Could humanity survive without religion?

In Brief: 
  • In a new book, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK puts forward a powerful case for the necessity of religion in private and public life.
  • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says any worldview the embraces only science and a material explanation can never give deep meaning to human existence.
  • Without the meaning supplied by religion, he writes, the primary fact of human motivation is the self—which can only lead to disastrous consequences for society, as evidenced by history’s experiments with Nazism and Stalinism.

Would the world be a better place without religion?

It’s a question that many have asked through the ages, and one highlighted more recently by thinkers like Richard Dawkins, who wrote The God Delusion, and the late Christopher Hitchens, who claimed that “religion poisons everything.”

In his recent book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Jonathan Sacks puts forward a powerful case for the necessity of religion in both public and private life.

The former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, who also studied philosophy at Oxford, Rabbi Sacks writes that religious belief is not only rational, standing side-by-side with science as an indispensable framework for understanding reality, but that it is also an essential element in the creating the social and moral bonds without which human society will eventually fall apart.

He believes that any worldview that embraces only scientific thought and a purely materialist explanation of reality can never give genuine meaning to human life. And without meaning, he writes, and using only a Darwinian explanation for our existence, the self becomes all that matters—with disastrous consequences for society.

“In a world in which God is believed to exist, the primary fact is relationship,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “There is God, there is me, and there is the relationship between us, for God is closer to me than I am to myself. In a world without God, the primary reality is ‘I’, the atomic self. There are other people, but they are not as real to me as I am to myself.”

The great civilizations were founded on the basis of such religious beliefs—and, he writes, they have continued along a trajectory of social cohesion even as many people have lost faith.

But ultimately, he writes, “[w]hen a society loses its religion it tends not to last very long thereafter. It discovers that having severed the ropes that moor its morality to something transcendent, all it has left is relativism, and relativism is incapable of defending anything, including itself.”

Proof of this, he believes, lies in a review of the history of those societies that were built on the rejection of God or the discarding of religious teachings on inclusion and oneness.

“Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century,” he writes. “These were programs carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.”

Rabbi Sacks is careful to say that he does not believe atheists cannot be good people; indeed, he acknowledges, many non-believers have contributed much to society. But he believes that, in the long run, a flight from God will inevitably make society more self-centered and, ultimately, self-destructive.

All this is not to say that Rabbi Sacks does not acknowledge the great harm that has been done in the name of religion when its followers are fanatical or intolerant. But he notes, also, that the advance of science, if separated from moral concerns, has also caused harm.

“Religion has done harm,” he writes. “But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.”

Moreover, Rabbi Sacks does not merely say that we should believe in God for our own sake. He also demonstrates that science is incapable of either proving or disproving God—and that once that is acknowledged, we can search elsewhere for evidence of God’s existence. For one thing, he writes, the degree to which the universe seems “tuned” for life in its fundamental cosmic constants weighs powerfully on the side of a Creator—even against new theories that such tuning is only the result of an infinite number of multi-verses. “The rule of logic known as Ockham’s Razor—do not multiply unnecessary entities—would seem to favor a single unprovable God over an infinity of unprovable universes,” writes Rabbi Sacks.

But the main thrust of Rabbi Sacks’ book is not to prove God—a task he says is ultimately impossible with either science or religion—but rather to show the consequences for society for failing to take into account the enormous moral power of religion in giving meaning to life and substance to society.

“[W]e need both religion and science... they are compatible and more than compatible,” he writes. “They are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility. It keeps us human and humane.”

On that point, the Bahá’í teachings strongly concur—and go further, saying that they are simply two sides of the same coin, each describing a different aspect of reality.

“Religion and science are intertwined with each other and cannot be separated,” says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. And: “The religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance.”

The Bahá’í teachings also stress the importance of religion as a civilizing force, and the main driver of human advancement throughout history.

But Abdu’l-Bahá also said that “if religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act.”

Rabbi Sacks might not go so far but his book is nevertheless a clear-eyed assessment of the importance of religion in the modern world. While he doesn’t gloss over the problems created by religious believers who have become too fanatical or otherwise become infected with hatred, he shows how the belief in God has a capacity to take individuals outside themselves, to give the moral agency, and to imbue them with dignity.

“Without that belief there is no meaning, there are merely individual choices, fictions embraced as fates,” he writes. “Without meaning there is no distinctively human life, there is merely the struggle to survive, together with the various contrivances human beings have invented to cover their boredom or their despair.”