Fighting Religion With Religion?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that it will take more than science and atheism to stave off fundamentalism:

In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the 21st century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief. Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.

The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, ‘There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.’

In response, Jerry Coyne calls Sacks an “ignorant fool”:

Here is a partial list of countries that have a very high percentage of nonbelievers. This is all it takes to rebut Sack’s claim that if one loses Judeo-Christian sanctity of life (note that he doesn’t mention Islam) we will descend into evil, barbarism, and perfidy:

  • Sweden
  • Denmark
  • Norway
  • Japan
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • South Korea

The last time I looked, these countries were remarkably sane, well-behaved, and their inhabitants generally moral.