Monday, January 2, 2012

Lord Sacks on the Necessity of Religion

In the current issue of Standpoint magazine (here), England's Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks argues that, regardless of the truths taught by science, religion remains necessary to give meaning to the world and our lives in it. His argument appears to be borne out by the persistence of religious belief in a modern world dominated by science. Time and time again religious doctrines have been challenged by science, but no matter how much we learn about the universe and how it works, religious faith persists (in some places more than in others).

I have just a few points to make in response to Lord Sacks' arguments. First, his argument that belief in a god is necessary for utilitarian purposes - to give meaning to our lives in an otherwise meaningless universe - is at odds with virtually all religious belief systems which demand belief in god regardless of its utility. Second, he acknowledges that there are non-religious sources of meaning, and does not establish that a belief in god, or any particular god(s), is necessary to create that meaning. Third, he does not explain how positing a god (any god) establishes anything more than a (mythical) starting point for a system of ethics that, in any case, is created by humans themselves. If ethical/religious systems are created by humans for their own purposes - to give meaning to their lives and to order societies - then the existence of non-existence of a god hardly seems a necessary step. Fourth, he ignores (as Pascal did) the conflicts between inconsistent and mutually intolerant ethical systems established pursuant to beliefs in different gods, and all the trouble that has arisen throughout human history as a consequence.

Finally, and most interestingly from my perspective, the arguments Lord Sacks made seem fully consistent with arguments made more than 300 years ago by Benedict Spinoza, which led to his expulsion from the (relatively liberal) Jewish community of Amsterdam and his condemnation, even by liberal Christian theologians, as an "atheist" (which he was not) and even "Satan on earth." That Lord Sacks can make such theistic or deistic claims today and remain Chief Rabbi is an indication of just how far religion doctrine itself has been forced to conform to different ethical norms, including norms of tolerance of other belief systems, generated predominantly by secular forces.

In the end, Lord Sacks is quite right that scientific knowledge alone cannot give meaning to our lives and order society so that we might live together peaceably. It hardly follows, however, that some supernatural being (especially the impetuous, jealous, and mean-spirited one of the Old Testament) must therefore exist to cajole, entice, and threaten us into right behavior in human society.

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