Speaking of prominent British non-Christians defending Christianity (and the role of religion in society more broadly), the UK’s chief rabbi, Lord Sacks, recently published a long-form essay in  Standpoint Magazine  on “the limits of secularism.” It’s a scholarly piece, weaving and engaging various theories, historical turning-points, and intellectuals living and dead.

 Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.

“Amen” to that astute and basic separation of theology and philosophy from other disciplines, a distinction which robs the simpler materialists of their usual rhetorical indictments of religion for its “datedness.” Yet it doesn’t seem, at least to this reader, to get the story precisely, or fully, right. Part of the problem stems from Sacks’ misfire at defending science, which leads him to repeat a semi-well known maxim of Albert Einstein: “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” But that phrase, once you get past the indubitable impressiveness of the author’s credentials, offers both a too-easy dichotomy and a too-simple resolution to the matrix of faith and science. It actually posits the necessity of each discipline for the internal functioning of the other, which is simply not the case.

Sacks also writes that:

every function that was once performed by religion can now be done by something else. In other words, if you want to explain the world, you don’t need Genesis; you have science. If you want to control the world, you don’t need prayer; you have technology. If you want to prosper, you don’t necessarily seek God’s blessing; you have the global economy. You want to control power, you no longer need prophets; you have liberal democracy and elections

Again, this is not so, and it consigns swaths of religion to historical necessity. Serious believers have not ceased using prayer as a vehicle through which to change the world, nor replaced God with the market economy. At best, what Sacks describes is a waning of superstition, not authentic faith, and it is not necessary to juxtapose the two choices so starkly. Nevertheless, Sacks’ essay, which can be seen in its entirety here, remains a valuable (if flawed) contribution to what seems to be a growing consensus on the limits and failures of secularism as a basis for political theory.

Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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