By Nathan Schradle

If something like a “Global Civil Society” ever becomes a reality (I’m picturing a giant face made of thousands of tiny robots, like in the Matrix Revolutions… only hopefully slightly less hell-bent on the destruction of the human species), it may want to give a huge shout-out to the year 1831. For starters, it’s the year that our very own New York University was founded, a university that recently played host to the dialogues that bear its name. Furthermore, as those who attended the third of the “NYU Dialogues on the Global Civil Society” can attest, the most recent speaker asserted that the stakes of such a conversation were first made plain in the very same year.

On October 31st, 2011, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks delivered his lecture, “The Great Partnership: Religion and the Moral Sense?” to a remarkably enthusiastic audience (when a group of about 15 students is lined up outside before the doors even open, “enthusiastic” might be an understatement). In an attempt to describe the role he sees religion playing in any “global civil society,” Lord Sacks pointed to two journeys that began in the year in question, specifically Charles Darwin’s voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to America. Sacks drew some eloquent parallels between the two trips, in which he established a set of binaries that constituted the crux of his argument: competition and cooperation, aggression and altruism, markets/politics and religion.

Essentially, Sacks argued that Darwin’s theory of evolution and de Tocqueville’s description of American democracy could be mapped onto one another. In natural selection, competition appears to be the order of the day. And yet, species survive only in cooperating groups – groups that often require altruistic acts from their constituents. Similarly, in the American political landscape de Tocqueville encountered, politics were highly competitive, and religion had purportedly been separated from the workings of the state. The question Sacks posed was: If, in both these scenarios, the real impetus for change and continued existence lies in competition between genes or political bodies, then why didn’t altruism and religion go extinct?

Alexis de Tocqueville

The answer Sacks argued, was simple: competition and cooperation, aggression and altruism while operating in tandem are necessary for survival. Cultivating cooperation and altruism, Sacks said, is the role religion must play in any society that wishes to sustain itself. Fittingly, religion in Sacks’ mind will be essential in helping to address the problems of globalization (namely financial instability, climate change, and economic inequality) that plague the modern world.  He described these problems as driven by the selfish immoralities of both the market and political sectors of society. A potential multinational and pluralistic global civil society will need some sense of morality to keep its markets and politics in check. And it just so happens that religious traditions have fulfilled that evolutionary niche, and should be aided in their quest to continue to do so.

In general, Sacks’ comments were compelling. As all of the lecturers in the dialogue series have been, he was given the task of speaking on “the extent to which a universal moral sense, capable of underpinning a global society, is evolving or can be created.” He was clear on both these points. A moral sense has been cultivated in successful cultures by their religious traditions, and a universal moral sense can be created only if political and economic discourse takes stock of religious teachings and the multiple religious faiths in the world come together in what he called “mutual respect and humility.”

However, despite Sack’s clear system for the interaction of religion and other spheres of social life, there were several different directions that Sacks’ remarks need to go but weren’t able to in the time provided.  My issue was not with his fact-checking although he did make the statement that Darwin and de Tocqueville had never been thought of side by side before; this de Tocqueville scholar (among others who a simple search on the Google can lead you to) might beg to differ. Nor was it with his lack of concrete facts – the brief nature of his comments made it impossible to include long lists of evidence. Instead, my complaints with Sacks’ speech revolve around its framing.

First, while the historical coincidence of Darwin’s and de Tocqueville’s journeys certainly served to strengthen the parallels he wished to draw between the two texts, relying so heavily on these (and only these) arguments placed his entire justification for the role of religion in society firmly within a 19th Century Enlightenment framework. Sacks applied that framework to a discussion of the role religion plays in society today, and many references he made to the “enduring power of religion” seemed to suggest that, in his mind, religion’s function within society (specifically “moralizing”) has remained unchanged throughout history.

Being a child of the 19- rather than 1880’s, I don’t have any empirical evidence to base this on, but I’m pretty sure American society and the role religion plays within it look slightly different than they did in 1831. We don’t buy and sell people anymore, for one. Even if de Tocqueville’s account of American politics can be taken as Gospel, who’s to say that religion still serves the same function in society that it did then? In fact, most scholars of religion would argue that religion’s “enduring power” comes from the ability of its practitioners to adapt it to align with changing cultural norms and values. In a speech about how human culture is becoming more global in the modern era, it seems shortsighted to argue that the function of religion will remain unchanged as its cultural context expands and evolves.

Charles Darwin

Additionally, speaking as a European and relying on two Europeans thinkers for an argument about how to come together to properly address the current world’s ills makes the “global civil society” look like a more compassionate form of colonialism than a truly collaborative effort. Unless “global” was meant to indicate “even available in non-Western markets,” I think some large chunks of the truly global population might not be so adequately represented in this discussion just yet – to say nothing of the role that they would play in the actual development of either academic or political discourses concerning the subject. The only specific reference Sacks made to a non-Western country was Iran, when he referred to it in passing as a “theocratic state,” a political model that he certainly wasn’t arguing be included in his vision of global civil society.

Most significantly, Sacks certainly described why he thinks we need a moral sense, but he did not make a particularly exigent argument for religion as the primary means by which that moral sense is developed. This issue came up more in the brief question and answer session (where there was little time for elaboration during Sacks’ comments, there was even less available for audience participation in the dialogue).  He was asked how, if religion is supposed to provide society with its moral compass, religion can be so often used to justify heinous acts, like the slavery de Tocqueville saw when he came to America. Sacks’ answer returned to his tripartite view of social life, now qualified by the claim that the spheres of politics, markets, and religion have “porous” barriers. As such, sometimes religion can be influenced by the others and be transformed into either the pursuit of wealth or the pursuit of power that defines the other two realms. In short, as it operates in history, religion pretty easily loses its cooperative, altruistic affect.

Unfortunately, the very moment when Sacks first touched on the fallibility of religion was also the very moment when the dialogue ended – and left his audience with more questions than conclusions. For one, if instances in which religion has been used to justify condemnable actions each represent an instance in which religion has lost its course, then it seems religion only provides a moral sense worth taking hold of in specific cases. How do we as a society evaluate those situations? And won’t that evaluative process become exponentially more complicated as more and more specific cultures are assimilated into a “global civil society?” And what about science? While he did at one point make a passing reference to the fact that his upcoming book treats science as the “fourth sphere” of civil society, he made no mention of the now lengthy list of studies devoted to proving the purely scientific evolutionary origins of moral altruism. In short, Sacks spoke eloquently about the role that religion should play in society, but ultimately didn’t convince us that it frequently plays that role or that it has any exclusive ability to do so. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, despite the pleasing clarity and cadence of his remarks, Sacks’ argument has been left behind by the globalizing force and attempts at cooperation that he so emphatically sought to celebrate.

Nathan Schradle is a graduate student in the Religious Studies Program at NYU.