What if someone told you your life was meaningless? Not just your views or your opinion – which in some cases might be meaningless, were they poorly thought-out – but your actual life? How would you feel about that?
What if someone said that the lives of a whole group of people are meaningless? And what if the reason they said that was because of their religious perspective? Wouldn’t that be a form of religious prejudice, even bigotry? Who, after all, can sit in judgment over the meaning of someone else’s life – let alone the lives of a whole category of people – taking into account only their religious views?
Yet in an interview published late last week the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks said just that:
“ I think we can say what a life without religion in the 21st century would look like. It would say that you and I are no more than a collection of chemicals, a whole lot of selfish genes blindly reproducing themselves into the next generation. There is nothing whatsoever that distinguishes us qualitatively from the animal kingdom or any other life form. All ideals are illusions, all hopes are destined to be destroyed and life has no meaning whatsoever.”
There’s a whole sack of wrong here. Philosophically speaking, it’s garbage: the idea that our genetic heritage means that there are no qualitative distinctions to be made between humans and other animals is a total fallacy, and there are hosts of philosophers who fully accept that we are “no more than a collection of chemicals” and yet argue, persuasively, that animals of different kinds are qualitatively different. The fact that everything is one day destined for destruction does not preclude the creation and affirmation of genuine and valuable ideals, hopes, and meanings.
What bothers me more than the philosophical problems, though, is the callous and blase way in which this foolish viewpoint was expressed by a learned and respected figure, and how it went totally unchallenged by the reporters at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. You might think that a rabbi, representing one of the religious traditions which has been most subject to oppression and injustice for their faith, would exercise some caution before declaring the lives of people of other religions to have “no meaning whatsoever”. You might expect that conscientious reporters on religion and ethics would question the rabbi’s position, or even ask for a clarification. But the rabbi was not so reflective, nor the reporter so responsible. The statement – which, if directed toward members of any other religious group, would seem immediately unacceptable – stood without comment.
Perhaps ideals of respect for religious pluralism and journalistic integrity are illusions after all.
I have the pleasure of working for a community of people who, while not traditionally religious, are able to pursue meaning and value in their lives. Our ideals are real because they inform our actions. Our hopes endure because of the effect we have on others – particularly on the young people we teach in our nursery and Sunday schools. We find meaning in the relationships we make with each other, and in our capacity to build a better world.