Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Losing our Religion

I came across a comment in today's Times by Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which struck me as true.

I respect the Rabbi greatly because he is one of the few religious leaders whose writings provide a cogent critique of modern Western ethics and can appeal to readers beyond narrow sectarian confines.

This is what he has to say on the relationship between belief in God and what it means to be a human being which, in turn, has major implications for each individual's sense of purpose and of moral responsibility.

Religion claims human beings were granted dominion over all the earth. And while many would take issue with this interpretation in today's secular climate, the fact of the matter is that our dominion has never been so noticeable, so widespread, nor so destructive as it is today.

Fish stocks are almost exhausted.

Rising sea levels and global warming bring flooding and desertification in equal measure, reducing the amount of available farmland and forcing record numbers to migrate from their stricken homelands.

Species and languages are dying at unprecedented rates as globalisation's ugly cousin, homogeneity, attacks the world's natural diversity in the search for a quick profit or a sous to feed a growing family.

This is dominion all right. But it is thoughtless tyranny, dominion of the worst kind. Human beings, many argue, have a moral responsibility to themselves, to future generations, to the planet itself, to preserve the fruits of nature and cease their destructive behaviour.

But on what basis?

Rabbi Sacks points out that in the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,
dominion is and must be interpreted as stewardship: the recognition that living things are to serve humanity but human beings, as part of their dominion, are required to look after all living creatures.

On this reading, failure to care for the thing we exert power over is equivalent to acting inhumanly, to being inhumane in our treatment of other living things. For Rabbi Sacks, a God-centred view of human existence is one in which man (through his intelligence, his judgement, and his love for creation) can elevate himself to the viewpoint of the divine.

Failure to harness this spiritual side, however, results in an abasement that puts us on a par with non-sentient creatures.

An abasement born, if you will, of wilful ignorance because mankind's capacity for intelligent thought and forward planning is far far greater than that of other mammals. They exist. We order existence. Failure to exercise what clerics call God-given reason is thus the equivalent of acting against our (better) nature.

By contrast, modern scientific thought - as it is used by humanists and other secular groups - defines humanity as something far more limited and, fundamentally, pre-programmed: as Rabbi Sacks points out, "we are part of nature; nothing more".

A statement published in 1997 by members of the International Academy of Humanism, and distinguished scientists, philosophers and novelists, defines homo sapiens as a member of the animal kingdom stating:

"Human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals.

Humankind's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover.”

This in turn gives rise to questions about the nature of our responsibility towards the planet and its creatures.

If we are programmed to be selfish, greedy, and destructive what possible reason could we have for stopping such tendencies for moral reasons rather than reasons of self interest?

I am not suggesting for one moment that the non-religious don't have a sense of ethics. I am simply saying that different definitions of humanity lead us to employ different forms of rationale.

Note that much of the current discussion on climate change is not about the rights and wrongs of exterminating animal and fish species, it's about ensuring their sustainable use for economic growth.

Under this way of seeing it does not matter much if the salmon comes from a salmon farm or lives wild. The essential point is that it is there for human consumption.

The modern view of human beings stresses our biology. In turn, we objectify animals, seeing them only as the source of meat or leather, as opposed to beings which have an equal right to inhabit the earth and are deserving of reasonable treatment.

If you have ever looked in a cow's eyes, let alone stroked your neighbour's cat as it sits on your knee, you will have had the feeling that a being, any being, is a good deal more than that.

Rabbi Sacks writes that "When human beings lose faith in God they lose faith in human beings" and indeed, the sacredness of creation.


Because without an extra-biological purpose informing our actions, he claims, "We will have knowledge without wisdom, technology without reticence, choice without conscience, power without restraint".

Only when we rediscover life as a miracle of creation, instead of trying to maximise its returns, will we rediscover our full potential as human beings.

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