A Response To Rabbi Sacks: Survival of the Religious

By Gene Matanky

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote an article in the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal”, in which he points to the evolutionary need for religion. Surprisingly, Sacks tells us, it is the evolution theory of Darwin which shows us the importance of religion and why it continues to survive.

According to evolutionary biology, although man gives his genes as an individual to the next generation, he can in fact only survive in the first place if he is part of a group that works together. The genes that allow man to become stronger as a member of a group are the genes that cause altruism and empathy, and allow people to bond and feel for each other.

As Rabbi Sacks writes, “A result is that we have two patterns of reaction in the brain, one focusing on potential danger to us as individuals, the other, located in the prefrontal cortex, taking a more considered view of the consequences of our actions for us and others. The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational. We are caught, in the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s phrase, between thinking fast and slow.”

He continues to explain why religion is so vital to this process of both thinking fast and slow: “Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions.” Therefore, instead of evolution refuting the need for religion, it is actually its greatest supporter! Rabbi Sacks thus triumphantly concludes that “Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is…a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race. Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology.”

The Chief Rabbi has done a wonderful job defending religion in this article, but he has unfortunately let down those who want more than just religion; those who thirst for the Living God. His argument has marginalized religion as a necessary institution for the survival of mankind, and made it less than what it really is: a medium to experience the transcendent. Sadly, Rabbi Sacks’ religion may survive in the modern world, but only because he replaced what it stands for.

Religion is something that should bind us together as a community, as Rabbi Sacks writes, but that is not its main purpose; its main purpose is to be a bridge across the chasm which separates God and man. Religion allows us to be a voice of compassion not because it’s good for the survival of man, but because that is what God commands of us. God demands that we care for those on the periphery of society, but this is not for our selfish need of survival, but rather it is because He wills that we do not accept evil.

According to Sacks’ logic it doesn’t matter whether we are idol worshipers or monotheists, as long as it creates community. Our religion could command us to be racists, homophobic, or genocidal, but as long as we all are doing it together, a community is created, and that is what matters.

The prophets taught us that this is incorrect. They did not wage a war against the prophets of Baal because it was vital to the survival of mankind, but for the sake of the Living God. The worshipers of Baal also had a community, but that was not the problem with them, nor was it the solution.

Not only did the prophets attack the worshipers of Baal, but when the people of Israel went astray, Isaiah said:

“The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD….”Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your evil assemblies…Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”

The people were bound together as a community, and they had religion; but God doesn’t want any of this. He wants them to seek justice and righteousness.

I am not saying that this was Rabbi Sacks’ intention, but in my opinion, this is the effect. It is quite analogous to what Erich Fromm (a non-theist himself) had to say about a similar situation in the 1960’s: “The religious “renaissance” which we witness in these days is perhaps the worst blow monotheism has yet received. Is there any greater sacrilege than to speak of “the Man upstairs,” to teach to pray in order to make God your partner in business, to “sell” religion with the methods and appeals used to sell soap?”

It is my profound hope that the new atheists win out on this argument, and by doing so resurrect the Living God, so we are not simply left with nothing more than an evolutionary necessity.


Gene Matanky studies Jewish Thought in Bar Ilan University. He is also involved with מרק״ם and the Boger community of Midreshet Ein Prat.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Response To Rabbi Sacks: Survival of the Religious

  1. Liat

    I understand your claim that religion is more than a tool for evolutionary survival- that it ought to be the pathway to transcendence, but one can’t ignore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think it’s a nice claim to say that religion should be a relationship between man and God, but there would be no opportunity for that step without the appropriate societal framework. One doesn’t know how to connect with God without some other real-life example, bein adam lachavero.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your response, I did not write here because it was not part of the point I was making here. I don’t agree that man can only have community based around religion. I believe a lot more in man’s ability to create true community without religion. Just as it is ridiculous to say that all atheists are immoral and all theists are moral, so too to say that only communities created through religion can be compassionate and care for others is absurd. Many atheistic communities are possibly more moral, for they don’t interpret religious in a way that causes hate crimes or other immoral behavior.
      This is the main problem with labeling religion as an evolutionary need, for like other evolutionary needs once it becomes obsolete we grow out of it. This is the implicit in R’ Sacks’ argument, that we have not outgrown religion, that we still need it to create community. I happen to fall closer to the side of Sam Harris, he states that religion causes more harm than good at this point in our evolution. He states that we have essentially outgrown it as an evolutionary need, and I agree. The atrocities done by religion far outweigh the moments of good wrought by it.
      If not for my understanding of God as an existential need of man, I would not be religious, it is because of this that I advocate for renewal of religion, for it to shed the parts which are not inherent to the values which each religion expresses.

      • Thank you for your response, I did not write here because it was not part of the point I was making here. I don’t agree that man can only have community based around religion. I believe a lot more in man’s ability to create true community without religion. Just as it is ridiculous to say that all atheists are immoral and all theists are moral, so too to say that only communities created through religion can be compassionate and care for others is absurd. Many atheistic communities are possibly more moral, for they don’t interpret religious in a way that causes hate crimes or other immoral behavior.
        This is the main problem with labeling religion as an evolutionary need, for like other evolutionary needs once it becomes obsolete we grow out of it. This is the implicit in R’ Sacks’ argument, that we have not outgrown religion, that we still need it to create community. I happen to fall closer to the side of Sam Harris, he states that religion causes more harm than good at this point in our evolution. He states that we have essentially outgrown it as an evolutionary need, and I agree. The atrocities done by religion far outweigh the moments of good wrought by it.
        If not for my understanding of God as an existential need of man, I would not be religious, it is because of this that I advocate for renewal of religion, for it to shed the parts which are not inherent to the values which each religion expresses.

        • Liat

          I’m just agreeing with R’Sacks (even though I don’t think he meant this to be his point). I think religion is an integral basis for community. It always has been, and continues to be. It is NOT irrelevant in our times. It of course is more subtle an effect, but religion is the most effective way of forming alliances those are utterly essential survival tools. I’m not saying it’s the only way, but it is an essential contributor to building communities. And that existential need you talk about…most people are not Abrahams. Most of these existential needs arise from the dissatisfaction from the status quo, and the ideas of God are made available and are given significance by the religious structure. So a personal connection with God is, in my opinion, dependent on a religious community in most cases.Just out of curiosity, what example are you thinking of that forms community besides for religion?
          About your other point, which argues against institutionalized religion…Yes, many atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but these acts would be done anyway due to the violent nature of man.

  2. Yitzchak Sprung

    Great post gene!
    I do have some questions
    1-if I understood correctly, rabbi sacks was not saying the purpose of religion is to ensure survival, but that it happens to do this. Why write this? Because we may then appreciate God’s wisdom. Thus you are mostly in agreement with him, though calling religion “an existential need” for man makes it seem like that is the purpose of religion in your opinion, which seems to be centered again on man, and not lishma. Maybe I misunderstood you though.
    2- if revelation is invaluable, which I think most religious people would agree, then there is no point when religion has done more harm than good. As for the damage done in the name of religion, a) better to have loved ad lost, b) I agree with Liat that humans don’t need religion to be bad (eg. Pipe pious was not pious by catholic standards)

    Anyway, to be clear, I liked your article a lot, and I agree with you that religion is not for the sake of man’s survival. I just think rabbi sacks agrees with that point as well, and is simply pointing to the wisdom of religion, rambam style.

  3. Anonymous

    Gosh, I wonder if Rabbi Sacks realized that between the lines of his article he was abandoning the Living God whilst condoning racism, homophobia and genocide. Is it really so sacrilegious to claim that religion is good for society?

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