The Great Partnership: multiculturalism, faith and citizenship

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Do the supposedly civilised values of human rights and responsible citizenry become exclusionary, used to divide rather than unite? Is religion a partner of liberty? On the day the British parliament considers a bill proposing the banning of headscarves in public places, Robin Llewellyn reviews Jonathan Sacks' ‘The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning’
Robin Llewellyn
20 January 2012

With head scarves and minarets banned in the name of freedom, some argue that faith and human rights are locked in a desperate conflict. But Jonathan Sacks’ work: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning (Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp, paperback released 21 June 2012) counters this claim, strongly arguing that religion preserves liberty in contemporary states.


“The story I am about to tell” he begins, “concerns the human mind’s ability to do two separate things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships.”

He sees science as the best example of the first ability, religion of the second, and the book itself reads like a long story taking the reader on a journey through teachings of Nietzsche, Marx, de Tocqueville, and Maimonides among many others, as well as those of the various atheistic and religious people whose influences and company he has cherished.

We seem him in 1968 crossing America in a Greyhound bus, “meeting rabbis and asking them the big questions”, and his story is an often exhilarating discussion of topics such as improbability and the formation of the universe, the parallel impacts of the Bar Kochba Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, and the futility of trying to prove the existence of God. Such breadth is almost impossible to summarise, but its discussion of politics resonates with what I experienced in Switzerland while researching the ban on minarets a year ago, and I merely introduce the work in its relation to religious freedom.

Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks claims that liberty of conscience “was born in the most intensely religious of ages, based on religious texts and driven by a religious vision.”  Drawing on Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic, he argues that thinkers such as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Erastus, Peter Cunaeus, and later Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, and John Locke developed three principles that framed the secular approach to politics: namely that legitimate constitutions be based on the consent of the governed, that the state should fight poverty, and that government should abstain from legislating in matters of religious belief. Sacks claims all three of these propositions were based “not on Plato or Aristotle, but on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and the books of Samuel and Kings.  Even Hobbes, an atheist, based his political philosophy on the Bible, which he quotes 657 times in The Leviathan.”[1]

This new emphasis on freedom of conscience followed the damage wrought by the religious wars following the reformation, for whereas in some areas such conflict had been won outright, in others victory was partial or elusive, a situation that engendered a variety of compromises. One response was to decide that: “Since religion is a source of conflict, let us ban it altogether, at least in public. If people must worship, let them do it in the privacy of their homes or places of worship but nowhere else. That was the view of Voltaire and the French revolutionaries: Écrasez l’infâme, ‘Crush the infamy’.”

Another possibility, Sacks argues, emerged in an English society undergoing an era of unpredictability, when the day’s victor could be the morrow’s victim. The victors took the opportunity to instead grant religious liberty to all those who were willing “to keep the civic peace”.  Liberty of conscience was therefore born at a time of religious conflict to safeguard a space for freedom irrespective of which side held power: “In England, and eventually in a different way in the United States, religious liberty came to be created by people for whom religion mattered a great deal, in a way that surprised and intrigued French observers.”

The differing nature of these settlements has continued to shape the extent of religious freedom today, visible in the debate over the Swiss ban on the construction of minarets.  Patrick Freudinger is a Swiss Peoples’ Party  councillor and was part of the three person committee that drew up the proposition banning minarets that now forms part of the Swiss constitution.

“You can be a Muslim without having a minaret” he told me, “It's not necessary for religious liberty, so the minaret is only a symbol for power, a symbol for political Islam.” 

I asked Mutalip Karaademi - president of the Islamic Centre in Langenthal whose application sparked the initiative – whether this was true:

“The decision to build a minaret is of a symbolic character: to be present, to be open. Everyone in the town knows that we don’t cause problems; they say ‘you are quiet, you are innocent.’ So what’s the problem? A democracy should be free for all who don’t cause trouble.”

The controversy also illustrates how debates concerning religion now often involve contradicting claims of liberty and persecution.  If the Bible significantly shaped our understanding of liberty, its writing has also affected the ways in which human rights are currently understood - or, depending on one’s perspective - misunderstood. Sacks writes: “The curious detail is that all the early Christian texts were written in Greek, whereas the religion of Christianity came from ancient Israel and its key concepts could not be translated into Greek.  The result was a prolonged confusion, which still exists, between the God of Aristotle and the God of Abraham.”

Contrasting the worlds of Athens and Jerusalem is a recurring theme of The Great Partnership, one that Sacks uses to throw light on our conception of political progress, since the philosophy of Greece and the religion of the Jews display divergent understandings of time. Whereas Plato would see truths as timeless, the Hebrew Bible sees truth as stories about people, human nature, and the experiences through which that nature develops. “The message of Exodus to Deuteronomy can be summed up simply: it took a few days for Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt. It took forty years to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The road to freedom is long and hard, and you cannot force the pace.”

Sacks argues that the danger of political revolutions shaped purely by philosophy - by “systems of theoretical constructs” - is they attempt precisely that; the immediate construction of a new social order.  Human rights espoused by purely political revolutionaries become liberties to be imposed by the state, whereas ‘English liberty’ was developed through imposing limits to the state. Sacks argues that the French approach “was to see rights as an ideal description of humanity which it is the task of politics to enforce”, and quotes J. L. Talmon to warn that when “a regime is by definition regarded as realizing rights and freedoms, the citizen becomes deprived of any right to complain that he is being deprived of his rights and liberties.”

A telling illustration could be Nicolas Sarkozy, pronouncing in 2009 that "The problem of the burqa is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly: the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom."

According to Sacks, the English conception of liberty is steadily being displaced by the French, evident in airport worker Nadia Eweida being forbidden from wearing her crucifix.  The Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill 2010-2011 has its second reading in the House of Commons today, and if enacted would make it an offence to cover one's face in a public place except, (among such limitations as health and safety reasons) “in a place of worship”.

The imposition of such a dress-code in the name of liberty and dignity goes beyond the legitimate limits that are set in Sacks’ reading of the Abrahamic tradition, where politics is always of a lesser importance to the web of relationships we form in our communities, our families, and through cultural activities.  Politics “is not where we meet God, not where we construct our deepest relationships, not where we exercise our highest virtues, not where we achieve individual and national glory. It is a means to an end, no more, no less…. It is the secondary nature of politics in the Judeo-Christian vision that is the surest guarantor against an intrusive state. Where politics is primary, politicians rule supreme; and where politicians rule, freedom is in danger.”

Civil society therefore creates a buffer between the individual and the state that preserves liberty, reducing the vulnerability of individuals and communities. Without this secondary nature, when politics becomes the highest virtue, “it becomes a way in which the people worship the collective embodiment of themselves, and they can sacrifice many essential liberties to it, including the liberty of the minority.”

Sacks describes the danger of 'single vision' to both believer and atheist; the belief that there is only one answer to the central questions of society and politics. The ability to compromise with those we don't altogether understand is essential to a decent society, he argues, and criticises the 'new atheist' Sam Harris's assertion that the ideal of religious tolerance is driving society toward an abyss.

Sacks doesn’t spare religion from a listing of its crimes through history, but argues that when engaged in a vigorous dialogue with science, religion is essential if we are to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century.  “Religions work best when they are open and accountable to the world” he says.  “When they develop into closed, totalising systems and sectarian modes of community, when they place great weight on the afterlife or divine intervention into history, expecting the end of time in the midst of time, then they can become profoundly dangerous, for there is nothing to check their descent into fantasy, paranoia and violence.”

Hostility and unease towards religion, whether made evident in bans to a particular head dress, to minarets or crucifixes, can be seen as a narrowing of our understanding of liberty, not just in its scope but also of its history.  The answer is arguably not to tolerate other faiths and belief systems, but to celebrate them.  Rabbi Jackie Tabick is Chair of the World Council of Faiths, and speaking at the latest Interdependence Day event, she said it was vital to: “treasure both cultural and religious diversity, because after all, one of the major facets of multiculturalism is the bonus of having religious diversity in our country. We believe that each religion brings its own טעםטעם, the Hebrew word for ‘taste’. We encourage the delving into the philosophy, the teachings of our own faiths, to a deeper and deeper level, so we can bring what is important to our different faiths to our discussions.”

The same lesson could be applied to cultures: At the Islamic Centre in Langenthal Mutalip Karaademi reminisced about an Albania where tables would be shared in brotherhood between those of different faiths: “We are Albanian, we are born, live, and die with three religions: Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim. We celebrate their Christmas and our Islamic days… I want a synagogue here, every religion. I want Langenthal to be an example for the world, although it’s a small place.”

Chair of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony Dr Abduljalil Saji, also speaking at Interdependence Day meeting had a similar message: “We have to not only accept each other but respect each other and make sure that we work together because that’s what the purpose of religion is all about: that we human beings should love each other, care for each other, irrespective of our faith, colour, creed, or whatever we are, because we need to look after each other.”

These assertions bring us back to Sacks' premise, that religion joins people together to form relationships, and this multitude of voices speak from a place where faith and liberty enjoy a synergistic relationship.

Such a scholarly and important book as this deserves similarly weighty critiques, particularly to further explore the degree to which the Abrahamic tradition developed liberal and democratic government. Classicists might disagree with his depiction of Athenian society in which there was “no higher law, no transcendental ethic, no divine norm, to which the state is answerable and in the light of which it can be criticized and if need be opposed.” 

His thesis that it was the religious nature of the English and American political revolutions that engendered regimes where human rights developed, whereas the philosophical revolutions of France and Russia were quickly tyrannical, deserves scrutiny given the abuses under the new ‘Abrahamic’ regimes in Ireland and towards indigenous Americans.

But such challenges are a testament to the scope and endeavour of The Great Partnership, a book that leaves both atheists and believers newly aware of dissonances in the meaning of once familiar concepts.  Sacks has produced a riveting and rewarding work that raises awareness of past calamities and present dangers, at the same time as displaying optimism that faith and philosophy, science and religion can - through greater knowledge and open debate - together overcome the challenges facing us.

Jonathan Sacks: The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning. Hodder & Stoughton. 370pp. ISBN 978-0-340-99524-2, Paperback release date: 21 June 2012


1. Text of the speech to Interdependence Day talk at the House of Lords, September 12, 2011, by Rabbi Jackie Tabick, Chair of World Congress of Faiths (notes taken by Robin Llewellyn).

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