Cultural climate change: the role of values in society

Sorry to bother you with my own, personal, beliefs, again, but Professor, Rabbi and Lord (Baron) Jonathan Sacks, who has too many titles and honours Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 06.56.57to list, says, in an article published in Standpoint, that I think is germane as the UK heads to the polls, that “It is a time of political economic and social change brought about by the internet; a revolution which is the greatest and most fateful since the invention of printing in the West in the 15th century. I sum it up in a single phrase: “Cultural climate change.” We are worrying about our physical climate change and that climate change doesn’t just make things warmer. What it does is produce more extreme weather conditions, and so it is with cultural climate change. It’s not just extreme heat, but sometimes it expresses itself in the cold and the wind and the rain. An old pattern that has governed the West for four centuries is broken. A new one has not yet emerged and it has brought great damage to that spiritual experience that is our ozone layer. The result is a revolution, which goes in many directions about the role of religion in society … [because] … the West had three master narratives which we have held since the 17th or 18th century. Today, they have all broken down. Those three master narratives are, first: the world is getting progressively more secular. Second: the world is getting more Westernised. Third: to survive in the contemporary world any religion has to accommodate to society. It has to go with the flow. Those three stories have held for four centuries. But today each one of them is breaking down.

PF_15.04.02_ProjectionsOverview_populationChange_310pxIt is not so much a matter of more religion or less religion,” he says, “because the truth is, both are FT_17.04.17_regionsChristian-GIF2happening at once: a lot of people getting more religious, a lot of people getting less religious. The result is a series of storms in the West and even more so elsewhere, in the Middle East, Asia and Africa … [and he says that] … I want to say why I think it has happened and what we can do about it to save the planet from cultural climate change.” In my comments on what Lord Sacks has to say I am going to talk about “values” and, sometimes, mix up values and religion because I believe they are inextricably linked and, sometimes, one and the same.

Lord Sacks traces the rise of secularism from Newton and Descartes in the 17th century to the modern era in which, he says, “People built concert halls, art galleries and museums as a way of encountering the sublime without necessarily going to a house of worship. They were substitutes for the church.I suspect that he may not give quite enough attention to the (essentially) European romantic movement (about 1775 to 1915) which Robert BurnsGustav_Mahler_2was, in some large part a reaction to the stultifying effects of the (largely Catholic and very conservative) baroque era. I think that Burns, Beethoven, Brahms, Byron and Schiller and Mahler had as much to do with changing our (Western) values than did Descartes, Goethe Newton and Rousseau. But, perhaps sadly, the romantic era bled to death “In Flanders’ Fields.”

Professor Sacks says that the later 20th century, beginning circa 1960 ~ and I recommend this book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan for those who want a review of what happened in the middle of the 20th-century ~ was critically important because, in his words, the world saw, in the US-led West “the secularisation of morality,” because, he opines, “the West broke free from its traditional Judaeo-Christian ethic, especially in relationship to the sanctity of life on the one hand and the sanctity of marriage on the other.” The debate, in the West, in the 1960s, was, I believe, about values ~ including, especially, the quite fundamental liberal belief in privacy: the right to live one’s own life according to one’s own tenets without any constraints being imposed by collectives like the church and the state, beyond doing no harm to others. In some large measure, especially in Europe and America, it was a reaction, an echo of the romantic movement, to the growth in power of the state ~ what many people mean today Karl_Marx_0013Ac.woodsworthwhen they misuse the word liberal. A very illiberal system had grown up, under the influence of thinkers as diverse as William Blake, Karl Marx, W. E. B. Du Bois, Franklin D Roosevelt and Canada’s own J. S. Woodsworth. The power of the state grew and grew and it was, in the US-led West, often, a formally Christian or Judeo-Christian state.

The second metanarrative was Westernisation,” Rabbi Sacks says. “It said that any country that wants to enter the modern world has to become Westernised. That too has been true for four centuries, but today no longer, because what we’re seeing is four very ancient civilisations that had been eclipsed by the modern age suddenly returning with a vengeance. By that, I mean China, India, Russia and Islam, whether in the Sunni form in Saudi Arabia or the Shia form in Iran. All of those cultures believe that tomorrow belongs to them, not to the West.

(Parenthetically, I will quibble, slightly, with his inclusion of Russia in his list of alternatives to Westernization. Many, especially in Europe, see Russia as being a hybrid, at best, of East and West ~ “Scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tartar” is an old saying, likely of French origin, sometimes, probably incorrectly attributed to Napoleon ~ which speaks about the long period of Asian (Mongol) domination of European Russia and also about the Middle Eastern roots of the ancient Orthodox church. But no less an authority than Samuel P Huntington defined Orthodox Eurasia as one of his ‘civilizations’ in his 1993 essay, ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ so I may be on shaky ground. But Huntington also suggested (in his 1996 book) that there are also African, Japanese and Latin American ‘civilizations’ that are markedly distinct from European Christian and Chinese/Confucian influence. I reject that as being too narrow.)

I fully accept that Sinic East Asia, the whole of the Islamic Crescent, regardless of the Shia-Sunni split, and India are very, very different in values and ethos and their sense of the future (destiny?) from the Christian West (and from Eurasian Orthodoxy, too).

The third narrative that is collapsing, Jonathan Sacks says is accommodation. That is, he says, the notion “that any religion to survive in the modern world has to accommodate and adjust to the wider society … [but he opines] … Today, the opposite is the case. For the last half-century, it has been conservative churches and Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox synagogues that have been growing faster than liberal ones. In Islam, it is the radical forms of Islamism that are flourishing, while the more moderate forms are in decline. In each case, what we are seeing, and what we haven’t seen for four centuries, is not religion as accommodation, but religion as resistance. It’s not religion making its peace with the world, but religion opposing the world, challenging the world or simply withdrawing from the world. These are not small developments. Half of the world is getting less religious. Half of the world is getting more religious and the tension between them is growing day by day. That is cultural climate change and it’s the biggest thing to happen, certainly in the West, since the great wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.

This goes some way, I think, to explaining something about which I have commented, many times, in these pages: our (especially American) fear of “the other.” The “other” looks different, and, many believe, thinks differently, too ~ has different values which, that same many suspect, allow the others, the foreigners, “steal” our jobs by making better ships, cars and TV sets and even bombs than we do. I’m talking about irrational fear but that Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 08.43.26Screen Shot 2019-11-18 at 08.45.41fear drives us to look inwards, to circle the wagons and protect ourselves. It is exactly what Donald J Trump sells to the American people and what Nigel Farage sells to the Brits and so on, all around the world. In this respect, there is no difference between Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi ~ neo-isolationism is all the rage in the 21st century.

Professor Sacks says that the world, in the 21st century is being pulled in two directions: modern societal norms versus religion (his term) or values (mine). His description is much more philosophically complex than that, but I think I have captured the essentials. Our modern societal norms seem to propel us to conquer the world ~ for ourselves and our friends ~ while our values tell us to share and to cooperate and to tolerate. He says that, around the world, modern societal norms, which differ, markedly,  as we move from, say, liberal Iceland all the way to Confucian China, are winning ~ including in America, Australia, Britain and Canada, too.

Not surprisingly, given who and what he is, Rabbi Sacks asks: “how does this affect us in the contemporary world?” The answer, he says “lies in three dimensions. First, family. Second, community. Third, society … [and he asks] … What happens to family, community, and society when the West loses its faith, its religious faith?” He makes what I think is a key point: “Religious people … [I prefer to call then ‘value-driven people’] … understand the concept of sacrifice. We live by it. It’s part of our lives. But people in a secular, consumerist, individualist culture find it much harder to live by sacrifice.” He suggests and I agree fully that America, Canada and Europe have all adopted, almost universally, the “secular, consumerist, individualist culture.” They have done so, I believe because:

  • First, conservative (Catholic and Orthodox) Christianity became too oppressive to the (natural) human (and liberal) instinct to value the individual over the collective. Sacrifice for church or state was never hugely popular, the 13th-century Children’s Crusade notwithstanding;
  • Second, the modern welfare state created its own sort of ‘religion‘ based on the very shallow and ill-considered idea that it, the state, could solve real, visible, all too human problems like racism and poverty that have troubled people for generations centuries millennia.

The end result is that the modern welfare state is just as oppressive as were the monarchs of ancient, medieval and early renaissance Asia and Europe, but people remain, as they always have been, less than happy to “sacrifice” for the common good … we all understand that “sacrifice” might mean giving up everything, and we seem to have decided, as a ‘civilization’ that we have given enough in the last century:

Tyne Cot Cemetery 1-resize

Rabbi Lord Sacks says that he can best explain this “in terms of The Imitation Game, the film about Alan Turing and how they broke the German codes in the war. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, alongside Keira Knightley. At one point in the film, she encourages Turing to tell a joke, which he does as badly as I do. The joke he tells is about two explorers in the jungle. Suddenly, they hear the sound of a lion. The first one runs off to find a place where both of them can hide. The second one starts putting on his running shoes. The first one says to the second one, “You’re crazy. You can’t run faster than the lion.” The second one says, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion. I just need to run faster than you.” Here is the classic tension between the altruist, who wants to save both of them, and the survivalist, who just wants to escape himself. Now, which of the two gets eaten by the lion? The altruist.” In short, the value-driven people are the (soon to be eaten) altruists and the majority, those who have accepted the “secular, consumerist, individualist culture,” are the fleet-footed survivalists.

we-the-people-american-constitution-with-feather-penDr Sacks speaks fondly and at length about the ideas, shared by classic liberal Americans like Charles Murray and modern illiberal Americans like Robert Punam who agree that “social capital” summed up in that great phrase “We the people” with its implication that we must be prepared to sacrifice for the common good, is the bedrock of a successful society.

It turns out,” he says “that Western freedom, the thing that was born in England in the revolution of the 1640s and in America in 1775, is not the default setting of the human condition. It turns out to be the highly specific outcome of a particular Judaeo-Christian tradition. You won’t find its exact parallels anywhere else … [he takes modern liberal Europe as his model. It was, he says, part of a covenant] … It was Puritan or Calvinist in origin and then subsequently modified by figures like Spinoza in Holland, John Locke in England, and later by Jefferson and his friends in America. That is a very, very special kind of freedom. So let me sum up my argument. We’re passing through one of humanity’s great moments, a cultural climate change. The signs of it are that the weather patterns that existed for so long, the progressive secularisation, the progressive Westernisation, the progressive accommodation of religion to society — those weather patterns no longer hold. We are entering one of the world’s great ages of desecularisation and it is the rise of non-Western cultures that will shape the 21st century. The end result is — as Rabbi Soloveitchik and Alasdair MacIntyre and others warned us decades ago — that if you lose religion from the mainstream of society, you will lose the sanctity of marriage. You will lose the bond of community and you will lose the social covenant that says e pluribus unum: we’re all in this together.

Professor Sacks concludes that “So in a world like today, religion … [moral values, for me] … can do one of three things. Number one, it can attempt to conquer society. That is the radical Islamist version. Number two, it can withdraw from society … [or] … number three, it can attempt to reinspire society, to do what Will Durant called giving people a new form of human hope and new courage to human effort … [and] … If we adopt the first option, the radical anti-Western option, we will move straight away into the dark ages. If we adopt the second option, we will survive the dark ages, but they will still be dark. But if we adopt the third option of being true to ourselves and yet engaged in the public square, we have a chance of avoiding the dark and of countering cultural climate change. By religion,” he explains, “I don’t mean religion as a substitute for science. I certainly don’t mean religion in opposition to a free society. Don’t forget the architects of freedom in the modern world, in Holland, in England, and in America, Spinoza, Locke, and Jefferson, they did it in the name of religion, not as a protest against but in the name of religion.

I agree 100% but I believe that liberal values can be used in place of religion in almost everything Jonathan Sacks says, accepting that for Spinoza, Locke and Jefferson they were, very much, one in the same thing.

91f88706-78ec-4915-9656-9b34cb02140cCanada was, from the time of Sir Wilfred Laurier until the end of the Pearson era, a beacon of liberal values in the 20th-century world, even under the timid Mackenzie-King. It changed when the second most illiberal prime minister in Canadian http_o.aolcdn.comhssstoragemidasb70e485348f1fb1de7e42889dcccddb1205897339trudeauhistory, Pierre Trudeau was selected to lead the Liberal Party. As I have explained, he changed the country and subsequent leaders, even those, like Stephen Harper or Paul Martin, animated by good, traditional liberal instincts, were never able to reverse the course  It has only gotten worse in the intervening half-century and Canada now has a total illiberal at the helm. Unlike Screen Shot 2019-09-13 at 07.25.12his father, Justin Trudeau doesn’t have a single liberal bone in his body. From his admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship” to his penchant to obstruct justice to satisfy his own, partisan political ends, he is a very model of a modern autocrat … he is much, much more like Donald Trump than he is like Louis St Laurent. Canada, I fear, is farther away than most Western nations from Lord Sack’s vision of a value-driven, liberal society with strong, national social capital based on a few shared values. I fear that Canada will fall victim to “cultural climate change” before most others.


Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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