New Atheism — a rabbi’s riposte

by
13 September 2011

Peter Forster finds an impressive defence of monotheism

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The Great Partnership: God, science and the search for meaning
Jonathan Sacks
Hodder & Stoughton £17.99
(978-0-340-99524-2)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

JONATHAN SACKS is a prolific author, but I suspect that this book will be his most influential. It reads as an intellectual autobiography, an apologia pro vita sua. Written in the closing years of his time as Chief Rabbi, it is, in part, a sustained re­sponse to the challenge of the “New Atheism” in our midst.

Although expressed from a proudly Jewish perspective, it is fundamentally a defence of biblical monotheism. Monotheism gives life meaning, and without faith in a transcendent God it is much harder to sustain a strong moral framework in society. Religion is the cosmic drama of relationship, and it is only out of a relationship with God that truth, beauty, and goodness can properly be recognised.

He turns the tables on atheism. To the critique that religion pro­vides the false comfort of an imagined father-figure, he responds that atheism is the dumbed-down illu­sion that there is no father figure, and hence the widely acknowledged superficiality of so much of modern secular life.

Academically, Sacks’s greatest interest is in philosophy, and there are interesting sections on the nihilism that reached its most developed form with Nietzsche.

Nietzsche had insisted that the death of the Christian God would re­sult in the death of Christian moral­ity, which he despised as the moral­ity of slaves. Intellectually, Nietzsche reached the conclusion that politics was the will to power, and that the strong should eliminate the weak. It was left to Nazism and Communism to put this into prac­tice.

This leads to some perceptive observations on contemporary politics, and an insistence that a politics that recognises the res­traint of God upon pure power will promote a strong civil society, in order to counterbalance the power of the state. In this, civil society’s respect for marriage and family life is crucial for the transmission of moral character.

Christians will want to embrace much of this vision, which offers many helpful correctives to parts of Christian tradition. The stumbling block, as ever, is the Cross; without it, sin tends to be regarded in merely Pelagian terms, as a tendency that we have the power to correct, and evil is not finally confronted. Judaism is just one of several ways in which God has revealed himself, and there is no missionary imperative.

The title of the book is a little misleading, in that there is relatively little discussion of science, and what there is fails always to convince. Sacks’s expertise lies elsewhere, but it is a massive expertise, and this is a prophetic book.

Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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