I’ve just been reading Jonathan Sacks’ excellent new book, Not in God’s Name, which sets out to explain why people kill for religion.
Although he explores the theology of the Old Testament, Rabbi Sacks also looks at evolution and evolutionary psychology to explain the unending human tendency to have in-groups and out-groups. This will be familiar to people who have read The Righteous Mind or Big Gods, which the former chief rabbi cites.
What’s especially interesting is that he argues that the prevailing ideology of the west – a sort of liberalism that aims at abolishing identity and replacing it with individualism – is actually part of the problem. This is the third such attempt to stop dividing humanity into a Them and Us, he writes:
‘The first was Pauline Christianity. Paul famously said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female” (NIV, Gal. 3:28). Historically, Christianity has been the most successful attempt in history to convert the world to a single faith. Today a third of the population of the world is Christian. But nations continued to exist. So did non- monotheistic faiths. Another monotheism arose, Islam, with a similar aspiration to win the world to its understanding of the will of God. Within Christianity itself there was schism, first between West and East, then between Catholic and Protestant. Within Islam there were Sunni and Shia. The result was that war did not end. There were crusades, jihads, holy wars and civil strife. These led some people to believe that religion is not a way of curing violence but of intensifying it.
‘The second attempt was the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. After a devastating series of religious wars there was a genuine belief among European intellectuals that the divisions brought about by faith and dogma could be transcended by the universal truths of reason, philosophy and science. Kant produced a secular equivalent of the idea that we are all in the image of God. He said: treat others as ends, not only means. He also revived the prophetic dream of Isaiah, turning it into a secular programme for ‘perpetual peace’ (1795). Its most famous expression was Beethoven’s setting in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’, with its vision of a time when Alle Menschen werden Brüder – “All men become brothers”.’
This failed, too, in that reason was followed by romanticism ‘and the return of the old gods of nation and race’. Instead of religion, people turned to the nation-station, ideology or race as replacement faiths – and none of those really ended too well.
Rabbi Sacks sees today’s ideology as part of the same pattern:
‘The first two attempts were universalist: a universal religion or a universal culture. The third attempt, the one we have been living through for the past half-century, is the opposite. It is the effort to eliminate identity by abolishing groups altogether and instead enthroning the individual. The contemporary West is the most individualistic era of all time. Its central values are in ethics, autonomy; in politics, individual rights; in culture, post- modernism; and in religion, “spirituality”. Its idol is the self, its icon the “selfie”, and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state. In place of national identities we have global cosmopolitanism. In place of communities we have flash-mobs. We are no longer pilgrims but tourists. We no longer know who we are or why.
‘No civilisational order like this has ever appeared before, and we can only understand it in the light of the traumatic failure of the three substitutes for religion: nationalism, communism and race. We are now living through the discontents of individualism and have been since the 1970s. Identity has returned. The tribes are back and fighting more fiercely than ever. The old sources of conflict, religion and ethnicity, are claiming new victims. The anti-modern radicals have learned that you can use the products of modernity without going through the process that produced them, namely Westernisation.’
Humanity without groups, he points out, ‘is impossible because unbearable’, for as Émile Durkheim pointed out society becomes overcome by anomie – the loss of a shared moral code. Just as in Durkheim’s time people respond by committing suicide, in today’s case they try to bring as many people as possible with them. Our attempts to eliminate group identity are therefore not part of the solution, but the problem itself. There will always be a Them and Us, but as he points out the best way of dealing with this is to respect the common humanity we share with Them, something found in the Old Testament.
So while the tribes are back, Europe has meanwhile embraced the post-Christian creed of universalism, in which any attempt to see the world as Them and Us is frowned upon. This is a paradox, as it involves breaking down necessary barriers to people who do see the world as Them and Us.
There is plenty more in the book worth quoting, and Sacks is especially interesting on the psychological reasons for why anti-Semitism is continually popular. I just hope the book is read in the Middle East; perhaps the publishers could commission an Arabic translation and make it available for free on the Kindle.