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Challenging the idols of the secular age

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Can religion survive, even flourish, in a secular age? The answer is an emphatic yes. The question is how.

Religions can react to change by denial. You see the signs in houses of worship where they sing the same songs and listen to the same sermons. Outside the world revolves regardless, and inside the congregation gets older and fewer.

The second option is to steal the clothes of secular society and pretend they were religious all along. The world has become political? So will we. The world celebrates sexual freedoms? So will we. The world worships the self? So will we. Eventually the world notices that religion, instead of leading society, is following it. It loses credibility.

The third option is resistance — the religiosity that opposes modernity as the work of Satan. This is fundamentalism, and it fails because it cannot handle complexity, difference and freedom.

What should religion do in a secular age? It should be a countervoice, challenging the conventional wisdom and confronting idolatry. Every age has its idols. What are ours?

One is politics. We fall out of love with the government of the day and into the lap of a new party that promises to solve our problems without pain. We elect it. It discovers that you can’t solve deep social problems without pain, and it either chooses not to solve them or to take the path of pain. Either way, we fall out of love with it and the cycle continues. This is the triumph of hope over experience and it happens every five or ten years.

The next comes from economics. People believe the market will solve problems. We then see banks pursuing short-term gain at the long-term cost of customers and the economy. Next we put our faith in regulation, forgetting that more ingenuity will be spent on evading the rules than on applying them. The third comes from the belief that we can do without morality, especially in matters of sex. This was the magical thinking of the 1960s. We can count the cost today: children growing up without fathers, new forms of child poverty and a threefold rise in drug, alcohol and eating disorders.

Idol worship and magical thinking happen when we believe some institution or person will bend the world to our desires, making problems vanish without effort on our part. The idol can be liberal democracy, the consumer society, science, medicine or genetic engineering.

Religious faith says all these things can be a blessing or a curse, depending on whether they are used with humility, restraint, concern for the common good and care for long-term consequences.

Humility involves the recognition that there is something greater than us to whom we are accountable. Restraint means that not everything we can do we should do. Concern for the common good means recognising that others, not just us, are in the image and likeness of God. Care for long-term consequences means believing in something that will last longer than we will.

Religion is not myth or magic. It is the recognition of how small we are in the scheme of things, and how great is our responsibility to others. It is the still, small voice reminding us that there is no achievement without sacrifice, no freedom without self-restraint. Those who worship the idols of the age perish with the age, while the worship of eternity lives on.

(First published in The Times)