Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, broadcasted his annual Rosh Hashana address, in honour of the Jewish New Year, which starts Sunday at sundown, as he sought to reconcile the disparities between science and religion at a time when Jews “commemorate the creation of the universe and its God-given wonders”.
In conversation with three eminent non-believing scientists, the academic and interfaith British Rabbi sought to articulate his view that “belief in God doesn’t require a suspension of our faculties and that, together, religion and science can make a great partnership”.
Addressing the former harmony that used to exist between the two, Sacks asserted that the challenging problems and immense scientific and technological advancements of the last centuries have made it more essential than ever to reopen the dialogue between religion and science. At the start of his investigation, he expressed a hope “to show that religion is about answering questions that science cannot. It’s about how to live, what kind of world we want to create, how we relate to the ultimately unknowable”.
“Science takes things apart to see how they work,” he contended, “Religion puts things together to see what they mean”. His theories were immediately put to the test, a he first met with Oxford University Neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, who has worked on pioneering research into how the brain generates consciousness.
Greenfield insisted that when looking at the issue of how the brain generates subjective sensations, we must look to philosophy for an answer and not just expect science to address. Responding to Sacks’ demand as to whether we are reaching the outer limits of science in attempting to use its inherently impersonal reasoning to understand something a personal a human consciousness, Greenfield admitted that Science can only get to grips with the tangible, not with the subjective.
Insisting however that the concepts of science and religion are not mutually exclusive, she added that Science is about “having curiosity, having an open mind and challenging everything”, adding that it’s possible to have “two seemingly incompatible things that explain the same phenomenon”.
Describing the two as “two sides of the same coin”, she said that the fact the two sides may not fully be reconciled “doesn’t invalidate the coin”. Describing Science as the “Alpha Male of the intellectual world”, Lord Sacks suggested that accepting that science may not be the only way of examining the world might bring a greater acceptance of its limitations and of the need for humility in applying its laws.
Paraphrasing renowned scientist Michael Farraday who said “there is nothing so frightening as someone who knows they’re right”, Greenfield concurred, adding that having a rigid way of approaching things, in religion as in science, might serve as a barrier to progress and insight, concluding that the “trick is just to ask the questions, rather than know all the answers” and “clearly having respect for others is a very good starting point in life”.
Next, Sacks met with theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, a prominent atheist, in a n effort to get to the heart of the differences existing between the religious, who are concerned with the “why” and the “who”, and scientists are interested in the “how”. From a scientist’s perspective, a non-religious scientist’s perspective,” conceded Al-Khalili, “the why might not be as important as the how”. “In religion, you’re always looking for a reason behind it. For me, the universe just happens by accident, and it doesn’t have a meaning or purpose, or a need for a grand design.”
Religion serves the function of explaining what science cannot, he agreed, adding that a science continues to evolve, those of boundaries of the unanswerable get pushed back, diminishing the role religion has to play and outing it “on the back foot, as it retreats as science encroaches on what was its territory”.
Speaking of the theory of a “God of the gaps”, by which every great advance is science is seen as a retreat for religion, Sacks replied that that was “incompatible with the religion that I believe in”, which he said spoke of a “God creating us in His image, wanting us to sue our credible intelligence to understand the universe, to understand creation, and therefore the more we understand, the more we wonder at the greatness of God and the universe and the smallness of us”.
Arguing that the advances of science were in fact also an advance for religion, he added that “the miracle is that we’re still here, we’re here and we’re beginning to understand it”. Al-Khalili responded that whilst he doesn’t “praise a higher intelligence”, “I acknowledge the wonder of the universe and share your daily struggle to understand it”.
Lastly, Rabbi Sacks prepared to meet “Britain’s most vocal atheist”, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in what was set to be the biggest obstacle on his mission to find common ground between science and religion. The author of the worldwide bestseller “The God Delusion”, Sacks warned “for him, the supernatural aspects of religious beliefs are an affront to science”. Asserting that his intention in meeting the eminent non-believer was not to convert him to his way of thinking, he called for him to admit “that there’s more to life than science, and more to religion than ignorance and superstition”.
The exchange began by Sacks asking Dawkins to read aloud a letter he once wrote to his then 10 year-old daughter to consider when someone presents something a fact, whether they can offer any evidence in support of it, “and if they can’t give you an answer,” continued his advice to her, “I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say”.
“I wanted to do the opposite of indoctrinate her,” he explained. “I wanted to ask her to think for herself.” “So what would you say,” asked Sacks, “of the Jewish tradition, (which teaches) the first duty of a Jewish parent is to teach their children to ask questions?”
“Admirable,” Dawkins replied, “And i would hope then that the parents would answer the questions on the basis of evidence, rather than on the basis of tradition or scripture.”
«You don’t really believe (in the biblical story) that Abraham talked to God and God bargained with him,” began Dawkin’s expected theoretical onslaught. Descriing it as a parable, Sacks said it offered “a seminar on how to be a Jewish parent: teach your child to argue, teach your child to challenge”. “But,” Dawkins, persisted, do you actually think it happened?”, speaking of the other renowned biblical tory regarding Abraham preparing to sacrifice his only child, Isaac, to God.
“I definitely think that something happened that made Jews value their children more than any other civilisation I know,” came Sacks’ answer. Contending it was God’s “protest against the belief throughout the ancient world that parents own their children”, he added that it was designed to show that “no Jew owns his or her child – they have a life of their own, they have a mind of their own”.
These things (the bible) happened,” he added, “but they didn’t happen as mere facts, they happened a moral instructive lessons, whose full import we still haven’t learnt”, judging from the instances of child malnutrition still happening every day in the world.
“Applauding” Jewish rhetoric of not owning our children, Dawkins added “we assume that children should automatically be labelled with the religion of their parents, and I think that is wicked and it goes with all the things you’ve just been saying about the wickedness of what we do to children”.
Accepting that was a ticking point between the two academics, a Judaism believes the religion is passed down through the maternal line and that Jewish parents have a duty to instruct their children in the faith and traditions of the religion, Sacks asserted that “we have to give our children an identity, a heritage, a story of which they are a part”.
Next, Sacks sought to challenge Dawkins’ well-documenting theories about the damage religion can do in the world, by contesting that in the wrong hands science can be equally terrifying, a point on which they reached an unexpected consensus.
“If you take Darwinism in the wrong way, it can become Nazism,” Dawkins owned. “I’ve frequently said I’m a passionate Darwinian when it comes to understanding the how we got here, but I’m not anti-Darwinian when it comes tod eciding what kind of society we want to live in.”
“So, at the same time you point out the way in which Darwin ha been misused,” contended Sacks, “you don’t let the fact that it has been misused compromise your admiration for Darwin.”
“Could you not also understand that, in certain ways, religion has also been misused and that should not compromise at least some of us admiring the greatness of the great religions?”, he continued.
“Yes, I agree that religion has been misused,” Dawkins accepted, b-negating Judaism from his criticisms of unquestioning faiths a legitimising a lack of critical thinking with regard to religious theology. “If a child is brought up to think that faith trumps reason, then the child could be equipped to do something truly terrible,” he added conjuring up associations of religious extremism and Jihadist teachings.
“The Common ground between us is that you and I are committed to question, to use of critical intelligence, to value human rights and the dignity of the human person,” contended Sacks, adding that the acknowledgement that science is sometimes misused is not an argument for “no science”, just as the acknowledgement that religion is sometimes equally misused is not an argument for “no religion”, but instead legitimises arguments for good science as opposed to bad and good religion as opposed to bad.
Characterising their areas of common ground a “a respect for truth, openness, a willingness to questions, and the collaborative pursuit of knowledge for its own sake”, both writers agreed the conversation was “a tremendous source, for both optimism and hope”.
“If we can have so much in common, then that is a very strong argument for saying that there can be a great partnership between religion and science,” added Rabbi Sacks.
“I see no conflict between religion and science: science tells us about the origin of life, religion tells us about the purpose of life. Science explains the world that is, religion summons us to the world that ought to be,” he continued.
“On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, we rededicate ourselves to the idea that God created us in love and forgiveness, asking us to love and forgive others. Add that to science, and it equals hope,” he concluded.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since September 1991.