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Keynote remarks at the Religion and Media Conference


Friends, it’s an enormous privilege to be able to share some thoughts with you and to congratulate you and thank you for all you do. It is so important, and I just wanted to say that.

I just wanted to begin, if I might, with that story that you all know about Cohen who, one night, sees Goldberg under a streetlight, searching the ground. He says, “Goldberg, what are you looking for?” Goldberg says, “My keys.” Cohen says, “Did you drop them there?” He said, “No, I dropped them over there.” Cohen says, “So, why are you looking here?” He says, “Because over there, I can can’t see a thing. Here, I can see.” I think sometimes, we miss the real news items because we’re looking under the streetlamp instead of where we lost the keys.

Let me give you a classic example. One of the key dates in modern history, 30 years ago, 1989, and for everyone or virtually everyone, the key event of that year was the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and one of the great narratives of our time, “the end of history” thesis that the market economy and the liberal democratic state would gradually, and without a shot being fired, conquer the world.

Thirty years on, how does the end of history thesis fare? Well, I don’t know if you’ve read any of these books, but here’s a characteristic sample of books that have been published in the last little while: How Democracies Die, The End of Democracy, The Suicide of the West, Why Liberalism Failed. This is not the end of history. Why did people get it so wrong? The answer lies in two events that did take place in 1989 whose full significance, I think, very few people realised at the time because they were not reading the religious map. They were not hearing the music.

The first of those events was the retreat, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February of 1989. That was almost certainly the moment at which a young Osama Bin Laden saw that a handful of mujahideen could defeat one of the two great superpowers of the world and undeniably, I think, first had the thought that if we can do that to one superpower, we can do it to the other, and thus was born the thought that became 9/11.

The second one, much more relevant here in Britain, was the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini, which led to the return of book burning to Britain in several Midlands towns. This first revealed to radical Islamists an extraordinary idea that in a global age, religion is a global phenomenon whereas governments are only a national phenomenon. From that moment was born the concept, the idea that a religion could become a global force and that you could sit in Iran and develop consequences in Britain. That, of course, has had huge significance.

Now, those two events, although they were reported fair enough, their significance was not understood at all. It’s only 30 years on that we can all see that those were the two really significant events that have led people to question, does the West have a viability anymore? The truth is this is what is called confirmation bias, that we respond to those narratives that confirm our beliefs, not to those that disconfirm them.

Now, I’ve mentioned just one narrative, the end of history narrative, but in fact, if you step back a little further, you will see that all three other narratives, the big master narratives of modernity, which have been guiding us since the 18th century since the Enlightenment, all three of them that seemed to work for quite a long time have ceased to work, have in fact, every single one of them is now standing as refuted. Those three master narratives are these: number one, that modernization equals secularisation, number two, that modernization equals westernisation, and number three, that any religion that survives will be accommodationist. That is, it will take its tone from the prevailing secular society and will somehow accommodate that.

All three of them are wrong. Number one, modernization equals secularisation. We have been living for some time in an age of de-secularisation, the one thing that no Enlightenment thinker or post-Enlightenment thinker thought was possible. We have seen religion return not just as a personal faith but as a political thought. We have seen this obviously in the case of Islamism, but we’ve also seen it in the case of Hindu nationalism. We have also seen it in the case of Buddhist nationalism, in Sri Lanka, and of course, our present thoughts are with the relatives with the bereaved and with the injured and of course, in Myanmar also.

As for Judaism, well, there’s this wonderful scene that defined Israel, the state of Israel as a secular state. David Ben-Gurion had a session with a very great rabbi known as the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, the head of the ultra-Orthodox community. They agreed, something they call the status quo agreement, that people studying in rabbinical seminaries in Israel should be exempt from military service. At that time, there were between three and 400 individuals, and Ben-Gurion thought they were the last of the last. Today, there are more like 300,000 or 400,000 individuals, and the Labour Party, which David Ben-Gurion led and which was more or less impregnable for the first 29 years of the state, in the recent election in Israel, his party, David Ben-Gurion’s party, got six seats. The ultra-Orthodox community got 16 seats. That makes it the third largest party in Israel. It’s quite something given that they don’t recognise the state of Israel as you probably know.

Here, here in Anglo-Jewry, we just finished the Festival of Passover. We’ve believed … I was the rabbi 40 years ago with synagogue in Golders Green, which was … How can I put this politely? It was geriatric, I think would be the word. I remember I was a slightly wild young thing and I’ve just aged but haven’t grown any wiser, but I remember getting up and saying, “When I came here, the average age was 78. Now, after only four years, the average age is 82.”

All of a sudden, for me to sit with Elaine [my wife] in the same synagogue now and see it full of children … I mean, we had a young members group, and to get even 10 people through the door, we had to define young as anyone below 60. Now, it’s full of children. Why? Because there’s now a Jewish primary school attached to the synagogue, and the children bring the parents to synagogue. No Anglo-Jew 100 years ago could have envisaged the kind of strength we have in our community especially among young Jews who’ve gone through a serious Jewish education, now more observant and more knowledgeable than their parents.

Secondly, modernization equals westernisation. The classic example here, the westernising country of all countries was at Ataturk’s Turkey. He has got rid of every vestige that was not Western, and today, Turkey is moving rapidly from westernisation to Islamisization. Here, you have a world in which four ancient civilizations, very proud civilizations, which have treated the rise of the West, which have experienced the rise of the West as a profound humiliation, are today on the rise, and that is Russia, India, China, and Iran. These are ancient civilizations, and they are all on the move. None of them is moving towards westernisation.

As for accommodation, the exact opposite is happening. It is the most sectarian forms of religion that are flourishing and not the most accommodationist. The ones that see faith as a rejection of the wider society rather than an embrace of it, and that is happening in all the faiths. Why all of this happened was simply because the four institutions of the modern world just failed to do one thing. Science, technology, the market economy, and the liberal democratic state are brilliant, and all of them did what they have to do, but none of them answered the three questions that any reflective human being must ask some time in the course of her or his life. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?

Science tells us how. It doesn’t tell us why. Technology gives us power, but it doesn’t tell us how to use that power. The market economy and the liberal democratic state give us choices, but often no advice as to which choices to make. That is why religion has survived. It’s the case I made way back in 1990 in the Reith Lectures under the rubric, The Persistence of Faith. It has just simply become more and more evident since.

Now, I didn’t think the media has covered religion as well as it might. It simply hasn’t given it the space or the time or the quality of knowledge that it should have done, and yet, religion is still very important in many lives in Britain, and it is essential to understanding what is going on in the world. Religion remains important globally even if we only see the bad news, the killings in the mosques in New Zealand, the churches in Sri Lanka, and the horrendous shooting that was in a synagogue in San Diego just a couple of days ago. One person was killed and three injured, but that would have been much worse had the assailant’s rifle not jammed, probably even worse than the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh just a few months ago, which was the worst anti-Semitic tragedy in American history.

So, I want to thank therefore, a shining exception to this, the BBC itself, especially Radio 4, and I know Christine Morgan is unwell. But I want to thank her in absentia. And Dan Tierney, a brilliant producer of the five-part series I did on morality. It was just wonderful to see the BBC give a series on morality, that kind of space.

We tried to do two things there. Number one, get some voices that I think Britain ought to hear because there’s so many good people in the United States and Canada, and we got Jordan Peterson. We got David Brooks of the New York Times, Steven Pinker, the great atheist. I really am very, very fond of Steven and his wife, Rebecca Goldstein, one of America’s leading atheists, who wrote a wonderful book entitled 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, subtitled A Work of Fiction. We had the wonderful voice of Melinda Gates, and our own experts on artificial intelligence and super intelligence, Mustafa Suleyman of Deep Mind and Nick Bostrom of Superintelligence. This was a thrilling programme, and of course, thrilling because the stars of the show, despite the fact that we had on it the top people in every subject area, were the school children from two schools in Manchester and two schools in London. They were just brilliant. I hope we give school children a voice in our broadcasting.

The other one, of course, is Thought for the Day, which in my opinion, I have to say, is the single most important institution in Britain creating a tolerant, multi-faith environment. Why? Because it forced me and it forces every contributor to recognise the fact that when I speak on Thought for the Day, I am consciously speaking to an audience, 99.5% of which is not Jewish and probably a majority of whom are not religious. It forces me to speak in what John Rawls calls “the voice of public reason.” That is tremendously important, so when people do that for the Sikhs, and the Muslims and the Hindus, and so on, it becomes very, very important in creating a tolerant voice in Britain.

There are so many stories out there. Here’s a religious story that I doubt whether you might … Look, we’ve just seen Jordan Peterson, and my own philosophy tutor, Roger Scruton, silenced in a fairly brutal way. Did you know that it was Averroes, the great Islamic thinker, who developed the first argument I have ever come across by a religious individual on the importance of freedom of speech, of giving space to somebody who disagrees with you? Averroes says this in the 12th century. “If you’ve got the truth and you’re confident of it, you will want your opponents to be as strong as possible, not as weak as possible.”

That is then quoted in the name of Averroes by one of my ancestors, the Maharal Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague in the 16th century. The same argument is then made by a Christian writer, John Milton, in the 17th century in Areopagitica, and it is then restated in the 19th century by one of the great secularists of the modern age, John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty. Here is an argument that’s begun by a Muslim all the way through Jew, Christian, secular humanist on the importance of giving space to your opponents. That, I think, is absolutely relevant to what’s happening now.

What about extinction rebellion? Here’s a story you might not believe, but it’s true. How many people know that before the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2010, the Secretary of State for the environment was a gentleman called Ed Miliband. Now, Ed is a secular as they’d come. His parents were atheists, and I understand why, but Ed said, “I am not going to Copenhagen without a statement from the religious leaders of Britain.” So, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, invited all the faith leaders for a day in Lambeth Palace, and Ed was with us the whole day, and he took from that conference religious voice to the Climate Change Conference. Why? Because Ed himself knew that actually it’s very difficult on pure secular terms to explain what obligations we have to those who are not yet born. Technically, it’s quite difficult. What responsibility do we have to a world that will exist when we don’t exist? He felt that religious thinkers, with their sense of stewardship, with their sense of connectedness over time, our responsibility to future generations would have a message, and he did it.

Finally, the biggest culture shock I ever had, I was in Jerusalem two years ago, and three members of the Edah Haredit, the ultra-Orthodox community said, “Could we come and have a meeting with you?” I wondered, what did they want to discuss with me? Here it is. It turned out that they had been hired by a high-tech company to write the ethics code for self-driving vehicles. Now, why did they go to ultra-Orthodox Jews? Well, I’ll tell you exactly why they went because I want you to imagine you’re sitting in a car, and it’s snowing, and there’s ice on the road, and the car’s going to skid. Ahead are two cyclists. One of them, wearing a crash helmet, the other one, not wearing a crash helmet. If you’re going to skid, which cyclist do you knock down given that whatever you do, you’re going to knock one down? Do you knock down the one wearing the crash helmet on the ground as he’s more likely to recover? Or do you say, “No, if you spare the one not wearing a crash helmet, then you’re rewarding the guy who is not obeying the law because he should be wearing a crash helmet, and you’re punishing the guy who did obey the law”?

Now, if you study philosophy at Harvard, you can say wonderful, miraculous things on abstract issues like justice, but on a question like which cyclist do you crash into on an icy day, that, you need the Talmudic mind, and they were loving this. They were loving every single thing that the high-tech company threw at them, they loved because it was one other Talmudic thing.

So, there it is. Religion is nearest, and it is of serious coverage, but I just want to end with one story that is a really bad news. At some stage, I think it was the King of Morocco, wanted to ease tensions between the faiths in Britain, and he persuaded The British Library many years ago to run an exhibition called Sacred. Does anyone remember that? It was exhibition of the sacred text on theisms, and we did something in The British Library, an evening, just to illustrate the point. There was Rowan and myself, and I don’t know whether it was Cormac Murphy-O’Connor or there was another Catholic, and there was a Muslim imam. Melvyn Bragg was chairing it, and he could not get any media source to run a story or to come along. Melvyn got really upset, and he said, “If the only time people see religion is when it’s about violence or intolerance, then we will get violence and intolerance. If we never see the good news about religion, we will never get good news about religion.” Well, religion, I think, is bigger than that. Let us give it the space it deserves because it’s real, it’s important, and it can be a force for good. Thank you.