I appreciate John O’ Sullivan’s reacting to my post about Rabbi Sacks’s New York Times column on religion and altruism. But I think he is reading a little too much into the point I was making. To be sure, I believe that it can be extremely beneficial for a society to be religious — although I do believe the value or detriment of religion depends on the tenets of the faith in question. Moreover, the idea that Sacks was expressing a blasphemous notion about religion’s utility never occurred to me.
I think the key sentence in Sacks’s piece is not the penultimate one that John quoted about God perhaps having a little joke in the face of Darwinism. That seems something of a hedge. Rather, I think the last sentence contains his actual thought on the matter, to wit: ”It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”
But how does the West prevent losing their sense of God — note he doesn’t use stronger terms such as “belief” or “faith” — except by supporting the inculcation of genuine devotion? If we are to avoid Elmer Gantryism, it must be actually believed. To put it another way, maintaining a sense of God toward the end of promoting altruism would be a facade easily discerned. It just wouldn’t work.
I am not saying that Sacks doesn’t want people to genuinely believe. And it isn’t anything to get raised blood pressure over. But I don’t think we will get very far promoting belief for its societal utility. The social utility comes from the belief.