A Religion for Our Time

by Howard Gardner

Recently, I read two books by scholars whom I respect.  And they prompted me to ponder and collate my own views about religion and good work.

Jonathan Sacks was a noted religious leader and author. (He died in November 2020, shortly after this essay was drafted). Over the years, I’ve learned much from his writings. When he recently published a book—Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times—I eagerly turned to it. As I read through the book, I found myself nodding in agreement. Sacks documents the increasing selfishness of citizenry on both sides of the Atlantic—the much noted drift from “We to I.” Like political scientist Robert Putnam, Sacks laments the decline of communal activities, such as bowling, as well as the lesser visibility and potency of institutions focused on civic issues. Sacks also critiques assumptions of traditional liberal and neo-liberal thought which treat the marketplace as the privileged route to a good life; the excesses of multiculturalism, which all too often pits groups against one another; and the emergence of “data-ism”, where algorithms are entrusted with the resolution of the full spectrum of human problems.

Sacks was a rabbi—from 1991-2013, he served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Commonwealth. By no means was he a chauvinist for Judaism —favoring specific services, customs, or personages. He led interfaith gatherings and he often held public conversations with individuals of different faiths or with no religious beliefs at all. Yet, not surprisingly, he concluded that individuals with religious background and beliefs are more likely to have a communal feeling and, in his view, more likely to lead lives in accordance with a clearly specified moral code.

Tanya Luhrmann is a widely acclaimed anthropologist as well as a cherished personal friend. She has studied fascinating sects in several cultures and has written evocatively about them. A through-line of her work has been the centrality of religion in human life across cultures, times, and circumstances  Of late, she has paid special attention to individuals and groups describing themselves as having a personal relation to God—persons who believe that God talks to them regularly, listens to their prayers, and provides support and consolation, even when their specific desires are not granted. I recently read her ethnographically based analytic masterpiece, How God Becomes Real.

The combination of reading Sacks and Luhrmann,  two wise persons, side by side, has prompted me to step back.

Any social scientist worth his or her salt must take religion seriously—no other institution has held sway over so many people, cultures, minds throughout history, and, no doubt, during pre-history as well. (Agnostics and atheists seem to be recent phenomena.)  For the founders of modern sociology—Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—religion was absolutely central. Of course, religions differ enormously in their belief structures, stipulations, and rewards—from Buddhists, who do not have an Abrahamic view of God; to Unitarians or Ethical Culturalists, whose conception of God is distinctly low key; and to preliterate societies, that typically feature a whole gallery—indeed galaxy—of gods as well as other totemic figures.

Scholars can and should study religion. But what should you do personally, if religion does not move you—if you don’t believe in any kind of God, if the notion of conversing with God does not make sense to you (while acknowledging that it is—and has been—meaningful to millions of others).  And if, further, you are struck by the down-side of religion and of religious rivalries: the vicious clashes, wars, even genocides throughout history and continuing into our embattled time. Or you are struck—indeed, impressed—that it is frequently the least overtly religious societies—I have in mind  the countries that make up Scandinavia—that are generally deemed most successful on a variety of moral and ethical criteria. And, finally, how should you think about religious issues when you put on the hat of a policy maker—for example,  when you and your colleagues design curricula for schools or propose rules for the workplace or for a profession.

Here are some options, with succinct labels:

Opposition: Some analysts devote a lot of attention to critiquing religion, demonstrating its flaws and falsehoods, and hoping that one can convince others to shed their religious activities and beliefs;

Substitution:  One can look for entities and enterprises that resemble religion, but without its conventional components. In my own experience in the 1950s, the scouting movement functioned as a secular equivalent of religion—providing a set of rules for personal and group behavior as well as ceremonies that celebrate these rules. (More recently, the downside of the scouting movement has been amply documented—sexual misconduct akin to that discovered in the Catholic Church around the globe.)  Other activities, ranging from martial arts to civic service to the Harry Potter Alliance or Youth Venture, now play a communal role and often bind together individuals of different backgrounds and beliefs in support of good causes.

Study:  Just as one often probes countries or regions in social studies classes, one can survey the religions of the world. Alternatively, one can not only study organized religions, but also examine enterprises that seek to substitute for, or replace traditional religion—for example, contemporary secular humanism, the philosophical school of existentialism, or the civic organizations  and enterprises cited above.

Overlooking: One can simply ignore the prevalence and power of religion. I have often done this.  Indeed, when (in 2008) I gave a series of lectures on the virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness, my colleague Marcelo Suarez-Orozco commented to me that I had “left out the 800 pound gorilla—religion.”

For the most part, in our own work on the development of a sense of morality and ethics, we—and particularly I—have sought to bracket religion. Instead, donning an educational lens, we have examined the development in children of a moral sense—what I’ve termed “neighborly morality”—the kinds of quasi-universal sentiments captured in the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. Working in school settings, we have envisioned students as workers—”employed” in their school community—who should be inspired to behave in ways that are constructive for their peers and their elders. (See the pioneering work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg and his colleagues on the construction of “Just Communities.”)

Along with neighborly morality, our research team has also examined the development and expression in adults of an ethical sense—what we’ve termed ‘the ethics of roles.” Through an examination of how specific roles are defined and carried out in professions—ranging from teaching to journalism to medicine—we have delineated the extent to which, and the ways in which, workers live up to the codes and ethos of their respective professions. We have also considered how members of a community live up to their obligations, their responsibilities as citizens—the other principal role assumed by adults.

Until now, I have sought not to intertwine our work on morality and ethics with religion, let alone with a specific faith tradition—Reform Jewish morality, Baptist ethics, etc. Recently, I have come to the conclusion—perhaps reluctantly but quite firmly—that a purely secular approach to morality and ethical issues does not suffice. No doubt this conclusion has been spurred by the realization that in the United States—but in Sweden as well—a purely secular approach to the controlling the spread of COVID 19 has been too thin a reed on which to base moral behavior and ethical decisions. But a welter of religions does no better: in the US, religious populations ranging from Christian evangelicals to orthodox Jews have flouted the elementary health advice of professionals. Put bluntly, conventional religions per se have proved of little help in controlling a pandemic.

But if neither standard religions nor modern secularism seem adequate for our times, is there a course that seems more promising?

In even raising this question, I must begin by acknowledging that it’s been pondered over the millennia by scores of eminent thinkers—ranging from  Baruch Spinoza to Hans Kung—and, no doubt, by thousands, perhaps millions of ordinary persons like me. It’s the tenor, the urgency, of our time that propels me to raise it now and to begin to sketch an answer.

To cut to the chase, I think—no, I believe—that our planet needs a new religion—but not one in which God plays a substantive role.

Here’s why: We now live in a global world. Whether it’s trade, technology, or transportation, the world is totally interconnected, a situation that is not going to change. To be sure, nationalism has recently been on the rise. And while patriotism (which differs from nationalism) has its virtues, the biggest challenges to the world are all international, global, planetary—and if we don’t band together, we will surely sink separately.

What do we—populations around the world—have in common?

At least these things:

l. We are all members of the same species. We have essentially the same DNA.

2. We share the history of that species, going back 50,000 years or more.

3. We share and are dependent on the flora and fauna of the world—for survival, for comfort, for beautiful experiences.

4. In the past of our species—individually and collectively—we have done terrible things—and we cannot and should not hide them. But we have also done wonderful things—sometimes individually (see Leonardo, hear Mozart), sometimes collectively (the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Western Europe, the temples of Angkor Wat, the caves of Dunhuang, the citadel of Machu Picchu). If I knew more about different individuals in different cultures in different periods of time, or indeed the wonders of the ancient world, I could extend the list indefinitely.

5. We are facing the same threats—chief among them, climate change and nuclear weapons—with pandemics, military conflict, biological warfare, and cyberconflict not far behind.

Our common humanity should be—indeed, must be—the throughline of a religion for our time and our planet. And given our recent research in higher education, it’s worth noting that the liberal arts beautifully encompass these various lenses on that humanity. See https://howardgardner.com/higher-education-in-the-21st-century/

But in itself the human story—no matter how dramatic, no matter how well presented—is not enough. Secular humanism does not suffice! Religions have symbols, processes, sermons—over time, these human creations bind people together, remind them of the meaning of their fellowship, inspire them to commit their energies to worthy courses of action. (Here, I agree with Rabbi Sacks.) 

In pursuing this line of thought, three quite different individuals—each of whom I much admire—come to mind.

The American civic activist Eric Liu understands the “religious quandary” better than anyone else I know personally.  He has created Citizen University—an institution that identifies, celebrates, and seeks to activate civic virtues; he has launched the Civic Collaboratory, a collection of leaders of social institutions (of different political persuasions) who gather together several times a year to help one another achieve their goals; and he has devised Civic Saturdays, where individuals around the country gather to share stories and experiences, and to ponder together what to do to improve our communities. In spirit, these features unmistakably bear the marks of a religion—but neither God or gods play explicit roles.

If Eric Liu and I have a difference, it’s one of emphasis. Eric thinks very much in American terms—what is needed to rejuvenate the health of our country’s democracy. (A timely consideration, to be sure!) Similar undertakings in other parts of the world could be mounted. But time is short. I prefer to think in global terms—what are the ideas, the symbols, the ceremonies, the songs, the sermons that would speak to and generate commitment not just nationally but around the globe, to individuals of different ages and allegiances,  in societies of varying sizes and different mores.

Perhaps the time has arrived for a post-post-Westphalian world.

I’ve often asserted that Gandhi was the most important human being of the last 1000 years. Gandhi was a Hindu, but he did not emphasize the tenets of his religion—in fact, he was assassinated by a fellow member of the Hindu faith who felt that Gandhi was insufficiently pious. Rather, Gandhi understood that all humans needed to be treated with respect and dignity. And here was his powerful insight: if persons are not appropriately treated, they should not wield physical weapons; rather they should mindfully embrace the powerful psychological weapon of civil disobedience. 

Gandhi was instrumental in securing Indian independence from the British empire. But of far greater importance, he set a model for what it can—what it should—be like to bring about needed change peacefully. For that noble effort, he has been emulated by courageous individuals around the world, ranging from Nelson Mandela in South Africa to Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States to the solitary Chinese citizen who in June 1989 faced armed tanks in Tiananmen Square.

Let me add a third name to this list of inspirational figures—that of Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg. She has seen, understood, and acted upon the greatest threat to the health of the planet—climate change—and she is fearless in calling attention to this global challenge and in “walking the talk’’—avoiding airplanes and other gobblers of fossil fuels. She also thinks and acts in global terms—essential if one is to tackle a planetary problem.

Establishing the essentials of a global religion requires at least three components: a set of powerful ideas; paragon—human beings (like the three I have just cited) who exemplify these ideas; and a set of practices and commitments that involve “congregants” from around the world. In one sense, it is a religion without God, without an explicit deity; it is also a religion for our time and our place. To paraphrase the philosopher Nelson Goodman, the components I’ve cited exhibit the “symptoms of a religion.” And if it helps to credit God or a set of gods for these ideas, that’s fine with me.

In his play J.B. Archibald MacLeish has a character say “If God is great, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.Take the even, take the odd .”

I’m fine with a “god for Good Work”—and perhaps the ideas in this essay can be a modest contribution to the creation of such a lower-case deity.

© Howard Gardner 2020

I thank Courtney Bither, Lynn Barendsen, Shelby Clark, Anne Colby, Bill Damon, Shinri Furuzawa, Kirsten McHugh, Danny Mucinskas, Sally Myers, and Ellen Winner for their very thoughtful comments on earlier drafts.  I regret that I could not adequately address their many cogent comments and critiques.


One Comment on “A Religion for Our Time”

  1. Michael Lerner December 17, 2020 at 3:48 am #

    what a beautiful piece, howard. i will continue to reflect on it.

    rather than a global religion, i incline toward a “truth is one, paths are many” perspective
    (essentially unitarian) that enables people to continue to practice their religious, spiritual,
    or secular-ethical paths of choice while at the same time recognizing the common ethical
    precepts and sense of human communion they share in common.

    a religion can’t be purely based on cognition, as you know. a religion needs to have powerful emotive roots. and also access to whatever you want to call spirit, oneness, emptiness — the beyond words. these qualities of experience are evoked not by abstractions or even exemplary individuals but by the unique “face of the beloved,” whatever form it takes.

    i am personally most moved by the quakers, the society of friends, who have never numbered more than 350,000 (half in africa) yet have been in the forefront of every major reform movement for over 350 years. fox recognized “that of god” in every human being. they live simply. they worship in silence, in a circle. they speak their truth into the center of the room. they wonder at all the different ways the light expresses itself in different people.

    i see myself as a jewish christian buddhist yogic sufi with taoist influences.

    thank you for friendship.

    let’s both stay well,


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