One thing is clear. Religion is not about to die. The religious have bigger families and stronger communities. They’re going to grow in numbers and confidence in the course of the 21st century. But the secular West is in real trouble. It’s re-enacting a scenario played out many times in the course of history, in Athens and Rome in antiquity, and Renaissance Italy. The same thing happens each time. A culture or civilisation at the very height of its affluence and its creativity finds that people are becoming more individualistic. They become more hedonist. They become more sceptical of religious beliefs, and that causes a loss of social cohesion, social energy and social ideals. No one said it better than a great American historian, Will Durant. As a young man he wanted to be a priest but actually became an atheist. So listen to what this atheist says — and it’s unbelievably powerful. After his huge study of the story of civilisation, he says:
What happens at a certain point in history is that the intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and, after some hesitation, the moral code allied with it. Literature and philosophy become anti-clerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason and falls to a paralysing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct deprived of its religious support deteriorates into epicurean chaos and life itself shorn of consoling faith becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end, a society and its religion tend to fall together like body and soul in a harmonious death. Meanwhile, among the oppressed, another myth arises and gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort and, after centuries of chaos, builds another civilisation.It is a very sober warning for our times, though it was written 60 years ago.
So in a world like today, religion can do one of three things. Number one, it can attempt to conquer society. That is the radical Islamist version. Number two, it can withdraw from society. That is the Benedict option or the ultra-Orthodox option, or the Soloveitchik option. Or number three, it can attempt to reinspire society, to do what Will Durant called giving people a new form of human hope and new courage to human effort.
If we adopt the first option, the radical anti-Western option, we will move straight away into the dark ages. If we adopt the second option, we will survive the dark ages, but they will still be dark. But if we adopt the third option of being true to ourselves and yet engaged in the public square, we have a chance of avoiding the dark and of countering cultural climate change. By religion, I don’t mean religion as a substitute for science. I certainly don’t mean religion in opposition to a free society. Don’t forget the architects of freedom in the modern world, in Holland, in England, and in America, Spinoza, Locke, and Jefferson, they did it in the name of religion, not as a protest against but in the name of religion.
So what do I mean by religion in the public square? I mean simply religion as a consecration of the bonds that connect us, religion as the redemption of our solitude, religion as loyalty and love, religion as altruism and compassion, religion as covenant and commitment, religion that consecrates marriage, that sustains community and helps reweave the torn fabric of society. That kind of religion is content to be a minority. Jews have been a minority wherever we went for 2,000 years, and in the immortal words of Sir Elton John, we can all say as Jews, “I’m still standing.” So religion can be a minority, but it can be a huge influence. It doesn’t seek power; it seeks influence. It’s engaged with the world; it’s not in retreat from the world. If we can do that, we might just bring those two cars closer together. We might just find that we can have our feet in society and our head in Heaven and we can bring the light that will vanquish the darkness. That is the kind of religion the world needs right now.
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