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‘Religion will return’ to the West: former chief rabbi of the UK

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Some 23 percent of Americans, and a higher percentage of Europeans, say they belong to no religion in particular. Although this is the result of a centuries-long retreat from faith, one of Europe’s most prominent religious spokesmen believes that the process may have come full-circle.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK and a member of the House of Lords, traced the boomeraging arc of secularization and re-evangelization as part of a lecture on “Faith and the Challenges of Secularism: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue.” This kickoff event of Baylor University’s new “Robert P. George Initiative” in Washington featured Rabbi Sacks, Robert P. George, and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.

At George’s urging, Rabbi Sacks told the audience on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.:

As far as I can see, secularization happened in four stages, each one with its own century.

The seventeenth century was the secularization of knowledge … broadly, knowledge without dogmatic assumptions, which was reason and observation, philosophy, and science.

In the eighteenth century came the secularization of power with the American Revolution and the First Amendment, and the French Revolution – a far more substantive separation of church and state.

The nineteenth century was the secularization of culture when the museum, and the concert hall, and the art gallery took the place of houses of worship as places where you encountered the sublime.

And the twentieth century saw the final secularization, which was the secularization of morality. In the 1960s, throughout the West,  the two foundations of the Judeo-Christian ethic – namely, the sanctity of life and the idea that there is such a thing as a sexual ethic involving fidelity and the covenantal nature of marriage – those two just disappeared throughout the West.

So, we have gone through four stages of secularization, and there are no more stages to go through, short of complete atomization of society.

I have pointed out the four great institutions of science, technology, the market, and the state cannot answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask some time in life: who am I, why am I here, how then shall I live?

The science tells us how but not why.

Technology gives us power but doesn’t tell us how to use that power.

The market gives us choices but doesn’t tell us which choices to make.

And the liberal democratic state gives us a maximum of freedom but no guidance as to how to use that freedom.

Therefore, religion will return. In the meantime, we’ve got a gap to fill.

Rabbi Sacks’ words are a welcome antidote to the pessimism of believers and the jubilation of the New Atheists. The latter believe that demographic and cultural trends cannot be reversed, because they have no higher reference point, while the former sometimes forget that despair has been proscribed by theirs.

The West, Sacks warned, “is not going forward bravely to the future. It is marching heedlessly to the past.” C.S. Lewis would have preferred that fate. He wrote in his essay “Is Theism Important” that the pagan is a “pre-Christian” who has shown himself eminently capable of being converted. “The Post-Christian man of our own day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin,” he wrote.

People of all faiths – and not a few atheists – have asked whether the West can survive without the faith that created that cherished body of rights, liberties, and civil protections that are now vaguely referred to as “British values,” “European values,” etc. Later that evening, as he received the 2007 Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute, Rabbi Sacks said, “The fundamental truth that is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible and of American politics [is] that the state exists to serve the people; the people don’t exist to serve the state.”

Our Judeo-Christian culture drew from its faith tradition the understanding that all life is sacred, that all are created equal, that human persons should enjoy freedom from arbitrary coercion, that the free market allows us to serve others by engaging our God-given gifts in service of our personal vocation, and that private property is sacrosanct because it allows us to exercise responsible stewardship of the fruits which those gifts produced.

The New Atheists hope to dynamite the foundation of Western civilization without affecting its presidential suite.

“The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization,” wrote Theodore Dalrymple, “which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.”

Rabbi Sacks lays his finger on the common thread that unites the pre- and post-religious person. Human nature, as fashioned by the Almighty, yearns for purpose, meaning, and deeply significant relationships. The soul in its loneliness stretches out longingly for the transcendent. Even the free market, which provides a seemingly endless variety of utilities and gratifications, cannot meet that need. Nor is it clear that the form it has taken for the last several centuries can endure without it.

(Photo credit: michael_swan. CC BY-ND 2.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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