"The Future of Religion in a Secular Age" - writers say faith requires intelligence

  • November 9, 2011

TORONTO - With a title like “The Future of Religion in a Secular Age” the evening of high-minded talk on the campus of the University of Toronto might have been an invitation to religious hand-wringing.

The new atheists, religious illiteracy, technology, loneliness, multiculturalism and community breakdown were all on the agenda. But with humour and insight two of the most prolific and thoughtful religious writers alive used the evening to affirm that faith requires intelligence.

“Think of me as a lapsed heretic,” said England’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

“What makes you hang in there (with religious faith)?” asked Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. “I don’t know. It’s a hunger that grows and grows.”

When intellectuals from Sam Harris to Christopher Hitchens argue that tribal folk tales from the Bible and incantations aimed at your omniscient, invisible friend are no way to run a civilization, religious people should not despair, said Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning.

“These are people from whom I learn a great deal,” he said.

Sacks finds common ground with some of the best-selling enemies of religion when it comes to keeping religion out of politics.

“When you religionize a conflict you render it unsolvable,” he said. “What in politics is the greatest virtue is in religion the greatest sin, and that is compromise. If the new atheists are pointing to a danger, I stand with them.”

“We need atheists,” said Taylor.

Without atheist attacks religious people might not have to come up with new and better ways of thinking about what they believe, he said.

Ultimately, the religious are not going to argue the world into faith, said Taylor, Catholic winner of the Templeton Prize and author of A Secular Age. Actions speak louder than words.

“(Religious) people can touch them much more by who they are than by what they say,” he said. “I think of authenticity as the ethic of our time... A way of being human that is mine.”

The idea that religion meets the secular more with lives lived than words spoken impressed Tamara Wright as she listened to the two-hour discussion between intellectual giants.

“It’s about the kind of people religious people are,” said Wright, director of academic studies at the London School of Jewish Studies. “That can be of value.”

York University undergraduate Nechama Berger was impressed by what Sacks and Taylor had to say about the role of faith in a secular world. Because the secular seems to opt always for the individual, individual choice and autonomy, resulting in people sitting in restaurants alone scrolling through their iPhones, it is the job of religion to bring people together, she said.

“Otherwise you’re all in your own little world,” said Berger.

“Religion can enhance our engagement with the world at large,” said Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion, an educational organization that presented the Nov. 3 event at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre. “The world of modernity and the world of religion are not in conflict.”

Rather than intellectual arguments, student Yishai Katsch was moved by what Sacks and Taylor said about their own experience of religion as young men.

“Both speakers had a formative and a critical turning point in their lives,” said Katsch. “I was moved by that.”

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