The edification of both sides

The chief rabbi and Charles Taylor got together recently to say stuff about “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age.” Both are big fans of religion, so the stuff they said was in that vein.

For Taylor and Rabbi Sacks, religion should act as a counterpoint and antidote to the rampant solipsism and breakdown of sociality that characterize the secular world. Religion, unlike the market, science, or politics, exists in its own realm beyond materiality and simple solutions, and even beyond the self. According to Taylor, religious practice entails a transcendence of the self that is desperately needed in a culture as self-obsessed as our own. Rabbi Sacks added that on one hand, religion must stand at the vanguard of the “redemption of solitude” and on the other, strive to establish real community beyond the alone-togetherness of this virtual age.

But religion isn’t the only counterpoint and antidote to self-obsession, and it also isn’t necessarily a very good one. All too often it’s just a thinly-disguised way of arranging things to benefit some people by subordinating others; I’m thinking here (you’ll have figured out) of men and women respectively. Patriarchy doesn’t look to me like a good counterpoint and antidote to self-obsession, and a lot of religion is basically a justification of patriarchy and not much else.

As for Sacks’s on one hand and on the other, how is that not just having it both ways? Religion is good for solitude and real community while secularism is bad for both – really?

Much of the evening’s conversation was dedicated to addressing the ideas and popularity of writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Rabbi Sacks argued that these men over-simplify religion, producing critiques that are, in Oxford terms, superficially profound and profoundly superficial. He distinguished these tone-deaf atheists from “atheists with a soul,” those intellectuals who see the failings of religion and want something better for humanity. (A false dichotomy, in this writer’s opinion, because it implies that the rejection of religion necessarily results in the adoption of nihilism.) Conversation with these humanist atheists, Sacks argued, results in the edification of both sides, and Taylor added, “We people of faith need atheists.” If that is indeed the case, one cannot help but wonder why an atheist was not invited to participate in this panel.

Well when he says “need” he means…well he means we need atheists off in the background somewhere, but we certainly don’t need them on panels with us or selling more than twenty copies of their books, thank you very much.