Commenting on the challenges Western society faces as religion goes into decline, Jonathan Sacks urges both believers and non-believers to keep religion part of public life.
[I]f you are a regular goer to church, synagogue, or other place of worship, you are more likely to help a stranger in need, give a meal to the hungry, shelter someone who’s homeless, find somebody a job, give to charity (whether the cause is religious or secular), and get involved in voluntary work. The best predictor is not class, ethnicity, or education. The best indicator is: do you or don’t you go regularly to a house of worship.
[The eminent sociologist] Robert Putnam refined this thesis and said that it doesn’t matter what you believe, but whether you go. An atheist who went regularly to church is more likely to be an altruist than a deeply-believing believer who keeps to himself. So if you’re an atheist in synagogue, you’re probably a decent kind of guy. We have lots of atheists in synagogue. One of them, the great, late, much-lamented philosopher at Columbia University, Sidney Morgenbesser . . . said when he was ill, “I don’t know why God is so angry with me just because I don’t believe in Him.”
If atheists are to attend houses of worship, writes Sacks, believers must not seal themselves off:
In today’s world, religion 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. That is the ultra-Orthodox option or [what some Christians call] the “Benedict option.” Or number three, it can attempt to re-inspire society. . . .
If we adopt the first option, the radical anti-Western option, we will move straight 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 [ages]. . . .
So what do I mean by religion in the public square? I mean simply religion as a consecration of the bonds that connect us, religion as the redemption of our solitude, religion as loyalty and love, religion as altruism and compassion, religion as covenant and commitment, religion that consecrates marriage, that sustains community and helps reweave the torn fabric of society. That kind of religion is content to be a minority. Jews have been a minority wherever we went for 2,000 years. [Even when its adherents belong to] a minority, religion can be a huge influence.
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