Friday, November 06, 2009

Muslims and Christians: get used to being a minority

Jonathan Sacks has said some good things and some rather silly things in a lecture to the think-tank Theos (I haven't read the full lecture, just the report in the Times).

The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth said one thing I think is very sensible: that Christians and Muslims need to learn from the experience of Jews in being a religious minority. Most Christians and Muslims for most of history have lived in "Christian countries" and "Muslims countires" whereas now in Europe both need to learn to live as minorities. As a Christian I would add that Jesus was always someone operating at the margins, so this is a place that Christians should be comfortable, but we have got used to the comfort of Christendom for too long. But the "separation of religion and power" is politically and theologically wise.

But he then goes on to criticise "secularism" (which I've always understand to mean the separation of religion and power). Sacks says secularism is causing the "death" or Europe by making people too selfish to breed (yeah, really). This seems to me to be frankly bizzare. It also doesn't pay attention to the fact that in the context of an ecological crisis, a falling population is a damn good thing. I don't think we're in danger of human extinction yet, right? In fact we're in danger of a hell of a lot of other things going extinct cos there's too many of us. Reproducing a little less is a very responsible thing to do in the twenty-first century.


Blogger Paul Oakley said...

Thanks for sharing this, Stephen, as I frequently am late to learning about what is happening in the Interfaith area in the UK.

I would be inclined to give Rabbi Sacks a certain leeway for saying foolish things occasionally given the wonderful work he has produced, such as, Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations and Home We Build Together: Recreating Society. And his intellect is outstanding. His re-presentation and commentaries on the siddur alone, in the form of the new Koren Siddur, are a monumental achievement for English-speaking Jews.

But you're totally right, it's downright silly to be worried about decreasing fertility rates in secularized countries. Just because the sons and daughters-in-law of Noah NEEDED to reproduce like rabbits after the narrative of the flood, seeing how they were alone in the earth, is no reason to assume that "Be fruitful and multiply" can be interpreted the same way under today's circumstances.

My grandmother used such bizarre logic to argue against my being gay. All the more bizarre because, before I came to an understanding of my sexuality, I had already passed on my genetic material to not one but two children.

There is definitely no reasonable worry about the loss of humanity on the planet.

But one argument that is thornier is that maintaining high fertility is necessary to have a tax-paying base to pay for the publicly supplied needs of an aging population. If the ratio of old to young continues to grow, as it is expected to because of ever improved health care, then a growing portion of the income produced by the young and middle-aged will have to go to care for the aged.

Demographers, unlike religious leaders, are not concerned that humanity will die out but that our wealth will diminish because of an imbalance in the age of the population. Negative population growth is linked to fears of negative growth of wealth.

6:40 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

All good points Paul. That conversation takes us to the appropriate economic system for the future. I have a feeling this is such an important issue, but one I'm very ignorant about.

6:52 pm  
Anonymous Tim (S Manc) said...

Having only read an extract of Lord Sacks of Aldgate's speech (in the current "Tablet"-13 Nov) it seems that the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue is deliberately trying to be provocative, but not doing very well at it. It's a little bizarre of a Jewish community leader to bemoan the lack of large families, when the encouragement on women to raise large families has been such an oppresive tool by ecclesiastical and secular authorities. In the early 20th century, numerous European governments awarded prizes to women who had the most children. It sounds rather quaint on the surface, but such initiatives had their roots in Nationalism and eugenics (which was nearly always deeply anti-Semitic).

It should be noted that in spite of his title, Dr Sacks is only "Chief Rabbi" of a group of (mainly) moderate Orthodox synagogues, which are based mostly around London, but have affiliates outside the capital. Sacks has often been a divisive figure in the Jewish community during his time as Chief. Members of the Reform and Liberal movements have sometimes felt alienated or just plain outraged by his pronouncements. Jonathan Sacks does not represent the view of the whole Jewish community.

8:37 pm  
Blogger Stephen Lingwood said...

I think the idea of a single representative voice of a faith community is quite problematic. Unfortunately that's the way the media deals with it - Jonathan Sacks represents the Jews, Rowan Williams and Vincent Nichols represents the Christians, and the Muslim Council of Britain represents the Muslims. It's arguable to what extent these "faith leaders" actually do represent their communities. None of them can completely represent the voice of their communties.

2:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So basically, we have so-called free thinkers / inquirers into truth condemning a leading rabbi for a speech they have not even read?

What a great advert for Unitarianism.

9:30 am  
Anonymous Mike Killingworth said...

The reason why Williams etc are seen as representing their faith communities is because journalists are lazy and/or under extreme time pressure.

It should also be remembered that "dog bites Lingwood" isn't a news story but "Linwood bites dog" might well be...

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Tim said...

I think the media (like much of the rest of society) is not very clued up on what religious leaders actually do on a day-to-day level. They don't know what a sermon is, they don't know how different a vicar is from a bishop from an archbishop, etc. In this case, I don't think this is the respective religious organisations' fault. Like Mike has written, it's down to lazy journalism, but also a reading public that doesn't pick up on writer's assumptions.

This is one of the points raised in the current Church Times (27 Nov) by Anderw Brown, (subscribers only)

The archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, was interviewed in the Guardian last Monday (23 Nov). Andrew Brown writes that Stephen Moss (the Guardian interviewer) must think Dr Sentamu only deals with women bishops, gay priests and other schisms in the Anglican Communion, i.e. the current media fascinations, and is disappointed when Dr Sentamu prefers to talk about his youth work. I don't entirely agree with Brown's response, but I can see his point.

The published interview from 23 Nov can be found here: - .

9:46 pm  

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