Dear Chief Rabbi …
This open letter by JOHN RADFORD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at East London University, to Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks (pictured above) appeared in the May, 2008, edition of the Freethinker
DEAR Sir Jonathan, I was interested in your article in The Times on Saturday March 1, 2008, entitled “Lose faith in God and we will lose faith in humanity”.
You start by quoting two statements about the human race. The first is by the Renaissance scholar Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). He imagines God telling the first human that he, God, is giving him the power either to sink to the level of animals, or rise to the divine.
In contrast is a statement issued by members of the International Academy of Humanism in 1997. I must give the quotation you do for the benefit of any readers of this open letter.
As far as the scientific enterprise can determine, homo sapiens is a member of the animal kingdom. Human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals. Humankind’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seem to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover.
Nothing objectionable or even controversial there, one might think. You, however, argue that to say that the “repertoire” arises from brain processes implies that that is all they are.
This is a fallacy, as you immediately point out. The origin of something cannot be equated with the thing itself. An acorn is not an oaktree.
But a non-sequitur then follows, that the quoted view means “the sheer loss of the sense of grandeur and possibility that drove Renaissance humanism”.
I cannot see the connection. The sun rising is no less glorious because we know that it is caused by the earth turning in relation to a small star, which is not a mysterious fiery object set in a celestial sphere, nor Phoebus driving his chariot. In fact I, like many, find it even more wonderful.
But then, further, there is no reason to think that we are less capable of sinking to a lower or rising to a higher level (though I would not call the latter divine), than did della Mirandola’s hypothetical first human. For me, exactly the opposite is the case. Wickedness is probably much as it always was. But we know vastly more about the conditions that make for degraded or exalted behaviour than he did, and we have the option of reducing the first and enhancing the second.
Furthermore, it seems to me far nobler, and far more human, to grasp these possibilities for ourselves, than to imagine they are offered to us by some supposed supernatural entity.
You conclude this section with the ancient question, what does it profit humanity if it gains the world and loses its soul. A great deal, is my reply, if “the world” includes knowledge and understanding of it, and “soul” means some unobservable, unmeasurable, indefinable entity inside us for which there is no evidence.
You go on:
The odd thing is that dignity seems to go hand in hand with humility.
If this were a student essay, it would require more red ink than you have used black. Why is it odd? It depends on how you define them, which you do not attempt. Dickens’s Uriah Heap made a career out of being ’umble, but of dignity he had none. Once defined, one would need evidence that they go together. Where is this evidence?
It gets worse.
Only when people discovered that they were not gods were they able to reach their full stature as human beings.
When did humans ever imagine they were gods? (apart from a few individuals). I know of no such society, historical or contemporary.
“Finding God, humanity found itself.” Which god do you mean, of the thousands humans have “found”? Presumably, the Jewish one. Jews constitute about a quarter of one per cent of the human race. Have the rest of us not found ourselves, and reached full human stature? Perhaps we are to take Jehovah as identical with other gods. The front-runners would be the Muslim and Christian ones.
Clearly Jewish and Christian gods are not the same, since the latter includes God’s son, the Messiah whom Jews still await. The Koran does refer to what seems to be the Jewish god, but also repeatedly states that Allah is unique and solitary.
Gods of other religions, such as classical Greek, Hindu, the very numerous indigenous creeds and so on, are wildly different in their attributes from the Jewish one.
Then there are all those who have no specific belief in a god – atheists, agnostics and some faiths – somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the human race. Are these not fully human?
Or perhaps any god will do. Those of the Aztecs demanded frequent human sacrifice. Did this enhance human stature, either of the victims or the officiants? Many more have required animal sacrifices, including your own, until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
When human beings lose faith in God, they lose faith in human beings. They abandon their moral qualms about abortion” (and about euthanasia, eugenics and ‘designer children’).
What is the evidence for these generalisations? They are certainly not true in my own experience. Most of those I know personally, or know of, who work hardest to better the human lot, who manifest the human qualities of compassion, responsibility, and, yes, both dignity and humility, have had no faith in God or gods.
Of course, that is because I move mainly in non-religious circles. But it gives the lie to the notion that faith in God is necessary. Nor, of course, is it sufficient, since there have been innumerable religious believers who have murdered, tortured, enslaved and generally shown contempt for the worth of others.
Jews, if I may mention it, cut off the foreskins of male infants. Not by the wildest distortion of thinking can ritual mutilation of children be considered compatible with human dignity, or other than a relic of primitive barbarism.
It is, I understand, considered in some bizarre way to be significant of the supposed covenant of God with the Jewish people. It doesn’t say much for God.
You refer to the change between the two quotations at the start as a “history of the
descent of Man”. The lifetime of Pico della Mirandola certainly saw fine cultural achievements. It also saw vicious religious wars, torture and burning of heretics and supposed witches, and the banning of Jews from various countries including England. You are a little better off now.
You conclude that “Faith” (which faith?) agrees (with whom?) that we are “but a random concatenation of genes, a handful of dust”. But faith adds that:
There is within us the breath of God … lose this and we will lose all else. We will have knowledge without wisdom … choice without conscience.
Thus, in short, your article boils down to two well-worn, indeed threadbare, themes. The human race is sinking downwards from a once much better state, and our moral or ethical sense comes from God. For neither of these propositions is there the slightest evidence. On the contrary, anthropology, biology, genetics, history, all the sciences of the human race, show ever more clearly how what we are now has developed out of what we have been, including our sense of right and wrong and everything we look on as our finer qualities.
It is far from a steady progression, but neither is it a decline. We have more capability for good, even if we use it too little. There is nothing at all to indicate even the existence, let alone the agency, of a God or gods.
You, Sir Jonathan, took a first-class degree in philosophy at Cambridge, where Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein once taught. Whatever is offered there now, it seems to have left you, if I may say so, unable to distinguish fact from fiction.
I hope all this has not offended, but you have, after all, had the privilege of publication in a still prestigious national newspaper.
• Editor’s note: In September, 2013, Ephraim Mirvis (below) was installed as the new Chief Rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth at a ceremony in London. The former chief rabbi of Ireland succeeded Lord Jonathan Sacks, who held the post for 22 years, and was given a life peerage in 2009.