Sermon: Who is the deluded one? (Rabbi Charles Emanuel – Lech L’cha)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 March 2015

At the synagogue’s EGM just before I retired, I was asked what I planned to do. I replied that, after over 35 years as a congregational rabbi, I was looking forward to the luxury of having time to look back at those years in an attempt to understand…I wasn’t sure exactly what, maybe just to reassure myself that the decision I had made 40 years ago to become a rabbi had been the correct one. Of course, as a rabbi, one of the first items on my personal professional choice evaluation agenda was to read as much as I could on the subject to see what others thought of religion in general and Judaism in particular. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately because it has been a challenge, over the past couple of years there have been a plethora of books pouring off the printing presses discussing and praising the death of religion, written by some of the world’s leading thinkers: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, Lewis Wolpert, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Onfray to name just a few, the main purpose of which was probably best expressed by Dawkins in his best seller The God Delusion when he wrote,

“If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

The tone of the atheist diatribe might differ from author to author but the content is basically the same. In his book God is Not Great sub-titled Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens states that religion is , “violent, irrational, allied to racism and tribalism and biotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive towards children.”

That people write anti-religion books is not new, but what concerns me is that last December in that commercially crucial period leading up to Christmas The God Delusion was the number 1 best-seller on and that a survey of 2,200 British people reported in the media this past September found that 42% of those taking part considered religion had a harmful effect. I started to ask myself what was the purpose of my professional life if religion was just, as Shakespierre might have said, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Other books answered some of my questions. John Humphrey’s book In God We Doubt, while not pro-religion, was also not pro-atheism and presented many very good arguments against the positions taken by Dawkins and company. Jonathan Freedland’s book Jacob’s Gift presented a much more positive attitude about religion in general and about Judaism in particular. In the book, he looks on as his eight-day-old son is about to be circumcised and asks himself,

“What exactly had I done to this child who had stared at me with such trust minutes after he was born? …. What burden was I placing on his young, new head? How many thousands of years of history, of divine obligation, of cosmic meaning was I lowering on to his weak, helpless shoulders?… this was an influence greater than even the shaping of a personality….I was bequeathing him an identity.”

As I looked back at my life in the rabbinate, I realised that the purpose of most of my professional life had been to help others to define their Jewish identity. My reading made me question the validity of that purpose. So today, I want to share with the congregation that I served for over 22 years my thoughts on this subject.

Let me first start with the challenge which seems very popular today: why be religious at all. In The God Delusion, Dawkins writes that religious faith qualifies as a delusion, at least as the term is commonly understood: a persistent false belief in the face of strong contradictory evidence. He is sympathetic to Robert Pirsig’s observation that “when one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.”.

It is not just that Dawkins considers religion a delusion; he considers it evil quoting the Noble Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg who in a speech in 1999 stated, “Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”.

Dawkins asserts that science, based on scepticism, investigation and evidence, must continuously test its own concepts and claims, while faith, by definition, defies evidence: it is untested and unshakeable, and is, therefore, not only in direct contradiction with science but also subverts science, fosters fanaticism, and influences society in many negative ways.

Of course, there are counter arguments to Dawkins’ ideas. He uses the most negative actions and beliefs of religion while ignoring its positive attributes and accomplishments. He is narrow minded in his view of religion, using the more fundamentalist movements as his model of “real” religion while arguing that the more moderate elements are only there to justify the extremes. He quotes Biblical texts out of context, never trying to appreciate or even understand their true meaning and significance.

Of course, it is unfortunately true that horrendous deeds have been done in the name of religion, but that is also true of science. At best, science is amoral but the claim of the amorality of science is a clever way of escaping responsibility for the horrors that have sprung or can spring from science. It is no more valid to denigrate religion because of the horrors done in its name than it would be to denigrate science because of the amount of harm it has done in developing weapons of mass destruction, or in damaging the earth’s natural environment, or in the inhumane scientific experimentation by Nazi doctors and scientists during the holocaust.

Fortunately, not all scientists are anti-religion. Some eminent American scientists take up the other side of the stormy argument over whether faith in God can coexist with faith in the scientific method. But perhaps for us as British Jews, the most relevant is Robert Winston’s recent book The Story of God. Lord Winston understands the importance of religion and science as well as their limits and writes,

“Science and religion are both about uncertainty – it’s when they become certain that they become dangerous.”

Lord Winston’s appreciation of religion as a positive force leads us to another very crucial question. Even if religion is not by definition evil as Dawkins would want us to believe, does it still contain the moral imperative that modern society requires? I am sure that you will not be surprised to learn that I believe it does. Religion has the ability to satisfy parts of our human existence that science can never reach.

Morality has been the cornerstone of our Judaism from its very beginning, as we can see in this week’s Torah portion which tells of that most important moment in the history of the Jewish people when God appears to this man Avram. But what is so special about this God that Avram would leave his home and the security it represents to go to a place that he didn’t even know in order to influence people he hadn’t even met yet to accept this God as well. And how is this mission to be accomplished?

The answer to the first question, “what is so special about this God” was answered by a past president of this congregation, the late Rabbi Leo Baeck in his book The Essence of Judaism when he spoke of Judaism’s concept of ethical monotheism, the belief of one God who demands moral behaviour of His followers.

It is this morality, started with this first Hebrew Avram, continued by Moses and the prophets and interpreted and adapted by generations of learned and concerned Jews up to this very day that has made us an ??? ?? a holy people. Avram understood this and was willing to make this sacrifice so that others would understand how human being should behave.

How this is to be achieved is found in the text from which Emilie so beautifully chanted. Avram does not have to do this alone: he is to become the leader of a great people. The early 20th century anthropologist and sociologist Emil Durkheim’s study of primitive religion found that one of the most important purposes of religion was not to put individual people in touch with God but to put them in touch with each other. His findings still hold true. Our Judaism in general and the synagogue in particular can and should offer us a sense of community, a place of caring in the midst of a world that at times seems so hostile and competitive. They have the possibility in a society that separates the old from the young, the rich from the poor, the successful from the struggling, to bring us together in a most positive way.

The problem, however, is not so much with religion itself but rather the religious institutions and leadership that do not always live up to the high standards their religious traditions set for them. It could well be said, unfortunately, that while the politics of religion are on the increase, the policies of religion are on the decline. It is the responsibility of the leaders of religion to reverse that trend. It will not be easy but if we actually want to make a difference and not just mouth platitudes, religious leaders will have to be exemplars of the high standards of their religion by their conduct and not just maintain the normal practices of the secular society around them.

The truth is that neither religion nor science have all the answers, but each gives an important insight into the nature of the other and they can be beneficial to each other if they are willing to work together.

In the Torah portion, this man Avram begins a journey that will not only change his life, it will change the life of the whole of Western society. He will question God and at times even wonder if his sacrifice is worth it. But we know that it was, we know the immense influence he has had and will continue to have on the thinking of the world.

Why should we continue this journey? Jonathan Freedland answers that question beautifully as he anticipates the day his child will ask that very same question, an answer that justifies for me my professional choice. He writes,

“I would tell him that inclusion in a culture, especially an ancient one like the Jews’, bestows a sense of constancy, even security, in a rapidly changing and often distressing world… that Jewishness is worth embracing because it has the potential to give something valuable to the world: a universal mission to make human life better. Who could refuse to take part in such an adventure. I would point out too that the latticework of Jewish civilization—the music, the stories, the tastes, the memories—has grown over the millennia into something intricate, rich, and very beautiful. Access to this treasure is not to be passed up lightly. And I would say that the Jews’ experience has …given us a unique insight into the human condition itself. We are old in the world; we have witnessed much, we have glimpsed both the best and the worst in human conduct and we are left with a kind of wisdom.”