Saturday, 1 August 2015

What In Gods Name?

According to recent estimates (and, of course, Wikipedia), almost 54% of the worlds population consider themselves to be adherents of an Abrahamic religion; this can be broken down into Christians 33%, Muslims 20%, Jews 0.23%, and another 0.2% or so is made up of the combined memberships of the Bahá'í, Rastafarian, Samaritanism, Druze, Mandaeism, and Bábism faiths. Atheist and ‘non-religious’ taken together, at 14%, make up the third largest category in the list (or second largest if the Abrahamic religions are taken together) followed closely by (the only other group to come in above 10%) Hinduism at 13%.
Wait, what? Jews – less than a quarter of one percent? That’s right, besides Israel (at 74%) the only countries in the world where more than one percent of the population is Jewish are the USA and Canada (oh, and lets not forget Gibraltar which, being home to about 600 Jews, holds the Jewishness world record at 2% of its 30,000 or so inhabitants). Inaccuracies inherent in internet sourced demographics not withstanding, a good statistician would be able to present a convincing argument that, with a 95% confidence interval and based on a statistically significant sample size, Jews don’t really exist. Why then should we care what any of them might have to say or what opinions any of them might hold?
Well because, for one thing, as Franklin D. Roosevelt said: No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.”
And because, more specifically, there is a perception drawn from history that the Jewish people are the canary in the mine of the world’s political fashionswhen the Jews are getting a hard time there is, quite likely, an ideological poison in the air which no one has noticed yet, but will soon be affecting us all.
And because Jonathan Sacks.
He was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013 – he is apparently thought highly of by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, which gives one pause – but nevertheless, he gives the impression of being extremely well read and well informed, fair minded, and certainly able to put his ideas into words with clarity.
And because ...well, why not find out by reading his recent book, “Not In God’s Name”? (I have just read it, having been fortunate enough to be able to borrow a copy from my local library.) Why? Because it is an unflinching and extraordinarily well thought-out look at the origins of religiously motivated violence. Along the way to presenting some thought-provoking suggestions as to how such violence might be made less popular in the future, he leads the reader through a scientifically orthodox description of the evolutionary beginnings of altruism and its role in human social groups; explains the necessity of religion (of some kind) as a first step in allowing groups to establish trust relationships with strangers – thereby allowing communities to enlarge into tribes and nationsthrough to a discussion of the causes and consequences of that religion turning bad, and what can be done about it.
I say unflinching because questions of religiously motivated violence are not side-stepped – too often in these kinds of conversations we hear arguments based on fatuous comparisons: “so you think religion is a cause of violence? Well what about Atheism?” or even the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument: “people who commit violent acts in the name of my religion aren’t true members of my religion.” These arguments are acknowledged and correctly considered to be beside the point by Sacks who, having begun with the long view of human history, examines the factors which cause peaceful religious communities to give rise to violent subgroups, and explains why such groups are ultimately doomed to self-destruct.
The central image that he uses – and which he considers a central theme in the book of Genesis – is the notion of sibling rivalry as seen in the stories of Cain and Abel – the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac – sons of Abraham; Jacob (a.k.a Israel) and Esau – sons of Isaac; and Joseph (coat of many colours) and his brothers – the sons of Jacob. These narratives are extremely important to the sense of identity of Muslims and Jews (and by extension, Christians) who consider themselves to be, either physically or spiritually, the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac respectively, and though there is disagreement about the details of the story at this point, both groups are agreed in considering themselves to be descendants of Abraham. Sacks’s explanation of these stories – which, on first reading, seem to be about division and enmity – shows a deeper meaning in which they are all seen, ultimately, to be about reconciliation; and that when one brother is chosen the other is not rejected; and that each sibling should be content with his own ‘blessing’ without hating his brother. This is an idea which could save many lives and avoid much pointless human suffering if it gained traction among those whose ideologies are stuck in the enmity interpretation.
These are Bible stories which, once explained by the scholar, can be seen to be moral and good without the need for spin and hand-waving, but he also argues convincingly to encourage those of a religious inclination to value the traditional over the literal interpretations of what he calls the ‘hard texts’ of their holy books. These arguments are similar to arguments that we hear from Christians (the Old Testament is superseded by the New) or Muslims (Jihad is about the inner struggle) explaining that the texts remain useful if taken allegorically.
So “Not In God’s Name”? It is thought provoking, it might change some minds for the better, it might even save some lives. It is a good book.
But I have some quibbles.
According to the Hebrew Bible, Abrahamic monotheism entered the world as a rejection of imperialism and the use of force to make some men masters and others slaves.(p4)” 
I’m not convinced.
If this is the case then it would appear to have been a failed project. In fact, the beginnings of these outcomes were first seen in western civilisation during the the periods when, as Sacks points out, religion was being set aside, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, by the secularisation of knowledge, power, culture, and morality respectively (p12-13). The fruits of this secularisation, he tells us are “...unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished.” Now, I understand that Rabbi Sacks is a religious man, and so one shouldn’t be surprised to find him trying to re-inject religion where he sees a weakness (everything looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer, and all that) – but in the follow-on from the above there is, as it seems to me, a cheap shot:
He tells us that secularism and its achievements do not provide ‘meaning’ “do not and cannot answer the three questions …: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?”
I think he is mistaken.
If we were to change his “do not and cannot answer” so that it reads “have yet to compellingly answer” then perhaps I might concede this point for the sake of argument, but even so, what are we to make of the 14% or so of the worlds population who apparently feel that they have arrived at sufficiently compelling answers without recourse to religion? He seems to be asserting that, to find meaning, it is necessary to turn away from the rational quest for what is true, and embrace a traditional belief system without regard for whether or not it is true or rational.
The argument for the sake of which I might have conceded is that the resurgence of religious extremism can, at least in part, be blamed on a perceived lack of meaning in ‘modern society’. It is a point well made: religious ideas among people with no sense of purpose are likely to spread like a virus among the unvaccinated. The question it raises though, is how can society as a whole address the question of the human need for purpose, meaning, identity, belonging – how can secular society (producer of “the greatest achievements of human civilisation”) be improved – how can we as a species progress from where we are, so that our common purpose and a shared sense of meaning is strengthened regardless of religious persuasion (or failure to be persuaded). Unfortunately Sacks seems to see secularism as a spent force – a form on its way to extinction – and, a little too eagerly for me, seems to be preparing for another resurgence of religious enthusiasm.
I hope he is mistaken.
He asks: “As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we have to be prepared to ask the most uncomfortable questions. Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?” That these questions can be asked at all should be deeply troubling to any rational person, but there is some solace in knowing that a leading authority of the oldest of these traditions can answer them with an unequivocal “No”.
The question which illustrates the essence of my quibble, however, illustrates it by not being asked. It is the most uncomfortable question that can be asked by a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim: “Does the God of Abraham exist?”
I’ll say it again. I think this is a good book. It is a book worth reading for anyone who wants to gain an insight into the religious view of religious violence. It also makes some bold exhortations to the religious which, if taken seriously, have a good chance of encouraging people on the threshold of radicalisation to take a step or two away.