Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism and the naturalistic fallacy

Writing about the Chief Rabbi’s recent attack on atheism has led me to reading more of his writings. His article in The Times from 2010, proposing a “refutation” of the “New Atheists”, is not recent, but it reveals so clearly a flaw common in religious thought that it is worth a rebuttal.

The religious often accuse atheists of their own worst faults. For any biases or misunderstandings that are common among the religious, one can be sure that they will attribute the very same to atheists. And, as I said in my previous post on Rabbi Sacks, the religious are suckers for the naturalistic fallacy. They readily leap from “this is the case” to “it must be good that this is the case”.

Indeed, Abrahamic theology requires them to make the leap, since they believe in a god that is omni-good, omni-wise and omni-capable; thus anything and everything must be their god’s will, and thus it must be good. Much theology is an exercise in scheming up reasons why a good god would have created the universe as we see it.

So steeped are the religious in this way of thinking that they attribute the same to atheists and scientists. If, for example, they see Dawkins arguing that genes are selfish, they interpret him as lauding selfishness as a good thing. If they see Dawkins writing that our surrounding universe is one of “blind, pitiless indifference” they then regard atheism as heartless and nihilistic. They do not draw the conclusion that humanist atheists actually draw, that since there are no gods to look out for us, then humans need to look out for each other. To the religious, human morals and empathy could not arise from humanity, but can only exist as an echo of a much greater love and morality embodied in a god.

So to Rabbi Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism, which he regards as “worth genuine reflection”. It goes like this:

The first point: if you are a Darwinian, what matters is reproductive success. The rest is mere froth. Forget God, faith and the other relics of a believing age. We are here to pass on our genetic heritage to the next generation. A person is just a gene’s way of making another gene. The bottom line is reproduction.

From there he notes that the most secular countries (such as Europe) have lower birth-rates, whereas more religious countries have higher birth-rates. This he sees as a contradiction to the Darwinian imperative, and thus as a “refutation” of “new atheism”, which he regards as “based on neo-Darwinism”. He says that atheists should want as any people as possible to be religious, since that would increase birth rates.

Rabbi Sacks with Benedict

Perhaps Rabbi Sacks has some inkling of his glaring error, since he follows this by saying: “This sounds like an intellectual joke, and so it is”, though he then insists that “at its heart … is a serious proposition”.

Rabbi Sacks’s above paragraph is the naturalistic fallacy in bucket loads. From the point of view of understanding Darwinian evolution, what matters is indeed reproductive success. That explains why we are here, the mechanism by which we evolved over eons. For evolution the bottom line is indeed reproduction.

But why should any of that matter to us, to what we want for ourselves? We are conscious, deliberating agents with our own aims and our own desires. What on Earth makes Rabbi Sacks think that we are under some obligation to follow a Darwinian mechanism?

What makes him think that, of course, is religion. In Abrahamic thought we owe a duty to our creator; moral good consists of fulfilling that creator’s will; and it is good, indeed imperative, that our aims match those of our creator.

By mixing Abrahamic and Darwinian thought, Rabbi Sacks produces the horrible mish-mash ill-logic of his “refutation”. Regardless of the fact that we are products of Darwinian evolution, regardless of the fact that this explains why we have thoughts and feelings and desires, there is no reason whatsoever why we “should” or “ought to” adopt evolutionary “goals” for ourselves.


And “goals” there is in commas since evolution has no goals, no morality, no concerns, it is the playing out of blind forces. It is we who have goals and concerns, and we are autonomous moral agents who can judge what is morally good for ourselves.

If we decide to have fewer children in order to preserve time for ourselves, in order to value each child more, in order to give each a higher standard of living, and in order to prevent over-load on Earth’s resources, then that’s up to us. The fact that this is not maximising reproductive success and thus not “Darwinian” matters not one hoot. Who would it matter to? Evolution is not a conscious entity that cares! Sacks is hopelessly confused, unable to think except in terms of a god or a god-substitute.

Sacks then continues, suggesting that our only reason for having children is that they matter to God:

It takes faith to have a child […] faith that we are here for a purpose […] Those who deny that there is any such meaning rob us of any compelling reason to undergo the many sacrifices that having and raising children inevitably entail.

I’m baffled at how Rabbi Sacks managed to start by attributing to atheists the idea that having lots of children is the only thing that matters, and from there segues into the opposite idea that atheism robs us of any reason to have children!

What is wrong with the idea that we have children because we want them, and that the number that we have is something that we can decide in our interests and in theirs? — not in the “interests” of evolution and not in the interests of any god.


3 thoughts on “Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s “refutation” of atheism and the naturalistic fallacy

  1. Susan

    “I suspect that Saks would really most like to prevent people from reading works by the “new” atheists in the first place.”

    I also found this comment left on the last thread interesting. I’m now reading everything the godbots say as if they are preaching to the faithfully rather than trying to engage the non religious in a meaningful debate. It does make a difference, the two paragraphs you’ve highlighted now seem as if they are designed just to put people off not believing than they are a genuine attempt at “refutation of the New Athiestim”.

  2. fojap

    A great explanation.

    The inability of religious people to truly see how other people view the world is mind-boggling. Evidently, atheists have children. Many of my non-religious friends and acquaintances are of East Asian descent, frequently Chinese, and they have children. Neither of my parents believed in god, yet they adopted two children. My mother frequently describes it as the most selfish thing she’s ever done. Why they did it might be an interesting question, but a belief in god is not among the answers. Listing all the atheists with children I know is a patently silly task, so I’ll stop with my parents.

    I followed the link and read Rabbi Saks’ post. You pay him a compliment he doesn’t deserve by taking the time to argue with him.

    The problems with that very short post are legion. France has the highest birthrate in Europe, I believe. Is it the most religious? Most people attribute it to their family friendly social policies. Furthermore, why should we be concerned that the birth rate in Europe is declining? Are we concerned about world wide under-population? Personally, I’m more worried about the possibility of massive suffering (both human and non-human) as a result of climate change. The problem of the human race dwindling to nothing as a result of not breeding seems a far-off eventuality at best. Seeing that, a couple hundred years ago, Europeans overflowed Europe and have since populated a couple of other continents, I’m not even worried about people of European descent dwindling.

    Has anyone actually met the sort of “neo-Darwinian” he talks about? He goes beyond arguing with a straw man and makes up an entirely fictional opponent. That a couple of people who have written books about atheism happen to be biologists by training doesn’t make a “neo-Darwinianism” a real philosophical position.

    “There’s a famous African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. It could equally be said that it takes faith to have a child in the first place….” Since I believe the rabbi does know how babies are conceived, I can guess that he is being dishonest. Again, I just have to look around me to see that faith has nothing to do with it. I, myself, was born to a working class family in the American South who drop babies with about as much concern as dogs, to be frank about it. Their behavior was perfectly functional in an agrarian society with abundant natural resources, but they haven’t adapted their reproductive behavior to the modern world. At least, that’s my interpretation of it. They’re mostly nominally Baptists and Methodists, but generally they’re not religious and don’t really care.

    Sorry if the comment’s too long. Sometimes I start writing and forget myself.


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