Books on Science and Religion #27: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Science and Religion

Books on Science and Religion #27: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Science and Religion

Stephen Friberg

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.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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.

Sir-jonathan-sacksDr. 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.

The-Great_PartnershipToday 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.

athensAlthough 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:

JerusalemGreece 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.

Holocaust-JewsThe Holocaust

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.

image_of_godClearly. 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.

Next Blog

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.

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6 thoughts on “Books on Science and Religion #27: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Science and Religion

  1. How does the scientific creation story, at least based on the short description you gave of it, say life has no meaning? I did not see that in that short description. In fact the description does not look incompatible with the religion creation story you gave us. It just supplies some details on when did the creation of the universe and of life happen, it does not say who caused it or why, so it is not incompatible. Both might even be true.

    1. Hi Tom:

      Good question. I entirely agree with the view that the “scientific creation story” and the religious creation story are compatible and that both are true.

      But that is not the view of many thinkers in the modern intellectual tradition – from Darwin to Dawkins (see Peter Watson’s excellent “The Age of Atheists” for a good survey of thinking on the subject since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God). Nor is it the view of many in the evangelical world, most specifically those in the creationist and the intelligent design movement (see the Discovery Institute’s website or Phillip Johnson’s highly articulate book’s against evolution, e.g., “Darwin On Trial”).

      A couple of quotes from Nobel-Price winning scientists gives a flavor of the views sometimes voiced about the meaninglessness of life. The first is from Steven Weinberg’s highly acclaimed bestseller “The First Three Minutes”, the 2nd is from Jacque Monod’s “Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology”(1971)

      It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning…. It is hard to realize that this all [i.e., life on Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat.

      The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.


      Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypothesis. It is today the sole hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition—or the hope—that on this score our position is likely ever to be revised.

      … The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.

      As studies of the development of scientism and materialism in the 19th and 20th centuries show, these views, although tending towards an extreme, are not at all atypical.

      In an earlier blog, I looked at Victor Stenger’s views in “God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility Science and Religion.” Here is what I wrote:

      Darwin and Design

      As an example of one of these short essays [in his book], consider Darwin and Design (pp. 108-111). First, he briefly describes Darwinian evolution as “a purely natural process that lacked design and purpose.” Then he mentions arguments by Ian Barbour, the scholar credited with initiating the modern discourse on science and religion, noting that Barbour views evolution as more than just blind chance. Denying this, he offers radiation decay statistics as an example of a purely random process (probably a bad example, as it appears to be irrelevant) and concludes that:

      “… when an observed phenomena follows a statistical pattern that can be predicted by pure randomness, then the conclusion can be drawn that the phenomenon occurred spontaneously without action by an outside agent. (Stenger, ibid, p. 109.)”

      That means, he says, that “this is the place where the greatest conflict between science and religion exists in biology.”

      His next step is to argue that anybody who doesn’t believe that evolution is unguided and completely purposeless is not a supporter of evolution, regardless of what they think. Thus, Catholic doctrine supporting evolution by natural selection is, according to Stenger, not support for evolution. The views of Alvin Plantinga (a well-respected American analytic philosopher who has written widely on the philosophical aspects of science and religion) to the effect that evolution is consistent with belief in God? Simply wrong. Rather, such claimed agreements with evolution, Stenger claims, are really beliefs in intelligent design (which he describe as intervention in evolutionary development processes).

      He concludes that:

      “… there is no evidence for design, but there could have been. If God or Superman interfered with the normal course of evolution, it should have resulted in some observable effect in the fossil record.(Stenger, ibid, p.111.)”

      The idea that evolution proves that there is no purpose to life and that religion is a sham is an idea that became extraordinarily powerful at the end of the 19th century, even dominating in many, many European intellectual circles and still very much alive today. Creationism came about as a response to that – a misguided response in my opinion – but a response nonetheless.


      1. Did even Darwin argue life has no meaning? After all, I have read Darwin became an agnostic, not an atheist. So if he believed that God might exist, wouldn’t he believe also that life might have meaning?

    1. Lisa, thanks! The site is fantastic!

      I found the following statement, which I very much agree with:

      At BioLogos, we view evolutionary creation as a description of how and when God brought about all the creatures on earth. We do not see God as distant from this process, for God did not just set up the universe at the beginning and let it go. Instead, he upholds the universe moment by moment, sustaining all things by the power of his word. The regular patterns in nature that we call natural laws have their foundation in the regular, faithful governance of God (see Jeremiah 33:19-26). Thus we believe that God created every species and did it in such a way that we can describe the creation process scientifically. The scientific model of evolution does not replace God as creator any more than the law of gravity replaces God as ruler of the planets.


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