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Rabbi Sacks, God is not brain science

Casting religious belief as an evolutionary imperative undercuts the sacred charge to seek justice

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the UK, recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal,” in which he points to the evolutionary need for religion. Surprisingly, Sacks tells us, it is the evolution theory of Darwin which shows us the importance of religion and why it continues to survive.

According to evolutionary biology, although man gives his genes as an individual to the next generation, he can in fact only survive in the first place if he is part of a group that works together. The genes that allow man to become stronger as a member of a group are the genes that cause altruism and empathy, and allow people to bond and feel for each other. As Rabbi Sacks writes:

A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.

He continues to explain why religion is so vital to this process of both thinking fast and slow. He writes, “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” Therefore, instead of evolution refuting the need for religion, it is actually its greatest supporter! Rabbi Sacks thus triumphantly concludes that “Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is…a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology.”

The Chief Rabbi has done a wonderful job defending religion in this article, but he has unfortunately let down those who want more than just religion; those who thirst for the Living God. His argument has marginalized religion as a necessary institution for the survival of mankind, and made it less than what it really is: a medium to experience the transcendent. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks’ religion may survive in the modern world, but only because he replaced what it stands for.

Religion is something that should bind us together as a community, as Rabbi Sacks writes, but that is not its main purpose; its main purpose is to be a bridge across the chasm which separates God and man. Religion allows us to be a voice of compassion not because it’s good for the survival of man, but because that is what God commands of us. God demands that we care for those on the periphery of society, but this is not for our selfish need of survival, but rather it is because God wills that we do not accept evil.

According to Sacks’ logic it doesn’t matter whether we are idol worshipers or monotheists, as long as it creates community. Our religion could command us to be racists, homophobic, or genocidal, but as long as we all are doing it together, a community is created, and that is what matters.

The prophets taught us that this is incorrect. They did not wage a war against the prophets of Baal because it was vital to the survival of mankind, but for the sake of the Living God. The worshipers of Baal also had a community, but that was not the problem with them, nor was it the solution.

Not only did the prophets attack the worshipers of Baal, but when the people of Israel went astray, Isaiah said: “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD….

Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

The people were bound together as a community, and they had religion; but God doesn’t want any of this. He wants them to seek justice and righteousness.

I am not saying that this was Rabbi Sacks’ intention, but in my opinion, this is the effect. It is quite analogous to what Erich Fromm (a non-theist himself) had to say about a similar situation in the 1960’s: “The religious “renaissance” which we witness in these days is perhaps the worst blow monotheism has yet received. Is there any greater sacrilege than to speak of “the Man upstairs,” to teach to pray in order to make God your partner in business, to “sell” religion with the methods and appeals used to sell soap?”

It is my profound hope that the new atheists win out on this argument, and by doing so resurrect the Living God, so we are not simply left with nothing more than an evolutionary necessity.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this post was originally briefly attributed to the wrong author.

About the Author
Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University. He is taking a leave from studies to volunteer on organic farms in Israel. He is also involved with the MIRKAM network of mixed religious and secular communities and the Ein Prat graduate community. He also blogs occasionally for thinkjudaism.wordpress.com .