Tag Archives: Rabbi Sacks

Richard Dawkins should continue to speak his mind on Islam

As just about everyone will already know, Richard Dawkins has been causing quite a stir by his tweeting about Islam. The criticism is that Dawkins’s tweeting is “racist”, “xenophobic”, “Islamophobic”, “bigoted”, “dishonest”, “counterproductive”, and that it enables the racism of the likes of the EDL.

Let me admit that I’m ambivalent about Dawkins’s use of Twitter, I think he’d make a far better blogger than tweeter, and he comes off much better given sufficient words to explain himself and show his eloquence. But Dawkins is clearly enjoying himself and gathering an ever-increasing Twitter following. He’s also quite capable of defending himself when necessary.

It seems to me that the criticism of Dawkins stems largely from one of the oldest memes, that it is uncouth to criticise religion. If he were criticising, say, communism or capitalism in similar terms no-one would bat an eye. But when he criticises Islam people try their best to interpret his language as “racist” and thus unacceptable.

One complaint is that Dawkins’s language is “careless” in that his language can be “co-opted into a wider discourse that Islam is in a sort of clash of civilisations with the West”, or as another critic puts it “The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative”.

Well, I disagree. I hold the principle of secularism to be of the highest importance for a decent, functioning and progressive society. Indeed I would argue that a key reason underpinning the West’s current economic dominance is that the West accepts the separation of church and state, even in highly religious nations such as the USA. This principle of being able to speak freely and question everything is vital to the development of ideas that drive progress. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading