Would the world be better without any religion?

Question 11

Would the world be better with no religion? The John Lennon school of philosophy, you know, from Imagine: “Imagine nothing to kill for, and no religion too.” And of course, that world was not without violence, and it brought down, among others, John Lennon.

The truth is, of course, it isn’t religion that is a source of violence, it is human beings. You get rid of the religion, you still get the violence. And the proof of this – and there is no greater proof – is that following the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, the West turned in the 19th Century to three great substitutes for religion. Don’t forget that people get their identity from religion. And so, people said let’s get our identity from something else. And they offered, in the course of the 19th Century, three alternatives.

Number one: you get your identity from your nation state: ‘We’re French’, ‘we’re English’, or ‘we’re Italian’.

Or, number two, you get it from your race: “We are the Aryan race.”

Or number three, if you were a Marxist, you got it from your class. Workers of the world unite, we will engage in the class struggle. And so on.

So race, nation, and class. In the 20th Century, the nation state gave us two world wars. Race gave us the Holocaust. And the class war gave us the Soviet Union, and Stalin and the Gulag and the KGB. Between them, those three substitutes for religion, in the course of a single century, caused the deaths of well over 100 million human beings.

So never let it be said ever again that if you got rid of religion you would bring about peace. You would bring about massacre after massacre, because violence comes not from religion, it comes from human beings.

Now, there is a Jewish response to this. And that is: don’t try and conquer or convert the world. Chassidei umot olam. Yesh lahem chelek l’olam haba. The virtuous, the pious of the nations of the world have their share in the World to Come. This was such a Jewish belief.

Unfortunately it was not adopted by either Christianity or Islam. In Judaism we believe in a dual covenant. There is a covenant with Noah, and through him with all humanity, and there is a covenant with Abraham, and his children and us, and those are two covenants. So, you don’t have to be Jewish to be in covenant with God. You don’t have to be Jewish to win your place in Heaven. You don’t have to be Jewish to be beloved of God. Chaviv Adam shenivra b’tzelem said Rabbi Akiva, God loves all of us, because He made all of us in His image.

So I think Judaism has a vital message in the 21st Century which is: you don’t need to conquer or convert the world in order to serve God or be loved by God. And I think the time has come for Christianity and Islam to reflect on their history and say: you know what, maybe that’s right. Maybe we need to learn to live together. After all, if we’re all children of Abraham, then we’re all one big family.

And, of course, a dysfunctional family, but still we can have a family simcha. The truth is that Jewish teaching has never been more necessary that in the 21st Century.

In partnership with TorahCafe (www.torahcafe.com), Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks recorded a series of short videos in May 2013, in answer to some of the most frequently asked questions of Judaism (and faith in general).