The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in the Times that the recent surge of atheist books are a protest against the failings of religion that cannot simply be ignored.
“Atheism does not come from nowhere. Agnosticism and indifference do; people drift, religion ceases to inspire, there are other things to do. Atheism is different. It is a form of protest. Something goes badly wrong in religious life, and people feel moved to write books saying, essentially, “Not in my name”. When that happens, mere apologetics is not enough….
Secularisation, the great movement of the European mind that began in the 17th century, did not begin because people stopped believing in God. The movement’s intellectual heroes, Newton and Descartes, believed in God very much indeed.
What they lost faith in was the ability of religious people to live peaceably together….
As then, so now. Sunni and Shia fight in the Middle East, as do Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, and Muslims and Jews in Israel. Two things have happened in our postmodern, post-Cold War constellation. Religion, often as the outer clothing of ethnicity, has returned to the political arena. And religions still do not know how to live together in peace.
…That’s when people start writing books about atheism and they become bestsellers. For the great strength of religion is that it creates communities, and its great weakness is that it divides communities. The two go hand in hand. For every “us” there is a “them”, and the stronger the togetherness within, the deeper the estrangement without. What binds also separates. It always did.
The real battle, and it applies to secular and religious alike, is: can we love, not hate, the people not like us? We are tribal animals. We are hardwired for conflict. Sociobiologists call this genetic coding, Christians, original sin, Jews, the evil inclination. The belief that unites us is that instinct is not the final word. Selfish genes can produce selfless people. Is that miracle or mere chance? Loving creator or blind watchmaker? That is an important question. But the urgent one is: can we, believer and nonbeliever, join hands to become agents for peace against those who seek to globalise war?”