Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has described the opening of atheist evolutionist Richard Dawkins’s God Delusion book as “antisemitic” and profoundly misrepresenting Judaism.
Professor Dawkins, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, refuted the claim as “ridiculous” and said the string of names he called the God of the Old Testament, from misogynistic, masochistic and an “ethnic cleanser”, were to be taken as a joke.
The exchange came during a filmed hour-long debate at a BBC Religions and Ethics festival at Salford’s MediaCityUK.
Lord Sacks told the academic: “Richard, I don’t think you have fully understood or appreciate that there are Christian atheists and Jewish atheists, and you are only a Christian atheist, and because you read the Bible in a Christian way, you have become prejudiced. That is why I didn’t read your opening to Chapter Two as a joke but as a profoundly antisemitic statement.”
Calling Prof Dawkins “a really nice guy”, the Chief Rabbi explained: “I was not concerned that Richard is antisemitic at all, but using an antisemitic stereotype, which has been a strand through Christian reading of the Bible through the Middle Ages. [It] really terrifies me to see the power of these stereotypes into atheism today”.
The debate, chaired by journalist Samira Ahmed, was the second time that Professor Dawkins and Lord Sacks have clashed in public on their views on faith and science, having appeared together on BBC Radio 4 in 2011.
Later, on Wednesday night, the BBC aired the Chief Rabbi’s annual Rosh Hashanah programme, which this year featured a pre-recorded encounter with Prof Dawkins and two other top scientists to show that “belief in God doesn’t require a suspension of our critical faculties and that, together, religion and science can make a great partnership.”
But, during the live debate, Prof Dawkins told the Chief Rabbi that his position that the universe was created for a reason was not “legitimate.”
Lord Sacks responded that Prof Dawkins’s philosophy was a “tragedy…
“This is the one of the great dividing lines between Richard and myself and really, throughout history, between Judaism and people who see the universe as meaningless.”