The former Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Sacks, has just won the Templeton Prize for his work promoting religious understanding. Previous winners of the prize, which recognises efforts to promote “life’s spiritual dimension”, have included Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In an interview Lord Sacks gave to the UK newspaper the Telegraph after receiving the award, he pretty well justified his receipt of the honour in a few hundred words. Seriously, I think that his interview (as reported) is a little ripper.
I would like to reproduce the entire article, but copyright forbids. Instead, I will pick out some of the daintiest morsels for your consumption and leave you to feast on the entire thing at your leisure here.
Be warned, it’s not a pretty picture that is portrayed in the interview: his Lordship likens the West’s current position to that of Ancient Rome. And he doesn’t mean because of our well-engineered aqueducts and roads, but because we are witnessing civilizational collapse. Why are we facing this collapse? Because of our addiction to debt, because of the breakdown of the family unit, because of the growing gap between the super rich and the rest. But most importantly, because of our demographic crisis in which the current generation does not want the responsibility of child rearing.
But what about large scale immigration? Isn’t that the solution to demographic decline? No, says Lord Sacks. Because for immigration to bolster a culture, new arrivals need to integrate into the destination society. But when that society has lost its cultural memory through short attention spans and lack of cohesion and is no longer underpinned by a largely-shared religious faith, then there is no culture for immigrants to integrate into. In short, immigrants may prop up the economy, but immigrants won’t ensure the continuation of Western civilisation.
As the Telegraph writes:
“But among a list of problems he said neither the market nor the state could ultimately solve he singled out the “collapse” of birth-rates throughout Europe.
This, he said had led directly to ‘unprecedented levels of immigration that are now the only way the West can sustain its population’.
But he added that there had been a ‘systemic failure’ to integrate new arrivals.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he said similar falling birthrates had been the hallmark of the last days of the Roman Empire.
There was, he said, ‘no question’ that this poses a serious threat to the future of western civilisation as we know it.
‘The contemporary historian of ancient Greece and ancient Rome saw their civilisations begin their decline and fall, both the Greeks and the Romans attributed it to falling birth rates because nobody wanted the responsibilities of bringing up children,’ he said.
‘They were too focussed on enjoying the present to make the sacrifices necessary to build the future …. all the historians of civilisation have told the same story.’”
Appropriately for a recipient of the Templeton Prize, Lord Sacks linked this loss of civilisation back to a loss of religion (I wonder if he has been reading Christopher Dawson?):
“Crucially, he argued that the demographic change could be linked a loss of religious faith in the West, which for centuries has been associated with a high regard for the institution of the family.
‘Contemporary historians … right now, have failed to find a single historical example of a society that became secularised and maintained its birth rate over subsequent centuries,’ he argued.
He added: ‘That’s how great civilisations decline and fall.’”
Which is interesting, because religious people are often accused of forsaking the here-and-now for hopes and dreams of the hereafter. However, perhaps it is more likely that when one is focused on the hereafter then one is more prepared to sacrifice present comfort for the rigours of having children?
Finally, he notes that what I think many of my contemporaries view as the “normal” setting (prosperity, freedom, individual rights etc) is not the “normal” or “default”. Instead, we have to realise that freedom doesn’t just happen, it has to fought for and sacrificed for. Are we prepared to do that?
Of course, the question must be asked: what if the West becomes an historical, rather than a living, civilization? There are so many problems with contemporary western culture (many of which you can read about on this fine website and of which demographic decline is surely a symptom), that maybe we should not shed too many tears for its demise. But then I think of Chartres Cathedral, the scientific method, the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and cricket and I find that there are many tears to be shed. Then I think of many of the cultural alternatives and potential surplanters of Western civilisation and find that there are many, many more to be shed.