humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Does Society Need Religion?

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 28, 2010

It’s about time we had a Jewish voice on this site, so I’m pleased to welcome a guest post by the UK’s chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Well, he didn’t actually agree to write for me, I just pinched his opinion piece in the times.

Why the Ancient Greeks were wrong about morality
Do you have to be religious to be moral? Was Dostoevsky right when he said that if God does not exist, all is permitted? Clearly the answer is “no”. You don’t have to be religious to fight for justice, practise compassion, care about the poor and homeless or jump into the sea to save a drowning child. My doctoral supervisor, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a committed atheist. He was also one of the most reflective writers on morality in our time.

Yet there were great minds who were less sure. Voltaire did not believe in God but he wanted his butler to do so because he thought he would then be robbed less. Rousseau, hardly a saint, thought that a nation needed a religion if it was to accept laws and policies directed at the long-term future. Without it, people would insist on immediate gain, to their eventual cost. George Washington, in his farewell address, said: “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Were they wrong? Yes in one sense, no in another. Individuals don’t need to believe in God to be moral. But morality is more than individual choices. Like language it is the result of social practice, honed and refined over many centuries. The West was shaped by what today we call the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Lose that and we will not cease to be moral, but we will be moral in a different way.

Consider what moves people today: the environment, hunger and disease in Third World countries, and the growing gap between rich and poor. These are noble causes: nothing should be allowed to detract from that. They speak to our altruism. They move us to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is one of the distinguishing features of our age. Our moral horizons have widened. Our conscience has gone global. All this is worthy of admiration and respect.

But they have in common the fact that they are political. They are the kind of issues that can only ultimately be solved by governments and international agreements. They have little to do with the kind of behaviour that was once the primary concern of morality: the way we relate to others, how we form bonds of loyalty and love, how we consecrate marriage and the family, and how we fulfil our responsibilities as parents, employees, neighbours and citizens. Morality was about private life. It said that without personal virtue, we cannot create a society of grace.

Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if that sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution”. Things that once made sense — duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do — to many people now make no sense at all.

This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have. What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.

The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.

So far, the Times only has two comments, one from the kind of christian who argues poorly and dogmatically. *sigh*. There are some more useful comments here. I shall add my comment below, but I want to know what YOU think: Is the chief rabbi right? Please comment.


Some atheists imply or state outright that to be a believer one must be stupid. It’s simply not true, there are some immensely intelligent and educated religious people out there including many who teach in secular universities. I haven’t trawled in depth, but here’s Intelligent Christian, a website by mensa-level IQ christians.

Today’s Fun Unrelated Link: Odd and strangely satisfying video – exploding banana face

5 Responses to “Does Society Need Religion?”

  1. For me, I find the idea of civil religion – if that’s what he’s suggesting – unpalatable. In the end, the only reason I want to follow a religion is if it’s TRUE, not if it’s useful or necessary.

  2. Romy said

    Well thought out, Jon.

    a non-practicing Jew, Romy

  3. Not sure why a religion can’t be true and useful and necessary? In my opinion, most religions establish a firm code of conduct for its members. Break the code and you have committed a sin. If you are an RC (like me) you must confess and atone for those sins. You may even have to spend a few years paying your dues in purgatory to atone for those sins. But in the here and now, if you sin, you will likely pay your dues in the form of shame, guilt, incarceration, fines, self destructive behaviours, depresssion and the list goes on and on. In my opinion, religion is a form of societal socialization that provides a method for saving ourselves from ourselves. Further, it maps out an ideal means of living life that will earn you everlasting life in communion with the saints. Is it possible for humans to live up to that ideal … probably not, but it’s the day to day effort to live in a godly fashion that counts.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: