Addressing Atheism—Jonathan Sacks: The Great Partnership

In January 2009 the British Humanist Association paid for an advertisement to be carried on the side of London buses as above. Perhaps the biggest consequence of this action is that it seems to have been the catalyst for the former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks to write an extraordinary book: The Great Partnership. It is for this reason that I will be eternally grateful to them.

Sacks seems to have been incensed by the poor logic of the statement "because it raised the greatest of all existential choices: How shall we live our lives? By probability? Or by possibility?" (p. 267).

Lord Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from September 1991 until this year. He was educated at Cambridge where he obtained first class honours in philosophy. He went on to gain a PH.D in 1981 and rabbinic ordination from Jews' College and Yeshiva Etz Chaim. He also holds 14 honorary degrees including a Doctor of Divinity conferred by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lord Sacks is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, which is where I, perhaps, first came to love him. His regular brief injections of wisdom consistently resonated with me and caused me to sit up and take notice as to their source. He is a regular contributor to radio, television and writes a monthly Credo column for the Times newspaper.

I became really interested in what the former Chief Rabbi had to say after a radio programme called In Search of God in which the horribly arrogant presenter John Humphrys talked to leading academics in the three Abrahamic religions about his unfulfilled desire to believe in God. Humphrys spoke with Tariq Ramadan, Dr. Rowan Williams (who I like, but who I thought was rubbish on this) and Lord Sacks, who was brilliant! This is no longer available on the BBC website, but there are several articles on line such as this one.

More recently, I listened to a discussion chaired by Andrew Marr between Lord Sacks, the Cosmologist Lisa Randall and the biologist and rabid atheist Richard Dawkins, where they discussed God & science (the discussion is still available on BBC iPlayer here). I didn't feel that Lord Sacks did as well against Dawkins here, but largely because Dawkins wasn't listening, or engaging at all with the ideas the Chief Rabbi was proposing. It was using this programme that I discovered the Lord Sacks had a new book out; extraordinarily, Andrew Marr stated that this book was, in fact, the most convincing argument he had heard for the existence of God. Ever hungry for new perspectives on belief, I rushed out and promptly purchased it!

I was not disappointed. Despite the slightly quirky, 70's intellectual looking cover of the book, its contents abound with Sacks' customary grace and fluidity. The fact that he is able to explain complex ideas with such simplicity speaks to his deep understanding of the issues. The book benefits from a sensible structure which links together strands of the author's argument, ending in a powerful conclusion: Epilogue: Letter to a Scientific Atheist. which takes the points he has makes in the book and focuses their power on the arguments of the New Atheists, demolishing them utterly. In fact the argument for value and even necessity of religious belief used by Sacks is so comprehensive, encompassing revelation, history, philosophy, politics, nature, invention...(I could go on), that it seems New Atheism is nothing more than a petulant childish idea which demonstrates ignorance of everything except its own field of scientific expertise, through which it squints at the world with sceptical eyes, completely missing the point of the whole gamut of human experience.

The book is in three main sections:

I: God and the Search for Meaning.
In this section, Sacks sets out his basic premise: 'Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.' He proffers the idea that human beings are a meaning seeking animal; in fact, this is what makes us unique. The universe does not come emblazoned with its purpose, investigating it has taken much thought, centuries of time, wisdom, and humility. Science forms an essential part of this endeavour as it deals in explanation. Meaning, however, is always a matter of interpretation and belongs to the same territory as ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics. Sacks demonstrates the similarities between ancient philosophies promulgated by the Epicureans  and the New Atheism, maximise pleasure and minimise risk, a sane response to a universe without meaning. But also the symptom of a society in advanced decline. Individuals can live without meaning. Societies in the long run cannot.

The Chief Rabbi links science and religion with two distinct activities of the mind. Science he links with the left hemisphere of the brain: analytical, linear, atomistic, and mechanical. Religion he links with the right hemisphere; strong on empathy and emotion, able to read situations and moods. Religion, the empathic, right-sided function, is like the Eastern culture and writing which gave birth to the Bible, an 'anthology of arguments' which constitute the history of a people trying to understanding the meaning of being. Science is left-sided, like the Greeks who worshipped human reason and gave the world philosophy and science; breaking down the human experience in an attempt to understand its component parts. It is the meeting of these two divergent ways of looking at being, in Lord Sack's estimation, which led to a western culture which felt it could prove or disprove the existence of God through a combination of science and philosophy. Basically this is all a mistake. God doesn't work like that, we know Him through the covenants (promises) we make and honour, through our relationships and what they mean, through the bonds of loyalty and mutual responsibility we share. The Bible teaches us that all human beings are made equal; we are all created in what we Christians call the imago Dei; the image of God. This was radical, because it meant that for the first time in history, sanctity was conferred on the human individual as such, regardless of class, caste, colour or creed, as God's image and likeness, God's beloved. From this point, Sacks really shows his class, wrapping what he has given us in the reality of historical lessons, and demonstrating how our abandonment of faith has devastating and demonstrable repercussions we can review through properly understanding the thinking that leads us there.

II: Why it Matters
I think this is the section of the book that impressed me most of all. I found it challenging, yet lucid, presenting ideas that demand further study and forcing me to think in new ways about society, politics and the choices we make. Sacks show us what happens if we follow the Atheist down the rabbit hole. There's no Wonderland at the end, that's for sure. His argument is seductive and his conclusions are rather difficult to dismiss, as he demonstrates each point with factual evidence.

When society removes religious faith from its experience, the first thing we witness is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life, contrary to the announcement of the new order that it will, in fact, enhance human dignity. Abortion & euthanasia herald the ultimate phase of a process which ultimately results in human life becoming disposable.

Secondly, we witness a political change wherein the state becomes a supplier of services in return for tax, and parties vie on the basis of offering either a better service or a lower cost. The moral dimension of citizenship dissolves and society ceases to be a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good.

Thirdly, we recognise a loss of morality. Words that once meant a great deal begin to lose their force—words like duty, obligation, honour, integrity, loyalty, and trust.

Finally, we lose marriage. Relationships in a secular society are no longer consecrated. They become multiple forms of friendship which can break and reconfigure without too much emotional distress. Fewer marry, and men especially, have less connection with their children, and the bonds across the generations weaken. From this point of diagnosis, Sacks takes us on a whistle stop tour of the philosophy that has led us to this position, quoting Nietzche, who predicts humanity rolling faster and faster away from the centre...And toward a piercing sensation of our nothingness. Sacks draws a parallel from this idea of our being nothing more than an animal, an organism among organisms (a shocking loss of dignity) and contrasts it to the heights of human achievement, to the beauty and grandeur of the Renaissance, driven by a human sense of possibility. Sacks asks why it is that the higher human achievements become, the lower the human self-image sinks?

Now Sacks boldly links the philosophical self-deprecation he has documented with the atrocities of the Holocaust, citing a clear link between this, and Darwinism, on which Hitler explicitly relied in order to justify his programme of eugenics and infanticide. Sacks traces this philosophical and intellectual roots of Naziism which were provided by Nietzche and Schopenhauer and demonstrates how prescient the thought of Nietzche and Heinrich Heine was when they predicted that something like the Holocaust was bound to happen once Christian ethics lost their power, when people could no longer hear the divine 'Thou shalt not'. This is what Sacks fears most. This is what we stand to lose. No secular morality withstood Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. No secular morality today has the force to withstand the sustained onslaught of ruthless religious extremism. Sacks does not claim that the Judeo-Christian ethic is the only way of structuring a society and ordering life, but he does argue that it is the only way that has succeeded in the ling run in the West, the only way that has given rise to the scientific and industrial revolutions, parliamentary democracy and liberty of conscience, the only system that has combined strong individualism with a social conscience and a highly active civil society. The argument is that if this ethic is eradicated from our society, we stand to lose our fundamental sense of human dignity, our distinctive politics of the common good, our morality of obligation and responsibility, our respect for marriage and parenthood as covenantal bond, and our best hope for a meaningful life.

III: Faith and its Challenges.
In the third section, Sacks addresses some common complaints against religion. I feel from this section of the book that he shares my perspective that these are more excuses than real objections. Sacks considers the perennial problem of evil as well as how we think about people committing evil in the name of religion. His third premise concerns Darwinism, the argument concerning which, he suggests, merely mis-represents the relationship between faith and reason. It is an articulation of the Promethean myth: the universe is hostile to humanity, knowledge and its pursuit are dangerous, even sinful. God does not want us to know. Of course, as every Catholic knows, the complete opposite of this is, in fact, the case. This is why the Church has gone to great lengths to educate the poor. Why Catholics invented the scientific method, why many of the greatest scientific discoveries in history were made by Catholics (often priests; e.g. Mendel, Lemaitre, et al).

Georges Lemaitre, father of the Big Bang Theory with Albert Einstein.
Sacks offers a lucid account of the Jewish tradition's part in the pursuit of knowledge and confronts Richard Dawkins' statements head-on with a nuanced argument that, frankly, makes Dawkins objective appear child-like in their simplicity and hugely un-informed. Sacks draws on a plethora of sources, drawing them all together to demonstrate the obvious truth of the inherent meaning of life against Darwinism's attempt to reduce the miracle of humanity to the merely mundane. Sacks attempts to replace this narrow dialogue with a far more nourishing one. Not 'how does Darwinism refute religion?' but what light can each shed on the other? What insights can we glean from consider each perspective? Sacks explains that God is in fact a gardener, not a mechanic. The interaction between God and humanity in the Bible confers a sense of Darwinian evolution, as many scholars I have studied the Bible with have remarked. The idea that in some sense the findings of science in the past two hundred years—whether in cosmology, quantum physics, the theory of relativity, Darwinian evolution, genetics and the mapping of the genome, or PET scans and the working of the brain—challenge religious understanding of the universe is an absurdity. What we know from revelation is that it took 13.7 billion years before the first human turned his or her thoughts beyond the physical universe and, searching for God, found God searching for us.

Rabbi Sacks also gives a thorough treatment to the question of evil, which he considers the deepest question of which a failure to take it seriously is to fail to be serious at all. It is the question of questions and it requires nothing less than total honesty. Sacks starts from the Biblical canon and demonstrates how the Bible, far from dodging the issue actually maximises the question at seemingly every possible opportunity. The people who challenge divine justice are not heretics and sceptics in the Bible. Rather they are the supreme heroes of the faith. Sacks now presents an anthology of thought; ways of considering the question. Reverting to his left-brain/ right-brain study, he suggests we not start from the world we would have, if we could remake it the way we think it should be, but rather consider the world we actually have. Within this world, the religious mind seeks meaning, not explanation. In the Bible we find this clearly illustrated; a whole literature of lament, grief, protest. Much of it written in tears.

In the face of unutterable grief, Sacks considers there are three responses. The first considers heaven, but suggests that it does not provide a complete answer. The second considers the value of suffering; without pain, there is no gain.However this does not offer any sort of justification for suffering. The third says there is no God, no justice, therefore no judge. Yet the reality of the Judeo-Christian tradition deals with this by strongly protesting against the evil we encounter in the world.

Evil exists because we exist as free beings in a physical world with all the accidents of matter and the pain of mortality. God is not the solution to the contradiction of the existence of evil, but the call to a journey that will eventually change the world by showing that there is another way to live, an alternative to the will of to power.

Against the 'hard passages' in the Bible, Sacks explains how for all three of the great Abrahamic faiths, some Scriptural passages are radically inconsistent with the faith as lived, with all three faiths larger commitments to the sanctity of life and the dignity of all persons as bearers of God's image, when read literally. You come to know the creator through loving his creation. In fact, Sacks goes as far as to state that in the Jewish tradition, taking the written word over oral tradition (as did the Sadducees and the Karaites) is considered heresy! Sack's point here is that religions work best when they are open and accountable to the world, not as closed, totalising systems. The answer is not no religion, but a religion which engages with society on every level.

The final section of the book consists of a quite brilliant letter to a Scientific Atheist from Sacks which is honest, objective, and calls for humility from both sides of the polemic that we might, together, work for a better world by becoming guardians of the heritages of nature and culture our children will inherit.

"That surely is an act of faith on which religion and science can agree. Let us join hands and build a more hopeful future." The Great Partnership, p. 301.

I hope you have enjoyed this synopsis of Jonathan Sack's work. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a thinkers tome, and so, do not expect to agree with every concept and idea held in it. Rather treat it as a window into the mind of one of the great thinkers of our time. Indulge yourself, you will be richer for the experience, and as a result, more confident and capable of dialoging with atheism and its agendas.


  1. Mark, thanks for this stimulating review: will now have to buy (easy) and read (difficult!) the book!


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