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.
Science will explain how but not why. It talks about what is, not what ought to be. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive; it can tell us about causes but it cannot tell us about purposes. Indeed, science disavows purposes. Second, technology: technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power. Thanks to technology, we can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn’t help us know what to say. As for the liberal democratic state, it gives us the maximum freedom to live as we choose, but the minimum direction as to how we should choose. The market gives us choices but it does not tell us what constitutes the wise or the good or the beautiful choices. Therefore, as long as we ask those questions, we will always find ourselves turning to religion.
… Individuals may live good lives without religion — the moral sense is part of what makes us human — but a society never can, and morality is quintessentially a social phenomenon. It is that set of principles, practices and ideals that bind us together in a collective enterprise. The market and the state may be driven by the pursuit of interests but societies are framed by something larger and more expansive, by a shared vision of the common good. Absent this and societies begin to fragment. People start thinking of morality as a matter of personal choice. The sense of being bound together — the root meaning of “religion” — in a larger enterprise starts to atrophy and social cohesion is lost. The West was made by what is nowadays called the Judeo-Christian heritage which gave it its unique configuration of values and virtues. Lose that and we will lose Western civilisation as we have known it for the better part of two millennia.
Damn, that’s pathetic. Sacks sounds like a terrible ventriloquist reduced to tearfully pleading with his audience to stay in their seats and please refrain from pointing out how often his lips move.
If we’ve reached a level of awareness wherein we can openly discuss God’s existence in such mercenary, calculating terms, then surely we can take that next tiny step and agree that the values that we generally call “Judeo-Christian” are worth preserving even if the presumed author of them has turned out to be a pseudonym without even an actual being behind it. Would Shakespeare’s plays be any less profound in their effects if it turned out that they had indeed been produced by hundreds of monkeys on hundreds of typewriters over hundreds of years? Meaning is a relationship, one that we are constantly updating and recreating, not a solid object with a fixed place of residence.