The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in the UK has called out atheist professor Richard Dawkins for his best-selling book The God Delusion, accusing the biologist of using anti-Semitic rhetoric and calling him a "Christian atheist".
The two men participated in a discussion about Dawkins' book on the BBC programme "Re:Think", where Lord Jonathan Sacks accused Dawkins of using centuries of prejudice against Judaism when he describes the God of the Old Testament in his book as the "most unpleasant character in all fiction".
"In Judaism we accept open argument and we do not rule people out at all. I was not concerned that Richard was anti-Semitic at all – I was concerned that he was using an anti-Semitic stereotype which has run through a certain strand of Christian reading of what is called the Old Testament, as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews died in the Middle Ages, because that's how people spoke of the 'God of the Old Testament'," Lord Sacks said on the programme.
"It really terrifies me to see the power of these stereotypes persisting into atheism – it really bothers me," he added.
Sacks and Dawkins have maintained a formidable relationship over the years – and in the same programme, the Jewish leader described the atheist professor as a "really, really nice guy", but said that he believes it was prejudice and not the professor speaking in the passages of The God Delusion that refer to the Old Testament, noting that it made Dawkins sound like a "Christian atheist".
Dawkins confessed that he was ignorant of the centuries of prejudice Sacks referred to, but insisted that "the moral values that are embodied in the behaviour of the God of the Old Testament are very deplorable indeed".
The Jewish leader then asked Dawkins how many Judaic commentaries he read before writing about the Old Testament in his book, to which the atheist professor admitted that "enlightened Jewish commentators would repudiate these horrific stories", referring to the slaughter of the Ammonites in the Bible.
The author insisted, however, that he was referring to the God of the Old Testament as he actually appears in the text. This prompted Lord Sachs to accuse Dawkins of reading the Bible "literally, as a fundamentalist".
"How do you decide which bits are symbolic and which bits are not?" Dawkins later asked.
"Very simple," the Chief Rabbi replied. "The rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: if a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally."
Lord Sachs will step down as Chief Rabbi next year after 22 years of service.
Dawkins taken to task over 'anti-Semitic stereotype'
Published 17 September 2012