Rabbi Sacks on Dialogue with Atheists

JInsider (March 2010)

What do I think about atheism? Well, let me be honest with you. It was my privilege to be a student of probably the greatest atheist of his time and a friend of an even greater atheist. My doctoral supervisor was the late Sir Bernard Williams, generally described as the most brilliant man in Britain, a lapsed Catholic, and they fervent atheist. And I found my relationship with him was an object lesson in the collaborative pursuit of truth, because he never challenged my religious faith. He never ridiculed it. All he wanted was could I make it clear and could I make cogent. And the respect that he showed to me taught me that an atheist and religious believer can engage together in the collaborative pursuit of truth. As long as we don't mock one another, misrepresent one another, or ridicule one another.

Now the great sceptic was the late Sir Isaiah Berlin. I came to know Sir Isaiah towards the end of his life and we became friends. He was very funny. The first thing he said to me when he visited us at our home was, "Chief Rabbi, don't talk to me about religion. When it comes to God, I'm tone deaf." And then he said to me, "What I don't understand is how you, who studied philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford, can be a believer." And I said, "Sir Isaiah, if it helps, think of me as a lapsed heretic." "Quite understand," he said.

Now he was really a secular Jew. And in 1997, I had published a book of political philosophy called The Politics of Hope, where I disagreed somewhat with Isaiah Berlin's political philosophy. And I said to him, I'd be fascinated to hear his reactions. He said to me, "Send me the book and I'll let you know." So I sent him the book and heard nothing for several months.

So I phoned him at his home in Oxford and his wife, Lady Aline Berlin answered the phone. And she said, "Oh, Chief Rabbi, Isaiah has just been talking about you." Now I am sure rabbis were not the normal subject of conversation at the Berlin dinner table. So I said, "In what context?" She said, "Oh, he's just asked you to officiate at his funeral." I said, "Don't think about such things," but obviously Isaiah knew. Four days later he died. And I did officiate at his funeral.

His biographer, Michael Ignatieff, came to see me and he asked me out of interest, how was it that Isaiah Berlin, a secular Jew, wanted a religious funeral to be conducted by a Chief Rabbi? And I replied, "Isaiah may not have been a believing Jew, but he was a loyal Jew." And that is no small thing.

So it's been my great privilege to know great atheists. And to know that, yes, the conversation between believer and atheist is, or can be, a respectful and constructive conversation. And I will always accept as a challenge from atheists all the examples of religion going wrong, of accepting the unacceptable, of seeking power, of practising intolerance. And actually I think that is the important role that atheists play in the contemporary world. They refuse to let religious organisations or leaders get away with sloppy thinking or acceptance of something as the will of God when clearly, God wants us to change that thing and transform the world. They challenge religion whenever it is a source of intolerance or hate. And in that respect, I like atheists and I feel enlarged by them.

But as for the angry atheists, the figures that we all know of, I call them our contemporary intellectual equivalent of road rage. Those guys, I think, are not the kind of atheist that I respect at all, because what they write about is a caricature of religion, not the real thing.