thu 30/06/2022

The Case for God?, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

The Case for God?, BBC One

The Case for God?, BBC One

Beeb makes half-decent case that they still care about religion

Lisa Jardine attempts to convert Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks to a secular world view

Sometimes you get the impression the Beeb wishes religion would quietly go away. You see it in the gradual transformation of the Sunday morning slot from the lightweight Heaven and Earth Show to Nicky Campbell’s lighter-weight Big Questions and now the heroically worldly Sunday Morning Live. General Synod noticed it earlier this year when complaints were made about the lack of religious programming.

And the secular society noticed it when they rushed to the Beeb’s defence commending its secular and rationalist output. From last night it seems that the secular agenda is even at work in the Chief Rabbi’s annual Jewish New Year address.

With a flourish of faux-jeopardy, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks explained that he was going into an atheists’ lion’s den to see if he could learn more about his faith. In fact, he seemed to be going into BBC Two’s actual Dragons' Den, or at least the set. He was, of course, the Dragon. And each of the four debaters were presented as if they were pitching their world view. After each session they were given a minute to camera to say how they thought it had gone. So who were these would-be rabbi-converters? We had secular Jews, Howard Jacobson and Lisa Jardine, scientific atheist Colin Blakemore and everyone’s favourite clever-clogs, Alain de Botton.

I do always wonder when God appears on TV, which God we are talking about

The whole tone of the programme was refreshingly middle-brow, but not without its lighter moments. De Botton with his cartoonish cranium managed to elicit a moment of sublime unintended comedy. He was trying to convince the rabbi that it was OK to pick and mix the best bits from religions. The rabbi refuted this by saying that however much he liked Beethoven, Simon and Garfunkel and Miles Davis, a tune made up of all three would be a disaster.

An interesting point? Was he actually meaning that on musical grounds we need to stick to one true religion? De Botton thought not. “But, Rabbi”, he said, “this is exactly what we all love to do with literature. We read Jane Austen in the morning, Schopenhauer in the afternoon, Gibbon in the evening...” Wow, Alain: Schopenhauer and Gibbon surely must trump Garfunkel and Davis any day!

What this exchange also showed was, by editing down several hours of interview to a half-hour programme, how perfunctory and occasionally ludicrous a presumably erudite exchange could become. Of course religious leaders are used to reducing big ideas to sound-bites in sermons but I couldn’t help remembering that no one gave Jonathan Miller this treatment in his series on atheism a while back.

For the sake of making everything easy and intelligible, each of the four interlocutors was edited down to a single idea. Howard Jacobson trumpeted his credentials as a secular Jew, and said how much he disliked Jewish ritual. Moving the argument a little further forward he asked, “Rabbi, could you ever love a Jew who says I’ve had it with Jewish self-righteousness?” “Of course, I could love such a Jew,” came the reply. “Once I thought you were such a Jew.” Oy Vey!

And after the love-in was over came the serious point that maybe ritual is necessary to embed religiosity into the routine of the everyday. After all, came one of the rabbi’s irresistible metaphors, you’d never finish writing a novel if you didn’t do a little bit every day.

Colin Blakemore’s interview carried a particular burden of responsibility insofar as he seemed to represent the recent Dawkins-led industry of books and programmes that cater for an audience equally eager to feel the liberation of a universe devoid of God. Blakemore thought that science explained all, and moreover did so without leaving any space for a God hypothesis.

In rebuttal the rabbi invoked Beethoven again, saying that we might know he wrote to pay his bills but that that didn’t explain the beauty of the music. Blakemore got the point but thought it was nonsense. Science would explain everything; eventually even consciousness itself. And when it did explain concepts that draw in questions of purpose and meaning rather than explaining phenomena away it would just make them more astonishing. The rabbi agreed to disagree on this but refused to accept that there was no free will.

The last and most significant challenge to the existence of God was, we were told, the existence of suffering in the world. Lisa Jardine, whose father Jacob Bronowski made the classic Seventies documentary The Ascent of Man, questioned how God could allow the Holocaust to take place. The rabbi turned this around, saying that the Holocaust made him lose faith in secular man to do good and showed the need for God to guide man’s behaviour.

And this all raised the question, never actually addressed in the programme, of what actual God were we hearing a case for. The rabbi’s God? Presumably, but one wonders how many of the intended audience would know much about Judaism, or the rabbi’s take on it. Even if they wanted to like his God (after all, Sacks seemed pretty cuddly, and even had a beard like Rowan Williams's) they wouldn’t know anything about it.

Actually, it seemed to me that a case was being made against a Christian God, by programme-makers who feel so uncomfortable about Christianity that they preferred to dress the whole thing up as a Rosh Hashanah address. I do always wonder when God appears on TV, which God we are talking about. The rule-making God of evangelicals who has a thing about gays? The reasonable yet ineffectual God of The Vicar of Dibley? The God of everything we don’t yet understand in science?

I seem to remember hearing Nicky Campbell talking intelligently about all of this on the Big Questions one Sunday morning. I think I recall him making some excellent points. So, maybe the BBC’s middle-brow programmes don’t actually get us any further than the ones presented by ex-radio DJs. Still, at least they make us feel that the BBC is trying to take religion seriously.

Editing several hours of interview to a half-hour shows how perfunctory and occasionally ludicrous a presumably erudite exchange could become

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This was an awful program. The chief rabbi claimed to be 'putting his faith on the line', but in reality was doing nothing of the sort. He invited 4 guests to describe (extremely) briefly their thoughts on the concept of God, as though he was auditioning them. Every argument presented to him was met with analogy after analogy. Really, for someone in such a senior position, I was expecting far more eloquent debate than flawed (or at least questionable analogies) in order to prove that he 'just believes' there is a god. His constant exclamations of "you can't seriously believe..." just came across as patronising. Simply saying that 'I believe in free will, irrespective of any argument presented to me... because of my faith' cannot be used in the same debate as a scientific argument. They are fundamentally different concepts, with science requiring evidence and reasoning, while faith, by it's very definition, insists upon neither! So, either the rabbi realised this and knew that his faith would not (because it could not!) be challenged and the program was a con from the beginning, or the rabbi did not realise that this was the case, which seems highly unlikely. This program appears to have been designed to attempt to portray religion (and Judaism in this case) as under attack. It may well be under attack, but the way to deal with this isn't to attempt to evoke pity or try and present atheists as aggresive, skeptical and unloving - it's to enter rational, proper debate and fully discuss the issues without comparing religion to music or art as a means of showing that because there is some beauty, it is clearly worth having. Perhaps you might post some details of the next protest against the religious content on the BBC, such that I might help insist that it is more objective and of a much higher standard?

I totally agree with the above view, I think he made the point very well. The show was a wishy washy cozy chat without actually dealing with the big questions. It was edited so that what they had in common was the final out come. Sure we all have stuff in come we like music and art but it's what they don't have in common should have been discussed more indepth. Oooooh I like Simon and Garfunkle and without God we would not have their music, Oh yes we would because we would still have Simon and Garfunkle. Why do we always use art and music to prove god exists, for every Beethoven there are a million plain ordinary drones watching Trisha all day. Generally the human race is not this wonderous miricle but usually its picking the underpants from it's backside and wondering what's for tea.

Simply saying that 'I believe in free will, irrespective of any argument presented to me... because of my faith' cannot be used in the same debate as a scientific argument. They are fundamentally different concepts, with science requiring evidence and reasoning, while faith, by it's very definition, insists upon neither! So, either the rabbi realised this and knew that his faith would not (because it could not!) be challenged and the program was a con from the beginning, or the rabbi did not realise that this was the case, which seems highly unlikely. This program appears to have been designed to attempt to portray religion (and Judaism in this case) as under attack. It may well be under attack, but the way to deal with this isn't to attempt to evoke pity or try and present atheists as aggresive, skeptical and unloving - it's to enter rational, proper debate and fully discuss the issues without comparing religion to music or art as a means of showing that because there is some beauty, it is clearly worth having. www.paulcleather.com

I was surprised at Sack's ignorance of how we obtain freewill from a scientific perspective without reductionism. Colin Blakemore is correct,with a proviso - quantum physics and chaos show that we can have a universe of freewill from explaining how we work from parts - there is no ghost in the machine - as I expected - the religious man fails to understand the science and continues in his ignorant mythology - all the things he claims are off limits are well withing science's remit. Sacks - says that the bible is not interesed in how the universe came to be - it certainly is - and that is why the ignorant view of the bible is undermined by science.

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