To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
Dec 14, 2014
I’ve just read Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ 2012 book on science and religion called The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. I strongly recommend it. It resonates very strongly with what I have learned about the relationship between science and religion, says things eloquently that many have of us been struggling to voice for years, and brings to bear a powerful, fascinating, and enlightening rabbinical perspective that draws on a three thousand year tradition that precedes and underlies Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.
Dr. Sacks, the leading Rabbi in the United Kingdom until his retirement in 2013, is a philosopher by training. He did his studies at Cambridge and at Oxford where his PhD was under the moral philosopher – and atheist – Bernard Williams. Also, he is the author of some 22 books, recipient of many awards for those books, and was knighted by the British government. A gifted story teller, he brings an easy erudition to his topics and is a sought-after public speaker. He brings the Hebrew Bible alive – somehow capturing a feeling that the last 3,000 years was just yesterday.
The Great Partnership, in some ways, is a direct engagement with New Atheism and its attacks on religion. Here is an example of how he answers those attacks:
If the new atheists are right, you would have to be sad, mad or bad to believe in God and practise a religious faith. We know that is not so … To believe in God, faith and the importance of religious practice does not involve an abdication of the intellect, a silencing of critical faculties, or believing in six impossible things before breakfast. It does not involve reading Genesis literally. It does not involve rejecting the findings of science.
Debates about science and religion, he notes, have always been with us, but the current debates have
… been waged with more than usual anger and vituperation, and the terms of the conflict have changed. In the past the danger – and it was a real danger – was a godless society. That led to four terrifying experiments in history, the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China.
Today the danger is of a radical religiosity combined with an apocalyptic political agenda, able through terror and asymmetric warfare to destabilise whole nations and regions …
The result is dangerous assault on religion when believers and non-believers should be united:
This is one fight believers and non-believers should be fighting together. Instead the new atheism has launched an unusually aggressive assault on religion, which is not good for religion, for science, for intellectual integrity or for the future of the West.
Schooled in the atheism of old, he challenges the methods and prescriptions of the new:
Atheism deserves better than the new atheists, whose methodology consists in criticising religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing and demonising religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.
Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that candidly … But the cure of bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure of bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.
But the book is much more than a response to New athiesm. It is a tour-de-force overview of the relationship between science and religion in light of the entire tradition of western reason and Abrahamic monotheism. I excerpt below.
Consider two creation stories, one drawing on science, the other on religion.
The scientific creation story tells us that the universe was created 13.7 billion years, that our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, that life appeared not long after, that it grew in complexity through evolutionary processes, and that it brought homo sapiens into being. The religion creation story tells us that God created the universe because of His love for us so that we could know Him and love him. He sent guidance to women and men everywhere through his Prophets and through those who were wise, teaching humanity so that it would mature, and allowing even mistakes and great evils so that we could learn and advance towards the kingdom of God.
Consider them each, Sacks instructs us:
Two rival views, each coherent and consistent, each simplified to be sure, but marking out the great choice, the two framing visions of the human situation. One asserts that life is meaningless. The other claims that life is meaningful. The facts are the same on both scenarios. So is the science that explains the facts. But the world is experienced differently by those who tell the first narrative and those who tell the second.
One of the stories looks for meaning, Sacks tells us, “and that is no small thing, for we are meaning-seeking animals.” And while seeking for meaning includes embracing science, it goes further:
Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. Meaning is not accidental to the human condition because we are the meaning-seeking animal.
To believe on the basis of science that the universe has no meaning is to confuse two disciplines of thought: explanation and interpretation. The search for meaning, though it begins with science, must go beyond it. Science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings.
Although it’s not important in the overall context, I don’t fully agree with his definition of science. I think that it is more than a search for facts and explanations. Rather it is the systematic use of reason for whatever one chooses (consider, for example, the culture of learning and the ongoing cycle of reflection and action in Baha’i communities around the world – that is the application of the scientific method in community growth and development).
Athens and Jerusalem
Athens vs. Jerusalem. Left-brain vs. Right-brain. Reason vs. intuition. Individualism vs. group-orientation.
We invoke these dichotomies to talk about very real differences between people, groups of people, cultures, nations and civilizations. Sacks talks about the origins of modern western civilization as the marriage of Greek rationalism and Jewish monotheism:
Greece and Israel in antiquity offer us the sharpest possible contrast between a strongly left-brain and a strongly right-brain culture. They were both widely literate societies, with a high regard for study and discipleship. They both valued the academy and the sage.
But their cognitive styles were different … They valued different things. The Greeks worshipped human reason, the Jews, divine revelation. The Greeks gave the West its philosophy and science. The Jews, obliquely, gave it its prophets and religious faith.
These two great cultures – both having escaped from the spell of myth – united in Christianity:
The unique synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem that became Christianity led to the discipline of theology and thus to the intellectual edifice of Western civilisation between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. It was a wondrous achievement, a cathedral of the mind. It brought together the Judaic love of God and the Hellenistic love of nature and human reason.
It was … a wondrous creation – but it was as much Greek as Judaic. … It combined left-brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious, overarching structure. We may never see its like again.
The scientific age emerged from this great synthesis. But it has lost its way. It has lost the love of God, its pursuit of meaning, and its religion. To be morally literate in this modern age, you have to understand the consequences:
Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. These were programmes carried out under the influence of ideas produced by Western intellectuals in the nineteenth century to fill the vacuum left by a widespread loss of faith in God and religion.
There is no better illustration of the situation we find ourselves than the Holocaust.
The Holocaust did not take place long ago and far away. It happened in the heart of rationalist, post-Enlightenment, liberal Europe: the Europe of Kant and Hegel, Goethe and Schiller, Beethoven and Brahms.
The problem is not only the insidious anti-semitism of the great continental philosophers:
Voltaire called the Jews ‘an ignorant and barbarous people, who have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition’. Fichte wrote that the only way of making Jews civilised was to amputate their Jewish heads. Immanuel Kant spoke privately of Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and argued for the ‘euthanasia’ of Judaism. Hegel took Judaism as his model of a ‘slave morality’. Nietzsche accused Jews of giving the world an ethic of kindness and compassion which he saw as the ‘falsification’ of natural morality, namely the will to power. Schopenhauer … spoke of Jews as ‘no better than cattle’ and ‘scum of the Earth’.
It is inherent in the intrinsic lopsidedness of science:
First, there is something intrinsically dehumanising in the left-brain mentality. The scientific mind lives in detachment, analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. The focus is not on the particular – this man, that woman, this child – but on the universal. Science per se has no space for empathy or fellow feeling.
None of this is to say that scientists are not compassionate and loving human beings: surely they are. But when science is worshipped and religion dethroned, then a certain decision has been made to set aside human feelings for the sake of something higher, nobler, larger. From there it is a short distance to hell.
Clearly. science by itself is inadequate:
For the sake of human dignity, science must be accompanied by another voice. Not in opposition to science, but as the humanising voice of what once we called the soul. There is no greater defence of human dignity than the phrase from the first chapter of the Bible that dared to call the human being ‘the image of God’.
It is hard to do justice to the fullness and completeness of this book. I’ve only the space to reference a few of Rabbi Sacks’ topics. I can only hope that I’ve shared enough to make you want to go to a library and borrow a copy – or better yet, buy it for your own library. It is that good.
I give the last word to Sacks:
Religion and science, the heritages respectively of Jerusalem and Athens, products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that has been entrusted to our safekeeping, honouring our covenant with nature and nature’s God – the God who is the music beneath the noise; the Being at the heart of being, whose still small voice we can still hear if we learn to create a silence in the soul; the God who, whether or not we have faith in him, never loses faith in us.
In the next blog, we talk about Atheism for Dummies.
This is the 25th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.