‘The West had three master narratives: Westernisation, secularisation and
accommodation. But today each one of them is breaking down’
There is an old Chinese curse which goes, “May you live in interesting times.” We are living in interesting times. Sometimes, I think the world has gone so crazy that the best account of it was that wonderful remark by Woody Allen: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Well, that’s how it seems sometimes.
Or it seems like my favourite Jewish text of all time, which goes, “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Because the truth is we are living through one of the most profound revolutions in all of human history. It is a time of political economic and social change brought about by the internet; a revolution which is the greatest and most fateful since the invention of printing in the West in the 15th century. I sum it up in a single phrase: “Cultural climate change.” We are worrying about our physical climate change and that climate change doesn’t just make things warmer. What it does is produce more extreme weather conditions, and so it is with cultural climate change. It’s not just extreme heat, but sometimes it expresses itself in the cold and the wind and the rain. An old pattern that has governed the West for four centuries is broken. A new one has not yet emerged and it has brought great damage to that spiritual experience that is our ozone layer. The result is a revolution, which goes in many directions about the role of religion in society.
It is not so much a matter of more religion or less religion because the truth is, both are happening at once: a lot of people getting more religious, a lot of people getting less religious. The result is a series of storms in the West and even more so elsewhere, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. I want to say why I think it has happened and what we can do about it to save the planet from cultural climate change.
So first of all, let me analyse what is happening. The simplest answer I can give is that the West had three master narratives which we have held since the 17th or 18th century. Today, they have all broken down. Those three master narratives are, first: the world is getting progressively more secular. Second: the world is getting more Westernised. Third: to survive in the contemporary world any religion has to accommodate to society. It has to go with the flow. Those three stories have held for four centuries. But today each one of them is breaking down.
Let us take them one by one. The secularisation thesis has been functioning for four centuries. It has four dimensions, one for each century. First of all came the 17th century, which saw the secularisation of knowledge. In science, there was Newton. In philosophy, there was Descartes, both of whom were not irreligious or anti-religious. They were very religious indeed, but they sought to base knowledge on non-doctrinal foundations. That’s the essence of Newtonian physics and Descartesian philosophy.
In the 18th century came the secularisation of power, in two great revolutions, the French in 1789 and, before that, the American in 1776. But the 18th century saw for the first time the separation of religion and power, or, as it was put in the United States, between church and state. The 19th century saw the secularisation of culture. People built concert halls, art galleries and museums as a way of encountering the sublime without necessarily going to a house of worship. They were substitutes for the church.
The 20th century, beginning in the 1960s, saw the secularisation of morality, as the West broke free from its traditional Judaeo-Christian ethic, especially in relationship to the sanctity of life on the one hand and the sanctity of marriage on the other. However, four centuries of secularisation lead us to expect that the process will continue. But it isn’t continuing because in the 21st century we are seeing, at least in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the world getting more religious, not less. We have begun an age of desecularisation.
The second metanarrative was Westernisation. It said that any country that wants to enter the modern world has to become Westernised. That too has been true for four centuries, but today no longer, because what we’re seeing is four very ancient civilisations that had been eclipsed by the modern age suddenly returning with a vengeance. By that, I mean China, India, Russia and Islam, whether in the Sunni form in Saudi Arabia or the Shia form in Iran. All of those cultures believe that tomorrow belongs to them, not to the West. So, that’s the second master narrative — Westernisation.
The third was accommodation. That is, that any religion to survive in the modern world has to accommodate and adjust to the wider society. Today, the opposite is the case. For the last half-century, it has been conservative churches and Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox synagogues that have been growing faster than liberal ones. In Islam, it is the radical forms of Islamism that are flourishing, while the more moderate forms are in decline. In each case, what we are seeing, and what we haven’t seen for four centuries, is not religion as accommodation, but religion as resistance. It’s not religion making its peace with the world, but religion opposing the world, challenging the world or simply withdrawing from the world. These are not small developments. Half of the world is getting less religious. Half of the world is getting more religious and the tension between them is growing day by day. That is cultural climate change and it’s the biggest thing to happen, certainly in the West, since the great wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The second question that I then want to ask is: why has it happened? Here I want to turn to two extraordinary prophets who saw it happening long before the rest of us did. One of them was Alasdair MacIntyre, the great philosopher, once a Marxist, today a Catholic. In 1981 Alasdair MacIntyre published one of the great books of the 20th century, After Virtue. For me and many others it was a life-changing book. Its argument was that the Enlightenment attempt to build morality on rational foundations, the Enlightenment Project, had, in fact, failed. We were now, he said, entering a new dark age or, as he put it, it’s not the case that the barbarians are at the gates. Actually the barbarians have been governing us for some time. The only thing to do, he said, was to retreat into closed communities and do what Saint Benedict did in the sixth century, build monasteries.
That has become known this year, actually, as the Benedict Option. Some of you will have seen or read the book with that title by Rod Dreher, and other Catholics like Charles Chaput have written the same thing. His book is called Strangers in a Strange Land. Alasdair MacIntyre saw this happening in 1981. The second one was 16 years earlier, by a great rabbi, no longer alive: Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. (Alasdair MacIntyre is alive and we wish him good health, or as we Jews say, “May you live to be 120.” Although my grandmother, my bubbe, used to go around wishing everyone, “May you live to be 120 and three months.” They used to ask, “Why the three months?” “I don’t want you to die suddenly,” she said.) In 1965, Rabbi Soloveitchik published a book called The Lonely Man of Faith. He argued that the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are not simply different documents: they are two different dimensions of the human condition.
The humans of Genesis 1, made in God’s image, were told to “fill the world and subdue it.” That is what he called “majestic man”, what we would call secular humanity, the dominating nature. In Genesis 2 the humans are created from the dust of the earth into which God breaths life. They’re placed in the Garden of Eden not to subdue it and conquer it, but to guard it and protect it, and that Rabbi Soloveitchik called “covenantal man”. So he said these are always present in us, the secular urge to dominate and control nature and the religious urge to be in awe of nature.
Everyone read that bit of The Lonely Man of Faith, and they all assumed that Rabbi Soloveitchik was what we call a Modern Orthodox Jew. He was saying: that’s good stuff. But always read the last chapter of any book. People got him completely wrong because in the last chapter he said that until now, those two elements have always been part of each of us and we wrestle with them. But today, he said, the majestic, secular man of Genesis 1 is so powerful, so dominant, that the covenantal, spiritual man of Genesis 2 simply can’t compete any more. Therefore, if you want to keep your spirituality intact, you have to withdraw from the world. That was the Jewish account 16 years before Alasdair MacIntyre. Jews wouldn’t call it this, but it was the Jewish equivalent of the Benedict Option: withdraw from the world if you want to keep your faith. These were real prophets because they saw it coming a long time in advance.
If I can lower the tone for a moment, I have this thing in my mind. It is a scene in one of those Hollywood films where the hero is trying to escape from one car to another. He reaches out and puts his hand and his head in another car. His head is in that car and his legs are in the other car and they’re going along in parallel. Suddenly, there’s a traffic island in the middle of the road and the two cars have to go on either side of it. That is what is happening to religion in society. For most of the time, we were able to have our feet in society and our head in religion or the other way around. But today the two cars are diverging. They can’t be held together any longer. Those two voices told us in advance that this was going to happen and that is what I call cultural climate change — the walking in opposite ways of religion and society.
Now I simply want to ask: how does this affect us in the contemporary world? The answer lies in three dimensions. First, family. Second, community. Third, society. What happens to family, community, and society when the West loses its faith, its religious faith?
The first one, family. I’m sure you know that in England, certain people believe that God is an old man with a white beard whose name is Charles Darwin. He is the patron saint of atheists. One of the great ironies of cultural climate change is that if Charles Darwin were alive today, he would be one of the most passionate advocates for religion, not against religion. How is that? Because for Darwin and natural selection, what is the test of adaptive fitness? The answer is reproductive success. You hand down your genes to the next generation. That for Darwin was the mark of fitness. Today, the most secular area in the world is Europe. It is spectacularly failing to hand its genes on to the next generation. For a population to remain stable, the birth rate must be 2.1 for every woman of the population. At 2.1, you have stable population, zero population growth. Not one country in Europe has been anywhere near 2.1 for years. Throughout Europe the range is between 1.8 and 1.3, in some cases 1.2, the lowest of them all in Germany.
This is not only happening in Europe, where it has happened for two or three decades now. It’s even happening in the United States: recent figures from the National Centre for Health Statistics showed that the birth rate in the US is currently the lowest on record. The US is not quite where Europe is, but that move has begun. In the US, the fastest-growing religious category is the “nones”, the young people who say “of no faith”. Why is this so? Why does religion make a difference to birth rates? Well, it’s fascinating. People say that the most fulfilling dimension of your life, if you’re privileged to have that good fortune, is to be a parent. But did you know that people who have children are less happy during the child-bearing and child-raising years than people who don’t have children? That’s the paradox, because as the Jewish saying goes, “Without children, what would we do for aggravation?”
Having children or raising them involves enormous sacrifice of time, money, effort and energy. Religious people understand the concept of sacrifice. We live by it. It’s part of our lives. But people in a secular, consumerist, individualist culture find it much harder to live by sacrifice. Nothing in the culture says sacrifice, and throughout history that is the reason why when a culture begins to lose its faith, its birth rate starts to decline. This is not just happening now. It has happened throughout history. It happened in Ancient Greece in the second century BCE. It happened in Ancient Rome. It happened in Renaissance Italy. The people who’ve done the research say there is no case on record in which a secular society has been able to maintain its birth rates. Within a century, every society, when it becomes secularised, starts to decline demographically. So the 21st century is going to be more religious than the 20th century even if not one person changes his or her mind from being non-religious to religious. It will happen for a simple reason: throughout the world today the more religious you are, the more children you have.
This is a global demographic fact. This, incidentally, explains why levels of immigration to Europe, which has been the big storm hitting Europe for the last decade, are so high, higher than they’ve ever been before in history. Europe hasn’t admitted immigrants because it’s more generous than any time in the past, but because it has lower birth rates than in the past. Immigration is the only way Europe can counter its declining and ageing populations. Europe will die because it wasn’t mindful. It misread Charles Darwin, took him as the patron saint of atheists and failed to realise that actually he was the prophet of reproductive success, of having enough faith to bring a child into the world. That is how religion, or rather the loss of religion, is causing the contraction of the family.
Now society. I want to stay with Darwin for a moment. There’s a famous problem that Darwin realised with his own theory. He was very honest and admitted this was a problem for his theory. It threatened to undermine the whole principle of natural selection.
I can at best explain Darwin’s doubt in terms of The Imitation Game, the film about Alan Turing and how they broke the German codes in the war. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, alongside Keira Knightley. At one point in the film, she encourages Turing to tell a joke, which he does as badly as I do. The joke he tells is about two explorers in the jungle. Suddenly, they hear the sound of a lion. The first one runs off to find a place where both of them can hide. The second one starts putting on his running shoes. The first one says to the second one, “You’re crazy. You can’t run faster than the lion.” The second one says, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion. I just need to run faster than you.” Here is the classic tension between the altruist, who wants to save both of them, and the survivalist, who just wants to escape himself. Now, which of the two gets eaten by the lion? The altruist.
Darwin knew this and therefore according to Darwin’s theory altruists should have become extinct over time, because they are the ones who get eaten by the lion. Yet Darwin realised that in every single human society ever known, it is the altruists, not the survivalists, who are admired. This threatened to explode his whole theory. However, in the end, he came up with the answer and he wrote it in his much later book, The Descent of Man. I’m going to summarise what he said in today’s language. The world did not yet know about genes, but in effect he said we hand on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as members of groups. For a group to survive, it has to have altruism among its members. It has to have people who put the interest of the group above their private interest.
That is how Darwin solved the problem. We need altruism to create groups and without groups we don’t survive. This is a really interesting subject and it has become huge in research since the 1980s, in all sorts of disciplines — evolutionary psychology, economics and sociology. It involves game theory and a wonderful thing, the conversation killer of all time, called the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. One way or another, people call it different things. Biologists call it reciprocal altruism. Sociologists call it trust. Economists call it social capital, when a society is full of altruists helping one another. That society is rich in social capital. When you’ve got a society of individualists who think mainly of themselves, it is poor in social capital. The classic work on social capital was written in our time by a great sociologist at Harvard called Robert Putnam. He is famous for his observation that more people are going 10-pin bowling in America than ever before, but fewer are joining teams and leagues. He called his book Bowling Alone. That, for him, became the symbol of an individualistic society which is rich in individual life but poor in social capital. Poor in altruism, in other words. However, Putnam, like Darwin, is a very honest and thoughtful scholar, willing to challenge his own ideas.
So he published Bowling Alone as a book in 2000, but in 2010 he published another fascinating book, American Grace. In this book, he says, “Social capital does exist in America. But where will you find it? In churches, in synagogues, in temples, in houses of worship.” People who go regularly to synagogue or to church enjoy health benefits as well. One big survey in the US found that if you go regularly to a house of worship your life expectancy increases by seven years.
However, the truth is that if you are a regular goer to church, synagogue or other place of worship, you are more likely to help a stranger in need, give a meal to the hungry, shelter someone who’s homeless, find somebody a job, give to charity (whether the cause is religious or secular), get involved in voluntary work. The best predictor is not class, ethnicity, or education. The best indicator is: do you or don’t you go regularly to a house of worship. Robert Putnam refined the thesis and said that it doesn’t matter what you believe: do you go? An atheist who went regularly to church is more likely to be an altruist than a deeply-believing believer who keeps to himself. So if you’re an atheist in synagogue, you’re probably a decent kind of guy. We have lots of atheists in synagogue. Actually, one of them, the great, late, much-lamented philosopher at Columbia University, Sidney Morgenbesser, actually said when he was ill, “I don’t know why God is so angry with me just because I don’t believe in Him.”
Another example is the quantum physicist, Niels Bohr (another lapsed Jew). A friend once visited Bohr and saw over his front door a horseshoe. He said to him, “Niels, you can’t believe in that, can you?” And Bohr smiled and said, “No, of course I don’t believe in it. But the thing is, it works whether you believe in it or not.” Essentially, that is what Robert Putnam said about religion: it works whether you believe in it or not, just so long as you go. In other words, religion is the great source of community in the contemporary world. If there’s one person who would not have been surprised by that, it is one of the greatest writers ever on America, Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1832 when he published the first part of Democracy in America, he said that religion has huge influence in America because it supports altruism, whether in families or communities or voluntary associations of charities. He gave it a lovely phrase: he called this “the art of association”, of coming together. He gave the importance of that an even lovelier name. He said the art of association is our “apprenticeship in liberty”.
It is that ability to come together as communities to help one another that is our apprenticeship in liberty. Today, this kind of community exists mainly in religion. Let me give you a dramatic example of this. In 2011, a British medical charity did a survey in Britain. It discovered that the average Brit between 18 and 30 has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many of those you could rely on in an emergency, the average answer was “two”. A quarter replied one, and an eighth replied none. Now, believe you me, Facebook has no bigger fan than me. I think it’s fantastic and wonderful and does bring people together. But there is a difference between a Facebook friend and a real friend that you meet face-to-face. The funny thing is that just when that report came out, it made me very mindful of something that happened in our local synagogue.
Three years earlier, in 2008, a young couple with three young children had joined our synagogue in London. They’d left New York because the young man had just been made head of Lehman Brothers Europe. Within two or three weeks of his arrival, there was no more Lehman Brothers. Three years later, he got up in the synagogue and made an impromptu speech saying, “My wife and I and our children are going back home after these three years in Britain. I want you to know that without this synagogue and the friends we made here, we could not have survived these three years. We’d uprooted ourselves completely. I had no job, no friends, no anything, and everyone in this synagogue reached out to help.” You must know stories like that from your local church or your local house of worship. Community is alive and well today, but in religious environments, and half of America today doesn’t have those supportive environments.
That is why two of the people whose views I most respect are so perceptive in America today. Charles Murray on the political Right and Robert Putnam on the political Left came to the same conclusion, Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart, Putnam in his 2015 book Our Kids. Between them, they concluded that whilst half of America has supportive friends, communities and families, half doesn’t. America, they argued, has become not one nation, but two nations. It is a divided nation today. So if you lose your religion, you see birth rates decline, but you also see community begin to decline.
And so onto the third: society. What is society? Over the past 50 years, political discourse has been dominated by two institutions, the market economy and the liberal democratic state. But society is something different from the market and the state. Society is about culture and our shared values and the way we act towards one another. It is about, to quote that great phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville, “habits of the heart”. It’s about our shared spaces in the public square, and the thing about society is, it isn’t the market or the state.
The market is about the production and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. Society is about relationships that don’t depend on wealth or power. They’re the way we behave to others, to friends and neighbours and strangers without the market paying us to or the state forcing us to. In Britain and America in the 19th and 20th centuries, we had very strong societies — strong collective identities, a shared moral code, strong voluntary associations. The English tended to take this for granted. A 19th-century Englishman once wrote, “To be born an Englishman is to win the first prize in the lottery of life.” But America, which received wave after wave of immigrants, had to work for this identity, this shared bond of society. You had a word for it and that word is a very interesting one. It’s a key word in American politics. That word is covenant.
Presidents often speak about it in their inaugural addresses. John Quincy Adams did in 1825. Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. The most explicit one was Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Listen to this small section of his inaugural address: “They came here, the exile and the stranger, and made a covenant with this land conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union. It was meant one day to inspire the hope of all mankind and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.” The most famous expression of the American covenant is a phrase that is perhaps the key phrase of American politics: “We the people.” It’s a phrase you never hear in Britain, but it’s a key phrase in American politics. It’s there at the preamble to your constitution. It was the leitmotif of Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. He used it five or six times. “We the people” is a phrase that comes from a covenantal view of society because it embodies this notion of collective responsibility, that we’re all in this together and we’re all responsible for one another. That’s a very rare and special and very religious idea.
Of course, it comes from Judaism and Christianity. Covenant is a key word both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. It became the basis of what the sociologist Robert Bellah called the “American civil religion”. As America becomes less religious, the word covenant appears less often. Absent the covenant, all we have left is the social contract. The social contract is something different. The social contract is like the contract you have with your mechanic or your dentist or the local supermarket. You pay and receive. You pay your taxes and you receive government services. The parties argue about who has to pay less and who gets most services, but that’s just a contract. It’s not a covenant. It’s not about how “we are each responsible for one another”. If we lose the social covenant, all we have left is the social contract. Less and less gets done by private citizens on the basis of this sense of collective responsibility. More and more work that was once done by families and communities is today done by the state. It’s outsourced to government agencies. The result is that you get a bigger state and smaller and smaller society.
That is really bad news because in the social contract, some win and some lose. The winners win and the losers lose big. You don’t have this sense of shared identity, and the losers very often are the ones who don’t have access to networks of support. They are left vulnerable and alone. As Arlie Hochschild writes, half the people find themselves as “strangers in their own land”.
So we’ve gone through the three categories. You lose your religion. You begin to lose your families and the will and sacrifice to have children. You begin to lose strong communities and you begin to lose the covenantal bond of society itself, this society of “we the people”. If I am right, huge consequences follow. It turns out that Western freedom, the thing that was born in England in the revolution of the 1640s and in America in 1775, is not the default setting of the human condition. It turns out to be the highly specific outcome of a particular Judaeo-Christian tradition. You won’t find its exact parallels anywhere else.
Holland, of course, was also part of that covenant, but very few other countries. It was Puritan or Calvinist in origin and then subsequently modified by figures like Spinoza in Holland, John Locke in England, and later by Jefferson and his friends in America. That is a very, very special kind of freedom. So let me sum up my argument. We’re passing through one of humanity’s great moments, a cultural climate change. The signs of it are that the weather patterns that existed for so long, the progressive secularisation, the progressive Westernisation, the progressive accommodation of religion to society — those weather patterns no longer hold. We are entering one of the world’s great ages of desecularisation and it is the rise of non-Western cultures that will shape the 21st century. The end result is — as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Alasdair MacIntyre and others warned us decades ago — that if you lose religion from the mainstream of society, you will lose the sanctity of marriage. You will lose the bond of community and you will lose the social covenant that says e pluribus unum: we’re all in this together.
One thing is clear. Religion is not about to die. The religious have bigger families and stronger communities. They’re going to grow in numbers and confidence in the course of the 21st century. But the secular West is in real trouble. It’s re-enacting a scenario played out many times in the course of history, in Athens and Rome in antiquity, and Renaissance Italy. The same thing happens each time. A culture or civilisation at the very height of its affluence and its creativity finds that people are becoming more individualistic. They become more hedonist. They become more sceptical of religious beliefs, and that causes a loss of social cohesion, social energy and social ideals. No one said it better than a great American historian, Will Durant. As a young man he wanted to be a priest but actually became an atheist. So listen to what this atheist says — and it’s unbelievably powerful. After his huge study of the story of civilisation, he says:
What happens at a certain point in history is that the intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and, after some hesitation, the moral code allied with it. Literature and philosophy become anti-clerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason and falls to a paralysing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct deprived of its religious support deteriorates into epicurean chaos and life itself shorn of consoling faith becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end, a society and its religion tend to fall together like body and soul in a harmonious death. Meanwhile, among the oppressed, another myth arises and gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort and, after centuries of chaos, builds another civilisation.
It is a very sober warning for our times, though it was written 60 years ago.
So in a world like today, religion can do one of three things. Number one, it can attempt to conquer society. That is the radical Islamist version. Number two, it can withdraw from society. That is the Benedict option or the ultra-Orthodox option, or the Soloveitchik option. Or number three, it can attempt to reinspire society, to do what Will Durant called giving people a new form of human hope and new courage to human effort.
If we adopt the first option, the radical anti-Western option, we will move straight away into the dark ages. If we adopt the second option, we will survive the dark ages, but they will still be dark. But if we adopt the third option of being true to ourselves and yet engaged in the public square, we have a chance of avoiding the dark and of countering cultural climate change. By religion, I don’t mean religion as a substitute for science. I certainly don’t mean religion in opposition to a free society. Don’t forget the architects of freedom in the modern world, in Holland, in England, and in America, Spinoza, Locke, and Jefferson, they did it in the name of religion, not as a protest against but in the name of religion.
So what do I mean by religion in the public square? I mean simply religion as a consecration of the bonds that connect us, religion as the redemption of our solitude, religion as loyalty and love, religion as altruism and compassion, religion as covenant and commitment, religion that consecrates marriage, that sustains community and helps reweave the torn fabric of society. That kind of religion is content to be a minority. Jews have been a minority wherever we went for 2,000 years, and in the immortal words of Sir Elton John, we can all say as Jews, “I’m still standing.” So religion can be a minority, but it can be a huge influence. It doesn’t seek power; it seeks influence. It’s engaged with the world; it’s not in retreat from the world. If we can do that, we might just bring those two cars closer together. We might just find that we can have our feet in society and our head in Heaven and we can bring the light that will vanquish the darkness. That is the kind of religion the world needs right now.
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