Jonathan Sacks on Richard Dawkins: "New atheists lack a sense of humor"

Noted philosopher tells Salon atheism deserves better than new atheists, and how science and religion can get along

Published September 27, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Sacks, Richard Dawkins      (Reuters/Toby Melville/Chris Keane)
Jonathan Sacks, Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Toby Melville/Chris Keane)

Jonathan Sacks rarely goes by more than two titles. This might be taken as a form of modesty, because the man actually has three: one of them academic (a PhD in philosophy), one civil (a British life peer, Sacks sits in the House of Lords) and one religious (he’s an Orthodox rabbi). Is it Lord Rabbi Dr. Sacks? Dr. Lord Rabbi Sacks? I’ll leave that one to the copy editors, or perhaps to a committee on heraldry.

For 22 years, Sacks served as the British Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi, a role that made him the public face of Judaism for millions of Britons. The Chief Rabbi position doesn’t carry any theological weight, but it did put Sacks in the middle of conversations about interfaith relations and the role of religion in modern society. (The role also drew Sacks into the internecine squabbles of British Jewry, which he mostly seemed to aggravate).

Religion, politics and Jewish relations: not exactly dinner table conversation. Sacks stepped down from the Chief Rabbinate in 2013, but he clearly has a taste for contentious topics. In his most recent book, "The Great Partnership," which comes out in paperback this month, Sacks discusses science, religion and the pitfalls of hard-line atheism. His argument is not that science and religion are perfectly compatible. Instead, Sacks suggests that no single system of knowledge can engage the world entirely. The result is a moderate’s manifesto; a lengthy, erudite defense of what Sacks calls “cognitive pluralism.”

I reached Sacks by phone in New York, where he holds professorships at NYU and Yeshiva University. We spoke about Richard Dawkins, the relationship between religion and politics, and why there are so few Jewish creationists.

You write that “the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age.” What’s made this relationship so fraught?

There was a time when the church felt it could censure truths that it felt to be inconsistent with its own deeply held beliefs. Now it’s as if it were almost a mirror image. Science is claiming a monopoly of knowledge, and thus some scientific atheists are intent on depriving religion of any cognitive status. I think this has been a swing of a pendulum, and I think it has more to do with power than with intellectual integrity.

In a recent interview, Richard Dawkins described you as very nice, but he said that attacking you was “like attacking a wet sponge.” Why does Dawkins have such trouble with your arguments?

Because Richard, who is a brilliant scientist, thinks that morality is a simple matter. Oh, we’ll get a few scientists and we’ll work out what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. And quite frankly, the whole history of humankind has borne testimony to the fact that we may quite reasonably know what is the right thing to do. Actually getting people to do the right thing is the hardest thing on earth. I really admire Richard Dawkins’ work within his field, but when he moves beyond his field, he must understand that we may feel that he’s talking on a subject in which he lacks expertise.

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean. And I think the people who spend their lives taking things apart to see how they work sometimes find it difficult to understand the people who put things together to see what they mean.

I think there’s an important distinction to be made here, though, between science and reductionism. Plenty of scientists put together grand theories of the universe, or study things like emergence. They aren’t only taking things apart.

I’m thinking about the reductivists. That’s really what a number of these atheists are. They believe in science, but they believe that science is all there is. And that’s just wrong. To me, science has religious significance in a sense, because it allows us to see the world as the work of God, and I think it’s probably no accident that science grew up in cultures that were essentially Judeo-Christian.

In your book, you trace science-and-religion disputes back to the difference between Greek philosophy and early Jewish thought.  

The Greeks were very visual. They saw knowledge as a kind of seeing. We still carry all those metaphors with us: insight, foresight. And that’s what science is, really. The truth that you can see empirically by your senses, especially the sense of sight. Whereas ancient Israel, and Judaism in general, is a religion of the ear, and the fundamental truth is the truth you hear. It’s much more concerned with language, and with language as a means of creating relationships and establishing bonds of trust.

The primal, basic scientific situation is where I am observing some phenomenon. The basic religious situation is where I am engaging with another person or personal being. Those are two mindsets. I think we need both. Judaism was an extreme example of one, and Greece is the other. Historically, they came together in Christianity.

Why do so few Jews take issue with the theory of evolution, while creationism is common among Christians?

I think Christians tended to think that religion and science were part of the same universe of discourse. So they assumed that the Bible was telling us scientific stuff, as well as moral and spiritual stuff. Whereas Jews don’t read the Bible that way.

I mean, look how much time the Bible spends in describing creation: 34 verses. It spends 600 verses describing how the Israelites constructed the Tabernacle. Genesis 1 is not remotely thinking about being science. It’s clear that the first chapter of the Bible is teaching us about the goodness of the world, not about the cosmo-genesis of the world.

Reading your book, I often felt as if you were asking Western society to become a little more Jewish, or to think a little bit more Jewishly.

Well, I’m just saying that sometimes a religion — and Judaism happens to be mine — embodies a truth that we may have forgotten for a while. There’s nothing in Judaism that’s hostile to science. I think we are great admirers of it, and the Talmud has here and there a little note of real admiration for the Greeks, and for their ability to think scientifically.

In the past few years, there’s been a tendency to compare the New Atheists to certain fundamentalist religious groups. Is that a worthwhile comparison? Do you think that, when you look at the extremes of religiosity and scientism, you see a kind of kinship?

A fundamentalist is somebody who can’t really understand a point of view opposite to his own. He can’t really hear in stereo, he can’t really see 3-D. Whereas a really great scientist like Niels Bohr will say that the opposite of a superficial truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is very often another profound truth. Niels Bohr really got it. But some of today’s atheists don’t get it. They know that science is a profound truth, but they can’t understand that something opposite can also be a profound truth.

You write that “atheism deserves better than the new atheists.” What kind of thinkers do atheists deserve? Is there a type of atheism that our society needs?

Well, you know, Bertrand Russell was an atheist with a sense of humor. And the new atheists tend either to lack a sense of humor, or the only humor they’re capable of is sarcasm. I mean, somebody with a little intellectual humility does not say, “Anyone who disagrees with me is stupid.” That is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the attempt to impose a single truth on the plural world.

There’s no question, Nietzsche was the greatest of all atheists. Because it wasn’t just that he didn’t believe in God, he tried to understand what is at stake in the belief or disbelief in God. His fundamental value was the will to power. So I think right now, for instance, if we’re looking at the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, I think that is a desecration of religion, and they are really Nietzscheans. Because religion can mutate into idolatry really quite easily.

As a religious person, how do you respond to a situation that feels as intractable as what’s going on right now with ISIS?

ISIS represents a brand of religion gone wrong in the most devastating way. I speak in the book about the three most serious ways in which religion can go wrong. Number one is what I call dualism, this division of humanity into the redeemed or the saved. The second thing is when a religion becomes confused with the will to power. Judaism and Christianity were the first civilizations to separate religion from power. A religion can go wrong when it mistakes the quest for God for the search for power, the will to power.

And the third, very dangerous indeed, is when religion attempts to bring the end of time in the middle of time. When religion becomes apocalyptic. All those three things come together in the Middle East right now, in ISIS.

I want to go a bit deeper into this relationship between religion and power. In your writing, you’ve made it clear that you believe individuals can be good without God. But you argue that societies can’t thrive without religion. So, for you, religion must play some role in politics, right?

Religion creates communities, and communities are essential for the moral life. They’re not essential for individuals, but they’re essential for any group cohesion.

But in terms of politics, I make a very strong distinction between state and society. The first person to see this really clearly was Alexis de Tocqueville when he came to America. He was coming to a country where he understood there was separation of church and state, and he assumed that in a country where religion had no power, it would have no influence either. He discovered it had enormous influence. And he called it the first of American political institutions. Now what he meant by that is religion strengthened society, but it kept out of the state.

There’s been a seeming politicization of religion in the United States, especially since the 1970s, with movements such as the Moral Majority. Is there something about the modern world that pushes political leaders into the religious sphere, or that pushes religious leaders to become more overtly political?

Well, I think when religious leaders feel like religion is being ousted from the public domain and their voice is being unheeded, then they tend to react. I guess, in America, religious leaders felt in the ’70s that they were being marginalized. And anyone who feels marginalized will want to make his or her presence known. But do I think it’s healthy for American society? No. However, America remains a much, much more religious society than any nation in Europe.

I’m sure you’ve been monitoring the uptick in anti-Semitic incidents in France, and to a lesser extent in Britain. What’s going on in Europe?

Yes, I’ve been monitoring it for a very long time. In late 2007 I went to see Angela Merkel and José Manuel Barroso to warn them that this was going to happen throughout Europe. I’d seen it coming. I didn’t expect it. It’s the last thing I expected to see in my lifetime.

You will certainly see anti-Semitism on the rise whenever there are major, major disorienting shifts in the economy. When there are profound technological changes, when the world seems to be changing faster than we can bear. Anti-Semitism consists essentially of a response to a world that we can no longer understand.

As a rabbi today, you’re responding to a world that’s very different from that in which Jewish tradition originated. How can traditions adapt to a changing world without becoming reactionary or violent?

I see religion as my GPS. Is that what it’s called? Or satellite navigation system. If you’ve got a really good satellite navigation system, you’re not afraid to make a journey into a country where you’ve never been before.

Traditional values, or traditional notions of justice, aren’t always in agreement with each other. Today, same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships are one of the major areas where this is the case. What happens when different conceptions of justice collide?

That’s a good question, and I think we’ll see it differently depending on the nature of our tradition. As far as I’m concerned, the really crucial issue is the distinction between what religion prescribes to its followers — those who voluntarily are part of that community of faith — and what religion seeks to have enacted as legislation.

I think Judaism has always been a very man-woman-child oriented religion. It’s a family-based religion. It confers enormous sanctity and even metaphorical weight on the concept of a marriage. Marriage is a sacred covenant. At the same time, we can see it’s not the morality of a lot of people out there. I certainly don’t think the best way of dealing with same-sex relationships is to ban them by force of law. I think you have to have a nuanced approach to this.

So a religious voice can state a particular value but shouldn’t necessarily legislate that value?


You often talk about honoring multiple perspectives on the world, whether those are religious perspectives or scientific ones. This can sound very postmodern, even relativistic. But you’re an Orthodox rabbi, writing from within a traditional context.

I don’t think we’ve fully understood the centrality of the concept of covenant in Judaism. Covenant happens when very diverse people come together, each respecting the freedom and integrity of the other, and agree to work together to achieve what neither of us could achieve alone. Once you focus on covenant, you begin to realize there can be many covenants. There’s one I have with my nation, one I have with my religion; there’s one I have with fellow academics, one I have with fellow rabbis.

At the end of the day, you can’t sit down and develop a knockdown, logical proof that it’s better to be free than to be a slave, but you can, by bonding together in covenant with other people, work toward a world where slavery — far from being taken for granted — is seen to be unacceptable and against our most basic concept of human dignity.

I think the West has grown up with a different concept of truth, this photographic concept of truth. Either your picture corresponds with reality, or it doesn’t. It’s yes or no. There are no two ways about it. And Judaism says, “Yes, I can be in one world together with my family, and another when I’m in synagogue, and so on.” That’s not relativism. It’s just the fact that there are multiple covenants.

By Michael Schulson

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