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slough-of-despond-003-smaller for blogLord, Sacks, for Chief Rabbi, has long been one of the ornaments of religious thoughts in this country, but his piece in this week’s Spectator should be read  by anyone concerned with the future of our civilization. In an incisive article, he notes that:

religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact.

He argues that the attempts in Europe across the last couple of centuries to find an alternative to God as an object to worship have led us from ideological false idols to a laissez-faire consumerism which amounts to saying that anything goes as long as we can square it with whatever is left of our consciences, and as long as it is not actually illegal, or could be made legal with some lobbying.

Well, if there is no morality beyond personal choice, why are we blaming politicians and bankers for behaving as our society now seems to think is acceptable?  They were simply maximising the pleasure principle, and, at least at the time, none of them realised quite the damage they were about to do.  And yet still we argue that marriage breakdown does no real harm to children, and pretend that the levels of stress and mental illness prevalent are somehow unrelated to the wider malaise which afflicts our society.

Atheists argue that you don’t have to be religious to be ‘good’, but who defines ‘good’ in an individualistic and relativistic world?  Upon what common basis does a society agree on common norms?  For the recorded history of these Islands, that has been a Christian basis; it seems unclear we have, or will find, another basis. Can an atomised, individualistic relativism provide any stable basis for social cohesion?  It is not accidental that some pretty fundamentalist forms of faith (including the church of climate change) attract young people. What sort of society is it they grow up in, where are the institutions and organisations which help bind them together?

When I was young for me it was, above all, my church. That span out into where I lived, as I worked with groups helping the young, or with food-kitchens, or with charities which raised money for others.  For others it was political societies, or young farmers or their Labour Club activities.  Through these, and a myriad of organisations, young folk mixed with each other and older folk, and the social cohesion we found in our families was broadened into things which benefitted those to whom we were not related.

In that time and place those who took a lead were expected to behave with integrity. Of course, being human, they didn’t always, but no one would have thought a vicar who committed adultery, a bank manager who fiddled the books, or a politician caught doing something dodgy was other than the exception; the reason such opprobrium was heaped on them was it was felt they had let the side down.

Honour, now there’s a word you don’t hear much of nowadays – we’ve all become Falstaff. It is just a word. And there’s the rub, we have separated words out from the content of what they are meant to represent – we have made them into idols. Lord Sacks’ diagnosis and analysis are compelling – what’s less clear is how we get out of the Slough of Despond into which we have fallen.