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A very traditional view of science and religion
, 31 July 2011
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 (p. 146) In fact, it is the ultimate threat of extrusion -- the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren speak of someone being `withdrawn from' -- and it is a very powerful sanction.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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