If you’ve read the news recently, you’ll know that modern times are tough times for people of faith. With the politicization of fundamentalist religion worldwide and the rising popularity of trenchant critiques penned by the New Atheists – not to mention plain old apathy – where’s a person with a penchant for the numinous supposed to turn? How will organized religion persist in such a hostile world?
In front of a packed audience at Isabel Bader Theatre on November 3rd, two distinguished men of faith, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, tackled precisely these questions in a talk aptly entitled, “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age.” Guided by the thoughtful and articulate Dr. Elliott Malamet, Rabbi Sacks and Taylor, often humorously and always intelligently, explored a myriad of subjects, ranging from the personal and anecdotal, to mainstream culture’s characterization of all religion as a bastion of superstition, to the recent rebranding of religion as a place for self-growth and personal development.
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.
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.
But as people spilled out of the auditorium and into the foyer – greeting friends, discussing the talk, waiting in line to have books signed and to share a few words with these erudite men – one sensed that this wasn’t the night to confront the New Atheists. It was, instead, a night to be buoyed by Rabbi Sacks’s declaration that “Faith is the defeat of probability by the power of possibility,” whatever that possibility may be.