Confronting evil in our fractured and fragile world

Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence

by Jonathan Sacks

(Hodder & Stoughton, £20.00)

During more than 20 years as Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks emerged as one of the most-respected religious leaders in the English-speaking world. He combined his careful stewardship of the Jewish community in difficult times with an accessible philosophical approach to some of the great questions of our times.

His astute commentary on society and piercing analysis of the interface between faith and culture has meant that he is constantly in demand. His 2013 retirement has not diminished that demand and he is a frequent contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 as well as debates and discussion about the future direction of society and where faith fits in to the complex web.

Rabbi Sacks is a spiritual and moral leader who has never shied away from taking the intellectual battle to some of religions harshest critics. And his detractors have often been found wanting as modern atheism has struggled to manifest the intellectual rigour of the great historic critics of Faith.

Writing in 2013, he observed that “future intellectual historians will look back with wonder at the strange phenomenon of seemingly intelligent secularists in the 21st century believing that if they could show that the first chapters of Genesis are not literally true, that the universe is more than 6,000 years old, and there might be other explanations for rainbows than as a sign of God’s covenant after the flood, the whole of humanity’s religious beliefs would come tumbling down like a house of cards and we would be left with a serene world of rational non-believers getting on famously with one another”.

He went on to ask: “whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists, the forcefulness of Hobbes, the passion of Spinoza, the wit of Voltaire, the world-shattering profundity of Nietzsche? Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?”

But Lord Sacks does not reserve his critique for those who would consign religion to the dustbin of history. In his latest book Not in God’s Name, the rabbi takes the fight to religious extremists who blaspheme by claiming to act violently in the name of the Divine. It is a powerful and timely book as we watch the seemingly relentless march of the so-called Islamic State across the Middle East.

Every day, it seems, brings fresh news of violence perpetrated in the name of God leading even some religious believers to question whether there might not be an intrinsic link between claims of religious truth and violence.

The subtitle – confronting religious violence – makes it clear where Dr Sacks is coming from. “When religion turns men into murderers, God weeps” is the emphatic conclusion of chapter one.

Rabbi Sacks underlines the relationship between the great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam who all revere Abraham as father in faith. “It is not our task to conquer or convert the world or enforce uniformity of belief. It is our task to be a blessing to the world.

Political ends

“The use of religion for political ends is not righteousness but idolatry. It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said it is better to be feared than to be loved: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. It was Nietzsche, the man who first wrote the words ‘God is dead’, whose ethic was the will to power,” he writes.

He goes on to outline the litany of violent acts in the name of God in recent years and the relentless persecution faced by Christians in particular. It’s heart-breaking to read the rabbi’s stark assessment of the Middle East: “A century ago Christians made up 20% of the population of the Middle East. Today the figure is 4%. What is happening is the religious equivalent of ethnic cleansing. It is one of the crimes against humanity of our time,” he notes.

A remarkable and troubling feature of the current crisis in the Middle East, is that young Muslims have travelled from countries like Ireland and Britain motivated by the idea of Jihad and a desire to be counted amongst the mujahideen. “We need a term to describe this deadly phenomenon that can turn ordinary non-psychopathic people into cold-blooded murderers of schoolchildren, aid workers, journalists and people at prayer,” he writes, “It is, to give it a name, altruistic evil: evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”.

Lord Sacks points out that there is nothing specifically religious about altruistic evil noting that some of the great instances in modern history – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Mao Zedong’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia – were avowedly secular.

Only in fiction, he points out, are the great evils committed by caricatures of malevolence: Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Sauron or the Joker.

In real history, Rabbi Sacks notes, the great evils are committed by people seeking to restore a romanticised golden age, willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others in what they regard as a great and even holy cause.

Modern culture is often perplexed by the endurance of religious faith. The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 awakened the conscience of the world to the idea that religion is an important piece of understanding the complex geopolitical jigsaw of the 21st Century. “Religion has returned because it is hard to live without meaning,” the rabbi writes simply.

“That is why no society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion. The 20th Century showed, brutally and definitively, that the great modern substitutes for religion – the nation, the race and the political ideology – are no less likely to offer human sacrifices to their surrogate deities,” he writes.

Lord Sacks argues that faith communities must come up with theological solutions to the problem of those who invoke God as the inspiration for their terror. But there is much more than theology at play: looking to evolutionary psychology, game theory, history, philosophy and ethics, he shows how the tendency towards violence can infect religious faith.


I was hugely impressed by the interdisciplinary nature of Rabbi Sacks’ approach. He combines the latest insights about the human condition with a close reading of the biblical texts at the heart of the Abrahamic faiths and lays down a bold challenge to those who preach hate in the name of the God of love.

There is much by way of work for faith communities to do in this book. Rabbi Sacks concludes with a long list of what religious believers must do to wrestle the name of God from violent extremists.

As with his previous books The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning and Future Tense: A Vision for Jews and Judaism in the Global Culture, the research and scholarship is remarkable and meticulously referenced. An extensive bibliography allows for further development of the points raised by Dr Sacks in his book.

This is an important contribution and will be of interest to anyone interested in understanding our fractured and fragile world.