Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

Challenging the idols of the secular age

secular-sacred                Can religion survive, even flourish, in a secular age? The answer is an emphatic Yes. The question is how.


By Jonathan Sacks


Religions, like any organisation, can react to change by denial. You see the signs in houses of worship where they sing the same songs and listen to the same sermons, while outside the world revolves regardless, and inside the congregation gets older, greyer and fewer.

The second option is accommodation. This involves stealing the clothes of secular society and pretending they were religious all along. The world has become political? So will we. The world celebrates sexual freedoms? So will we. The world worships the self? So will we. Eventually the world notices that religion, instead of leading society, is following it. At this point it loses credibility.

The third option, in the ascendant in many parts of the world today, is resistance, the religiosity that opposes modernity as the work of Satan. This is religion designed to take us back to an earlier age when the righteous ruled, the wicked were punished and heretics treated as they deserved. This is fundamentalism, and it fails because it cannot handle complexity, difference and freedom.

All three are doomed strategies, counsels of despair. What then should religion do in a secular age? It should be a countervoice, challenging the conventional wisdom and confronting idolatry in all its forms. Every age has its idols, every era its forms of magical thinking. What are ours?

One form of magical thinking comes from politics. We fall out of love with the government of the day and into the lap of a new person or party that promises to solve all our problems without pain. We elect them. They discover that you can’t solve deep social problems without pain, and they either choose not to solve them or to take the path of pain. Either way, we fall out of love with them and the cycle continues. This is the triumph of hope over experience and it happens every five or ten years.

The next comes from economics. People start believing that the market will solve all the problems it creates. We then see heads of banks and corporations pursuing their own short term gain at the long term cost of customers, investors and the economy as a whole. Next we put our faith in regulation, forgetting that more ingenuity will be spent on evading the rules than on applying them. So we huff and puff and hope that next time it will be better, which it won’t.

The third comes from morality, or rather the belief that we can do without it, especially in matters of sexual conduct. This was the magical thinking of the 1960s. Half a century later we can count the cost: children growing up without fathers, new forms of child poverty, a threefold rise in drug, alcohol and eating disorders, and revelation after revelation of sexual misconduct from priests to media stars. That is the price of the believing that morality means whatever we choose it to mean.

There are many other examples but these suffice to illustrate the general point. Idol worship and magical thinking happen when we believe some institution or person will bend the world to our desires, making problems vanish without effort on our part. The idol can be liberal democracy, market economics, the consumer society, science, technology, medicine, psychology, drugs, genetic engineering or any other candidate the future may dangle before our eyes.

Religious faith is the countervoice that says: all these things can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether they are used with humility, restraint, concern for the common good and care for long term consequences.

Humility involves the recognition that there is something greater than us to whom we are accountable. Restraint means that not everything we can do should we do. Concern for the common good means recognising that others, not just us, are in the image and likeness of God. Care for long term consequences means believing in something that will last longer than we will.

Religion is not myth or magic. It is the recognition of how small we are in the scheme of things, and how great is our responsibility to others. It is the still, small voice reminding us that there is no achievement without sacrifice, no freedom without self-restraint. Those who worship the idols of the age perish with the age, while the worship of eternity lives on.

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