Opinion

What the theocrats forgot

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.

12 responses to “What the theocrats forgot”

  1. Vanity Unfair says:

    What Rabbi Sacks’s argument boils down to is that in the absence of a particular god his own life has had no meaning. I think that scares him and probably all clerics. They have made a huge investment in a god or gods and cannot bear the thought that they have wasted all that effort.
    Many of them have, of course, done good works along the way. That would be a comforting thought for most of us but they cannot see a value in the benefits they have wrought without a tally being kept by some supernatural being that, incidentally, could have done the deeds itself with no effort or, better, have ordered the universe so that their efforts would not have been needed anyway.
    When I am berated for my lack of piety I often ask, “What is your single best piece of evidence for the existence of your god?” So far I have not had a good answer.

  2. Michael Glass says:

    Even if there is a God, that in itself does not demonstrate that any particular religion is right, or that the deity is benevolent, malevolent, indifferent or anything else.

  3. […] my column for the Freethinker for this month. It’s another wallop at that idea that religion alone can give people [a sense […]

  4. Sacks “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 …the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

    If we ask those questions sometimes then meaning cannot be that important for we can get along just fine and enjoy our lives the rest of the time…

    What gives Sacks the right to say that it is only God is the answer? What about people who believe in supernatural forces that bless them but not in the Jewish Christian God? I suspect that those who say religion gives them meaning are getting it from the idea of the supernatural, not specifically God as such. They feel they can cuddle up to some magical force that is going to make things okay for them one day.

  5. Cali Ron says:

    Who am I? Ron. I am who I make of my self. My existence needs no explanation. I need only look into my children’s eyes and those of my loved ones for validation. I look into myself and try to make the most of my potential, my integrity as a human being. Neither god nor religion can do that for me or to me.

    Why am I here? It’s basic biology (thanks mom and dad) and I’ll skip the details, but it’s not to serve god or religion. My time is finite and knowing that does not diminish me or my life story, in fact, it does the opposite. It makes me value and cherish every moment, living life to the fullest instead of deferring fulfillment till some supposed afterlife.

    How then shall I live? By my conscience and the cumulative knowledge of my lifetime. I need only one rule: treat others the way I want to be treated. I endeavor to live every day of my life like it’s my last, to the fullest extent possible sharing, helping and loving my friends and family while doing no harm to others. At no point do I need religion to explain, guide or berate me.
    The meaning of my life is whatever meaning I give it, not what someone or something else like religion tells me it is.

    The measure of my life is the people I have known and loved and how I have affected their life’s and how they have affected my life. What’s god got to do with it? NOTHING!

  6. Stonyground says:

    “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? ”

    Actually Jonathan they do. Cali Ron beat me to it but I was going to point out that these questions can be answered quite easily by any reflective individual. These questions are really not difficult to answer at all and if Sacks finds them difficult then maybe it is his belief in God that is his problem.

  7. Joshua Fox says:

    Who except“I” cancan possibly say,“Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?” From the moment we are born others tell us what, from their experience, they think we should do because they say so. But what has their experience got to do with us? Growing up means finding for ourselves what fits us and ignoring the rest. Gradually, though questioning what others suggest, we can discover what fits us. .
    The ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Pope Francis; David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn; Darwin and Einstein and the authors of the bible and G.W.Foote can give their opinions, but only we can possibly answer the three questions. Why? Because “I” is a place where our experience makes thing happen, not a dump of other people’s meanings. After all, “God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM (Exodus 3:14), and so are each of us.

  8. 1859 says:

    And anyway what does it mean to have ‘meaning’? I’m not sure I would recognise my own ‘meaning’ if it was staring me in the face. And what would happen if I found my ‘meaning’? Where would I put it? In a box beneath my bed? And suppose I could even understand it, knowing me, I would certainly end up asking what is the meaning of my meaning? And once I’d found that I would be in a hall of mirrors asking what is the meaning of the meaning of my meaning – if you see what I mean? ‘I think therefore I am’ was a pretty good start, but what would ‘I think therefore I must mean something’ mean? Or’I mean something therefore I am something’ Or ‘I am something therefore I must mean something’ – Well, I mean the possibilities are endless – but would they all be meaningful or meaningless? Mr. Sacks I’m afraid doesn’t answer any of these thorny questions – he only answers his own questions because they suit his own purpose – that’s what he means!

  9. Justin says:

    It is frightening for some people to walk alone through the cemetery at night. Therefore they must invent, a fictional someone who will hold their hand. Now, if they would only quit using that “fictional someone”to fight their battles – real and imagined. This brings me to think perhaps it is better and more peaceful to walk alone?

  10. dennis says:

    you are your own god, own it and live it today. yes how many times have we said these truths of humanity.

  11. Justin says:

    I just love this article: “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.” Accuse me…Heehhheeeeee!

  12. Steven says:

    Romans 14:10 “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”