Chief Rabbi Sacks is thoroughly wrong on atheism

Is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks worth rebutting? Jerry Coyne has already done so, but Sacks is influential so let’s join in. Atheism has “failed” according to Jonathan Sacks, writing in The Spectator.

I love the remark made by one Oxford don about another: ‘On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.’ That sentence has more than once come to mind when reading the new atheists.

Well that’s nice, nothing like starting with a gratuitous insult! I hope he doesn’t think that we atheists find religious “thinkers” profound. (Oh look, I can do snark also.)

Future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true […] that the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards …

Does Sacks seriously think that any atheist actually thinks that by refuting literalist religion one can vanquish all religion. Does he really? Is that the superficial level of debate at which Sacks thinks? This is straw-manning, attacking a straw-man version of your opponents because you can’t deal with their actual beliefs.

Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists …

Oh it’s all there Rabbi Sacks! And much of it drives the ongoing and remarkable progress of science, which is pretty much atheistic nowadays. The fact that you fail to recognise intellectual depth in atheists is your limitation not theirs.

sacks

Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life …?

Well, how about this quote? Does it give “the remotest sense” that the writer has considered the “meaningfulness or otherwise of human life”?

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. — Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden

Let’s make one thing explicit, whether Rabbi Sacks likes an answer about the “meaningfulness” of human existence has nothing to do with whether it is true. The universe simply doesn’t care what Rabbi Sacks thinks, since the universe is not an entity capable of caring.

… the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, …

Come on, Rabbi, you’re not still hankering over objective morals are you? That one was surely settled long ago among thinking intellectuals.

Where is there the remotest sense that they [atheists] have grappled with … the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, …

Well, um, for example, noted atheist philosopher Dan Dennett has written about this extensively, in books such as Freedom Evolves. Doesn’t that one example alone (there are oodles of others) give some remote sense that atheists might have considered the issue? It is the religious who aren’t contributing anything to the discussion, but simply clinging to old falsehoods.

… and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?

Why sure we need shared social rituals, narratives and practices; humans are after all social animals! Where have atheists said we don’t need them? Straw-manning again? Surely, Mr Sacks, you don’t think that religion is the only possible form of ritual, narrative and shared practice?

A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society.

I admit that I had to look up the Latin. And I again note the condescension. When a religious “thinker” (sorry, retaliating again) doesn’t like an answer, but can’t actually rebut it, they tend to just pooh-pooh it, calling it school-boy level.

Religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his latter-day successors fail to grasp at all. Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality.

Right, now we’re getting to serious points. Sacks’ central assumption is so common and ubiquitous among the religious that it is worth rebutting — yet again. Sacks states, as though it were too obviously true to need supporting, that religion and religious morality are the foundation of Western civilisation.

He is simply wrong. The claim that people and society get their morals from religion is just wrong; rather, religions get their morals from people. Religion is simply a repository for the morals of the past generation.

How many of the Ten Commandments are in English law? Err, two (two and a half if you count lying in court). And those two (against murder and theft) are common to all law codes, including those pre-dating the Old Testament.

So for 1800 years Christians happily kept slaves: the church supported it; slave status was God’s ordained ordering; the church owned slaves itself in the Middle Ages and didn’t want them freed. Pulpits across the American South proclaimed slavery as God’s will, there for the benefit of the Negros. It was then largely religious non-conformists and free-thinkers who began to argue that it was wrong, in the teeth of opposition from the religious establishment.

Of course nowadays Christians re-write history and claim that the abolition of slavery was a Christian ideal. Well now it is a Christian ideal, because we have updated our morals to abhor slavery, and that update has now been assimilated into Christianity. But it certainly was not a Christian ideal for most of Christendom. Indeed, the New Testament tells slaves to submit to their masters!

In human freedoms, human rights, individual liberties, limitations on government, in the treatment of women, of children, of foreigners, of criminals, of the mentally ill, in all of these things today’s society is far more moral that at any time in the past, and that is because we are more secular and because we no longer look to religions to dictate morals.

We can readily abandon religion without fearing for morals, since morals will still be there, anchored in their true source — people.

Nowadays Christians are dragging up the rear in accepting moral advances such as the equality of those with different sexual orientations (kicking and screaming and whimpering “persecution” as they go).

And, by the way, Nietzsche was not “the greatest of all atheists”, he’s regarded as an historical irrelevance by most atheists today, few bothering to read him.

There are passages in his [Nietzsche’s] writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust. … Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.

Here Rabbi Sacks just gets nasty, godwinning his opponents. (In company with ex-Pope Ratzinger.) Sacks seems to suggest that an absence of moral ideals and moral constraints led to the Holocaust. Has he ever read Mein Kampf? The truth is the opposite, it was Nazi moralizing that led to the Holocaust, moralizing in a religious cause. Hitler believed that removing the Jews from society was God’s will, and that the higher morality of doing God’s will over-rode any consideration of the suffering caused to Jews.

It is simply a lie that totalitarian evil such as Hitler’s or Stalin’s arises from nihilism or lack of morals, it always arises from great moral conviction, from supreme confidence that the end is sufficiently morally right to justify the means. Nihilism would inspire only sitting around drinking beer and doing little.

Let’s not forget that, during the Third Reich, Germany was among the most Christian nations in Europe — far more religious than Europe is today — and that Nazi persecution of Jews built on a long tradition of Christian pogroms, killings and expulsions, and hatred of Jews back to Luther and before. The reason that German citizens were willing to turn on the Jews (or at least turn a blind eye) was because the Jews didn’t recognise the majority’s god.

Richard Dawkins … partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster.

Aha, sense from Rabbi Sacks at last (though the “partly” is a bit grudging). Why of course natural selection is not an ethic! Smallpox is very good at spreading itself, infecting people and killing them. It does not follow from that that it is good that smallpox infects and kills people. Dawkins understands that way better than religious people, who are suckers for the naturalistic fallacy, and who often need this explicitly pointing out to them.

But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer. They tend to argue that ethics is obvious, which it isn’t, or natural, which it manifestly isn’t either, and end up vaguely hinting that this isn’t their problem. Let someone else worry about it.

Eh? We stammer do we, or get vague? Ok, then, let’s see how straightforwardly I can put this. Atheists understand morality way better than Rabbi Sacks. Morality cannot come from gods, unless you are happy with arbitrary morality; that was understood thousands of years ago.

Where does morality comes from? From people! From people’s opinions and feelings. Why do humans have such feelings? Because humans occupy a highly social and cooperative ecological niche. And you can’t have social interaction and cooperation without mutual codes of conduct. All social mammals have such codes; monkeys and chimps have notions of acceptable and proper conduct, just as we do. Thus evolution has programmed us with a moral system, to enable social cooperation, just as it has programmed us with a digestive system, to enable us to eat, and an immune system, to resist infection.

This evolutionary understanding of our morals was developed decades ago and is now a commonplace. Is Sacks really so uneducated that he thinks that atheists are puzzled by morals?

The history of Europe since the 18th century has been the story of successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship, among them the nation state, race and the Communist Manifesto.

Here Sacks has a point, but he fails to learn the right lesson. The conclusion should be that elevating any of these things — gods, the state, race, ideologies — to a position of supremacy and worship is dangerous. If anything is regarded as a “god” then that can excuse any action in the service of that god. And that can lead to religious tyranny, or fascist tyranny, or communist tyranny.

Instead we should accept individual liberty — that one person’s gods and ideologies do not allow them to impose on others.

This is what a society built on materialism, individualism and moral relativism looks like.

Well you know what, Mr Sacks? I actually like today’s world. I’d much prefer to be a random citizen in Britain today than plonked down as a random citizen any time in the past, or at any time or place where religion had more sway, and had the muscle to impose itself. Do you look at highly religious places, say Pakistan or Iran, and pine to live there?

First, parents are more likely than they were to send their children to faith schools.

Well yes, but that’s because such “faith” schools are socially selective! It’s not the religious ethos that attracts, it’s the exclusion of the riff-raff, owing to the school being over-subscribed.

Our newly polarised culture is far less tolerant than old, mild Christian Britain.

Is it? Or is this the usual religious misuse of the term “tolerance”? Hint: not showing automatic deference to religion and not granting religious people special privileges is not “intolerance”, it is equality.

The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline.

You mean the Lucretius who lived 100 BC to 50 BC? Excuse me, but Roman civilisation was then on the up, it was over a century before Rome’s greatest extent, under Hadrian and Trajan, and four centuries before the first sack of Rome!

The barbarians win. They always do.

Err, no they don’t. Modern, rich, liberal, secular Europe and similar countries such as Canada and New Zealand are winning, and winning handsomely. Where would you rather live?

It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’

Well, that might actually be true. But only because — as it would be fairer to put it — there is no significant example before modern times of a society being non-religious. Sorry Rabbi Sacks, I like it here, I like it secular, and I like that the religious don’t like it!

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15 thoughts on “Chief Rabbi Sacks is thoroughly wrong on atheism

  1. Joe keysor

    I won’t try to respond to your whole post, but did want to comment on four points.
    (1) “So for 1800 years Christians happily kept slaves: the church supported it; slave status was God’s ordained ordering; the church owned slaves itself in the Middle Ages and didn’t want them freed.”
    Many Christians have never owned slaves and never supported slavery. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was in many ways very far removed from Christ and was a corrupt and wealthy power structure. Secondly, the officially secular and atheist Soviet Union enslaved far more people and far more cruelly and far more recently.
    (2) “It is simply a lie that totalitarian evil such as Hitler’s or Stalin’s arises from nihilism or lack of morals, it always arises from great moral conviction, from supreme confidence that the end is sufficiently morally right to justify the means.”
    Right, supreme confidence without God’s laws and without concern about heaven, hell, or a day of judgment, or the teachings of Christ. I’m glad you recognize the Hitler Stalin conviction. And don’t many secularists and atheists today believe that the end of their ideal society justifies the killing of millions of unborn babies? Oh, of course, they’re not really human, right? They come from people and turn into people but in between are just garbage.
    (3) “The truth is the opposite, it was Nazi moralizing that led to the Holocaust, moralizing in a religious cause. Hitler believed that removing the Jews from society was God’s will, and that the higher morality of doing God’s will over-rode any consideration of the suffering caused to Jews.”
    Hitler also believed that the higher evolutionary development of the human species was “god’s will.” He said the domination of Germany and the return of Austria to the Reich were “God’s will.” His concept of God was derived from German philosophy, not from the bible, in which he did not believe, as can easily be proven by many quotes from Mein Kampf.
    (4) “Let’s not forget that, during the Third Reich, Germany was among the most Christian nations in Europe — far more religious than Europe is today — and that Nazi persecution of Jews built on a long tradition of Christian pogroms, killings and expulsions, and hatred of Jews back to Luther and before. The reason that German citizens were willing to turn on the Jews (or at least turn a blind eye) was because the Jews didn’t recognise the majority’s god.”
    Read one single reputable history of the Weimar Republic (Germany between the two world wars) and tell me that was a Christian country. Germany was on the cutting edge of modernity and the churches were thoroughly marginalized. Many Germans claimed religious affiliation by culture and by infant baptism only.
    Also, centuries of traditional religious antisemitism never saw an attempt to exterminate all of the Jews. Hitler’s ideas emerged from 19th-century thinkers such as Lagarde, Gobineau, Fichte, and others. That the Jews were a threat to the master race, plotting to rule the world, subhuman vermin, was unheard of before the secular philosophies of the 19th century.
    Also, many Germans turned a blind eye because they did not want to be sent to a concentration camp, just as you yourself would turn a blind eye and say nothing if speaking out meant your being tortured and maybe even murdered. They didn’t speak out when many Germans, including friends and relatives were arrested for political offenses.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Joe, thanks for commenting.

      While (pre-emancipation) many Christians did indeed not personally hold slaves (few were rich enough to do so), Christians generally accepted slavery and very few Christians spoke against it for most of Christendom; and, further, the Bible condones it; and there is no account of Jesus speaking against it. Thus a rejection of slavery does not derive from Christianity.

      Yes, I fully recognise the ideological conviction of Stalin & Hitler and the slavery of their regimes. That is a point I make in the post, that any elevation of a theology or ideology to supreme importance is dangerous and often leads to totalitarian oppression.

      And don’t many secularists and atheists today believe that the end of their ideal society justifies the killing of millions of unborn babies

      No, I’ve never heard an atheist justify abortion as a means to “the end of their ideal society”. What is generally accepted (in the UK) is that an early-term developing foetus lacks the brain and mental development to be an aware, thinking, feeling being, and thus lacks “person hood”. That is not saying it is “garbage” or not human, just that it doesn’t have the “person hood” to have full human rights.

      Read one single reputable history of the Weimar Republic (Germany between the two world wars) and tell me that was a Christian country.

      First you’ll have to define a “a Christian country”. I suspect that you have quite a narrow conception of “true” Christianity that would exclude much that is commonly accepted as Christian (the Catholic Church through most of the Middle Ages for example).

    2. Gary Hill

      “Hitler also believed that the higher evolutionary development of the human species was “god’s will.”

      Shame on you Joe. This is a perfect example of the type of lies promulgated by fundamentalist Christians.

      The phrase ‘theory of evolution’ in modern German is ‘evolutionstheorie’, however, in Hitler’s day a number of terms could be applied to convey the general notion of biological evolution, for example, abstammungslehre, deszendenztheorie and abstammungstheorie. More specific terms would be Darwin’sche evolutionstheorie or die Darwinsche evolutionstheorie.

      NONE of these words appear in any of Hitler’s writings nor in any of his speeches.

      The term ‘entwicklung’ was commonly used by Hitler. Entwicklung translates as ‘development’, similar to the English usage, for example, ‘project development’, and it was commonly used in Hitler’s day with this type of meaning. Likewise the German word ‘höherentwicklung’, sometimes used in Nazi literature, can be translated as ‘higher development’.

      These words have been claimed (primarily by the Discovery Institute historian Richard Weikart) to demonstrate that the Nazis used Darwinian ideas. It does no such thing, for ‘höherentwicklung’ is most often applied in a philosophical sense, as in the ‘higher development’ of thought. The claim that Hitler’s repeated use of certain words translating simply as ‘development’ signifies his approval of Darwinian evolution is simply dishonest; there is NO known instance of Hitler ever using the root-word ‘entwicklung’ to convey the sense of biological evolution.

    3. fojap

      As someone who has had two abortions which enabled me be to an independent adult rather than chained in a relationship with an abusive man who forced me to have sex when I didn’t want to, I have to object to your characterization as embryos as “unborn babies.” The ability to control reproduction is essential to women being independent.

      Yes, I don’t know if I would use the word ideal society, but I want to live in a society where I’m not trapped in a horrible relationship because I can’t control my own reproduction. Would it be nice to be able to turn fertility on and off at will without unwanted side effects, yes. Until we can do so reliably, abortion will be a necessity.

      The ability to legally abort a three week old embryo was essential to my life. I shudder with horror to think of the life I would have otherwise had. It was probably to the advantage of the man as well. Years later he apologized for his treatment of me. He was young then and I do think he worked to become a better person and treat women better, something he only realized was necessary after I left him.

  2. fojap

    “I actually like today’s world.” Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. For all its faults, modernity sure beats just about everything that went before it.

    This is a very well argued essay, but I think you may have missed the point. I’m guessing at motivations here, of course, but I suspect that Saks would really most like to prevent people from reading works by the “new” atheists in the first place. Daniel Dennet does not make for easy reading and being assured that it will not reward the effort, that it’s superficial, will definitely make some people stop before finishing the first chapter. I don’t know if it’s the case in the U.K., but here in the U.S. there is an active concern about the number of young people of Jewish descent who don’t identify themselves as Jewish. It sounds to me that Saks isn’t arguing against you and me so much as he’s trying to convince his own people to stay in the fold. A large number of Jews that I personally know don’t really believe, but they continue to observe the forms of the religion out of some sense that there might be something valuable in the tradition.

    The argument about school, is ludicrous. It is primarily in the U.K. that this is happening due to some odd quirk of how you organize you schools there that I don’t pretend to understand. It’s not happening here in the U.S. outside of a few urban areas, despite our reputedly greater religious fervor. I don’t know to what extent it’s happening in other countries. My only close familiarity is with the system in Quebec, but, at the time I lived there, their public schools were religiously affiliated. They have since changed that.

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      I suspect that Sacks would really most like to prevent people from reading works by the “new” atheists in the first place […] and being assured that it will not reward the effort, that it’s superficial, will definitely make some people stop …

      That’s an interesting point, thanks!

  3. grasshopper

    “On the surface, he’s profound, but deep down, he’s superficial.”

    Fancy that, using a working definition of “Deepity” without an attribution to Daniel Dennett.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism and the naturalistic fallacy | coelsblog

  5. aljones909

    Are atheists just supposed to behave and pay proper respect to religion? Should we just stop pointing out how ridiculous it is? Is it an accident that the most secular nations on earth are, generally speaking, much better places to live than highly religious societies? I’m pretty sure that reducing unemployment would give better results for society than a return to god bothering. Regarding the comment from Will Durrant. He was raised a catholic, became an atheist then returned to catholicism ‘near the end’. I think the fierce grip of childhood indoctrination may never have left him fully.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Yes, Theos, secular law is both possible and desirable | coelsblog

    1. Coel Post author

      Hmm, are you referring to the article by Rabbi Sacks, or to my post? It would be clearer if you pointed out some examples of these “straw men and lies”.

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