New technology marks turning point in civilisation but so far the voices of ‘anger and violence and hate’ are making best use of it, warns former Chief Rabbi
The internet will transform civilisation as much as the invention of writing or the printing press - even ushering in new types of religion in the world, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has suggested.
But so far religious extremists and terrorists have been quicker to realise the potential of the “revolution” we are living through - leaving moderate voices far behind, he warned.
The prediction came as he was announced as this year’s winner of the £1.1 million Templeton Prize, the world’s biggest annual award, for his work promoting religious understanding.
He follows in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the latest recipient of the prize, which recognises efforts to promote “life’s spiritual dimension”.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks next to Jennifer Templeton Simpson, grand daughter of Sir John Templeton and Chair of the John Templeton Foundation Board of Trustees
Speaking in London he pledged to use the money, from a fund set up by the philanthropist Sir John Templeton more than 40 years ago, to expand his efforts to spread a message of tolerance and forgiveness.
He insisted that, far from religion being in inevitable decline amid scientific progress and social change, most of the world is rapidly being “de-secularised” – something he said “nobody expected”.
Technology, he argued, will itself help transform people’s beliefs in a way that only a handful of breakthroughs in the past - from the development of the first hieroglyphics to the introduction of the printing press – have done.
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican
Mobile phones and iPads lit up St Peter's Square as Pope Francis was elected in 2013 AP
He said: “I think we’re at a turning point in the history of civilisation.
“Turning points happen when there’s a revolution in information technology.
“This has happened four times in human history and we’re living through the fifth,"
“This has happened four times in human history and we’re living through the fifth.
“Each time there was a revolution in information technology there was a spiritual revolution.”
He said the first of these had been the invention of cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia and hieroglyphics in Egypt which had led to the birth of civilisation itself.
Clay tablets dating from 350 to 50 BC featuring the wedge-shaped ancient Babylonian cuneiform script.
Later he said, the development of the first alphabet, was linked to the emergence of monotheism. The third big turning point was the move away from scrolls to the first codex books which, he said, coincided with “the birth of Christianity”.
“The fourth was the invention of print, which led to the Reformation, and the fifth is the one we are living through now of instantaneous global communication,” he said.
“We have not yet learnt to turn that into a spiritual plus.
“On the contrary, the best users of the web right now are the people of anger and violence and hate.”
Mohammed Emwazi - Jihadi John - reached a global audience through terror videos
Asked if this meant the world was “on the cusp” of a new form of religion, he replied: “We are in very early days indeed.
“At the moment most of our responses have been dysfunctional.”
"The best users of the web right now are the people of anger and violence and hate,"
He added: “The history of Crusades and holy wars is not a happy history and none of us is free of that historic guilt.
“Jews, Christians, Muslims we have all had violent periods in our history.”
But he predicted that the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam would reach a greater understanding - echoing accommodations reached previously by different factions within Judaism and Christianity when they had recognised those they were fighting were fellow believers.
“This is undoubtedly going to happen within Islam in the 21st Century as Sunni and Shia realise that their primary victims are Muslims,” he said.
“They may be Muslims of a different kind but they are primarily Muslims.
“When faiths reach that realisation they say ‘this cannot be the way that God wants us to take’ and then they come up with a solution and it is always the same solution which is the formal or substantive separation between religion and power – not always between Church and State but always between religion and power.
“So we know that will be the solution within Islam but we’re not in sight of that yet, we are in very, very early days.”
He added that religions could learn from atheists and secularists.
“What the spirituality of secularism brings is a refusal to accept religious justification for suffering in the world, for hierarchy in the world, for exclusion in the world,” he said.