Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi, recently published an article in The Spectator (including its online version) entitled ‘Atheism Has Failed: Only Religion Can Defeat The New Barbarism’. You can read it here.
The first few paragraphs of this piece seek to categorise the writings and musings of the ‘New Atheists’ (itself a pejorative term with no validity except amongst those who choose to sneer and denigrate rather than engage in rational debate) as lacking the profundity of earlier atheist thinkers and philosophers. In particular, Sacks seems keen to contrast the works of ‘seemingly intelligent secularists’ with Nietzsche, possibly a surprising bedfellow for the Chief Rabbi.
His main concern at this early point in the article is that modern atheist thinkers ignore ‘real issues’ and unintelligibly concentrate on seeking to disprove the validity of a literal interpretation of Genesis. In so doing, he argues, the level of debate on important matters has been reduced to that of a ‘school debating society’. He implies that modern-day secularists just do not ‘get’ religion and “there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving?”
In addition, Sacks agrees wholeheartedly with Nietzsche’s view that a loss of religion will lead to the breakdown of the fabric of society. “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,” he says.
The thrust of his opening gambit is thus that without Judeo-Christian morality, there can be no moral framework to support the maintenance of a just and moral society and that modern atheist thinkers not only ignore this issue but demonstrably are unable to answer the questions raised by it. “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.”
Apart from the tone of sneering disrespect that peppers the article, which the above quotation exemplifies, it is also laced with such a preponderance of ‘straw men’ that Sacks could set up business as a second-hand scarecrow dealer.
To begin with, of course, the argument over the literal interpretation of the bible is merely a side issue for modern atheist thinkers like Dennett, Dawkins, Harris and the now sadly departed Christopher Hitchens. It has been brought to prominence by the rather bizarre, but nonetheless dangerous, drift in American politics towards a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as a means of promoting such things as anti-abortion legislation and the teaching of ‘Intelligent Design’ in the science classroom. For Sacks to categorize the work of the above atheists and others in such a one-dimensional way is, at the least, slapdash and tends to suggest that he has either not read the authors in question or has deliberately chosen to misrepresent the bulk of what they have written. Given one must assume that the Chief Rabbi would not dream of flirting with misrepresentation, one can only conclude that his views are the result of ignorance.
In particular, the rather fatuous complaint that ‘new atheists’ run away from the question of what the non-religious root of morality might be, ignores not only the significant contributions on the subject by Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens in their mainstream works but also a complete book by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) that deals with the point specifically and in depth.
Moving on to Nietzsche, Sacks conveniently ignores the fact that simply to agree with a great thinker and assert that losing Christianity will lead to the loss of Christian morality and its replacement by ‘the law of nature’ does not make any such assertion true. There is no empirical evidence that supports such a contention. Indeed, the most economically unequal, most crime-ridden and most discriminatory countries in the world are the most religious – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, USA, much of South America, a large tranche of Africa. On the other hand, the nations that have the greatest levels of equality and the lowest crime rates are the most secular. This is not to say that there is a definitive negative correlation between religion and morality, of course, but Sacks needs to address the obvious questions raised by the known statistics.
In any event, the very assertion that Judeo-Christian morality is something to be striven for is, in itself, without merit. The Ten Commandments, for example, do not outlaw child abuse, slavery, rape and many other immoral acts. The Old Testament provides us with a God intent on genocide and the promotion of rape, incest, fratricide, slavery and other such horrors. I commend to you the first paragraph of chapter two of The God Delusion (Dawkins) for a truly memorable and highly accurate description of the Abrahamic deity.
We have several demonstrations of how the morality of Christianity works in the United States at present, at the very time Sacks was penning his piece. To take just one example, several Republican controlled states, motivated by religious fervour, have passed laws forcing women who seek an abortion to have invasive ultrasound examinations, whether the woman consents or not, whether her doctor sees it as medically necessary or not and without exception, even for cases of conception through rape or incest. Indeed, Republicans at the national level have introduced other anti-female legislation into Congress. I challenge Sacks to defend the morality of such legislation.
We have examples of how the morality of Judaism works too. Israel fails to abide by United Nations resolutions and allows the spread of illegal settlements to the physical and emotional detriment of the occupied Palestinians. Where, Chief Rabbi, is the morality in this behavior?
The list is endless – the Catholic Church would rather the continuing spread of AIDS over the use of condoms in Africa; the same organization prefers to protect its priests rather than abused children. The disease is not confined to Judeo-Christian culture; apostasy in the Muslim world can bring death; writing a book can lead to a fatwa.
Before Sacks can seek to claim that the demise of a religiously-based morality would be detrimental to human society, whichever religion might be its source, he first of all has to demonstrate that there is such a thing as a religious moral framework and, specifically, what it consists of; he has to show that the term ‘religious morals’ is, in reality, not simply oxymoronic.
If these were the only criticisms they would be enough to consign the article to the intellectual dustbin, but there is more. Sacks moves on to claim that modern European history is the story of “successive attempts to find alternatives to God as an object of worship” and implies that the two world wars were a direct result of this.
Given that this article fails at any substantial level to identify that anti-Semitism has its roots in religious teaching rather than it being a product of attempts at secularisation, the whole edifice is built on such weak foundations that his arguments have no prospect of standing firm. The world did not need Nietzsche to introduce or modify the idea; it has been a substantial part of Christian ideology from the outset.
To identify the Second World War as some form of secularist attempt to replace God is simplistic and naïve. Hitler was a Catholic, from which faith he would have learnt the basics of anti-Semitism from the cradle, and his ‘final solution’ is nothing more than the logical conclusion, as he would have seen it, of the anti-Semitic teachings of his faith which, if one reads his written works, remained heavily influential in his formative thinking. What is more, he was supported by the Catholic Church throughout (on the basis that it could see nothing wrong with his inherent anti-Semitism, presumably) and he has never been excommunicated. His concepts of racial purity and racial politics are direct descendants of his Catholic ideology.
There are so many fallacious points in this article it is hard to know where to move next. He quotes historian Will Durant as saying: ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’ Firstly, one cannot just take that ‘on faith’. As stated above, perhaps the Chief Rabbi would like to examine and compare the crime statistics of the least religious communities in the world, say Scandinavia or other parts of northern Europe, with those of the self-proclaimed most religious. At the same time, he might like to consider the disparity between the rich and the poor in these same places. Equally, he might like to tell us where there is a ‘significant example in history’, before our time or during it, of a society successfully maintaining moral life WITH the aid of religion!
Towards the beginning of his piece Sacks says, “Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?” This is somewhat ironic considering the paucity of intellectual rigour his own article demonstrates. It also reinforces the suggestion that he has never properly read anything written by Christopher Hitchens, whose erudition surpassed anything the Chief Rabbi is ever likely to produce.
He began his article by saying, “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.” Sadly, if this piece is a mark of the quality of his intellectual arguments, the Chief Rabbi has himself yet to escape ‘surface superficiality’.