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18 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A very traditional view of science and religion, 31 July 2011
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This review is from: The Great Partnership (Hardcover)
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 (p. 146) In fact, it is the ultimate threat of extrusion -- the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren speak of someone being `withdrawn from' -- and it is a very powerful sanction.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.
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Showing 1-10 of 25 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Aug 2011 17:13:32 BDT
Last edited by the author on 18 Aug 2011 20:43:32 BDT
SHM says:
Good review but I have some questions about the criticisms you make.

Why label this as propaganda? Certainly Jonathan Sacks has definite beliefs in this area - surely no one is surprised by that. But it is not propagandist to explain those beliefs, rationally and intelligently, in a book on religion & science.

The point about meaning is interesting. Doesn't science entirely fail to address the meaning of things? To the question "why are we here?" science says "because we are" or "because of a series of dependent events stretching back to the big bang" (at which point you might ask why did the big bang happen and science would say "because it did"). Explaining the intentions behind events rather than simply their cause requires a belief in something outside of the physical world.

I think you misunderstand the phrase "personal God". Its not about our personal understanding or mental image of God (as you say, everyone inevitably understands something different). It's about God's understanding of each of us personally. The idea that God wants a direct and personal relationship with each of us is an important part of all three religions. Plenty more you can read about this (and you know where to look for info on God).

Jonathan Sacks is trying to draw together those who dismiss religion because of science and equally those who dismiss science because of religion. He is arguing that both extreme positions are mistaken. It's not fair to criticise him for doing so from the position of his own belief if he is doing it openly and rationally. You might even applaud him since you refer to examples of how fundamentalist religious positions have in the past tried to oppose the discoveries of science.

I am interested in the view that there are problems posed by science to religion that can't be adressed by someone with religious belief. What are some examples of those problems?

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2011 11:12:50 BDT
Last edited by the author on 21 Aug 2011 11:16:53 BDT
Stuart, thank you for your comments on my review.

1 `Propaganda' takes its name from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, a Roman Catholic body founded by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 for the organisation and direction of missions to the non-Christian world. `Propaganda' simply means `that which is to be propagated' and is technically correct here. Of course, the word `propaganda' has acquired a sinister connotation from its use by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. But, while the propagandist may embroider the facts outrageously, he (or she) does not knowingly utter a falsehood. Goebbels, for example, believed the propaganda he put out. Apart from the opprobrium in which the Nazi and Soviet regimes are now held, it is questionable whether there is any difference in their use of propaganda and that by religious authorities, both today and historically.

2 If you ask why am I living in the house that I now do, the answer is that 37 years ago my wife and I decided that this was the best house that we could afford at that time in which to bring up our family. If you ask why the species homo sapiens exists, the answer is that homo sapiens has evolved from other humanoid species, and those species in turn have common ancestors with the primates. The answers to `Why' questions always extrapolate backwards in time.

At the same time, we (nearly) always tell stories in the forwards direction, because that is the way memory works. So people naturally ask what happened at the beginning of time, or before the `big bang'; but that does not mean that such questions admit objective answers. Religious authorities are in the business of proposing answers to such questions, and different authorities propose different answers. `Propaganda' is exactly the word to describe those answers.

3 You are quite right, and I was aware when writing that I was abusing the conventional meaning of the term. But, frankly, "personal God" is a poor, clumsy description of what is commonly meant and, as I point out in my review, it happens to have another meaning that is both natural and apt.

4 I agree with Jonathan Sacks (and you) that one can have a religion within the monotheistic tradition that sits happily with both cosmology and evolution - liberal Anglicanism comes to mind. However, there are other religious authorities who feel threatened by the pronouncements of scientists, and their reaction to Richard Dawkins, for example, is an important part of the religious scene. While Jonathan Sacks may appear to be arguing the relation of science to religion in general, he is in fact arguing the case for one particular set of beliefs. There are other beliefs, both within and outside the monotheistic tradition, that conflict with scientific discovery. To propose Jonathan Sacks' resolution to people who hold such beliefs is actually to ask them to modify their beliefs.

5 It has been suggested, on good biographical grounds and by an eminent neurologist, that Ellen Gould White (b. 1827), the founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, may have suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. (The same has been suggested of other religious figures, most notably St Paul and Muhammed). In response, the Seventh Day Adventist Church assembled its own experts, who rejected the notion. That betokens a particular view of the manner of divine interaction with human kind that you and Jonathan Sacks may not share. That view precludes the Seventh Day Adventist Church from engaging with the issue of temporal lobe epilepsy.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are consequent on relative movement of the tectonic plates that make up the earth's crust. Depending on one's view of God's interaction with the world, such events present a problem (see, for example, Jonathan Sacks writing about the Indian ocean tsunami of 24th December 2004 in The Times, 1st January 2005, p. 21).

But the chief problem for religion is religion, specifically the great diversity of belief, both today and historically. Religious belief in general has evolved by a process of natural selection, with many societies dying a natural death. But if one holds a particular contemporary belief, it is not possible to see the process in that way. Instead, one sees only a succession of revelations leading to one's own present state of belief; other contemporary beliefs simply do not fit into the picture. This is apparent in Jonathan Sacks' book.

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Sep 2011 22:21:23 BDT
Hi Doanald
As a (militant) liberal Anglican I have read your review and the comments.
I personally follow Polkinghorne; my faith is a powerful supporter of my science and I allow science to inform and mould my Faith. Binocular vision is a good thing!
I think that diversity is what one would expect - but actually there is a great degree of commonality between religions......
I think that you make a good point in stressing the dangers - that many individuals hold religious views that are anti-scientific. But I would have thought the book encourages such individuals to move to a more rational position, embracing the wonders that science has revealed to us.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Sep 2011 14:39:36 BDT
Michael, thank you for your comments on my review.

1 There is science and there is science, and there is religion and there is religion. The `science' in `Science and religion' is usually cosmology (a debate stemming ultimately from pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church in the early 17th century) and evolution (because, today, of alternative propaganda from creationists in America). Jonathan Sacks has shown that you can have a religion that sits easily with both cosmology and evolution; and with that I, and I am sure you, agree. But there are other religious traditions (American creationists again) for which that is not true. So, when looking at `Science and religion', do we suppose that those other traditions do not exist, or do we look at the full spectrum of religion as it exists in the world today, not just religion as we would like it to be?

Just as, with `Science and religion', we have to choose our religion, so we also have to choose our science. There are other sciences besides cosmology and evolution. Jonathan Sacks (p. 124) excludes the science of human behaviour, because that does not sit easily with religion, not with any religion. Do we, in like manner, suppose that there is no science of human behaviour, or do we look at the full spectrum of science as it exists today, not just at those sciences that pose no problem to religion?

2 You have grown up in a world with a diversity of religions and have yet to ask: Why is it so?

There is, indeed, a great degree of commonality between religions, because religion is a human activity. Religious beliefs are passed from one generation to the next through the medium of language; sub-human species have no language and therefore no religion. But is the commonality anything more than the consequence of religion being a human activity?

3 You are quite right, except that religious belief is not a matter of rational argument; it is not like scientific inference. Each religion has its own world-view that, in turn, determines which authorities/writings/evidence/arguments are deemed relevant and which are not. A religion is a starting position, not a conclusion.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Oct 2011 07:53:10 BDT
Hi Donald (and apologies for previous spelling mistake).
Interesting post which has broadened my thinking - thanks! On reflection I agree that we must consider all religions - but of course this becomes a monumental task.
Similarly we should consider all science. And there is lots of "Bad Science" out there (I enjoyed Ben Goldacre's classic book of that name). This seems to show that while there is a small elite who are carrying out rigorous research the majority of the population just do not get it and are therefore susceptible to the next charlatan who greets them wearing a white coat and carrying a clipboard proclaiming that "science has proved....." And some of the "Scientific Fundamentalists" do not help.......
Your point on the different branches of science is well made. Interested to know what there is particularly about the findings of research into human behaviour that is problematic for theists?
My own view is that science and religion should be on parallel tracks in the quest for a better understanding; in both all truth is contingent because in both areas we are seeking to grapple with great mysteries which we can never expect to fully understand.
Surprised that you should assert that religion is non-rational. I think it was Wesley who taught that Faith should be based on Reason, Tradition, Experience and Scripture. I am no expert on the Great Religions, but it seems clear to me that there was something extraordinary happened in the life of Mohamed which enabled him to return to Macca; similarly something dramatic happened after the death of Jesus; Christians who believe that Jesus rose would say that their belief is evidence based (although of course the evidence is open to different interpretations).
Quite agree that any religion is a starting point and not a conclusion! It should be an exciting journey of discovery! And your point that there is a danger of accepting a religion and therefore rejecting all else is quite true - I think that we can learn from everyone (for example I enjoyed the "God Delusion" - did not agree with his conclusions but he made some very good points).
Best wishes

In reply to an earlier post on 3 Oct 2011 10:41:01 BDT
Michael,

1 `Monumental', possibly, if you start worrying about the nuances of belief as between one religion/denomination/sect and another. But there are many things in common. Compare the public image of Muslim worship with the extremes of conservative evangelical Christianity. There are parallels in reverence for the Quran/Bible and for addressing one's fellow believer as `Brother'.

2 Scientists believe in their science in the same way as everybody else believes in whatever they believe in. So scientific conclusions are the products of belief as well as evidence. Look, for example, at the changing fashions in dietary advice.

Of course, if your real business is marketing ...

3 "A scientific law is one that links one physical phenomenon to another without the intervention of will and choice. To the extent that there is a science of human behaviour, to that extent there is an implicit denial of the freedom of human behaviour." (Jonathan Sacks: The Great Partnership, p. 124). There is a famous experiment by Benjamin Libet and others that suggests that we are merely observers of what takes place in our minds. They showed that a voluntary action begins in the brain before we are aware of willing it! Jonathan Sacks is quite right.

4 But religion is also a social phenomenon open to (social) scientific study. Such study is not going to verify or falsify the tenets of any religion, because those tenets rest on revelation, not observation. But it will illuminate the nature of religion as a social activity.

5 There is a theory that certain prominent religious figures, most notably St Paul and Muhammed, (and other secular figures as well - Adolf Hitler has been suggested) suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. Temporal lobe epilepsy does not lead to seizures; instead, it generates an aura that the sufferer generally lacks words to describe. The religions we have today are ultimately descended from the experiences of such people.

6 The danger you speak of is especially well exemplified by the trials of the Guildford 4, the McGuire 7, and the Birmingham 6 in the 1970s. Once the police had come to believe that these people were guilty, and once that belief had been transmitted through the media to the public at large, there was no way that these people were not going to be sent down for life!

Posted on 7 Nov 2011 22:34:22 GMT
yesspam says:
Rabbi Sacks believes in the supernatural, he believes that g-d wrote every word of the torah, he believes that g-d appeared at Mt Horeb to the Israelites. He believes that Moses and Abraham were real people. He has nothing to tell us as he cannot tell myth from truth using evidence. He does not have to be taken seriously. He is not an academic, or scientist, he should be left with his myths.

In reply to an earlier post on 18 Nov 2011 11:27:12 GMT
Last edited by the author on 18 Nov 2011 11:29:50 GMT
There are very many people besides Jonathan Sacks who believe in the supernatural, who believe that their sacred scriptures (the Torah, Bible, Quran, the Mah‚bh‚rata and the R‚m‚yana) were divinely inspired, who believe that the events recorded in those scriptures really happened. This is a world-wide phenomenon and cannot be disregarded.

The question whether Jonathan Sacks should be "taken seriously" is not a matter of what you (or I ) think, but of the number of people who listen to what he says and read what he writes. His audience extends much beyond orthodox Jewry.

Finally, if you were to post under your own (real) name, you would be less inclined to discourtesy and contempt.

Posted on 25 Nov 2011 20:13:46 GMT
I admire that your review carries some strong opinions but like many others who are likely to be viewing this product I think that there are quite a few misunderstandings in said opinions. I shall only mention the one that left me particularly perplexed, that "Scientific discoveries concerning the origin of the universe" are a problem for theism. Surely the opposite is the case and could scarcely be more so!

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Nov 2011 19:25:57 GMT
Quite agree, Peter.
I am amazed the lengths that some "scientists" will go to in seeking to explain "the story we find ourselves in" in a way that excludes a creator. The theory of the Multiverse, for example, seems to me to be speculation based on an assumption that there was no creator.
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