<preform>Faith & Reason: It is the unbelievers who are guilty of dogmatic intensity</preform>

'Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief' is showing on BBC4. But, in their vehemence, are Miller, Richard Dawkins and others mistaking their target?
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The Independent Online

In the course of a long rabbinic career I have been invited to many conferences. Two in particular remain in my memory. The first was a multi-faith conference in New Delhi several years ago, when I came into significant contact with the religions of the East, and fell in love with India; and the second was earlier this year, at a Dialogue between Science, Art and Religion at Melk Abbey in Austria.

In the course of a long rabbinic career I have been invited to many conferences. Two in particular remain in my memory. The first was a multi-faith conference in New Delhi several years ago, when I came into significant contact with the religions of the East, and fell in love with India; and the second was earlier this year, at a Dialogue between Science, Art and Religion at Melk Abbey in Austria.

The Melk Abbey conference was astonishing for the calibre of its participants. Among the 10 speakers were three Nobel prizewinners, the chemist who invented the Pill (surely one of the most revolutionary discoveries of the last century), two heads of departments at world-famous universities, a leading opera baritone, the editor of America's best-selling business magazine - and me. My dear wife of 35 years was convinced, probably correctly, that the organisers had mistakenly invited the wrong David Goldberg!

Be that as it may, at lunch one day I got into animated discussion about the ethics of cloning with the scientist who had won his Nobel Prize for the invention of PCR, the Polymerase Chain Reaction that amplifies a single, microscopic strand of DNA material billions of times within hours. As he was explaining the structure of DNA to me, his eyes filled with tears. "Excuse me," he said, "but whenever I think about the perfect, beautifully arranged organisation of the DNA system, I get very emotional. That's when I almost believe in God. It's all the other baggage of religion that I find difficult."

I told him that, despite my being a religious professional, it was often my difficulty too, and quoted W.B. Yeats's remark that he had been cursed with a religious temperament but no religion. There must be millions of people who are willing to consider, if not theism, at least the option of deism - that is, belief in a God who, since creating the world has left it to its own devices - when they are confronted with the wonders of Nature, but who no longer find credible the traditional attributes ascribed to God by the monotheistic faiths; that He is omniscient, omnipotent, the creator of both good and evil, who rules the world with perfect justice, is active in history and grants us eternal life after our span on earth has ended.

It is the notion of this greybeard in the sky, this supernatural Being, that atheists and sceptics take great delight in debunking. Jonathan Miller is the latest to have a go, in his Brief History of Disbelief on BBC4. I do wish that people like Miller and Richard Dawkins would realise that they are knocking on an open door. Since the Age of Enlightenment, it is only blinkered religious extremists who could believe literally in the God described in sacred scriptures, rather than interpreting those texts metaphorically. Any theological system since has had to take into account the discoveries of cosmology, astronomy, anthropology, the natural sciences, biology, quantum physics, psychology and linguistic philosophy, to name the most obvious disciplines. But Miller, Dawkins and Co bang on as though they were ruthlessly demolishing medieval "proofs" for the existence of God that have been outmoded since Spinoza's time. Their humourless, dogmatic intensity is a secular counterpart to the religious zeal of fanatical mullahs and biblical fundamentalists.

It is a fact that theology is posited on an ultimately unverifiable and unproven affirmation of deity. But, as the Greek philosopher Protagoras said, many things hinder certainty about the gods, such as the obscurity of the matter and the shortness of man's life. We know full well that non-believers can live as ethically and responsibly as believers, and that many terrible deeds have been committed in the name of religions that preach peace and respect for each individual created in God's image. Dean Swift observed that we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love, one another.

That conceded, it is still true that religion as an aesthetic affords great sustenance to believers and unbelievers alike. How much spiritually the poorer we would be without the poetry of the Psalms, the King James version of the Bible, magnificent cathedrals like Chartres, the Requiems of Bach and Verdi, and the art of Michelangelo and El Greco. The moral burden of explanation and accountability is still there, and cannot be evaded by inserting the word "God" as an answer to every dilemma, from the death of a child to the flourishing of the wicked. But in offering its benedictions and consolations to offset life's pain and suffering, all placed in the context of our mortality, religion grants us a vision of the human condition that is at least as plausible, and probably more comforting, than atheism or materialism.

David J. Goldberg is Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

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