In the second section of the book, “Why It Matters,” Rabbi Sacks becomes more polemical and in some ways more engaging. He sets out to rebut the charge””leveled, once again, by the new atheists””that religion leads chiefly and inexorably to cruelty, oppression and exclusion. In fact, he argues, belief in a transcendent God is a sine qua non for a healthy, humane society, at least in the long run. An enduringly humane society requires a belief in the inviolable dignity of every human person, which cannot be supported by a materialist worldview.
Rabbi Sacks quotes a 1997 document from an atheist organization arguing that human nature is not “unique and sacred” but different only “in degree, not in kind” from other animals. On this view, hesuggests, the idea of free will must be discarded, because if we are mere animals, we are as bound by genes and instincts and conditioning as any rat or chimp. And since, in his view, “dignity is based on human freedom,” any worldview that rejects free will must eventually reject human dignity. He points to the political violence of the French Revolution, Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and communist China as the four historical attempts “to create a social order on secular lines,” with no firm support for the idea of dignity.
None of these arguments is particularly new. Rabbi Sacks doesn’t claim they are. But his book is illuminating, and sometimes genuinely moving, because of the erudition and the warm personality with which he unscrolls his credo.