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The failure of atheism

The failure of atheism

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the West is suffering for its loss of faith and unless we rediscover religion, our civilization is in peril.

The Spectator:

In my time as Chief Rabbi, I have seen two highly significant trends. First, parents are more likely than they were to send their children to faith schools. They want their children exposed to a strong substantive ethic of responsibility and restraint. Second, religious people, Jews especially, are more fearful of the future than they were. Our newly polarised culture is far less tolerant than old, mild Christian Britain.

In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief. Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.

The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’

I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.


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Gary Paul Gilbert

Will Durant is far from an unimpeachable authority, given his almost 19th-century Weltanschauung type of history. Most professional historians would not endorse his thesis about the decline of civilization.

Sacks seems upset that many people today don’t want to buy his product. His almost liberal religion, sans gay equality, may not have much appeal in a Britain where most people support marriage equality.

Gary Paul Gilbert

tobias haller

Also just a tad ironic to be quoting Bertrand Russell, no?

Moreover, the thesis seems odd, or rather, I’m not sure what the thesis is. The barbarians win? A strong moral code has to also be “gentle”? And what is the source of “social cohesion” and when is too much of that (as in fascism) a bad thing?

Maybe in the end that’s it: too much of one ideology is dangerous to pluralism. But isn’t too much pluralism an enemy to cohesion?

Emma Pease

I’m not sure what link he is trying to make between Epicurus and Lucretius and the fall of Greece and Rome given that Epicurus lived at the start of the Hellenistic empires which were not to fall for another couple of hundred years (or given that Greek dominated the eastern Roman Empire and Greek thought highly influential in all parts of the empire, many hundreds of years) and Lucretius at the start of the Roman Empire which wasn’t to fall for another 400 or so years (or 1500 if one considers the fall of Constantinople as the end). And Rome when it fell at either of those dates was pretty thoroughly faith (Christian) filled.

Rabbi Sacks is also ignoring the commonplace and sometimes vicious anti-semitism of earlier times in Britian (and the legal prohibition on Jews in England for several hundred years). Old mild British Christianity is a bit of a myth.

I wonder if the signs of moral unpinning of society that Rabbi Sacks sees include support for marriage equality. That is a new idea, a sign of the ‘relativeness’ of our current society where many realize that what we thought was moral once really isn’t (there may be an absolute ideal moral system but we don’t know it yet).

Nathan Roser

One would recommend Chris Hedges’ books on the rise of fascism in America: “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” and “The Death of the Liberal Class.” If you’re going to tackle his arguments, which are very trenchant and painful, please read them in the order I have listed. Thanks.


I just finished reading Sacks’ book “The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search For Meaning” It was wonderful and strongly recommend it. BTW, his name is Sacks.

Andy Muhl (added by ed.)

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