What the theocrats forgot
There’s a thing that publicists for religion do when they’re trying to explain why human beings can’t possibly get along without some sort of god in their lives: they insist that God is the only source of ‘meaning’ for humans and that all secular sources are poor thin broken substitutes.
It’s a very common claim, and any reader of the Freethinker will have heard or read it a million times; for purposes of illustration I’m taking former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, above, in an essay for the Wall Street Journal last week, drawn from his new book explaining how religious violence isn’t really religious at all (another very common claim, but that’s for another day).
What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose.
Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished.
But they do not answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.
There’s a lot to say about what’s wrong with that, and it’s all been said and said and said, but the apologists keep on repeating the silly claim, so we have to keep saying why it’s bullshit.
The most obvious flaw is that it’s not at all clear how God does a better job of providing “meaning” than anything else does. How is that even supposed to work? How exactly is it more meaningful to be a character in a story someone else creates rather than the protagonist of the story you create? How, that is, is that more meaningful to us, as opposed to the people who administer the story?
It’s easy to see why priests and mullahs find that story rich with meaning: it makes them important characters, who shape and guard and share the story. But that would apply to anyone who came up with a colourful fantasy about super-humans in the sky who have a Plan for human beings. They’re like rival screenwriters and producers, competing for whose story gets to be a film or television series that grabs the imagination of millions.
That’s a peculiar idea of “meaning” for grownups though. Fantasy is a good thing, stories are a good thing, but not if we lose sight of the difference between them and that vulgar item, reality.
Even if it’s true that God exists and has a purpose for us, it doesn’t follow that God’s purpose is our purpose. You can decide to define God in such a way that it does follow: you can say that God is the total of all of us, and we are all bits of God, so we’re not separate, so we do all have the same purpose … but it’s just words, and we’re still left here, feeling free to consider God nothing to do with us.
Many believers do see God that way – as immanent – so for them that idea of meaning does make sense. But Jonathan Sacks is making claims that are supposed to apply to all of us, and they don’t. For the rest of us it’s as if they are saying: we are all subjects in a giant research project, isn’t that wonderfully meaningful?
And then God is supposed to be perfect: omniscient and omnipotent; what can a being like that have to do with purposes in the first place? If you know all and can do all, what purpose is left? What interest can a being like that have in beings like us? We don’t see ourselves as providing meaning to fleas or moss, and God is supposed to be infinitely more superior to us than we are to fleas or moss.
The religious assumption is that meaning is something external, that it’s futile and blasphemous to find it in our own aspirations and projects and those of our children, friends, sisters and brothers. We’re meant to look away from this sublunary world and trust only a projected, imagined, unavailable Other World that we know nothing about, that we have no reason to believe exists at all. We’re supposed to ignore what we do have access to in favor of what we don’t. We’re expected to trust priests and Chief Rabbis rather than physicists and biologists, historians and geographers.
None of it makes sense; all of it is back to front; yet we’re told to believe the stories of clerics have more meaning for us than all the accumulated knowledge we have.
Jonathan Sacks is welcome to derive meaning from his best mate God if he wants to, but it’s fatuous of him to claim that’s the only proper source of meaning.