Dawkins and Sacks in 'anti-semitic' row

The Chief Rabbi criticises Prof Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion

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Professor Richard Dawkins has rejected a charge from the Chief Rabbi that his description of the "Old Testament God" is "profoundly anti-semitic".

The passage in Dawkins' book, The God Delusion, reflects a centuries-old anti-Jewish attitude, Chief Rabbi Sacks said.

Prof Dawkins dismissed the allegation as "ridiculous".

The exchange took place at the BBC's RE:Think festival in Salford during a debate about science and religion.

Profile: Richard Dawkins

Professor Richard Dawkins
  • Professor Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist and author
  • He is often referred to as 'the most famous atheist in the world'
  • He held the first professorship for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University

The dispute began with Prof Dawkins' claim that a controversial passage from his 2006 book was intended to be "humorous".

"The beginning of chapter two, which says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that's a joke," he said in the early stages of the debate.

Later Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said that Dawkins had misunderstood sections of the Hebrew Bible, which are also part of the Christian Old Testament, because he was a "Christian atheist" rather than a "Jewish atheist".

It meant that Dawkins read the Old Testament in an "adversarial way," he said, something that was "Christian" because the faith's New Testament was believed to have "gone one better".

"That's why I did not read the opening to chapter two in your book as a joke, I read it as a profoundly anti-semitic passage."

The text was read out loud by Lord Sacks at the debate.

It described "the God of the Old Testament" as a "vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser" as well as "misogynist", "homophobic", "racist", "pestilential" and "infanticidal".

"How you can call that anti-semitic, I don't even begin to understand. It's anti-God," said Prof Dawkins.

Chief Rabbi Sacks clarifies his anti-semitism allegation

"I can see why you might be offended by it, I can see why a Christian or a Muslim might be offended by it too - but not anti-semitic," he added.

In the question and answer session that followed the main debate Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks clarified his position, saying he was very fond of Prof Dawkins.

"I was not concerned that Richard was an anti-semitic at all," he said.

"I was concerned that he was using an anti-semitic stereotype, which has run through a certain strand of the Christian reading of what is called the 'Old Testament' as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, died in the Middle Ages because that's how people spoke about the God of the Old Testament."

Prof Richard Dawkins stands by the description of God in his book

"It really terrifies me to see the power of these stereotypes persisting into atheism, it really bothers me" he said.

Flash point

Although Prof Dawkins described the book as "gentle" at the debate with the Chief Rabbi, he has been no stranger to controversy since he set out his view of religion in The God Delusion.

The latest controversy may strike some as an example of the colliding perspectives of science and religion.

But the debate also showed areas of agreement.

"How do you decide which bits [of scripture] are symbolic and which bits are not?" asked Prof Dawkins at one point during the discussion.

"Very simple," replied the Chief Rabbi.

"The rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: if a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally."

Profile: Lord Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks
  • Lord Sacks is the spiritual head of the largest grouping of Orthodox Jews in Britain
  • He was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005
  • He will step down after 22 years as Chief Rabbi in September 2013

This kind of "division of labour" between science and religion has prevailed for much of human history according to Dr Thomas Dixon, Senior Lecturer of History at Queen Mary, University of London and author of Science and Religion: a very short introduction.

"There have been these flash points which look like and, to some extent, are a clash between scientific individuals and religious institutions," he said.

"I suppose you might say [these] are exceptional moments when that truce breaks down," he said.

What causes the row between science and religion to flare up is often reflective of big changes in intellectual history, according to Dr Dixon.

Dr Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University, said he believes that divisions between religion and science are now being broken down among academics.

"In academic discourse, it's never before been more positive. Now there are several science and religion chairs in universities and lectureships and so on, which were never there before."

Dr Alexander said that he expected public discourse to continue to be dominated in the short term by the row between creationists and scientific atheists but the outlook longer term is "more peaceful".

He argued that this change was underpinned by a sense that science does not "have all the answers".

"If you pick up a daily newspaper and you ask the question on any page of the paper: 'What has science really got to do with this story or that story?' The answer most of the time is pretty much nothing," he said.

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