We don’t generally ‘do’ reviews of books here, but as Lord (Rabbi) Sacks’ Not in God’s Name is an exceptional book, it is right to make an exception for it. In fact, the book is so rich that it demands either an extended review – which will make it rather longer than the usual posts here (which tend to be between 5 and 600 words) – or several posts. For the convenience of the reader, I am opting for the latter – although it does mean you will have to wait a day or so to get the full story; if you get impatient, do just go and buy the book!
Our American readers may be less familiar with Lord Sacks, so a few brief words by way of introduction. Jonathan Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. He became well-know in the UK through his radio and TV appearances, not because of any showiness – he is the least showy of men – but because his quiet wisdom impressed people;even those with no spiritual beliefs could see they were in the presence of a wise and holy man. I have linked to his website above, so you can find out more there.
Not in God’s Name is a timely volume in some ways – and a timeless one in other, more important ones; those who read it only for the timeliness will be disappointed; those who come to it for the wisdom it contains will not be disappointed.
The first part of the book, whilst interesting, was, for me, a puzzle. It is a very good synthesis of work done on why mankind resorts so readily to violence, and why do much of it is done in God’s name. We are social animals, we form groups, we are tribal, and these tribes, nations, languages, cultures and codes of religion are the bases of our identity; it is a mistake to assume there is something called humanity in the abstract. People always exist with an identity they take from whatever group they belong to – and part of that entails an innate distrust of those who do not belong to that group. This leads to violence. The world is divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’; at extreme times it leads to what Rabbi Sacks calls ‘pathological dualism- -where we see our opponents as something less than human and try to exterminate them. Interesting as all of this is, there was nothing in the early pages which suggested why Rabbi Sacks was the man to comment on this – what did it have to do with his main areas of expertise – religion and philosophy? If, like me, you feel that in the first chapter, don’t worry because when the answer comes, it is worth the short wait.
He suggests there have been three main attempts to escape from this identity politics by creating a universal ‘tribe’ is you will: Christianity, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile; Islam, where all the faithful are one; and the Enlightenment project which was the European secular alternative after it had become clear that the principle of One God, One Truth and One Way, had not actually brought peace. Science and philosophy would, it was assumed, succeed where religion has failed. After nearly three centuries of warfare caused by nationalism and philosophies such as Communism and Fascism and Racialism, Two World Wars, a Holocaust and the Gulag, it takes more optimism than most of us have to believe this is working. Its failure has led to the third attempt – which is to dethrone the group in favour of the individual, creating an atomised society, with the collapse of the traditional family, the erosion of community and – in reaction to this, the rise of religious extremism whic insists on the group identity in the face of alienating individualism. The attempt to do away with the tribe is not only not working, it may actually be making things worse.
Part II of the book is where the pulse really quickens, as Rabbi Sacks gets into the question of how the Bible treats questions of sibling rivalry, which is at the root of the quarrels between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That will be the subject of a second post.