Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool

June 13, 2013 • 6:21 am

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:

  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Norway
  • Japan
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • 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.

h/t: SGM

159 thoughts on “Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool

  1. Professor Coyne, you are a much more serious atheist than I am.

    I merely ask: where is there evidence of the posited supernatural deity X…why should I consider the existence of such a thing? I’ve never seen any response other than a word salad. Hence my response is “meh”, whatever and I move on.

    Never have I been presented with empirical evidence nor predictions that have come true.

  2. Sacks: But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religion, the new atheists start to stammer.

    It’s really quite simple. People do not get morals from religion, rather religion gets morals from people.

        1. It is unfortunate that some of the more barbaric “moral” standards go unchanged even after dozens of generations. This clown seems to want to pretend that humanism doesn’t exist.

        2. .
          Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born into another time.

          Rabindranath Tagore.

          1. Much contained in this statement will never be discerned by many, particularly religious dogmatist zealots.

  3. Theist are suffering from a sense of moral superiority. However, the reality that theistic morality is nothing but moral nihilism.

    If morality is determined by god, which means that morality is abitrarily, since it depends on the whims of said entity. Otherwise if morality is objective, then god is irrelevant as source of morality. Even if we should accept J. S. Mill’s idea of god as a (rule) utilitarian, we have to admit that morality is based on something which is indepedent from god.

    Therefore theists are moral nihilists

  4. I engage in name-calling only when I’m pushed to the limit[….]

    Welcome to the club!

    In his essay, “Chief Rabbi: Atheism has failed. Only atheism can defeat the new barbarians,” Sacks[….]

    Thinko: the highlighted word is a mistranscription.

    Other than that, spot on, as usual. Some of this passion belongs in the book!



  5. I think it’s funny when people say that only the fundamentalists are bad. The fundamentalists are simply the really religious people. It makes no sense for a religious person to say fundamentalists are bad. The whole point of Sunday worship, three daily prayers for jewish people, praying the rosary for catholics etc. is to make people fundamentalists.

    It’s like saying you want to be an engineer, and then saying that the guy that reads the mechanical design book is the only one that’s no good. In everything you do, math, physics, music, art or anything else, the goal is to get into it as deeply as possible and understand it in as much details as possible. Religion is the only thing that tells these two things, which in my mind are mutually exclusive.

    A) Don’t go too deep in it because you’ll end up blowing people up.

    B) God is a universal truth.

    Religion has to be the only thing that tells you believing and following everything in the book is bad, while at the same time asserting that the book is holy and good and necessary.

    I can’t imagine my physics teacher getting upset with me because I read and understood and believed the whole book.

    1. Besides which, there’s a simple question that trivially demonstrates that absolute fundamentalism is the only reasoned approach to any religion.

      “Has [deity of choice] read [holy text of choice]?”

      It’s especially the case with Christianity, in which Jesus is the ultimate judge of humanity. Has Jesus read the King James Bible?

      Not, of course, “Did Jesus read the King James Bible during his first century slumming vacation in Judea?” The KJV Bible wouldn’t be written for over a dozen centuries.

      But, rather, has the Jesus who is right this very moment at the right hand of the Father, whose job it is to judge the quick and the dead — has that Jesus read the KJV Bible?

      If so, and if he’s at all fit to judge humanity, then he knows full well that we tend to take things literally and with good reason. So, either he’s perfectly happy with people taking the KJV Bible literally or he’s a sick fuck who plays NIGYSOB games. Or, perhaps, he’s read the KJV Bible and wishes people wouldn’t take it literally but is too powerless or uncaring to bother to set people straight.

      None of those options speaks encouragingly of Jesus.

      Replace “Jesus” and “KJV Bible” with any other deity and text and the story’s exactly the same.



    2. Well, yes and no; mostly yes. It is true that the deepest embrace of a religion and religiousness goes hand in hand.

      It is modulated by sects though. For example the protestant reformation that took catholic fundamentalism and converted it to “metaphor”.

      But it is the same mush in the end, because why “metaphor” and why keeping the original texts? No evidence.

      And then they get the mush, the very ability to diversify on no sound basis, to work as a defense. “Oh, you mean those guys!”

    3. Excellent post, Juan. Reminds me of what Sam Harris said–the people who flew planes into buildings were not crazies; they were people who were taking their religion seriously.

  6. 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…

    I think we should classify this as a variant on the Courtier’s Reply fallacy. Basically, he’s saying he’s not going to argue the existence of God until we first provide an adequate answer for some atheist meaning of life.

    Like the standard courtier’s reply, there is theoretically no end to how much more effort he could demand on our part, and (also like the standard courtier’s reply), the whole line of reasoning is simply a dodge, allowing him to ignore the evidential problems with his claims until some future, vague, and very likely shifting condition is met by others.

    1. Methinks this variant of the Courtier’s Reply fallacy has a long and distinguished history under the term “Changing the Topic.”

      I think the rabbi needs to make up his mind: is God the reason there are moral values we all agree we have … or can we agree on nothing unless there is God? Explanation or authority? They conflict.

      Theists should not be switching back and forth like that. If you must have Christian faith in order to love your neighbor, desire peace, and be a good person then how can you appeal to the unsaved and get them to want a God to anchor down these values that they don’t have, don’t want, and don’t even recognize?

      As you point out, the entire moral argument is moot if there is no God. So we 1.) find another explanation and/or 2.) discover what we can agree on when it comes to how to live harmoniously with each other. I’m constantly astonished that theists like the Rabbi seem to think that these two processes are much, much more difficult than 3.) get everybody in the whole world to believe in the same interpretation of the same invisible, untestable, unknowable version of a supernatural god which makes itself known only through subjective means which requires an eager willingness to believe.

      Oh, yeah. #3 is a piece of cake.

      1. Nice post. I think the argument can be shortened a bit, as follows:
        A: You have religion
        B: You are moral.

        Suppose, for purposes of argument, A –> B

        Then Sacks’ claim, If you don’t have religion, you won’t be moral, can be represented as ~A –> ~B.

        But, this is the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent.

        And, of course, it is a trivial exercise to find good, moral, non-religious people; in fact, in the baptist church I used to attend, they were fulminated against with great regularity.

  7. “Does Sacks envision the streets of Paris full of murderers, thieves and rapists?”

    Is Sacks unwittingly telling us something about himself here? Has he actually looked into his heart and sincerely believes that if he personally lost his faith then he personally would become a rapist and a murderer? If so, how terrifying to know that about oneself. If not, then why should he believe that of others?

    1. Is Sacks unwittingly telling us something about himself here?

      Probably not in the way you mean. Its a common psychological bias – shared across religions, cultures, and yes by atheists – that we ourselves (the individual doing the speaking) are more moral than average. Its called the attributon bias. The secular or atheistic version of the bias goes something like this: *I* don’t need a police force to prevent me from stealing. I wouldn’t steal anyway. But *other people* do. If you agree with that, you’re basically in the same boat as Sacks on this one.

      What he’s unwittingly telling us is, he suffers from the same attribution bias as most everyone else.

      1. I think that misconstrues things. It isn’t a matter of me stealing vs. other people. It IS the case that some portion of a population of people will steal. We need police to deal with that reality.

        It is quite different to attribute the prevention of theft, murder, and general mayhem, to make-believe that we have invisible friends.

      2. It’s not a bias. You can do the research. Atheists are less likely than theists to commit crimes. They (we) are underrepresented in jails. Less religious countries tend to have less crime and social injustice. Less religious states in the US do as well. Religion, it seems, poisons everything – especially otherwise healthy functioning human brains.

        1. The bias I’m talking about is a personal one. Sacks likely believes that Sacks would not rape in the absence of religion, but other humans would. Which is exactly the same belief most of us have, if you substitute “law enforcement” for “religion.”

          1. Oh, kind of like, “I don’t need to believe in god to be good, but regular people do.”

            1. Or, as one wag put it, “when people say we need religion, what they really mean is we need police.”

      3. I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s sad that a major faith leader can’t transcend attribution bias.

        A similar thought always occurs to me when the religious express fears about ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Are they really saying that their own sexual orientation is so fragile that contact with gay literature and ideas might lead them to changing their own orientation? I’m sure the thought never occurs to them, but that is the logical conclusion to be drawn from their assertion.

        1. I think you are absolutely correct and I think your prior comment is as well. If they aren’t willing or are unable to apply their twisted logic to themselves they have no justification for applying it to others.

          So Sacks, it’s best if you get it out in the open now, what crime do you intend to wallow in when you find out your god is a fraud?

          1. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if he already wallows in it, and already believes his god is a fraud. There have been numerous examples. Like, that icon of ethical superiority Jerry Falwell, for instance.

  8. Er…Lucretius did not live, pace Rabbi Sacks, in first century Rome, but in the first half of the previous century. Nevertheless, the good Roman and his free-thinking amoralists evidently must have been responsible for the sacking of Rome, 460 years later. Or, if you take the New Rome, of the fall of Constantinople, the root of its violent dissolution over 1,500 years later.

    The superiority of the religious Weltanschauung is that it enables you to take the long view, liberated from constraints of cause and effect, historical perspicacity or moral seriousness.

    1. Exactly. The good rabbi is engaging it a bit of revisionist history. It was actually the rise of Christianity in the Roman empire that coincided with its decline and fall.

      1. Great point. In fact, if the Roman empire was not in decline there would have been no reason to adopt Christianity as the state religion in an attempt to unite . Christianity owes it’s long term existence to the decline of an empire.

    2. I find his historical arguments really frustrating. Back then, there was an incredible lack of literacy, communication, and education compared with today. Rich people had literate slaves to do their reading for them, punctuation and spaces did not exist, and everything had to be hand copied.

      And yet, even so, in order to win the fight against the philosophers, the Byzantine Christians had to close the philosophy schools. And he also ignores that the non-monotheist religions, while very different in mindset than Christianity, weren’t exactly absent or unpopular either. Christianity and Islam didn’t conquer atheist wracked societies, they took over existing religions that simply focused on different things.

  9. Ugh, I hate it when I read stuff like this about Nietzsche. He in no way justified the Holocaust or any other 20th century atrocity. Yes, he predicted that the “death of God” would lead to an age of moral revision and values creation, and that there would be plenty of upheavals because of this. But on the whole he was optimistic that we could get through this turmoil and reach a new age of human achievement and creativity.

    And note to Jerry. Nietzsche did not believe in free will and he was in no way a compatibilist. He believed that the scientific understanding of human biology and psychology would become a challenge to ethical concepts and social institutions. Again, he viewed this a sign of impending dangerous times, but again was largely hopeful that things would turn out better in the long run.

  10. Rabbi Sacks is an ignorant fool – I have to take issue with this statement, I think he is no fool, just a very evil human being.

    Mere incompetence is far too charitable of an explanation, this is pure malevolence.

    Christopher Hitchens was referring to Jerry Falwell when he said The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing: that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you’ll just get yourself called Reverend. but it applies equally well to this religious psychopath.

    1. I don’t think he’s evil, I think he has just bought into the religion delusion. I think he genuinely believes he is right and genuinely believes that humanity needs religion and that by arguing for it he is actually doing good.

      It’s a bit like the brandy barrel that St Bernard’s dogs were supposed to carry. People put brandy in a barrel around the dog’s neck to warm cold rescue-ees genuinely thinking it would help. Unfortunately that definitely wouldn’t do any good for somebody suffering from exposure, in fact it might kill them. [yes, I know the whole brandy barrel thing is really a myth, but the analogy works].

      1. You may be right. But, there have been so many examples of righteous religious leaders being revealed, at some point in their careers, as ethically impoverished, selfish con artists, or worse, that it is not unreasonable to suppose that the rabbi could be more like Jerry Falwell than Desmond Tutu.

        Religious leadership is for many a racket they get into in order to make money and stroke there egos by exercising authority over others.

  11. Dear WhyEvolutionisTrue:

    Your whole atheism seems to consist on the statement: “Before we can deal with the consequences of disbelief, we need to ground it. And if there’s no evidence, why should we believe?” 23 words, 104 characters, less than a twitter post. That is what Rabbi Sacks is talking about!

    1. It’s much shorter than that. My personal statement of atheism would boil down to “If there’s no evidence, why should I consider belief?”

      1. It’s much more solid than that. What rational person would accept as true a proposition whose truth claims are not only incoherent but have been contradicted by empirical observation?

        Never mind that you can no more have infinite power or knowledge than you can have an infinite quantity of anything countable; there is no “largest number,” prime or otherwise. Epicurus demonstrated centuries before the rise of Christianity that there aren’t even any somewhat-powerful modestly-benevolent entities hiding in our midst.

        If there were, then, today, we would expect that they’d at least call 9-1-1 (or even a “silent witness” hotline) once in a while. That they don’t means that either they’re just as ignorant as humans, or they don’t even have access to a telephone, or that they’re the worst criminal accomplices imaginable.



        1. From a debating-with-theists point of view, I agree. Taking a step back though, isn’t discussion of the characteristics of a putatively interventionist god rather like discussing whether Russell’s teapot is Delft or Wedgewood?

          1. The religious position is nowhere near so sophisticated nor ephemeral.

            Rather, the proper analogy would be explaining to a ten-year-old child that “north of the North Pole” is a meaningless string of words; it’s physically impossible for Santa to deliver presents all over the globe in a single night (and pull out that great engineering take what ends in nuclear-style global annihilation from the compression wave coming off the lead reindeer); and that Santa’s handwriting is exactly like Mom’s — and, ohherebytheway, is the store receipt for that toy with Mom’s signature on it.

            Disengaging from religious people isn’t going to get them to grow up, and they’ll keep throwing religiously-motivated temper tantrums until they actually do grow up.



            1. But if there’s no Santa then there’s no reason to give presents on Christmas morning — and no explanation for why we would want to, on Christmas morning or for any other occasion either!

              Always frame the complaint so as to make it look like your opponent is arguing against generosity and love. If that doesn’t make the nonbeliever feel guilty it still allows you to feel like you’re on the self-righteous moral high ground.

              1. It’s easy to turn that sort of argument back on the theist, jiujitsu-style.

                Are you really such a heartless robot that you’re only pretending to love your family because your preacher told you that Jesus will torture your soul in a lake of fire if you don’t? Because I certainly don’t need any imaginary “friends” to threaten me into loving my family. I love them because they’re wonderful people who love me. Isn’t that enough reason to love somebody? Or do you not understand what love actually is?



              2. Yes. The basic assumption seems to be that the rational, normal position is that nothing imperfect deserves to be loved.

                And then they swoon over the idea of agape as the purest form of love; love granted unearned. That seems to make our ability to love more admirable than theirs.

            2. nuclear-style global annihilation from the compression wave coming off the lead reindeer

              Interestingly, Tunguska is in a part of the world inhabited by reindeer.

              Scuse me, I’m off to change me name to Daz Von Däniken…

            1. Heretic! The most informed and reliable theological analysis has determined it to be Spode.

    2. It might be what Sacks is talking about if that was the only response. You did read the post, right? There’s a bit more up there – go back and read it again.

      1. Oh! I’m more interested in the explanation of why Inti and his wife Mama Quilla aren’t the gods who gave birth to the Earth.

    3. When communicating, conciseness is usually a positive attribute, not a negative one. If Sacks “complaint” is that we are concise, then I’m guilty as charge and proud of it.

  12. I strongly suspect a lot of quote mining in this Rabbi’s essay. I’d need to check but I think the Nietzsche stuff was Nietzsche trying to work out if humanity was ready to live god free….which is evidence I think that the New Atheists don’t need to rehash this stuff – they come from a tradition that already has so they don’t need to wring their hands as there is plenty of evidence to suggest that hand wringing is not necessary (as illustrated in the success of many flourishing atheistic cultures).

    The thing I think that bothers me the most about this essay is its deliberate over simplification, especially of history:

    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.

    Sacks suggests that as soon as Greece and Rome become more atheistic, they totally crumbled. Well, neither of these ancient societies were moralistic in the sense that we enjoy moral societies now (thank you secular Enlightenment). Let’s not forget they were cultures that relied on slavery – a lot of slavery and slaves were not exactly treated well. Citizens of Greece and Rome were upper class males and there was no upward mobility. There was no police force as we know it and venturing out past night meant taking your life in your hands unless you were wealthy enough to have slaves to protect you. So, if the ancient world is seen as the once great moral place that fell a part with atheism….that’s just plane BS.

    Also, Will Durant isn’t the best that I’d look for quotes on the ancient world. There are other scholars and prime sources that are better suited.

    Once an author over simplifies and provides twisted view points like this, they lose all trust in the validity of their argument. It is clearly a pathetic attempt to discredit atheism’s strong position and like all religious leaders, this Rabbi is worried; and that makes me glad.

    1. He’s also dodging the issue, in spectacular style.

      You’ll note that he mentions Epicurus, but utterly fails to address the fact that Epicurus, about the same time as the Hebrew Bible was being written, had already figured out that there are no powerful beings with our best interests in mind, with said fact overwhelmingly demonstrated by the evidence. (As I ask: Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?)

      The not-so-good Rabbi does that a lot. He waves his hands in the general direction of long-dead atheists he wants us to believe were filled with existential angst, all the while ignoring that they weren’t and simultaneously ignoring that they said the exact same things we do today.

      And, did I mention? He never engages on the actual facts….



      1. What is actually funnier is Epicurus lived in the 3rd C BC. Alexander’s Hellenistic age had come and gone, Athens’s big hurrah of the 5th C was over so the dates don’t match up with Epicurus representing the beginning of the end.

        Lucretius lived in the 1st C BC – Rome started becoming prominent in the Republican period around this time but really took off as an empire much later around the time of Hadrian and that was the 2nd C AD!

        So….more BS.

        1. And Roman societies were *very* religious. Its why Christians were unpopular, because they basically decided to become conscientious objectors to the rituals that pagans thought were vital to the preservation of the local welfare. Just because *some* atheists existed does not suddenly mean Romans were all atheists, anymore so than the existence of Jerry Coyne means the US is an atheist state.

          1. Yes and in both Greek and Roman societies there was no such concept as separation of church and state. The Roman emperor was also Pontifex Maximus for example.

          2. Well you have to understand judeochristian terms first. An atheist is anyone who does not believe in the one true god. Pagan religions are false, and Pagans are beneath contempt just like atheists, and therefore they can also be classified as atheists.

            1. That doesn’t seem to be what Sacks is suggesting though as he blames the atheists/scientists, namely Epicurus & Lucretius for the ruin of their ancient civilizations. So if he thought of all the pagans as atheists and therefore ancient Greece & Rome as atheist civilizations then he wouldn’t have made this case in the first place.

              1. Two things.

                1) Okay, alright. If you must, go right ahead and point out the gaping holes in my attempt at a snarky comment! 🙂 (just in case)

                2) Though your reasoning makes perfect sense, and I agree with it, I am not so sure that the inconsistency you pointed out would prevent even some Sophisticated Theologians™ from seriously making this case even while considering pagans to be atheists.

              2. I must point out that what we regard as science today, is not what the ancients had. So neither the educated or the illiterate had the option of an internally consistent framework for making sense of their world without unseen agency. They did, however have philosophy.

                Sacks seems to be horribly anti-scientific here, in that condescending way that says “the ordinary folk can’t handle the truth, any religion will be better than none”.

        2. Hellenistic period is generally reckoned after Alexander, and lasted a couple of hundred years. No BS there, then.

          Sacks is obviously taking Gibbon’s view that the decline of Roman civilisation began with the breakdown in civic virtue from, roughly, the death of Julius Caesar (44BCE); so, again, no BS there.

          1. Yes, the Hellenistic period is after the death of Alexander: 323 BC and the Battle of Actium: 31 BC (when Augustus defeats Egypt and becomes Rome’s first successful emperor) and Epicurus lived in the 3rd C BC – pray tell me how Epicurus caused the decline of Greek power if he is writing in the 3rd C BC and the Battle of Actium occurs in the 1st C BC?

            And how can you be so sure that the death of Julius Caesar is what Sacks mean as decline of civilization? From what I can tell once Augustus takes over as emperor in 31 BC after the Battle of Actium and introduces the Pax Romana (see the Ara Pacis) – indeed Augustus died in his sleep as an old man in AD 14. This is hardly a decline in civilization….even up to and during Caesar’s time when he tried to take over and thwart the conditions of rule in the Republic, Rome saw civil war after civil war that saw lots of deaths. So, yeah total BS.

            1. Its a spectacularly bad piece, and yet another religite joining the competition to see who can fit the most straw men, missed points and logical fallacies into one article.

              However, for some reason I get more offended by crass errors in references to classical history than I do by logical errors.

              Rome fell because it lost its faith? Well, it certainly lost (had stolen) its original faith and had it forcibly replaced by Popery. Not long after it was conquered by barbarians, most of whom were Arian christians as the barbarian leaders had seen the military advantages of intolerant monotheism.

              If anything, Rome fell when it was more religious than ever before, conquered by barbarians who were more religious than ever before.

              1. Yes, I too abhor historical revisionism especially extremely sloppy historical revisionism. Sacks really had to twist Classical history into a pretzel to support this “ancient societies fell because of atheism” premise.

                I kind of relish that Constantine would have been both Pontifex Maximus & a Christian at the end of the Western Roman empire. So much for lack of religion causing the collapse.

            2. Diana M, Epicurus caused the decline of Hellenism because he could have said this:

              Let your garments be always white
              Let not oil be lacking on your head.
              Enjoy life with the wife you love,
              All the days of your vain life,
              Which he has given you under the sun.
              Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might;
              For there is no work or thought or knowledge
              Or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

              …if you take out the assertion that God gave you life, and if you substitute Hades for Sheol. It’s Ecclesiastes, of course, 9:7-10. Seems like the Hebrew Bible might be responsible for the collapse of the Greek hegemony. Rabbi Sacks should be told.

          2. That’s not quite how I remember Gibbon’s interpretation; Hume’s chum also posited the idea that the brightest in the Roman Empire no longer became political Governors of the colonies and leading military figures. ‘The Decline and Fall…’ asserts that they became the principals of the Church, leaving the Empire relatively defenceless.

            I could be wrong; all this from memory.

            1. I think you are just about right – but Gibbon traces all of that to the gradual decline in “civic virtue”, explicitly pointing to the seminal moment when Octavius/Augustus initiated a military dictatorship by establishing the Praetorian Guard in 27BCE. Aiu also permanently usurped the powers of the Tribunes of the Plebs (i.e. not aristocrats) – the most powerful politicians in the city.

        3. Having declared Sacks’s history BS because Epicurus was (according to you) too late, now you shift your claim: he was too early. Something awry there. The Battle of Actium was the final nail in the coffin of Greek independence, which had been notional at best for a century. Sacks, of course, does not claim tat Epicurus caused the decline, only that atheistic attitudes are both a correlate of moral decline and an ineffectual brake on moral decline. (I’m summarising, not agreeing.) His timeline is fine.

          You think Rome came to prominence in the mid-1st century BCE. That’s not so – by the late 2nd century Rome had subjugated all the Western Greek colonies (including “Magna Graecia”), reduced all of Greece to protectorate status, established the Province of Asia, destroyed the Carthaginian Empire and established the Province of Africa…

          See: http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=roman+expansion+map

          On the decline of Roman morality and democracy under Augustus, Tacitus wrote:

          “He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody’s good will by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law. Opposition did not exist. War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit. Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.”

          So Sacks’s history is correct – his interpretation is a different matter, of course.

    2. More to the point, neither Greek nor Roman civilization fell because the people lost their faith. Greek civilization fell because it was never unified, it was always a bunch of city-states competing with each other. Roman civilization fell because the empire over-extended itself.

      1. Well, there was that brief period in Greece when Phillip II forced the city states to sort of make like they were united. Of course they dropped the pose as soon as word of his murder was received.

        But then Alexander the III scared them into “uniting” again by erasing Thebes for renigging on their acceptance of his request for unity. Course, that didn’t last too long either.

  13. “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?”
    I find this really interesting, because none of these propositions I’d relate to atheism. They seem questions that would fall under the category of humanism, not under religious criticism. It’s akin to complaining that Darwinism can’t explain gravity.

    1. And half of them are issues I don’t consider the least bit important. Meangingfulness or otherwise of human life – who cares? Existence or non-existence of an objective moral order – settled millenia ago (answer: non-existence).

      1. Really. What would happen if it turned out that you discovered the Meaning of Life and it just didn’t appeal to you as a personal goal?

        Would it not be the REAL Meaning of Life? Or have you just found out you must be one of the Bad Guys?

      2. “Existence or non-existence of an objective moral order – settled millenia ago (answer: non-existence).”
        I’m not so sure about this, the way that moral philosophy has gone over the last couple of centuries is at least worth pondering in terms of what is meant by objective morality. The discussion is still worth having given how central moral reasoning is in human cognition.

  14. 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.

    Stuff like this is so ahistorical its amusing. If you think the golden rule arose in Jerusalem around 30AD via Jesus’ proclamation or revelation, I have a bridge to sell you.

    1. “losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality”
      Why isn’t that a good thing? The ones who exercise Christian morality are the very fundamentalists the rabbi decries. Why would learning morality from Aristotle, or Mill, or Kant, or Rawls be anything like survival of the fittest? If nothing else, our brains are wired for social concerns.

  15. “…and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.”

    In the book, Inside The Criminal Mind, Stanton Samenow talks about the message career criminals receive from religion. He says they hear the message of God’s forgiveness, continue doing what they want to do, then know all is good between them and the Lord.

    1. There’s also the not insignificant problem of ‘wrong that you know is wrong’ and ‘wrong that you think is right.’ A thief might seek refuge in God’s forgiveness to all who sin … but a really good thief will figure out a way that they’re only taking what is rightfully theirs and since God is the source of righteousness it’s all perfectly consistent. Blessed, even.

      Does the rabbi think nationalistic or ideological fanaticism becomes more tractable when the fanatics ALSO think they’re doing the will of God? Or is he simply playing out the little mental scenario where other people all know, deep down, that any God but that of the rabbi is a false one?

  16. One of the best entries I have seen in a while.
    Anywhere. It is stuff like this, and cats,and evolution stuff, that keeps me coming back.

    Well Done.

    I feel like the Chicken Little defense, a.k.a. the sky is falling, or the world will end as we know it, (“Western civilization will collapse without religion, which is the sole buttress of morality.”) is especially amusing. It seems like every time Republicans, Faux News, or some preacher tries to make a point…this is what they resort to.

  17. I finally found the quote I wanted (use cut and paste). Mano Singham said what I am thinking rather well:


    What atheists like me say to religious believers is simply the following: If the existence of your god has empirical consequences, then provide empirical evidence that supports your contention. If it has no empirical consequences whatsoever, then say so and we will not interfere with your theological and philosophical ruminations because we do not really care to speculate on the properties of what we consider to be a mythical entity.

    In short, this is why I avoid philosophical discussions about religion.

    I will fight attempts to have the government promote religion (e. g. teach creationism in public schools) but I am disinterested in the philosophical debates.

  18. Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues

    Non-stamp-collecting fails to provide people with elegant books filled with stamps and non-stamp-collecting people are at a loss when it comes to fill the gap.

    instead people would live by the law of nature

    Or, more probably, by the laws of Humans, like we always have.
    *facepalm again*

  19. So when Europe was firmly in the grip of religion, around a thousand years ago, where there no wars? No religiously inspired battles? Was murder (rape, theft, etc.) unheard of? Did serfs and slaves successfully rely on religion to restrain their ‘betters’? Or was belief in gods used to freeze social inequality in place?

    Plus Spinoza believed in a god of sorts, just not the Jewish god. Strange how that still rankles the a rabbi, only three hundred years later.

    1. Spinoza was certainly not an atheist, and it is interesting that Lord Sacks calls him one; as I understand it he was excommunicated from his shtetl not for renouncing God but for refusing to accept the authority of rabbis.

  20. 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.’

    So — if we’re going to fight fanatic barbarians then we ought to be able to match their fire with our own, huh? No getting all soft and reasonable I guess.

    “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” — Nietzsche

    That last part of Sack’s quote is amusing: “I’m not saying that a strong, moral society needs to be religious; I’m just saying that history shows that yes, it needs to be religious.”

    Yeah, we’d need to believe in God in order to give up the will to power and hand it over to God. And then there’s nothing easier than getting a consensus on what God wants to do with all that power.

    1. Just out of interest, can anyone come up with a society ‘successfully maintaining a moral life’ with the aid of religion?

      1. Stato della Città del Vaticano is an example of the negative hypothesis…

        It became an independent state in 1929 & of course Benny retired there after he hung up his red shoes & will most likely never leave partly because he can’t be arrested there. Dawkins & Hitchens commissioned lawyers to explore ways of taking legal action against the Bishop of Rome, but this came to naught because of diplomatic immunity.

        Also of course the Vatican has put a legal distance between itself & the Holy See ~ legal matters devolving to the parishes involved. Much concern expressed to the victims of priestly love while evidence is shredded, witnesses paid off, agents of justice given Catholic honours & other inducements to look the other way & dodgy priests shuttled about away from the *vulnerable* parishes & the local law enforcement.

  21. I understand why people get upset about the idea that only religion can provide an ethical basis for human action (ridiculous!), but it’s the nihilism comment that always gets me. Those who assert this seem to believe that if there’s no god providing some transcendent meaning then life is not worth living, while atheist me finds the idea that there is no transcendent meaning provided by some god quite freeing. I’m free to make my own meaning, and life and the physical world and universe provide wonder enough. This world is so beautiful, so marvelous, what need is there to make of it more than it is?

    1. They “seem to believe” because they DO believe. That’s what mental illness is all about. Just like hoarders who see no problem with dead rat bodies, papers stacked to the ceiling, inside their dwellings, and can justify it in thirty different ways, people like the Rabbi have no difficulty spouting anything to justify their untreated illness.
      Rabbi Sacks is mentally ill.

    2. I agree. I’ve said it before, but when it comes to humans discovering a natural explanation for some phenomona, people seem to fall into two camps:

      “Its not magic…that rocks!”
      “Its not magic…that sucks!”

      The world is the same either way, its just our attitude that seems to color how we respond to it.

    3. Feeling fine about life is nice. It can vary. So there can be a reason, perhaps, to make more of it than appears to be true on the face of it. Quite honestly I think that life contains abominations sufficient to question the point of it all.

      However, I can not believe something just because it would be nice if it were true. I just don’t have that gene. If someone believes because they need to and they can do so, then that’s OK by me. I would just like them to be aware and honest enough to admit that’s the only reason why they do believe. Just bury the theology. I could understand and respect that position.

  22. Sacks is one of the advocates of the ridiculous notion that you can simply define religions as benevolent. Thus all evil done in their name can only result from willful distortion or mistaken interpretations. Under this view, the one who inflicts evil in the name of a religion can never be right about his claim of religious duty. Nor can the religion itself be responsible for, or cause of, his evil actions. It’s only religious if it’s good.

    Chris Hedges is another who pulls this three-card-monty intellectual sleight-of-hand trick. His favorite move is to take any catalog of religious malignancy and tell you you can’t call it religion. You have to call it tribalism. As if the evils of religions can be cleansed by this kind of semantic ritual dipping in lambs blood.

    All of this assumes that there is a fundamental religious reality upon which “true religions” are converging, and that, as with say theories in physics, you can assess their progress (e.g. in the way you can say Einstein’s general relativity theory is better physics than Newton’s). They all believe you can define something as religiously truer than another thing, and that you can even take something like a Christian Militia identity cult and say it’s not religion at all. Bull. Also, shit.

    1. Yes, True Religion always has to be measured against the common agreement that humanism is best — whatever God wants has to pass the test of making sense to a reasonable person in the modern world.

      Creeping secularism is a threat, though. We need to appeal to religion’s mystical and irrational roots or it’s not real religion.

      This works: how it works is one of those mysteries beyond our ken.

  23. Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality.

    He’s writes that as if it is a bad thing. Abandoning christian morality is very high on any reasonable persons list of reasons why religion needs to be marginalized if we want to improve our civilization.

    The rabbi’s essay is intended primarily to bolster religious believers justifications for their beliefs. Hence the errors, lies, misdirection and condescension, which he knows from experience many believers will eagerly accept due to ignorance or a great desire to believe.

    And, of course, to insult atheists. I think it’s great. He does not have the ability to address the New Atheists’ actual criticisms.

  24. A significant area of intellectual discourse — the human condition sub specie aeternitatis

    His mistake is in thinking that area of discussion was ever significant, or intellectual.

    Regarding the human condition per se, there’s plenty of discussion about it, in the humanities where it belongs. Religion has nothing to add to that discussion and never has. Atheism by itself doesn’t either.

  25. There is a reasonably good example of the difference between adherence to christianity as a goal and a more secular grounding. The United States has two dominant political parties. One the republican favors laws that suppress the poor even further than they already are, it favors elevation of the elite, it favors resolution by war, it favors nationalization of christianity in practice even if not through law (although, I don’t think the republican would object strenuously either). The other party, the democratic party, doesn’t favor war as a preferred solution, favors the care and encouragement of the poor, favors the elite giving back something in appreciation for the conditions that allowed them to amass their fortune, favors laws that are far more grounded in secular concepts.

    Now Mr. Sacks you show me which side, in a country that is fighting from both sides, has the better platform to achieve a moral and ethically based future.

    1. “The other party, the democratic party, doesn’t favor war as a preferred solution”

      I wish that were true.

      There are politicians within the Democratic party who think that way, but they are a small minority, and the people in charge of the party have shown them nothing but contempt.

      1. I suppose we could look at voting records and the statements from each party to decide but, I think we will find that the repugs are far more war happy than the democrats.

  26. I’m wondering what Eric McDonald’s take on the Rabbi’s article might be. Seems like some of the same distress over the loss of religion’s scaffolding is present in Eric’s writings…

  27. Rabbi Johnathon Sacks is a Social Reactionary, which is a type of mental illness. It is similar to hoarding. They may give appearances that they are ‘normal homo sapiens’ with typical human characteristics, but they are flawed. They have a social myopia brought about by this condition.
    Just as you cannot expect a hoarder to go back into their home and start throwing out the feces and dead rats that have accumulated, and obvious to any ‘normal homo sapiens’ that such stuff is a health threat, people like Sacks are too contortionist for their own mental health.

    They are mentally ill.

  28. Nature is AMORAL. There is no god. (And where morality gets going)

    CONSCIOUSNESS, is an evolved sense NO different in concept from the canonical five senses. All senses focused on body/environment interface — all interrelated, a unity b

    For ex. RE: Conscious sense, pour iodine on an open wound. This would effect pain, one of the five senses, and this would change the state of consciousness. Do it to someone asleep and you will change their conscious state, from sleep to a f/u ?!

    Or less dramatic wait till you take your next poop. And think about it, thinking about it when your on the pot. Surfaces that is, body/external environment.

    People are aware that other humans share these six senses (5 + awareness/consciousness).

    THIS IS WHERE any so-called morality and so – called immorality starts!

    Hmmm, I could stop that bodies consciousness — kill it . . . and maybe benefit. Takes its property.


    I can support that other bodies consciousness, nourish it.

    And as ‘children of natural selection’ what we care about, is what dad grew us up to care about —> ourselves (our overall conscious state/well being . . . ). And the well being/conscious state of sibs or sib-like people

    So state of nature is amoral. Consciousness evolved only for purposes of survival adaptation. And we truly care about the state of consciousness in ourselves and others only for survival purposes.

    And this Rabbi should be Sacked.

    1. There are levels of consciousness. Self consciousness comes as a job lot with other consciousness. I am a person among other “I”s. This mighty fact pervades our conscious existence. What am I and you and we and the others to do, and why? Given that natural selection can not be bucked.
      Morality is constrained by nature.

  29. I think mathematician and humorist Tom Lehrer had a perfect answer to Rabbi Sacks:

    “Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put in.”

  30. I can’t help but find the modern opponents of Geo-centerism lack the seriousness of Galileo. He understood what it meant to…et cetra.

  31. Prof Coyne, a small point of irony: You write, “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?” During the French Revolution, a period with a stated goal to turn the country athiest, Paris was indeed turned into a city full of murderers.

  32. Several years ago I was the token Gentile at a Reformed Temple weekly morning Bible and Bagels session when I could attend. They worked their way through the Torah a chapter or two each week and when finished began again at Genesis 1:1.

    This background is important because I noted the distinction between secular and religious Jews in the opening and was reminded that the Temple membership included both. It’s where I learned the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, the latter being the lifeblood of the Temple.

    In the discussions of religion and non-religion, right living seems more important than right believing. Cheers.

  33. Imagine that Deuteronomy 14v8 had made it taboo to eat primates then the human race might have avoided HIV if that message had been preached in Africa. Were there religious groups in Africa who had taboos against eating primates ?
    Maybe apes were uncommon in Israel so it just never occurred to eat them. However would we ever have known that we had avoided HIV ? Deut 14 would need to have said, ” Do not eat apes or monkeys because a dire disease / virus might get going in humans & spread round the globe ” [ 1 kings 10v22 mentions apes & baboons ]

    Imagine if Hitler had started his deranged plans in the Congo in 1940, he might have killed the tribe where the first HIV occurred and inadvertently prevented the pandemic of HIV – saving more lives and suffering from HIV than the thousands he murdered.

    Imagine that in 1910 a christian etc had claimed to have a word of knowledge that 3 people in Congo had a deadly new virus and was able to identify them from seeing them in a dream. Then the person was able either to convince them to be celibate or otherwise be quarantined. That would be either a fluke or indication of supernatural, but why wouldn’t a god just prevent the mutation of SIV to HIV or switch off the unlucky first person ? or make them unlucky in love ?

    Imagine that religion hadn’t impeded science so much & that science had risen earlier so that the danger of a virus like HIV occurring could have been predicted and rules put in place to change the culture in Congo against eating primates.
    Even if the world had taken more concern for preserving biodiversity & supplying the needs of the people in Congo so they weren’t driven to eat chimpanzees etc. then HIV might have been prevented ?

    However maybe it was well intentioned anti-malaria injection campaigns which aided HIV ? Or explaining reasons against promiscuity might have prevented the spread ? It is a mixed picture.

    Religious leaders are unable to do any real good when they are like witchdoctors ignorant of the crux details of reality.

  34. One small point, but the only real fact that Sacks mentions, and it is an important one:

    “parents are more likely than they were to send their children to faith schools”

    So indeed they are in England, because the policy of the last two governments (and especially of this one) has been to transform state schools into academies, which often means faith schools, and to allow self-appointed management committees, often faith-based, to open taxpayer-funded “free schools”. And these schools practice social selection through sundry bureaucratic devices. Hence the cynical saying “On your knees to save the fees”

  35. If the good Rabbi didn’t make me sigh, eye-roll and facepalm every time he schlepped out his tired, insipid non-arguments, he’d make me laugh hard enough to plotz.

    A hiltsener tsung zol er bakumn!

  36. I would like to add to Rabbi Sack’s wise words this comment from Britain’s Chief Rabbi at the time of the High Middle Ages, when religious feeling was at it’s height:

    (Oh, right, there wasn’t a Chief Rabbi at that time because all the Jews had been expelled from
    England by their deeply religious neighbors.)

  37. 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.


    Simon Blackburn’s quasi-realism (a form of expressivism) – doesn’t need god.

    JL Mackie’s moral error theory – doesn’t need god.

    Cornell non-reductionist natural moral realism – doesn’t need god.

    Peter Railton’s reductionist natural moral realism – doesn’t need god.

    Petit and Jackson’s program explanation moral realism – doesn’t need god.

    Allan Gibbard’s expressivism – doesn’t need god.

    John McDowell’s non-natural moral realism – doesn’t need god.

    GE Moore’s intuitionist moral realism – doesn’t need god.

    The problem is not that we can’t justify our ethics without god. You can’t even justify ethics with god, which we’ve known since Plato. May I suggest that Rabbi Sacks learn something about metaethics before making such sweeping statements about it?

  38. Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith …we need believing people.

    Adolf Hitler, April 26, 1933, speech made during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordant


    1. This is the real danger we are currently facing. Yes atheists will continue to win all the intellectual arguments simply because we are right. Meanwhile the religious nuts will continue to occupy the positions of power. Warfare will continue to increase in frequency, intensity, and consequence for the planet.

      We need to use the power of logic to stop this insanity. Yes they are deluded/malicious but never stupid. They are past masters at acquiring power and atheists generally aren’t. The original secular US constitution is gradually ignored and eventually will be replaced by Religious leaders who just lie about history. England never even got started on the secular track.

      The God-backed-King power base worked for literally ages throughout Europe. The military and originally pagan Roman Empire was replaced by the Rmman Catholic Empire with HQ in the same town. It continued to collect taxes and licence kings throughout Europe and without the costs of running a large army it became the richest organisation on the planet. The licensed kings raised the taxes to create the armies.

      Castles and Churches went side by side and bishops fought in battles “as long as they shed no blood…..?” This is “God’s plan” for us and it involves much pain and suffering for commoners like me. We need to make that abundantly clear in the PUBLIC eye not just our own.

  39. There is so much wrong with the dear rabbi’s piece I can’t even begin to point out everything :(.

    Let’s start with this observation:
    The argument that the fundamentalists can only be defeated by – wait for it – more good religion! sounds an awful lot like the argument that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”.

    That’s not an argument that inspires confidence as it evidently signals an arms race.

  40. I think there are several reasons that these old atheists keep being dragged into it.

    One is, they are dead, so can’t disgree.

    Two is, they (like in the example giving from Nietzsche) actually said nice things about religion. Religious people like that, for obvious reasons.

    Third is, they did not engage with the ‘irrelevant’ science, which is supposed to be a postive.
    Well, they didn’t, for the obvious reason that the Big Findings had not happened yet – Big Bang, infinite universe, evolution, and their ramifications for a purported god – are all from after Voltaire, Hobbes, Spinoza. I bet that if this science would have been available, these great minds would have actually used it against religion.

    Actually this whole silly ‘the old atheists were better’ makes me want to counter by saying ‘Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious jews, the forcefulness of Noah, the passion of Mozes, the wit of David, the world-shattering profundity of Salomon? Where is there the remotest sense that rabbi Sachs has grappled with the real issues?’. Puh.

  41. And finally I also can’t believe that the ‘all true morality comes from religion’ is still trotted out and taken seriously by anyone with half a brain.

    This is so trivially false it’s unbelievable – because all sorts of moral guidance from various religions palpably contradicts itself.

    Whatever is left is so meh as to be irrelevant, along the lines of “be nice to people in your tribe and your family”, “say nice things about your god and your religion” and “try to tell the truth at least part of the time”. Some moral guidance.

  42. In addition to what you have already mentioned, I dislike the idea that we need ritual in our lives. I dislike pomp and circumstance and I have no need of a replacement for God and religion in my life.

    I don’t think I am special in that respect, I don’t think that atheists are the only people that can live moral lives without ritual and without an invisible moral compass watching us 24/7.

    As a society we simply do not need a supernatural big brother and we do not need daily/weekly rituals to keep us on the straight and narrow.

  43. Excellent article! And if Sacks thinks he’ll become a murderer if he loses his faith then I’d rather he stay religious. Or just stay away from me and my family.

  44. I do not understand any of this discussion, inasmuch as the rabbi’s logic is flawed. An atheist is someone who does not think there is a god. PERIOD. That has NOTHING to do with morality, ethics, superficiality, history, or anything else.

    It’s like the rabbi is saying “your car has no steering wheel because tropical fruits are almost all red”, and we refute him by discussing fruit.

  45. Also. It seems to me that the rabbi himself studiously avoids talking about god’s existence. So much so that I am not sure he actually believes.

    I left a respectful comment to this effect, and it is still ” in moderation”, even though others were approved.

  46. I think the real argument the good Rabbi tip toes around is that only people who are passionate and organized can hold ground against people who are passionate and organized.
    In other words: If you don’t honker down every sunday to plot the takeover of the world they gonna kick yo butt.
    Sad but maybe true.

  47. It’s not that the “Western civilization will collapse without religion” or that “New Atheists are not serious enough”, the issue at hand is that the hard-to-sustain (actively) atheist way of life is not for many therefore one shouldn’t try to impose it on entire populations.

    Furthermore, there are unique specific reasons why those named countries can sustain a larger share of atheists (or at least appear to be able to for the time being, time could prove otherwise). To name a few reasons: Differently defining atheism, small size of the ‘national society’, non-religious forms of achieving cultural cohesion… it’s all a set of moral beliefs by another name.

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