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Getting on famously with one another

There’s nothing like a few minutes with another stale, shallow, pseudo-profound, cliché-ridden essay bashing thenewatheists to remind me that harassers aren’t the only assholes out there. This time it’s one by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, via Jesus and Mo. Same old thing – new atheists don’t get it; whither the so much better atheists of yesteryear; religion isn’t scripture it’s meaning; they just don’t get it; foundations of European civilization; materialism and ruthlessness; bankers; fundamentalists; will to power.

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.

Transparently dishonest. Who has ever said that? Name me one new atheist stupid enough and glib enough to say that without religion we would have “a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another.”

What even makes him think that’s what anyone says? The fact that new atheists do claim that religion is very harmful in some ways, and that many claim we would probably be better off without it, or at least with a lot less of it in a much weaker form? Probably that fact, but that claim is very different from Sacks’s fatuous version. We’d be better off without cancer, too, but that doesn’t mean that withouot cancer we would have a serene world of healthy people getting on famously with one another.

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?

Stupid question. Very few people measure up to Hobbes or Spinoza or Voltaire or 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?

Nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture? That’s not true either. He seems to be unable to be accurate or precise or careful about anything he says; it’s all rhetoric and exaggeration. Maybe that’s an occupational hazard for clerics. Maybe he should think about that for a few minutes.

…religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact.

Oh? Western civilization was pretty crappy for many centuries while the church held limitless power – what makes Sacks think the good things about contemporary Western civilization depend wholly on religious foundations? On the whole, Western civilization has been steadily improving as the power of religion declined. What about that then?

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.

That, too, is just flat-out false. And as for “the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life” – oh come on. Endless religious wars, sanctified wars of conquest, inquisitions, crusades – some “sanctity of life.”

He concludes with

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. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

He says that as if religion had done a brilliant job of that “in the long run” – well when and where would that be then?

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting that all the atheists the good rabi so admires have all been safely dead for a century or more. I wonder if in the twenty second century if theists will be remembering Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchins just as foundly?

  2. Emily Isalwaysright says

    The other side of the “sanctity of life” coin is that it produces absolutely horrific conclusions in many ethics papers, particularly in medical ethics. Quality of life should trump sanctity of life.

  3. Hamilton Jacobi says

    I will defend to the death my right to offend those I despise.

    Everyone likes the wit of Voltaire!

  4. Hamilton Jacobi says

    A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also.

    Is the clock ticking already? If not, how will we know when it starts?

  5. chrisho-stuart says

    Doh. I’m an idiot. I read Jesus and Mo, uh, religiously; and this week the author said: “Many thanks to this week’s guest script writer, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.”

    And I was impressed that there was a religious leader who was recognizing the idiocy of claiming a religious lock on virtue, happiness, etc. (Which means, of course, that I neglected to follow the link provided by author.)

    It’s okay… I’m all better now. Nice summary of a long page, author!

  6. says

    You don’t have to go as far as “Endless religious wars, sanctified wars of conquest, inquisitions, crusades” to see how well religion has done on the sanctity of life. Heck, you don’t have to go further than the key sanctity of life issues – euthanasia and abortion. As it stands, the anti-abortion movement is largely routed in religion, and ask women like Savita how that turned out. Oh wait, you cant. Because of “sanctity of life” policies.

    And what about euthanasia? The anti-euthanasia side is largely backed by religious people for religious reasons, but denying euthanasia is to condemn the terminally ill to great suffering. What is so sacred about brute, torturous, bestial survival, stripped of all the experiences and opportunities that give it meaning?

    [Obviously, far from all religious people back these positions – but those who do are mostly religious.]

    Much like the term “family values,” religious groups have taken the term “sanctity of life” and claimed it as inherently their own. But, as we’ve seen just in the last few years in the two key issues where the term is most applied, what is being called “sanctity of life” looks a whole lot more like “privileging of pain and martyrdom.”

  7. Lofty says

    Religious nutters of today reminice of a world where religion ruled. Of course they imagine themselves as the priests-in-charge, not the serfs they crush.

  8. says

    This was also published on the ABC’s “Religion&Ethics” portal a while ago. I read it and briefly thought about writing a rebuttal, but then I figured it wasn’t really worth the effort given the vapid vacuity of the piece and its author. Strawmen new atheists and claims of morality by proxy, nothing new here.

  9. Bruce Gorton says

    Hobbes or Spinoza or Voltaire or Nietzsche

    We’ve moved beyond them.

    Nietzsche’s existential angst has been shown to be overblown, Voltaire’s racism would be viewed as abhorrent to modern eyes, Spinoza’s ordered world suffered a serious head on collision with quantum physics and Hobbes got a stuffed tiger he named Calvin.

  10. bad Jim says

    If he’s wondering where are the atheists who are pondering

    the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom

    then he isn’t reading the endless comment threads at Jerry Coyne’s website which is not a blog.

    Also, too, I think

    the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond

    is rather begging the question.

  11. says

    They know they’re losing the “war” to secular rational thought and have to lie and distort to prop up their invisible friend. The best they can do is trick the ignorant.

  12. screechymonkey says

    Natasha@1:

    Interesting that all the atheists the good rabi so admires have all been safely dead for a century or more. I wonder if in the twenty second century if theists will be remembering Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchins just as foundly?

    Bet on it. Actually, I think there’s a good chance it happens in this century.

  13. Hamilton Jacobi says

    Maybe after PZ’s book comes out, many theists will shift Dawkins over into the “warm fuzzy cuddly atheist” category, even while he is still alive. After all, he did always have a soft spot for Anglicanism, and besides, he doesn’t take any guff from those nasty uppity feminists! (The enemy of my enemy blah blah blah…)

  14. yoav says

    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.

    It wasn’t that long ago that the Judeo part was blamed by the christian side of Judeo-christian for basically anything from killing jeebus to the black death. Maybe the good rabbi should take a break from reading fairytales and spend some time reading about things like the inquisition, blood libels, pogroms and many more examples of the respect the foundation of western society™ had for the sanctity of (not the correct type of christian) life.

  15. Tim Harris says

    ‘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’… one cannot help noticing that none of the qualities that Lord Sacks praises so fulsomely has had the slightest effect on Lord Sacks.

  16. says

    Judeo-Christian “sanctity of life”?

    You mean the 30 Years War? Or the Spanish Inquisition? Or the fucking Holocaust?

    Fuck all, what a fucking stupid thing to say.

  17. says

    A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also.

    Noted… But we’ve a while yet then, I guess…

    Hey. Bootsy Collins is still very much alive.

    (/So chill, Sacks, baby. It’s all keepin’ on keepin’ on, knamean?)

  18. iknklast says

    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?

    Why is it that people assume someone has never asked the questions about the meaning of life just because we came up with a different answer? I find that condescending; I hated it when Kenneth Miller did it, and I hate it here. I have looked from every angle at the meaning of life, and I simply don’t find one. They are making the assumption that someone who came to a different conclusion simply never asked the question, because they believe there is only one possible answer you could reach if you investigated it.

    For my book, when asked about the meaning of life, I think the only possible answer is 42.

  19. Sili says

    Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche?

    Why doesn’t he take that up with theologians such as Augustin, Aquinas and Abelard? Or even better his big fan Martin Luther.

  20. deepak shetty says

    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
    I would guess that the case is quite the opposite. Even if someone proves Jesus is a made up myth , I’d expect Christianity to survive. One more its metaphorical, not literal would make no difference.
    Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life
    They so easily forget the muslims and the hindus and the buddhists too.

    @Bruce
    Hobbes got a stuffed tiger he named Calvin.
    Bwah ha ha ha. Hey wait! Isnt it the other way around?

  21. says

    you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact.

    I see this fallacious metaphor often enough that it deserves a name. A society is not a building; it does not rest on its history in the same sense a building rests on its footings. A society is more like a living organism, with the capability of continually renewing and even resculpting itself (think of the radical transformation of insect larvae into adults).

    (But if we do want to run with the civil engineering metaphor, note that these days, we can even replace the footings of large historic buildings in situ, eg. replacing rotted wooden pilings with modern materials like concrete and polymers. And in fact Western societies have been gradually, over the last few centuries, replacing the rotten wood of _a priori_ moral order with secular ethics based on known human needs.)

  22. says

    Re Eamon/#25:

    I see this fallacious metaphor often enough that it deserves a name. A society is not a building; it does not rest on its history in the same sense a building rests on its footings. A society is more like a living organism, with the capability of continually renewing and even resculpting itself (think of the radical transformation of insect larvae into adults).

    Now that’s actually a decent metaphor, right there.

    And re replacing rotting wood, exactly. And it’s not like it’s a new thing, either.

    It isn’t like this is actually such an obscure phenomenon, Dear Mr. Sacks. But let’s review all the same, as apparently you’re in the slow class…

    See, the earliest human civilizations of any size were fairly brutal affairs by modern standards. And there’s something of a continuum from those to what the various modern states try to make work now. I figure the earliest monarches are a little better than straight out dictatorships really only in that succession is worked out ahead of time, and the relative continuity of the hierarchy did, over time, allow a somewhat persistent social contract between the rulers and the ruled, which could then evolve to something a little less brutally one-sided. If you were lucky, anyway. As in: if it’s been worked out the king actually has to try people (or at least people with any title) in public and declare the charges, his son is generally expected to follow the same rules if he wants to get along as well as he did with folk who might care and might also be armed and/or tempermental.

    That’s one of the things state religions maybe did for civilization: having a proper royal cult turned the tyrant into a king, and the state religions Constantine and Uthman found convenient for their purposes did much the same job. That’s one of the ways religious flakes maybe get to declare their preferred superstition a ‘foundation’…

    But it hardly means anyone* wants the pharoahs back. Shocking, I guess, how we’ve allowed that particular bit of masonry to ‘crumble’, too, innit.

    And the reality is, against the fable propagandists like Sacks sell, it was never about an absolute code. The code was always being worked out and modified over time by humans; it’s just that over the same time, this process has become somewhat less obscurantist. Time was once you declared yourself god and had a priesthood dutifully inform the people regularly that they’d better bow if they knew what was good for them; time moves and and if you had sufficient political acumen maybe you pick your holy man and holy book, or edit it to fit the needs, à la Constantine, and then thereafter if you get a little selective about which rules the constabulary actually bother to enforce, well, again, let’s be practical; who’s going to check whose shirt is of mixed fibres anyway? (Mind, this presents problems, sure; fundamentalists will fundament, given half a chance, and having that canon around was always a hazard that way, but anyway, we’re working with what we got, here…)

    And then take that celebrated Magna Carta; it has a proper ‘in God’s name’ on it, somewhere, but it was a treaty made effectively at the point of a sword (and at best very selectively followed for generations after and only revived as the Rule To Follow somewhat conveniently by a parliamentarian who liked the cut of its jib much, much later). And now lots of modern parliaments argue like mad about what the law’s to be, and if you’re paying attention, what actually winds up written, it’s about a lot of things and power and politics and stability and who may actually protest and who may actually pay and who may actually show up to vote and so on… But some clerk will still have the job of stamping some god’s name on the finished document at the end of the day to make it all official-like, all the same. This is a little more naked than were those earlier emperors who would declare themselves god and then work out just what they could get their barons to tithe as a more practical matter behind closed doors, but the principle’s much the same.

    Now you can protest legislation isn’t morality, but again, the latter’s essentially the same phenomenon, and they do reflect one another. And they do evolve similarly, and are similarly subject to revision. And we do, again, work them out, bit by bit, between ourselves, as we bump up against one another, fight and argue and sometimes get along. We’re social beasts with this curious thing about us called culture that can change vastly vaster than can our biology, and change it does.

    So, seriously: Sacks thinks the Gnus aren’t thinking about this? Huh. Cute…

    I might be more impressed with his self-serving, tediously overexposed smear, if I could see he were. Or at least that he were reporting it with the faintest interest in reflecting something remotely like the reality our civilization has lived.

    (*/Or wait, in fairness, there’s probably people who do. So let’s keep outvoting them, shall we?)

  23. says

    Umm… oh… well.. then can I add:

    (I was gonna anyway…)

    One more thing (I know, I know… wind him up, he just keeps going)…

    I figure I kinda know the minds of hacks like Sacks by now. Next it’s gonna be, oh, look, religion did this great thing, made kings from tyrants, isn’t that great, hallelujah, yadda yadda…

    Let’s not oversell anything. Kings may be a mite better, sure. A little more stability, a few fewer revolutions and violent bloodlettings over succession, that’s nice, sure…

    But until it’s been tamed by time and politics and angry mobs and rebel barons, that’s the only thing that’s better about a monarchy. And lots of places the only way you get anything near a modern democracy out of that is when those pesky and frequently very ugly Enlightenment revolutions get rolling, and various dark threats about nooses made of intestines are uttered. Some places it’s less marked and total than those revolutions, but even there it’s a messy business often beginning in the streets; you don’t get to Elizabeth II and her largely ceremonial role from Henry VIII without a few very ugly brawls. And claiming any religion has a whole hell of a lot to do with any of that is again, typically facile and self-serving. Note that, sure, it took off in Christian Europe first, but it’s not like we particularly see the religious authorities universally egging it on, either, nor is it ever real clear it’s the religion that has a lot to do with that so much as the wealth and prosperity spreading more generally through society, the causes of which may have as much to do with geography as human creeds. And at a more meta level, sure, the priesthood sometimes does get closer to the people than the king they’re supposed to support, and the politics gets complicated, and you get your Romeros and your revolution theology, but that’s no more surprising than the fact that sometimes the people working in the secret police start realizing what they’re supporting with their work really isn’t in their long-term interest either.

    And none of this, of course, again, makes the underlying code laid down by any particular religion at any particular time sacred, nor the religion itself that important, nor at all indispensable. Publicly run programs and less formal community and social groups fill vast areas of the civic roles the old state religions took (public education, especially, not that the religion is always so happy about letting that go). What’s worth discussing at any time, sure, is how well those are filling needs, and that will always be a complicated story, and secular democracies, as relatively new phenomena, are always working on those, and societies in general always tuning, always fiddling, and probably always will be. But this isn’t a sign of some dreadful underlying malaise or decay; it’s the hallmarks of the living, dynamic, changeable things our societies all are.

  24. Anthony K says

    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?

    It’s all there in the books the Gnus have written. You just have to know how to read them the right way.

    Or was Rabbi Sacks just scanning The God Delusion for a chapter literally titled ‘On the Meaning of Life’? And it’s pretty obvious that Hitchens did not literally mean that religion is an actual toxin that disrupts the functioning of everything in the universe. I mean, come on: doesn’t he know a metaphor when he sees one?

    How unsophisticated.

  25. footface says

    It’s not just Sophisticated Theology™, it’s Elitist Theology™.

    “Oh, I know it’s all bunk, but it’s useful bunk. So just let the proles alone. This keeps them quiet.”

    But it’s also Stupid Theology™: of course people believe (at least some of) the “facts” in their Bibles are true. Tell them God isn’t real. Tell them Jesus isn’t real. You know what response you’ll get. Hint: it’s not “Of course they’re not real, but the songs are pretty, and it feels good to believe things.”

  26. brianpansky says

    “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”

    how about I change that to this:

    “the liberal christian writer, believing if they could show that when an atheist debunks first chapters of Genesis…6000 year old earth…etc…this won’t remove all religion”

    which is to say, he points out that those particular topics only address SOME religion, but somehow he thinks his criticism applies to ALL new atheists (or any, for that matter).

    (yes, “right back at you” is one of my favorite things to say, so long as it makes a valid point)

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