to religious consolation: antidepressant drugs. When we feel overwhelmed by guilt, we can choose psychotherapy in place of the confessional. For seekers of transcendence there are rock concerts and sports matches. As for human mortality, the best thing to do, as the advice columns tell us, is not to think about it too often. People may be uncertain about the existence of God, but are reasonably sure that if we don’t bother Him, He won’t bother us.
What the secularists forget is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose, but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.
Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished. But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural. The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.
Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning. That is why no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion. The 20th century showed, brutally and definitively, that the great modern substitutes for religion – the nation, race and the political ideology – are no less likely to offer human sacrifices to their surrogate deities.
The religion that has returned is not the gentle, quietist, eirenic and ecumenical form that, in the West, we had increasingly come to expect. Instead it is religion at its most adversarial and aggressive, prepared to do battle with the enemies of the Lord, bring the apocalypse, end the reign of decadence and win the final victory for God, truth and submission to the divine will.
Not all anti-modern religion is violent. To the contrary, highly religious Jews (Haredim) are usually quietist, as are Christian groups such as the Mennonites and the Amish, and Muslim groups such as the Sufis. What they seek is simply the opportunity to live apart from the world, construct communities in the light of their values, and come close to God in mind and soul. In their different ways they are testaments to grace.
Undeniably, though, the greatest threat to freedom in the post-modern world is radical, politicised religion. It is the face of altruistic evil in our time.
This is an extract from Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20. Lord Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (19/6/15).
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