From “The Limits of Secularism,” by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks:
(HT to Andrew Sullivan)
Think about it: 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.
If you’re ill, you don’t need a priest; you can go to a doctor. If you feel guilty, you don’t have to confess; you can go to a psychotherapist instead. If you’re depressed, you don’t need faith; you can take a pill. If you still need salvation, you can go to today’s cathedrals, the shopping centres of Britain — or as one American writer calls them, weapons of mass consumption. Religion seems superfluous, redundant, de trop. Why then does it survive?
My answer is simple. 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.
After ticking off the ways in which religion is no longer the sole supplier of goods that humans value—knowledge, control, prosperity, health, and salvation—the Rabbi claims to have found three that secular culture cannot supply: identity, purpose, and moral direction.
This is simply incorrect. Does the Rabbi imagine that a secular humanist cannot know who she is, why she is here, and how to live her life? The answers she discovers through her lived experience and her secular education may not be as readily available or as facile as those that religious institutions offer, but they are nonetheless valid.
And more than just “valid.” The answers she discovers may also be more truthful and more conducive to human flourishing. What is the good of believing that one is a child of God and that one’s purpose is to serve Him if, indeed, there is no God? What is the good of obeying God’s laws if, in fact, God’s laws are unjust?
I won’t dispute that the goal of serving a fictive god can give one’s life meaning and purpose. But I do question whether such purposes are always healthy for human beings to have. More important, I question whether God’s laws should provide a moral compass for 21st-century human beings.
There are “other” purposes, “other” meanings, and “other” moral priorities that might serve us better than those offered by religion. And they are humanistic ones.
Where do we find them? In literature, in film, in poetry and music, in philosophy, psychology, and the hard sciences. We may also find them in religion, but religion is not their only source.
So, here’s my own quick-and-dirty answer to the Rabbi’s three questions. (I am breaking his second question into two parts, in order to address the two meanings of “purpose,” i.e., proximate and ultimate).
Who am I? I am a human being.
Why am I here? (proximate) Because I was born out of the Earth’s biosphere.
Why am I here? (ultimate) To fulfill my full potential as a human being: to love, to create, to struggle, and to understand.
How shall I live? In harmony with other human beings and with the environment that sustains us all.
I don’t see nihilism in any of that, nor any cause for despair.