I have been banging on for weeks about the book written by Rabbi Sacks called The Great Partnership. Christmas festivities interrupted my reading but I have now restarted. I bring the subject up again but instead of me blathering on and probably distorting his words in my paraphrasing I thought I would give a direct quotation thus providing you all with a tasting:
Social cohesion is precisely what religion sustains and much else undermines. When societies grow affluent, when the burden of law-abidingness falls on the state and its institutions, when people define rights and wrongs in terms of externalities - punishment and rewards - and in terms of what other people do and are seen to get away with, when people focus, as they naturally do, on immediate benefits not long-term sustainability, then society begins to erode from within and there is little anyone can do about it. The signs are unmistakable:
"People lose a sense of shame. Rudeness is taken as a sign of sophistication. People pursue the pleasure of the moment. They lose respect for elders. The young no longer defer to the old, and the old behave as if they were young. The difference between the sexes is blurred. People get irritated by the least touch of authority and they dislike any rules that inhibit their freedom to do as they like."(*)
A Christian evangelical bemoaning secularism today? No: Plato speaking about the democracy of Athens.
A law of entropy governs societies. They rise to power and affluence and then begin to decline as individualism saps the collective spirit that brough them greatness in the first place. When this happens, only a counter-cultural force can revive flagging energies, renew institutions, defeat cynicism, generate trust and restore altruism. The Abrahamic monotheisms are the most powerful counter-cultural forces the world has ever known because they speak to something indelible in the human spirit: the dignity of humanity as the image of God.
So Dostoevsky was wrong and Tolstoy was right. Morality does not suddenly break down when people stop believing. People do not conclude: God does not exist, therefore everything is permitted. But they do in the long run, like an orchestra without a conductor, lose the habits that sustain the virtues that create the trust that preserves the institutions that shape and drive a moral order. That is when you see the first signs of discontent with secularisation. People, even those who do not practice a faith, start sending their children to faith schools. Children, even if only a few, start becoming more religious than their parents. Religious voices begin to be listened to with respect, if only because so many other voices sound cynical or self-seeking. The moral sense is not a blazing fire but a flickering flame, and it seems to have been the fate of faith to keep it burning even when the winds of individualism are strong.
God and good are connected after all.
Magnificent stuff; quietly passionate, elegantly phrased and mostly, in my opinion, accurate. I should add that I, personally, still do not believe in God but I do believe in the influence, for good or ill, of what he calls the "Abrahamic monotheisms". The big question remains: will they survive?
(*) The Republic