"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Friday, 14 June 2013

Jonathan Sacks thinks atheism is doing it wrong

Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, has a piece in the Spectator entitled atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians headed by this observation...
Jonathan Sacks
“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.”
Which ironically also sums up his own argument pretty well.
"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 universe is more than 6,000 years old and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another."
Well if that were really all intelligent secularists were doing, historians may well wonder. But, debunking the obvious idiocies of scripture is only a part of the new atheism, a necessary part too because the corollary assumption the good Rabbi is making is that all theists are of his sophistication whereas many of the powerful members of the Christian right, Hassidic Jewry and Islamist don’t share his nuanced views. There are still children in advanced countries being taught that Genesis is history, and someone has to keep the scientific truth in the public eye.
"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?"
Can Sacks really be unaware of the existence of Humanists, ethical societies, The Sunday Assembly,and the moral explorations of atheism by authors such as Sam Harris and Adam Lee or philosophers like Alain De Botton? It’s almost as if the Chief Rabbi was erecting some kind of strawman atheism to denigrate but surely a man of his depth who claims familiarity with “serious atheists” like Nietzsche and Hobbes would not stoop to such a tactic. Or would he…?
"A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis — has been dumbed down to the level of a school debating society"
Yes he would apparently. Just because the ‘eternity’ of the human condition is not a given within atheist discourse does not mean that the practicalities of human thriving and social justice are not. And then there’s this canard…
"Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. 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."
This always has and always will be complete nonsense. The fact that Sacks precedes this with a reference to Nazi Germany is also intellectually dishonest as none of that philosophy had anything to do with atheism. He then goes on to recruit, of all people , Richard Dawkins to his cause.
"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."
Well let’s see if this atheist can explain it to him without stammering: Darwinism is not an ethic and Dawkins is correct to say that treating it as one (at least the simplistic version of Darwinism many people carry around with them) would not make for a fair or pleasant world. However, Darwinism properly understood explains morality perfectly well as a natural (yes Rabbi “natural”) consequence of our evolution as a social species living in small close knit tribes under extremely harsh selection pressure over the past few hundred thousand years. We even have evidence of caring and compassion in our Neanderthal cousins who presumably managed it without the Judeo-Christian narrative to influence them. The obsession theists have with seeing humanity as fundamentally flawed or evil without the watchful eye of a vengeful deity to restrain it is one of religion's most egregious legacies and those modern states that have largely abandoned religion, such as the Scandinavian countries, give the lie to the idea that society falls apart without it. Even so Sacks concludes with this..
"I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also."
Well, fair enough, but that he is unable to conceive of a sufficiently robust secular ethic is a failure only of his religiously constrained imagination, not a failure of secularism or the ability of humanity to apply reason and enlightened self-interest to the task of surviving whatever the coming ages demand of us to prosper. That such a societal view is only now beginning to emerge is to some extent due to religion’s previously unfettered ability to suppress it, retreating only when faced with similarly monolithic ideologies such as Communism or Nazism which it then tries to lay at atheism's door. Freedom from religion is not freedom from culture or obligation, it is however freedom from the fetters of dogma and from the institutions that perpetuate misogyny and social inequality in the name of traditions that are the real epitome of the faux profundity he accuses atheist of.

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