Jonathan Sacks is right: the new atheists have only opened a discussion

13 June 2013

There is a superb piece in the magazine this week by the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, titled ‘Atheism has failed: only religion can defeat the barbarians.’  Whether you agree with his diagnosis or his preferred remedy, it is a characteristically thought-provoking and vital piece.

It is the third piece in the magazine this year to address this theme. In January there was a piece by me, ‘Call off the faith wars: atheists vs Dawkins’.  Then in April came Theo Hobson’s piece ‘Richard Dawkins has lost: meet the new new atheists’

Claim your gift

I know there are some non-believers in particular who find this debate uncomfortable or frustrating. But my impression is that there are a far larger number who find it rewarding, having felt for some time that the discussion needs to go beyond the ‘Is it true?’ rut. As the Chief Rabbi shows, the place the ‘new atheists’ have taken the discussion to is not the end of a discussion but really just the beginning.

Subscribers can read Rabbi Sacks’ piece here. Non-subscribers can join us today from £1 an issue.


Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
  • SimonNorwich

    Douglas, sometimes you talk a lot of sense, and other times I just don’t know what you’re on about. This is a case of the latter. The “beginning” of what?

  • Baltaczar

    “‘Atheism has failed: only religion can defeat the barbarians.’ ”

    Barbarians is a very good description of the zionist atheists such as Herzl, Weismann and BenGurion who founded the Jewish state

    • Summer Seale

      I’m proud that they founded the Jewish state, and I’m proud that they were atheists like myself.

  • CraigStrachan

    “I know there are some non-believers in particular who find this debate uncomfortable or frustrating”

    No, it’s just a bit marginal. Diverting, perhaps, but not exactly pressing.

  • Daniel Maris

    We need some disambiguation.

    Organised religion is not synonymous with belief in God. There are plenty of non-believers who go to Church, Mosque or Temple and plenty of believers in a supernatural creator who don’t.

    Atheism is most definitely not just an absence of belief in theism. As someone who is probably more a deist than anything else it’s obvious that they also don’t have belief in deism. Atheists are invariably in my experience materalist (or now physicalist) monists in a positive sense – that’s what they believe.

    Belief in another dimension to existence – a spiritual realm – is shared by theists, deists, polytheists and, effectively, others such as Buddhists.

    Secularism is not the same as atheism or agnosticism. A theist can be a secularist.

    Ethics can be arrived at by a number of routes but there is strong evidence some religions (through their most sacred texts) promote evil e.g. caste-based persecution, enslaving of people, creation of second class citizens, abuse of children etc. So religion or indeed belief in God is no guarantor of morality.

    • allymax bruce

      A thief can be a secularist.

      • Daniel Maris

        A Scotsman can be an idiot.

        • allymax bruce

          An idiot can be of God; in-deed, having no ideals forgives the millstone of being human. However, you, Daniel, are not an idiot; your ideals, values, and identity are inextricably bound, by/to, being human.

  • Liberanos

    The man talks to invisible dead people, who tell him what to believe, eat and wear.
    We take him seriously. Right?

    • Fred Scuttle

      Worse than that, he has an imaginary friend, the alleged creator, that wants him to mutilate the genitals of boys. I have to ask why the creator doesn’t simply arrange for boys to be born pre-mutilated.

      • Arturaski

        That’s the kind of question which could get you into trouble.

        • Fred Scuttle

          What kind of trouble?

          • Arturaski

            Oh, you know, asking pertinent questions and making people unreasonably angry with you for daring to do so.

      • Liberanos

        That mutilation rites, a ghastly hangover from the iron age, still persist, along with food and clothing superstitions, is a tribute to gullibility and ignorance.

  • Fred Scuttle

    I’m an atheist, but willing to be converted. Which god has the most evidence for existence?

    • Daniel Maris

      The deist God.

  • Mos bos

    I always liked Murray but why does he have to cite a Rabbi now? And does his (Rabbi) view on anything else than the superiority of the Children of Abraham over everyone else is even credible?

  • HY

    Only one religion will prevail. Only when the infidels are finally defeated will we all live in peace.

    • Abhay

      Only one religion!!??

      Your totalitarian view will be defeated. Rest assured.

      • HY

        My Dear Abay,
        Strongly suggest that you and the other five numpties develop a sense of humour.
        Have a nice day!

        • Newcombe

          Obviously sarcasm is not their strong suit.

        • Tim Reed

          The problem is, these days your original comment could well have been genuine, unfortunately.

          Poe’s Law has never been more relevant!

    • Fred Scuttle

      Praise the mighty Thor!

      • Arturaski

        Now that is a god worthy of the name. Perhaps a few of the Hindu gods, too. I’d add Shiva to my deities smorgasbord. And any god with an elephant’s head is a winner.

    • Eddie

      Yes, the Jedi religion is the fastest growing religion in Britain, apparently. Now they just have to burn/hang/flay all the infidel Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Atheist, Agnostic scum. Then we can all live in peace. Bless…

      • allymax bruce

        Your second sentence made me laugh, but that’s only because it challenges the illogical rationalism of human reasoning. Your sentence is closer to Truth than anyone’s comment here. It correctly illuminates what is ‘religion’, through the single-sexed lense of prejudice; absolute religion. It, your sentence, has both Yin and Yang.
        For instance, ‘when God made man, He made him both male, and female’; this is the ambiguity, and terminal illness, of choice, or, rational reasoning. Upon which, predisposed, we choose life, in ‘rational hedonism’, (old fox), materialism, (Marx), or Spirit of God life everlasting, (Jesus); you pays yer money, and takes yer choice. Sacks/Murray argument is Marxist, because they value material gain; the deity of the corporate body, over all. But then, all Jews & atheists use God as truth of their ‘death instinct’, (Freud), they cannot separate mind, and body. Or, rather, they choose not to! Christianity, that which Jesus was, is the Spirit of God. What man makes in religion, is not of God.
        Jesus is The Way.

  • Old Fox

    On the contrary – I’ve just read that article and he’s talking rubbish. Relativism is not the only variety of atheism and to offer Nietzsche as the acme or logical consequence of “unbelief” – don’t you just love that “un”? – is Aunt Sally tactics at their worst. The former Pope used the same trick – get rid of God and you have to accept Nietzsche. Then, just like old mad Friedrich, you get rid of mercy, pity, peace and love. Has Lord Sacks even considered the obvious counter argument? That “God” is merely a symbolic expression of these high ideals; a mystified form of conscience? That mercy, pity, peace and love come first? OK, so do their opposites, but these have been cheerfully ascribed to God, too – when the Church or the Mullahs felt or feel like it: Smite your enemies, Lord – great is the Shoe-bomber or the Crusader! As for the Chief Rabbi’s lucubrations on the Roman Empire, I can only say Heaven help us! First he elides the Epicureans with Lucretius – three centuries accounted for with a sweep of the sacerdotal gown – and then blames them for The Decline and Fall. Some would say, with a good deal more plausibility, that it was dear old Christianity which brought that about. So the epicures sit tight in their gardens; the monks fled to the mountain top and moaned in their monasteries; meanwhile, in swept the un-resisted barbarians. Two can play at that game, Lord Sacks. Come on, Murray; the way to beat fanatical religion is not to set up its mirror image, far less a cosy domesticated “Judeo-Christianity” so popular with a certain sort of stuffed shirt Standpoint Conservative. It is to have the guts to say it’s nonsense and nonsense at every level. Contrary to Lord Sacks, it is probable that unless the west finds the courage to live out its REAL beliefs – of rational hedonism, individual liberty and vigorous competition for the good things of this, our one and only life so far, with precious little evidence of any other – it will go down. And if or when the Muslim occupation gets going I’ll bet the first to rat or renege on these priceless cultural achievements will be those with lingering respect for the asinine certainties of religion.

    • DrCrackles

      So, what are you doing to prevent the Islamic occupation of Britain?

      • Old Fox

        Replying more to myself than Dr Crackles, I wish to retract – as a fairly inadequate Christian – the anti-religious element in my diatribe. The more subtle argument is to say that, firstly, whether or not a religion is useful or enables a society to cohere is irrelevant to the question of its truth; and that secondly, where religion or indeed where any belief system is concerned, the matter of its truth is inescapably paramount. Were this not so, then what would prevent a Sacks or a Murray preaching paganism to pagans? After all, in overturning the polytheism of the ancient world, Christianity may well have weakened a thousand strands in the broad cultural fabric which held the Roman Empire together. In that respect, the established religions of Rome were undoubtedly useful. And yet, because they believed their message to be TRUE – not “useful”, the early churchmen did not hesitate to run this risk. Following on from that, if most people today cannot sincerely accept the truth of our established religion, Christianity, it is useless to say what a useful truth it is. The religious often accuse the atheists of blindness – well, then! How often has an account of how useful it is to see something enabled anyone to do it? Therefore the west of today can only unite around that body of thought to which religious and irreligious alike can feel allegiance and which really distinguishes it from the rest: Liberalism – classical, not radical. In letting my impatience with this oversight in the Sacks-Murray line (which also involves flattering that father of all pseuds, Nietzsche) I let the rage of argument get the better of me and overstated my case.

        • John Court

          If you don’t use religion, how would you “enable a society to cohere”. The vast majority of people don’t (perhaps can’t) reason about or understand morality per se, and will misunderstand classical liberalism as amorality.

          • Old Fox

            Well, the old reply to your question was nationalism. Because it made few truth-claims, it was almost immune to rationalist objections. Indeed, some rationalisms had to endorse it, as one of those passions of which reason is held to be the slave. It supported all customs and institutions in an aspic of patriotic sentiment – monarchies, parliaments and even religions – think of Dostoevsky’s “Russian Christ” and you have the idea. As a result, it gripped your vast majority with ease. Why can’t we use it now? The shadow of the Third Reich is a long one. Worse, our current “Liberal practitioners” to give them Matthew Arnold’s designation, are so fearful of all that Hitler represents and so one eyed in their inability to fit Bolshevism into their historical perspective, that they have been galloping away from this answer with all their might since 1945. Only Powell tried seriously to blow the whistle on this long drawn out hysteria and look at what happened to him. Admittedly, he sounded the clarion with a rather shrill note. Nevertheless, as the brink of Eurabia approaches, someone must give the warning once again, before it is too late. And religion? Religion will bask happily as it always has done in the salty waters of demographic stability and cultural conservatism. It takes, however, a mind at least acquainted with non-religious perspectives to understand the right ordering of these things – conserve and stabilise your culture first; then you get religion. Lord Sacks’s way, putting religion first, just results in cant and uplift. They don’t last very long.

        • Newcombe

          Old Fox, you write very well.

          But I don’t think all religions are equal. In terms of wars, conquest and subjugation, islam takes the biscuit with futher down in second place, Christianity, but the latter one is now just a shadow of its former self – overtaken and defeated as it is by the (comparatively) more recent and bloodier usurper.

          Enjoyed reading your comments.

          • Old Fox

            I quite agree. Islam is the clear and present danger – indeed a mortal threat – to this country and to its European neighbours. They have us within their sights. Our masters seriously underestimate or wilfully ignore the charms of political and cultural reaction. They imagine that consumer durables will do the jobs of confidence, demography and military preparedness in tackling the threat. All the evidence so far is against them, except perhaps in Turkey. But if, even in the heart of the west, young Muslims are so beguiled by the narrow intensities of cultural chauvinism that they can behead a man in broad daylight, then this answer – what Leavis would have called, this technologico-Benthamite answer – is failing. It is exposed in its spiritual inadequacy. Man, as Christ said, does not live by bread alone. We are governed by Arch Bread Heads. At least Lord Sacks is peering fearfully in the right direction, even if he leaves out the inevitably nationalist side of his answer. Our choice then, is threefold. One: a vigorous recreation and assertion of ourselves as evangelists of liberal materialism – the substance of my first post. Two: a return to crusading zeal on behalf of our current ancestral religion – the real logic of the Murray/Sacks position. Three: a reassertion of strong national and ethnically European identity with zero immigration and “racist” natal policies for at least the next thirty years. The last is politically impossible and morally perilous, so its between one and two, I suppose.

            • Newcombe

              Ooh, sailing a bit close to the wind with that third point for my liking, I’m afraid. But still a good read. Thanks.

              They imagine that consumer durables will do the jobs of confidence, demography and military preparedness in tackling the threat.

              Like it.

        • Arturaski

          I agree with Newcombe – really enjoyed your contribution.

          I think the battles need to be fought in different ways, with different intensities, depending on the opponent. Islam is more of a threat than Christianity and should be treated as such. But my work colleague yesterday told me how he was far less religious than his wife, then told me of his contempt and disbelief in evolution and total acceptance of Adam and Eve as an origin theory instead.

        • Fred Scuttle

          “The more subtle argument is to say that, firstly, whether or not a religion is useful or enables a society to cohere is irrelevant to the question of its truth”

          So we could invent and invoke a new god, one that has a coherent book and knows all about evolution etc. We could then threaten other people with it. “Believe in our god or die” we will cry.

  • Fred Scuttle

    So religion is the cure for the problems caused by religion. Interesting idea.

    • GFRF

      Indeed it is!

  • monkey for sale

    Religious nutter spar in a “my brand is better than your brand” scare tactic .

    Islam is a dangerous ideology , and a strengthened and embolden democracy is the answer.

    • GFRF

      The answer is a strong, faithful’ Bible empowered people!
      The vacuum created by secularism has opened the door to the barbarian!

      • monkey for sale

        No the Labour party held the door open for uncontrolled mass immigration into the UK. I’ll never vote Labour again .

        People vote with their feet , and the churches are empty. Would you compel people to attend church ?

      • Daniel Maris

        We tried that between about 600AD and 1900AD and it wasn’t a notably moral time. War was endemic, so was slavery or serfdom, so was sexual abuse, so was poverty, disease and oppression.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yep, Sharia has to be stopped in its tracks. We do need a more vigorous secular democracy.

      • monkey for sale

        Absolutely agree with you.

        We have been foolishly tolerant of Islam intolerance.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here