I engage in name-calling only when I’m pushed to the limit, but a new piece in the Spectator by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has brought me to that point. (As a secular Jew, I can’t help thinking that even religious Jews should behave better than members of other faiths.)
Once again I am painfully reminded how religion can take a perfectly normal, well-honed brain, and turn it into mush. Sacks could have been a scholar, a surgeon, or any number of professions that are actually useful. Instead he is the big boss of Britain’s Jews, and, as such, is obliged to remind them how important religion still is. In his essay, “Chief Rabbi: Atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians,” Sacks makes three points: that “new” atheists lack the gravitas of old ones, that religion is the only reliable source of morality, so that without faith the world would crumble, and that a plurality of faiths is a bulwark against religious “fundamentalists,” whom he sees as not religious at all.
Let’s take these one at a time.
New Atheists are not serious enough. You’ll have heard this trope before: we simply fail to come to grips with the terrible issue of nihilism that accompanies the realization that there is no god. Sacks’s take:
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? Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?
A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society.
This is a not only an accusation that New Atheists are dumb—because we don’t realize the consequences of our disbelief—but also almost a brand of jealousy: that we aren’t as lugubrious as we should be. Well, first things first: we need to examine the evidence for God, and that has been done far more thoroughly by the new than the old atheists, at least in their popular articles. Before we can deal with the consequences of disbelief, we need to ground it. And if there’s no evidence, why should we believe?
Further, it’s simply not true that we haven’t grappled with those “real issues.” It’s just that they don’t upset most of us as much as Sacks thinks they should. Many of us have pondered and written about where one finds meaning and morality in a godless world, whether there is “freedom” (of the will or otherwise), and the need, or lack of it, for the rituals and narratives of faith. And for many of us, it’s not that big a problem. Yes, I don’t want my death to be the end of my consciousness, but that’s pretty much the way it is, and it’s better to know that than pretend we’ll meet Grandma and Fluffy in the Great Beyond. Nearly everyone, religious or otherwise, lives their lives without constantly fretting about meaning and mortality, for that spoils the one earthly life we do have. And most of us have simply come to terms with nonbelief: it simply doesn’t throw us into spasms of depression. Really, why should it? We apprehend the truth and move on.
As for society surviving without rituals and religiously-based morality, that brings us to Sacks’s second point (below). I point out only that given a choice between the writings and social impact of Alain “We-Need-Ritual” de Botton and Richard Dawkins, I’d chose the latter every time.
Western civilization will collapse without religion, which is the sole buttress of morality. The good rabbi expatiates:
Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.
This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic.
Holocaust? Really? And did the Christian ethic prevent that? Indeed, much of the Holocaust was the inevitable working-out of a Christian animus against Jews, a reflection of the eternal Jewish status as killers of Christ. It is precisely the Christian ethic that led to the identification of Jews as The Other. Of course there were diverse political and economic factors at work too, but we all know that many good Nazis were also good Christians.
Sacks goes on:
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.
Richard Dawkins, whom I respect, partly understands this. He has said often that Darwinism is a science, not an ethic. Turn natural selection into a code of conduct and you get disaster. 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.
It is idiocy like this that infuriates me about Sacks. Atheists haven’t concerned themselves with the source of morality? How about atheists like Peter Singer, Steve Pinker, Sam Harris, Anthony Grayling, and many others? Don’t those people count? They certainly haven’t stammered, for all of them have written books about the source of secular morality. I refer you to their writings, but those sources involve rationality, evolution, and increased contact between people in the modern world. The reason that humanity is, in general, more moral now than in the past (see Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature) has nothing to do with religion, whose dictates become less oppressive only when forced to by the pull of secular reason.
It’s as if Sacks has deliberately ignored the long tradition of secular morality, highlighted most notably by Grayling. But he’s not ignorant; he’s deliberately ignoring these writers. He is lying for Yahweh.
Here is a partial list of countries that have a very high percentage of nonbelievers. This is all it takes to rebut Sack’s claim that if one loses Judeo-Christian sanctity of life (note that he doesn’t mention Islam) we will descend into evil, barbarism, and perfidy:
- South Korea
The last time I looked, these countries were remarkably sane, well-behaved, and their inhabitants generally moral.
Only the “fundamentalist” religions are bad. Finally, Sacks does recognize the danger of religion, but sees it as the danger of religious hegemony, not of religion itself. (That’s partially true, since religions only exercise their full perniciousness when they have full power.) He doesn’t specify which religions are threatening, mentioning only “fundamentalism”, but I suspect he’s thiinking of Islam.
In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief. Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.
The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’
Let’s take the last sentence first, which is palpably false. I gave a list above of countries that maintain their morality without religious props. And I’m absolutely sure that, were Europe to become, say, 95% atheist, it would be no less moral than it is now. Does Sacks envision the streets of Paris full of murderers, thieves and rapists? Our feelings of morality, as Plato recognized, don’t come from religious belief: they are prior to that belief, and are either innate or grasped through secular reason.
As for the innocuousness of “nonfundamentalist” religion—note that Sacks carefully avoids defining “fundamentalist religion” or identifying any examples—has he heard of Catholicism? How much misery does that inflict on the world? Thousands of Africans dead of HIV, or incited to kill each other by African Christians, testify that the damage is substantial. That’s not even considering child rape, the marginalization of women (endemic to virtually all widespread faiths), the conception of unwanted children, or the brainwashing of children with guilt and notions of hell. And maybe Sacks should take a look at some species of Judaism itself. Orthodox Jews, for example, deeply marginalize women, and that’s half of their population. Every morning many Orthodox men thank G-d that they weren’t born with two X chromosomes. I don’t see Sacks raising any hue and cry about that.
As for “strong societies being moral societies,” with “morality” coming from religion, that’s nonsense. Medieval Europe, rife with strong, religious, and barbarous societies, is just one example.
The “Morality Canard” irks me no end. It flies in the face of all the facts: atheists are no less moral than the faithful, atheist countries are not rife with barbarism, far more U. S. prisoners are religious than is the general populace, and so on. And the world, while becoming less religious, is becoming more moral. Nobody with a lick of sense thinks that a world without faith would be a world without morals.