The current presidential campaign in the United States—with its nativist and irrational, mean-spirited rhetoric—raises the volume on my rumbling fear that the anger and angst of the broad public led by demagogic voices will mark the end of the Enlightenment. Certainly it seems religious platitudes and emotional reactions have displaced reason and nearly half the American populace is willing to reject science. As a deeply dedicated humanist, to the extent of it defining my “faith,” I am also deeply troubled.
Yet, perhaps there is another side to the loss of influence of the values inherent in most religions.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, once the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and a recognized global religious leader, has written a thoughtful book on confronting religious violence, Not in God’s Name, where he also deals with some of the broader historic reasons for our current era’s greatest loss, which is the loss of the sense of optimism, generosity and community.
Sacks suggests that in the last four centuries since the great age of wars of religion, there has been a slow demise of the true believer in both progressive religion and political ideology.
First, in the seventeenth century, came the secularization of knowledge in the form of science and philosophy. Then in the eighteenth century came the secularization 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 nineteenth century came the secularization of culture as art galleries an museums were seen as alternative to churches a places in which to encounter the sublime. Finally, in a principle first propounded John Stuart Mill a century earlier—namely that the only ground on which anyone, including the state, is justified in intervening in behavior 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.
Sacks point out that as we have become more secular as a civilization, we have failed to address the special need and strength of Homo sapiens, which is that we are a meaning-seeking animal.
Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide 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 freedom to live as we choose but on principle refuses to guide us as to how to choose.
This leave us with great choice and inadequate meaning. And, the mutual influence of religion and culture that provided a core set of values, across sects, is lost. Instead, we have chosen:
…to worship the idols of the self—the market, consumerism, individualism, autonomy, rights and ‘whatever works for you’—while relinquishing the codes of loyalty, reverence and respect that once preserved marriages, communities and the subtle bonds that tie us to one another, moving us to work for the common good.
Losing its religious faith, the West is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic: reverence, loyalty, human dignity, the relief of poverty, public service, collective responsibility, national identity and respect for religious values while at the same time making space for liberty of conscience and the peaceable co-existence of more than one faith.
Sacks argues we must recover our values or it results in radicals seeking a better world to turn away from individualism and hedonism toward acts that are brutal and violent as expression of their altruism.