Jonathan Sacks: Shallow New Atheists

Jonathan Sacks: Shallow New Atheists June 17, 2013

From The Spectator:

In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief. Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.

The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’

I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.

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  • Tom F.

    Rome collapsed after it became Christian. (In fact, Edward Gibbon linked Christianity to its decline.) Was Rome’s conversion from Pagan to Christian a “loss of faith” in Sack’s thinking?

    Furthermore, Rome didn’t totally collapse: it moved East and continued for another thousand years. So I don’t buy the historical allusions, and I don’t think it would be good to engage in argument with atheists based off of these sorts of allusions. Perhaps Sacks or Durant goes into more detail somewhere else; certainly what is present here is not enough.

    I am no fan of the new atheists. However, the problem with Sack’s position is that it may not lead one to have faith in God or Jesus, but faith in faith. Benjamin Franklin would be the epitome of this position. Franklin could see the practical benefits of religion for social cohesion, and so he would recommend things like prayer even as he was quite confident that prayer would change nothing.
    I am not sure that sort of faith is really sustainable. You might even call that sort of belief, “Old Atheism”. Old Atheism says there probably is no God but don’t directly criticize religion since it keeps a social order.

    I think arguments from social order are helpful to counter new atheists accusations about how religion is degenerative to society. New Atheists say we would be better of as non-believers, and these sorts of arguments help to say that no, perhaps we would be worse off in some ways.

    But, I think we also need to be mindful of the limits of these sorts of arguments, and realize that this sort of argument can only go so far.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Tom F.

    Good point but off the main point. Of course, in whom our faith is placed, indeed its author, is crucial for a Christian. But the good rabbi’s point is more about the dangers of fundamentalism – atheistic, secular or religious. This multi-sourced kind of thinking and doing is indeed a great danger, probably our most problematic at the moment. Have you read Sacks’ “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning”? His effective critique of the fundamentalist atheists is amplified there.

  • Scott Gay

    Rod Dreher, on The American Conservative, posted on this very piece from The Spectator. He added quotes from Heidegger to give further emphasis. Both Sachs and Heidegger were thoroughly trashed in the comments of that blog( You’ll have to go there, because I don’t care to talk about it). Dreher’s main point was that we are going to have a god, one way or the other. Which one?
    That the new atheists are more shallow than the old atheists isn’t any more true or false than saying the new Christians are more shallow. The thing that I find most interesting about this rabbi’s article, is that many people take family and community with some virtue ethic as the sustaining factors. Sacks doubts a secular culture can maintain them. I think my point is that I doubt they are the sustaining factors at all. And I concentrate very much on the beatitudes/catholic virtues/fruits of the Spirit. I just disagree on how they are generated and the process of them being sustained individually or culturally.

  • John L

    “The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single
    truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they
    are actually devotees of the will to power.”

    Sacks’ essay resonates deeply. The only “single religious truth” I’m aware of is unconditional love – a love given freely, never imposed. The group dynamics of religion and belief seem mostly about imposing, not giving. More about accumulation than emptying. More about winning than loving.

  • Shane Scott

    “Jews don’t do that.” Maybe he should read your dissertation, Scot! 🙂

  • ajginn

    So the only way to combat the threat to civilization from religion is … religion? How does that work exactly?

  • Jakeithus

    The threat isn’t so simple as simply saying “religion”, in the same way the defense isn’t simply “religion”.

    If you read the article, he identifies the threat as people who “Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power.” It’s not the religion that’s the problem, it is an overwhelming desire to express power over others that Sacks identifies as the threat.

  • Andrew Dowling

    While I’m not a fan of the so-called ‘new atheists’ (which often does resemble the fundamentalism it says it abhors), I don’t see the evidence that family disintegration necessarily mirrors secularization. Look at the U.S. and Australia. About 7.5% of Australians regularly go to Church, compared to the U.S.’s 43%, but the U.S. has significantly greater divorce rates and rates of single-parent homes. And many of the least churched countries in the world (Albania, Switzerland, Slovenia) also have much lower divorce rates and single family household rates than we do. And even though Scandinavia have similarly high divorce rates to the U.S. (although only Sweden’s is higher), families there routinely report greater happiness and time spent with their children (especially for fathers) than we do.

    And I’m not sure there is clear evidence pagan Rome ever ‘lost its faith’ with paganism. It’s not my subject of expertise, but I don’t recall ever reading about some wave of atheism in the Roman Empire (And Epicurus, truly a brilliant thinker, was a deist not an atheist). To the contrary, one reason Christians began suffering persecution was that they failed to make offerings to the gods and thus were labeled atheists by the Roman authorities!

  • Tom F.

    Hi, Bev. Thanks for the interaction.

    I think he lost me with the poor historical allusions. “Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell
    calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of
    social cohesion’.” (So problematic: what “faith” is being lost, what exactly does “civilized” mean- most of the “barbarians” were Christian, and many had obtained Roman citizenship…Let’s be clear, for Russel, the real Empire he is writing about is the *British* empire.) Again, I agree that the cohesion factor is there, but I disagree that it was caused by a loss in religion. The Roman collapse in Western Europe is a massively complicated process that should not be linked so flippantly to Rome’s “loss of soul”, whatever that means.

    In fact, both Constantine and the apostate emperor Julian both explicitly used religion, Christian or Pagan, to try and shore up their legitimacy and to build social cohesion. That is, they intuitively grasped what Sacks is talking about here, and each undertook an explicit program of government sponsored religious cohesion building (obviously in different directions). And yet, a century or two later, the Western empire was worse off. Wouldn’t Sack’s theory predict that they would be better off?

    If Sack’s is taking on fundamentalists, great, and those parts I have no issue with. But I worry that justifying religion more broadly in this way strengthens the Constantinian impulse and solidifies the Constantinian compromise: the church offers social cohesion to the government, and the government grants the church many nice rights and priviledges, but then the government expects the church to become a defender of the status quo. Look at the history in Spain, or several examples in Latin America. How much more legitimacy would the church have in speaking to and challenging both the facist and Marxist inspired political groups if it weren’t already identified with the status quo?

  • Bev Mitchell


    You’re way ahead of me in that area of history, thanks for the elaboration. I share your concern re too cosy relationships between Church and state. As for Sacks, I like him for other reasons. A selection of example quotes from Part 1 of the book I recommended show his abilities in challenging atheists/agnostics and/or give a small taste of what is so impressive about his writing.

    “The Jewish way is first to live God, then to ask questions about him.”
    “We exist because we are not alone. Religion is the cosmic drama of relationship.”
    “Faith is not a form of ‘knowing’…… It is…. a mode of listening.”
    “Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty.”
    “The responsible life is the one that responds. In the theological sense it means that God is the question to which our lives are the answer.”
    “When the Hebrew Bible wants to explain something, it does not articulate a theory. It tells a story.”
    “Wisdom is about the world God makes, Torah is about the world God calls us to make, honouring others as bearers of God’s image, exercising our freedom in such a way as to not rob others of theirs.”
    “In the Bible, people talk to God, not about God.”

    I won’t go on, having once tried to capture all of the first rate quotable lines in this book and failing for lack of time. I remember coming away from the book thinking that this fellow and John Wesley would have been the best of friends. They would have disagreed on the inevitability of sin but the areas of agreement would have been legion. His thinking is as fine an example of postconservative thinking (In the sense used by Roger Olson) as there is.

    On another tack, and with reference to your historical interests, what do you think of Peter J. Leithart’s “Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom”. I haven’t read it but it’s been recommended.

  • Tom F.

    Granted, Sacks may be much better on theology, and perhaps even better on modern political thought. Perhaps I will give him a read.

    I heard about and haven’t read Leithart’s book. I did do my honor’s thesis in undergrad about transitional emperors and kings in the late classical/early medieval era.

    My sense of the battles back and forth about Constantine are basically proxy fights for currently competing models of evangelical Christian engagement in politics. Just like Rusell was writing with one eye on the Roman empire and one eye the British empire, a sudden interest in and debate over Constantine is hard to disentangle from the current intramural debate among evangelicals as cultural influence has begun to decline.

    I might have to take a look nonetheless, though, and thanks for the recommendation.