Sacks vs. Dawkins

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of England, came to visit Kemp Mill Synagogue this past Shabbat as a visiting scholar. I’ve never heard him speak but had read his book The Great Partnership, about religion’s relationship with science.

I had no epiphanies reading this book, but it did reinforce my own thoughts about how I relate to both rationality and religion. Essentially, Sacks’ position is that religion and science don’t contradict each other, nor do they support each other’s claims. Rather they belong to two distinct spheres, both answering different, yet valid questions. Science asks how, religion asks why. Sacks addresses this issue quite eloquently.

With a renewed interest in Sacks, and after hearing that Sacks had debated Richard Dawkins on youtube, I decided to rate their performance and offer my thoughts.

Dawkins’ argument is compelling for any thoughtful, rational person. In particular Dawkins dings Sacks on how he determines whether a particular story in the Torah is to be taken literally or not. You can see Sacks squirm as he’s asked whether the parting of the Red Sea is to be taken literally (Most bible scholars seriously contest the historical accuracy of the entire Exodus and indeed much of the histocracy of the “Old Testament”). Even though Sacks emphatically answers that he believes it all to be true, I can sense Sacks’ discomfort. Belief in Moses and the redemption from Egypt is core to Orthodox Judaism’s dogma. I can’t help but sense that Sacks fears alienating his core constituency. The Lady doth protest too much.

Sacks takes Dawkins’ bait. Dawkins smiles. He then asks about Adam and Eve. Is this story to be taken literally too? Sacks replies not: that’s allegory of course. Dawkins asks how he determines what’s to be taken literally and what’s not? To which Sacks responds with Maimonides’ ruling that anything in scripture that flies in the face of reason should be taken as allegory.

OK, fine. But doesn’t what one sees as reasonable change over time, and doesn’t the perception of what is reasonable depend on the person? I’m not so sure Sacks’ argument flies here. I’d give this one to Dawkins.

But in my opinion Dawkins ultimately falls short in his blanket attack on religion (or at least on Judaism). Here’s why:

  1. Dawkins uses religious fundamentalism as a straw man. He’s really arguing against two types of religious people: the fundamentalist, who he clearly can win against, and the religiously observant, but rationalist. He doesn’t prepare much of an argument against the latter, and Sacks belongs to the latter. Dawkins seems to think that one cannot be a rational and an observant Jew. But one can, because Judaism is primarily a religion of action, not creed.
  2. He shows himself to be ignorant of the rabbinical Judaism (or the Oral Tradition) that Sacks represents. Dawkins insults the God of Israel as being inhumane etc. by (ironically) reading scripture literally. Thousands of years of rabbinical commentary and law clarify scripture. For example, nobody is actually stoned today, nor were many in the past by rabbinic courts, for desecrating the Sabbath. This is because rabbinic law very consciously erects nearly insurmountable barriers to executing capital punishment. Rabbinical Judaism often softens scripture’s decrees by making it applicable to the world we live in. Paradoxically, for the Orthodox, the Oral Tradition, carries as much weight, if not more, than the written tradition. Because of this, in a sense, many strands of Jewish Orthodoxy are less fundamentalist than many Protestant Christians. Dawkins appears to not understand this “detail”, which ultimately undermines his argument.
  3. Dawkins admits that religion serves a noble purpose of providing community and common mores, yet rails against the very traditions that create community and mores. Where does he think these communities and set of common mores come from? Judaism is the result of thousands of years of refinement. It, like other great religions, provides a time-tested (albeit flawed) moral, ethical and spiritual framework with which to operate. Religion provides solid communities based in tradition and family cohesiveness. Dawkins’ solution is a vauge “congress” where we all get together and agree what is morally acceptable and abide by those decisions. This solution is unrealistic and superficial. Even if this congress were to happen, its decisions would be meaningless because they were created out of thin air. Good luck with that.

To modern, literate, and observant Jews Dawkin’s arguments are overly simplistic and uninformed. The two, Sacks and Dawkins, are speaking different languages, but only Sacks truly grasps that. Dawkins would rather have no answer if that answer is not “true”, while Sacks has a broader definition of what “truth” is.

I think Sacks’ point of view is more compelling. Is a great painting not “true” because the paint is not the actual subject it portrays? Do we read great literature constantly asking ourselves “yes, but is it ‘true’”?

There are deeper questions still that Dawkins fails to address and that I suspect Sacks lacked the time to pursue. For example, why did the primordial mass wait around for eternity to expand and contain all that we know? In short the why questions are what make us human. Dawkins proposes that there is no why, that this is a human construct. Fair enough, but aren’t we part of nature too? Isn’t there a reason we ask why? Science will not only inevitably fall short in answering these kinds of questions, but also in answering all the how questions. It uncovers layer after layer of mystery, which is great. But there will always be another layer to explain.