In January 2009, London buses carried an advertisement paid for by the British Humanist Association: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." It was that slogan, Jonathan Sacks tells us, that finally persuaded him to write this book. But the provocative slogan, with its bizarre non-sequitur (why should believers be more anxious than non-believers, or rejoice less in life's wonders?), has led Britain's Chief Rabbi to produce not a provocative or polemical response, but a profoundly thoughtful, courteous and humane reflection on the supposed conflict between scientific knowledge and religious faith.
The chief message of the book is that there is no conflict. For in the first place science operates within the domain of explanations, not within the domain of meanings, and hence "science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings. "Science takes things apart to see how they work, while religion [aims to] see what they mean." And in the second place, the ways in which religion and science confront the world are wholly different: science, responsible for some of our greatest human achievements, is par excellence a "left-brain" activity, detached and critical, classifying, atomising, analysing, hypothesising, while religion, as understood by Sacks, is primarily about our inner lives, and uses the "right-brain" functions of empathy and imagination, working through narrative, tradition and ritual in order to express deep truths about our human aspirations and fears.
The universe as revealed by Darwin is, to be sure, at odds with the fundamentalist picture of a six-day creation; but it is by no means at odds, Sacks argues, with an authentic religious picture of our origins. Here Sacks draws on a long-standing exegetical tradition in Judaism that (alongside many strands in Christianity, including mainstream Catholicism) firmly rejects a literalist interpretation of Genesis. Modern science has uncovered an astonishingly beautiful world of biological diversity arising from underlying unity, a wondrous unfolding nexus of dynamic change and creativity. It is not at all like a watch — the dead, rigidly designed mechanism to which Archdeacon Paley famously likened the world — but all this shows is that the watchmaker analogy for God is hopelessly inept.
Religion, for Sacks, is the quest to understand our lives, as Abraham sought to, setting out into the unknown, driven not by "scientific certainty" but by "moral loyalty", on an extraordinary journey of faith — one that culminated, long after his death, in his becoming "the most influential person who ever lived, the spiritual grandfather of more than half of the six billion people on the face of the planet". But while he underlines the remarkable resilience and survival power of the great three Abrahamic faiths, enduring over the centuries while secular empires have risen and fallen, Sacks's voice is never triumphalist. True religion, he insists, is never about political power, any more than it is about scientific hypotheses. We should look for the divine presence "in compassion, generosity, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, the opening of soul to soul...in relationships etched with the charisma of grace, not subject and object, command and control, dominance and submission."