on 31 July 2011
Jonathan Sacks, the author, is Chief Rabbi, the head of the United Synagogue, which is the umbrella association of Orthodox Jewish communities in this country. He is possessed of deep and sincerely held beliefs that manifest themselves throughout this book.
In the chapter on Morality, for example, he would like to say that "religion is important to morality, even vitally so." (p. 145) But, in truth, people living in such close proximity as we do have to have a morality for social life to be possible. Even colonies of chimpanzees and troupes of baboons have moralities. Moreover, morality is different in different societies and it evolves. So, much of this chapter consists of regrets at the way contemporary morality in our society has evolved from that with which the author grew up. Religious philosophers like to suppose that it is "The fear of God" that "holds societies together as moral communities." (p. 146) In fact, it is the ultimate threat of extrusion -- the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren speak of someone being `withdrawn from' -- and it is a very powerful sanction.
The trigger for this book was an advertisement in January 2009 paid for by the British Humanist Association. The sides of London buses carried the slogan "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." Jonathan Sacks finds the assault of the new atheists on religion unwarrantedly aggressive, and presents instead a rapprochement between his own beliefs and contemporary science. The result is a personal credo of a very traditional cast -- "an openness to science, a commitment to engagement with the wider culture of the age, and a belief that faith is enhanced, not compromised, by a willingness honestly to confront the intellectual challenges of the age." Readers whose beliefs intersect those of the author will find this attempted reconciliation between religion and science reassuring, especially from so prominent an author; but readers of a different orientation will find that it fails to get to grips with the issues.
Jonathan Sacks says that the present `stand off' between religion and science is inherited from Greek philosophy and science and is not a part of Hebrew culture. But that ignores the central issue. Scientific discoveries concerning the origin of the universe and of mankind revealed that some religious authorities had been telling porkies. What other lies had they put about? This is not an allegation that any religious authority can tolerate and so we are embarked on a propaganda battle, including, most famously, the house arrest of Galileo and the conflict between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, at the British Association meeting in Oxford in 1860. `The Great Partnership' is a further contribution to that battle.
The overarching thesis of this book is "Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts thing together to see what they mean." Those two sentences are repeated three times, in italic, in the first part of the book. But what does the author mean by `meaning'? "Meaning is made and sustained in conversations. It lives in relationships: in marriages, families, communities and societies. It is told in narrative, enacted in ritual, encoded in sacred texts, celebrated on holy days and sung in songs of praise." (p. 77). In short, `meaning' signifies membership of a religious community, and membership of the community is of particular importance to orthodox Jews, possibly more so than to any other religion. But it would have been less confusing to have called this `membership of a religious community' and left the word `meaning' to describe the explications provided by natural science.
This book does seek to bridge the gap between religion and science--but not the science of human behaviour (except for one page on Simon Baron-Cohen's theory of autism). The science of human behaviour is excluded because it is thought to deny the freedom of the will, and at this point the author fails to understand what `free will' is. The same action - choosing a match, say, to the apparent size of a disc - can simultaneously appear determinate to the psychologist conducting the experiment and voluntary to the participant considering how big the disc really is. So being `determinate' or `free' is not a property of the action per se, but of its relationship to the vantage point from which it is observed. My actions are voluntary, but yours are determinate. Daily life is what it is precisely because we are able to predict what people around us will do.
Jonathan Sacks seeks to argue on behalf of all three Abrahamic faiths, rather than just Judaism, and speaks of a `personal God'. I suspect that he does not mean exactly what he has written. The notion of God that we inherit from our culture is nebulous, and we each have to fill that notion out with images from our own experience with the result that everyone has a slightly different, in some cases very different, mental image of God -- literally a `personal God', as in `personal computer'. So, whose mental image corresponds the most closely to the reality `out there'? I see no reason why any one person's image, even the Chief Rabbi's, should be authoritative over everyone else's.
Religion therefore involves a great deal of imagination that is private to the individual. When those imaginings are projected on to the world outside, problems begin. While one might imagine that God should do something about tsunamis, to take one recent example, the reality is that mere imagination can achieve nothing. Again, on 11th September 2001 eight al-Quaeda operatives piloted two airliners into the World Trade Center in New York. Although everyone shouts `terrorists', those eight were in fact imagining a God in the Islamic tradition, but a different God, and, let it be noted, were willing to die for their faith.
This book fails to address the problems posed by science to religion, religion in general, not just Judaism, because the discourse is constrained throughout by the author's own beliefs. Belief is not just assent to a corpus of propositions; it also identifies those sources of evidence that are to be considered, and those to be rejected, and fashions the world view within which that evidence is interpreted. If one's world-view is sufficiently traditional (and Jonathan Sacks' view is very traditional), the problems posed by science today simply do not surface. Like all propaganda, readers' reactions to this book will vary widely depending on the extent to which it chimes with their pre-existing states of mind.
on 3 December 2011
I found The Great Partnership in my local library, somewhat to my amusement, under the heading `Books from Above.' But it turned out that all it meant was `Books normally kept upstairs.'
It took me rather longer than I anticipated to get into it. This may have something to do with the time I spent retrieving it from the other side of the room every time I came across a piece of laughably bad science, warped reasoning, or, in view of the mutuality implied in the title, blatant prejudice on behalf of his own `side'.
On Page 1, for example, I came across the assertion that `The Bible first taught the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the imperative of peace and the moral limits of power.' Quite a big claim, I thought, and, being accompanied by apparent endorsements of genocide and slavery, possibly in need of some qualification. Whether it antedates Homer and the Athenian tragic poets, who deal with the same themes, among others, is again a moot point.
The implication in the title of a parity of esteem between religion and science is buried by the end of Page 1 with a statement that `Science invokes the power of reason, religion the higher power of revelation.' In what way higher? (Similarly, although he says he `embraces' both science and religion, when in Chapter 1 he sets side by side his `two stories' of the creation, scientific and religious, the first is full of put-downs: `merely', `blindly', `sheer random happenstance.' The second is told with breathless awe.)
Turn to page 2, and we find a dire warning about the `godless society', which `led to four terrifying experiments in history: the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Communist China.' Were these really any worse than the Crusades, the extirpation of the Cathars, the Thirty Years War or the conquest of the New World, all conducted in the name of God?
He tends to proceed by way of slick but suspect rhetorical antithesis. Several times he repeats this gem: `Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.' This view of science as purely reductionist process is consistently pursued, but this is to ignore the majestic syntheses that are the basis of the great `theories', in the scientific sense of the word: evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, plate tectonics etc. These represent individual and collective achievements which are among the highest endeavours of mankind, and to belittle them is unworthy. And the use of the word `mean' is obviously begging a very large question, about intentionality in the universe. It's all right to talk about `meaning' in a subjective sense, and associate it with right-hemisphere activity, but if so, the domain has to be shared with philosophy and the arts, at least, and not claimed as the exclusive province of religion.
Theologians like to rebuke writers like Dawkins and Hitchens on grounds of ignorance of theology. Here the roles are reversed. The most risible piece of cod science is related to the right/left brain hemisphere split, where the right hemisphere is holistic, synthetic, creative; the left is analytical, sequential, interpretive. No problem with that. But to assert that because Hebrew is read from right to left, what is written in Hebrew provokes holistic thought because the head moves to the right (does it?), while Greek, being read from left to right, encourages analytical processes. No experimental evidence is cited to indicate, for example, that reading Arabic lights up different brain segments from reading English. Quite apart from the simple fact that primary linguistic experience is oral, and written is secondary, is he really suggesting that Wernicke's area migrates to the other hemisphere when I read from right to left?
But there's more: Semitic languages are written without vowels. This, apparently, is a device for ensuring that you read all the words in a sentence before you try to divine their meaning, whereas Greek, which does represent vowels, allows you to interpret sequentially, so your holistic faculties are suppressed. Hence the difference between Hebrew theology and Greek philosophy. And we can generalise: he realised, in a Eureka moment, that scripts written without vowels run right to left, those written with vowels run left to right. (Some have thought, clearly erroneously, that the direction of a script is more to do with the nature of the materials used for creating written records and the fact that a majority of scribes are right-handed.) A clear correlation is asserted, although it's not clear which way round the causality flows. But it's clearly felt to be more than just coincidence. So it turns out that I have spent 50 years as the victim of an international conspiracy of philologists who believe that the reason why Semitic languages dispense with vowels is that their lexicon is largely composed of `triliterals', where a sequence of 3 consonants unambiguously indicates a lexical significance, which is sufficient to convey the meaning. Greek on the other hand has no such luxury: if you encounter the sequence `krs' you have no way of knowing whether it's referring to boys, girls, opportunities, lords, helmets, fate, sleep, shrimps, meat, horn etc. So vowels became a functional necessity. Scripts are very like organisms, in that they evolve and speciate, but at any point in time are in tune with the cultural environment that they serve.
In the second part of the book, which is devoted to the penalties of losing faith, he is on more comfortable, theological ground, but still confusing to an outsider. When he talks about the benefits of `monotheism' (sometimes `Abrahamic monotheism') it's not clear whether he is talking up monotheism in general, or Judaeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism, or Judaeo-Christian monotheism, or Judaic monotheism without the contamination from the Greek philosophical tradition introduced by St Paul. But anyway, arguments about the social and personal benefits of religious belief have absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether religious assertions about the nature of external reality are true, or even believable.
One theme however I did find interesting, and it's one of his favourites: the contrast between Christian theology, which he characterises as a `theology of comfort' (aligned in this sense with the Greek comic tradition) and Judaic, which he calls a `theology of protest', more akin to the Greek tragic tradition - although I don't think he'd thank me for the comparison. One generally thinks of the role of prophets as being to extol the virtues of the Almighty, but the Hebrew prophets seem to spend at least as much of their time slagging the old boy off, which perhaps lies at the root of the more vigorous Jewish intellectual tradition and reluctance to conform.
A relatively brief chapter towards the end is also interesting: `When Religion Goes Wrong'. He deals with the dangers of scriptural literalism, and insists that sacred texts must always be viewed through the prism of expert interpretation - though he makes no mention of the problem of clerical dictatorship that the Reformation set out to solve by making the Bible available in the vernacular. He also addresses, without acknowledging the conflict, `the Lure of Power', and insists that religion and politics (= power) must always be kept separate, as in Jesus' injunction to `Render unto Caesar,' a plea for purely secular government which I can only endorse. He also warns against `Single Vision' and `Messianic Politics', both clear and present dangers, but also against `Dualism', a rather more arcanely theological issue. His reasoning is that, although it gets you off the hook of theodicy, it introduces an external entity to which `the other' may be assigned, and once assigned, exterminated. I rather feel that humanity has demonstrated such a powerful instinct in this direction that theological analysis is less helpful than psychological.
In the final chapter, `Why God?', he returns to the arguments of utility, some valid, some iffy; but, in the end, we can't choose what to believe, so all finally irrelevant.
So a disappointing read. By the end the `Partnership' is all but extinguished.