How useful is religion? Very, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a leader of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (UK) and member of the House of Lords. In a New York Times editorial he dealt atheist evolutionists a taste of their own medicine, arguing from an evolutionary perspective that religion has always served as the best means of building a sense of community and altruism. As Sacks explained, the individual human brain operates on two response tracks: “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.”
Your reflective brain will now be concluding that the second track, the one that weighs and considers, is the track encouraged by religion. Exactly so, concurs Rabbi Sacks: “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” The Neo-Darwinists, in their attempts to account for the more-or-less-altruistic instincts in all societies, end up by confirming the value of religion—“the most powerful community builder the world has known.” To wrap up his argument, the rabbi cites the research of Robert D. Putnam in his book American Grace, showing the much-higher rates of charitable work from regular church- and synagogue-attenders, as compared to non-observers.
So far so good, but Sacks makes the same mistake most skeptics make: He doesn’t define what he means by “religion,” or distinguish any particular religion from another. The mention of churches and synagogues tips his hand, but for all the reader knows he could be including Satanists and Gaia-worshippers in the Altruist League. Community “values” could embrace human sacrifice as fervently as building hospitals. So it doesn’t only matter that one believes. It also matters what one believes. The vertical relationship is as least as relevant as the horizontal.
More than 100 comments follow the column, the first quarter of which I read. Not one of them agreed with the rabbi, or even engaged with his argument—all responded emotionally or with half-digested anecdotal or historical “evidence.” The comments showed that arguing from utility cuts both ways. If generic religion is all it took to encourage altruistic behavior over time, then wouldn’t a little more time suffice to fashion a secular response track? And if one religion is as good as another, why can’t an atheist moral code replace all of them?
The responders assumed that since an atheist can have morals, so can an atheist society. But there is no evidence to support that idea, much to the contrary, in fact. If a majority of the populace really believes that a human has no inherent worth, or that antagonistic spirits inhabit all of nature, or that the goal of life is detachment, those beliefs will affect society. Judaism and Christianity claim that one God has spoken, and the universe is all about Him. Oddly, the religions that are the most heavenly minded prove to do the most earthly good.