One might say “Hurrah for the Wall Street Journal for publishing an essay which delves bravely into the thicket of religious opinion,” which is what Lord Jonathan Sacks’s essay does in the WSJ’s October 3-4, 2015 Review section.
Sacks cites myriad reasons for the urgent and obvious need to deal and defeat the Islamic State, whose creed he argues “embodies evil in the name of a sacred cause. To defeat it, we must recover the values that can bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together”.
By the time I read the piece at my breakfast table and got to my computer to bring up the comments, the reader reactions numbered over 150.
While often ignoring his concern for the Islamic State, many of them were very negative about Lord Sacks’ comments and sided with some other religious or non religious point of view. Most seemed to be off on their own hobby horses. I was reminded of that phase in Shakespeare’s Hamlet about the need to take up arms against a sea of troubles and in so doing end them, which when Hamlet procrastinated too long he got killed!
You can read the entire piece here.
As I read the first two paragraphs of Lord Sack’s discourse and the preponderance of all those 150 comments, I was struck by the absence of any mention of what economists call the externalities of the situation the world faces.
Here is what Sacks wrote:
The West was caught unprepared by the rise of Islamic State, as it was a decade and a half ago by the attacks of al Qaeda and as the Soviet Union was by the determination of the mujahedeen of Afghanistan in the 1980s. These are among the worst failures of political intelligence in modern times, and the consequences have been disastrous.
The unpreparedness was not accidental. It happened because of a blind spot in the secular mind: the inability to see the elemental, world-shaking power of religion when hijacked by politics. Ever since the rise of modern science, intellectuals have been convinced that faith is in intensive care, about to die or at least rendered harmless by exclusion from the public square.
Anyone watching the Pope’s triumphal US visit or the recent aerial photos of the latest Hadj in Mecca might wonder about religion being in intensive care.
But how do religions create unfavorable externalities. First, what is an externality? As Wikipedia tells us:
In economics, an externality is the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit.
For example, manufacturing activities that cause air pollution impose health and clean-up costs on the whole society, whereas the neighbors of an individual who chooses to fire-proof his home may benefit from a reduced risk of a fire spreading to their own houses. If external costs exist, such as pollution, the producer may choose to produce more of the product than would be produced if the producer were required to pay all associated environmental costs. Because responsibility or consequence for self-directed action lies partly outside the self, an element of externalization is involved.
Sacks accuses the secular mind of a blind spot in spotting the Islamic State, but one could easily find negative externalities rising from all religions, the most visible ones being the most spectacularly successful in gaining and misusing their wealth and power.
Would it be too cynical to suggest that those who espouse to religious power are engaging in some obvious forms of externality, for example co-opting power by getting adherents to buy their version, peaceful or violent to foster their power at the expense of everyone who does not concur with their version of religious truth?
Perhaps. While certainly there are reported to have been seekers of religious truth such as St. Francis of Assisi who sought solace on earth but not earthly power.
However, on my visit to Assisi in Italy a couple of years ago, I was able to see what has become of his modest chapel, now lodged inside a huge cathedral and the complex of buildings around it reflect massive wealth and power which the Order of St Francis has spread worldwide.
One can easily find endless examples of externalities in the kind of non religious greed and malpractice of human activities around the planet which clearly has brought climate change which may even now be irreparable.
However, let me finally get to the main point I wish to make about the tower of religious Babel which I perceive most of those commenting negatively on Sacks’ piece make, as well as Sack himself.
While pumping for the importance of giving benign and loving religions (I find it hard to find pure examples) central places in the conduct of human affairs, Sacks and his detractors ignore what has increasingly become the governing reality of human life on this planet, namely, the population dynamics of today’s world which now must host nearly 8 billion people (when only 2 billion existed when I was born in 1931).
Neither Sacks nor the responders to his piece bothered to suggest that our survival may depend on this issue, which has become the major often unrecognized elephant in the worlds living room.
Yes, it is obvious that we must deal with the extremism of religious activity, which so often includes unduly influencing the conduct of secular government, which routinely happens here in the USA. Current attacks on Planned Parenthood by religiously motivated legislators serves as a perfect example. In fact this web site has been highly effective in daily pointing out where such abuses are occurring.
But in the world’s major media there is far too seldom consistent and urgent messages about the continuing rise of human numbers and their effect on our future.
Religions already have lighted a dangerous fuse to this power keg of burgeoning human numbers. As the result of their teachings, many bear major responsibility for the fact that over 5 billion of the nearly 8 billion now alive are living under conditions which we here in the USA would find untenable. But the future of hunger, the continuing greed of the mindless elites both religious and secular, and the continuing collapse of our ecosystem will be major drivers if a human apocalypse does happen.
This then must lead us to elect leaders who are focused on the urgency of putting in place secular good governance to overcome the worst impulses of religious fanaticism. The chances of that grow dimmer as human numbers increase.
From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013
By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Back in 1991, the NGO Don Collins founded in 1976, International Services Assistance Fund (ISAF), co-produced a TV quality 22-minute film called “Whose Choice?” which Ted Turner arranged to broadcast on September 21, 1992 in prime time on his then independent Turner Broadcast System (TBS). Other outlets such as PBS and several of its affiliates Collins and his colleagues contacted then refused to run it because of its forthright treatment of the abortion issue, arguing for all women’s right to choose not to have a baby. ISAF has made a new edition of that DVD. The purpose for reissuing this 3rd version of “Whose Choice?” was simply to show the historical urgency that attended those times, still blocked and attacked over 40 years after the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. This video is available for public viewing for the first time.
Professor Paul Ehrlich: Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?
Al Bartlett – Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation
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