Many thanks to this week’s guest script writer, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And a big hello to all J&M’s Danish readers.

Discussion (49)¬

  1. Peter Kuypers says:

    The Land of Beer is still Belgium…

  2. Louise says:

    Haha, thanks from Denmark!
    But, as we have a small immigrant population, primarily from Arab countries, some people feel threatened by Islam, and thus over-emphasize our ‘Christian heritage’ that’s being ‘destroyed’. Sad people, really.
    But otherwise, spot on.

  3. Bob Ripley says:

    Just returned from Sweden and it’s so true. The place is beautiful, orderly, no litter and no religion too!

  4. Hmmmmm sweet, sweet, Blasphemy – just like Bacon, it makes everything better…

    Cheers to J Sacks as well…he deserves his own cartoon strip…or a padded cell…not quite decided….praps both…

  5. Muscleguy says:

    I got halfway through Sack’s article but the number of silly, uninformed, misrepresented, unevidenced assertions defeated me, and my blood pressure. Is there nothing he won’t try and pin on a supposed lack of religion? How many armies in WWI didn’t have pastors/padres etc? None.

    How can you take someone so prepared to misrepresent history seriously?

  6. Chris says:

    Another cheers from a Danish fan. I had to read it a few times. I thought beer, blasphemy and bacon were three of the most positive things about our country, not something Mo would use as an argument against our happy and succesful society 🙂

  7. Limagolf says:

    Yay for Denmark.

    Also: bacon and beer are much better than blasmephy for your daily calories. It’s really just the possibility of blasphemy that is necessary to uphold our social order. That of course necessitates that someone blasphemes once in a while, just to keep it real.

  8. Nassar Ben Houdja says:

    Blasphemy, bacon and beer
    And winter six months of the year
    When the climate, is to refrigerate
    Makes it necessary to cooperate
    Or freeze off your ass, my dear.

  9. Chris, it’s like sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Some people can dig it. Some think it’s the end of civilization as we know it. Beer, blasphemy and bacon sounds like a good update to the sixties mantra, ‘cept I like sex, scotch, and shortbread myself.
    May your cartoonists live long and prosper.
    Muscleguy, like you I bogged down and haven’t finished Sacks’ all to familiar litany of nonsense. I may go back to it once I catch my breath and down some more scotch. But so far it doesn’t seem to deserve thoughtful attention.

  10. Tim Williams says:


  11. Albert Yome says:

    Bacon sarnies, Carlsberg, Danish salami and the greatest goalkeeper of all time. The Danes also showed great solidarity under Nazi occupation and wore yellow stars to stand up for the Jews. All the above should really endear them to the religion of death.

  12. earlejones says:

    Carlsberg Elephant is pretty good beer.

  13. Chris Phoenix says:

    Speaking as an atheist, I believe Nassar has a good point. And, perhaps, even Sacks has a point.

    Sack’s basic argument (aside from all the stuff he blames on it) is that in the absence of religion, all that’s left is moral relativism.

    OK. I would argue that, while this is probably true, in the _presence_ of religion, you also get moral relativism. If I could pick a second word to answer Sacks, it would be “Inquisition.”

    So, if morals are relative, what are they relative _to_? I would argue that they are relative to macroeconomics. In societies where cooperation is a winning strategy, people will cooperate – as Nassar implied. In zero-sum societies, people will fight.

    For more on this, see It’s my attempt to extend Jane Jacobs’ _Systems of Survival_ into the computer age.

    An interesting point is that the three systems of ethics (zero-sum, positive-sum, unlimited-sum) can coexist in the same society at the same time – though I believe Jacobs is correct that they cannot beneficially coexist in the same _organization_.

  14. The eminent rabbi is evidently unaware of the consistency in responses by people of all races and creeds to the trolley car thought experiments, which show we are hard-wired to be able to make coherent ethical decisions without external guidance. This is what you’d expect in a socially evolved mammal. Maybe maybe social evolution has gone bit further in Denmark than in some other nations, particularly those, it seems, where religious hierarchies hold sway.

  15. tfkreference says:

    As an American descendant of proud Danes, I appreciate the salute to Denmark (almost as much as I appreciate beer, bacon, and blasphemy).

  16. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    I think it’s fair to say that most religious people believe that religion is the foundation on which civilisation is built and, as with any building, if the foundation is removed then the whole edifice will collapse. Sacks is suggesting that the foundations are beginning to be chipped away by us nasty atheists and that civilisation is beginning to fall apart around our ears.
    I can’t for a second deny that religion has played a large part in the formation of civilisation, but in no way was it the foundation: the only thing that civilisation cannot survive without is the people that form it (pretty much like religion, really).
    The role played by religion was more like scaffolding: even when the foundations of civilisation were in place in the form of a growing population of disparate tribes increasingly coming into contact with each other, it could go no further without common grounds to work on and one set of rules for all to follow, and that’s where religion came in. It allowed humanity to outline what it wanted civilisation to be and acted as a support while it was being built. The best analogy I can think of is of the building of an arched bridge. Once the foundations are laid on either side of a river, the work stops if there’s nothing to support the structure during construction, so we build a temporary supporting frame to the shape of the desired result, place it in the gap, and start building on it from each side. This makes the scaffolding vital* to the build, because if it’s removed before completion then the spans will collapse; once the keystone is in place, however, the scaffold frame can safely be demolished.
    If cracks start to appear later, that’s not because the frame’s gone as Sacks believes, but more likely due to shoddy workmanship, or in other words, human error.

    *I’m not suggesting that religion itself was vital in the forming of civilisation, just that it happened to be the mechanism that worked at the time. Had people been smart enough to find common ground without the need of throwing gods into the mix, I believe that it would have been achieved so much faster and with a lot less bloodshed on the way.

  17. AoS,
    I am having trouble even seeing how it acted as a scaffold. I may be making an error here, but it seems to me that civilization is frequently driven by empire. Great empires spawn great building projects great ideas and great art. The Roman Empire spread at the point of a sword and maintained its size with public works. Yes the Roman Empire had to manage hundreds of religions, but that is not to say that they were able to use the religions as scaffolding for something. Irrespective of what religion was held by the peoples conquered by the Romans, the Romans imposed order and public works. So I realize that empire is not exactly synonymous with civilization, but empires virtually always spread by military, not by religion. You say religion gave a common ground and common rules. I say that if you conquer me and give me a set of rules that I have to live by or die, then we have common rules.

    I am not trying to dictate this to you. I am trying to figure it out myself. What do you think? Do you have an example of what you are thinking?

  18. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    FKS, it’s really just an idea I’ve been kicking around since reading the Sacks story, and I might be over-stating religion’s case, but I feel that it must have had an important role to play in the beginnings of civilisation – somewhat more than nothing and less than foundational – because otherwise it’s difficult to see how it has continued in such strength despite having outlived its usefulness by several hundreds of years.
    What I’m not saying is that civilisation couldn’t have got going without religion, just that way back when mankind was only just learning to live in quantities greater than family units or small tribes of two or three families, in virtually every part of the world where this was happening the people hit on to the same basic idea of how best to communicate their laws, customs, rituals, etc, and that idea was to posit a deity or deities, make them as powerful as they needed to be and have them issue the orders. So by tying people to one set of guidelines – in this case religious ones – it became possible for large groups of people to live in close proximity for the first time, which in the most basic sense meant that civilisation had begun.
    To return to my original analogy, that was when they should have thrown the framework away, but it had been so long since it had been made that it was totally forgotten that it had been made; nobody knew it was an artificial structure meant as a temporary support, so nobody dare get rid. Instead, the religions were allowed to meet, to mix and grow, first to standardise and then to split into rival factions arguing over bridge-building techniques, in a manner of speaking. From there it was but a short step to wars, to great armies and empires, and to religious domination of a large part of the world to the present day.

    Or, to put it in a sentence, religion was a beneficial force that had outlived its usefulness long before Abraham was a twinkle in his author’s eye; it’s just a shame that nobody thought to tell it before it became an all-engulfing monster.

    Not sure if that clarifies or muddies my point, but I did say I was just kicking the idea around. Maybe I should just kick it out instead 🙂

  19. VoteCoffee says:

    Religion has always helped as a tool to placate and manipulate the masses. Older civilizations were not aided by technology so much as grunt labor. A belief in the afterlife can be a fairly effective coping mechanism for weighing against the toils of life, especially when lifespans were closer to 40 years. The community religious identity also provides a great mechanism where by people self regulate. Even if one doesn’t believe, the consequences of disbelief can mean the loss of friends, business, bargaining power, etc. I’m pretty sure religion helped a ton in lubricating the path to civilization. That and slavery. But with every such Faustian bargain comes a cost.

  20. Trine says:

    I have to like that one. I’m from Denmark.

  21. Florida and Acolyte, interesting ideas though the bridge and scaffold analogy is a bit rickety. Religion and conquest have always gone hand in hand. The Christians coming into China were backed up by gun boats. The conquistadors invading South America had their priests blessing the slaughter, while giving the savages an attractive alternative to death by burning at the stake. Confucianism in China was supported by the emperors because it called for hierarchy, obedience, and knowing your place.

    It seems to me that religion could not have survived so well without military support, and it was very useful to conquerors and rulers. Maybe what we are looking at here is an alliance that formed the foundation of civilization, but if so it was anti-democratic and authoritarian. As power has shifted from kings and emperors to barons and land owners to merchants to men and finally even to women, religion is an archaic institution. It’s roll of pacifier and justifier isn’t effective any more, and now it just gets in the way. The sooner we can scrap it, the better off we’ll be. (citations needed)

  22. John Moriarty says:

    Apt quote dug up., note discussion re attribution

  23. MarkyWarky says:

    I think it’s pretty simple actually: our evolved state means we need to cooperate as social animals. Religion, which I think results from our over-evolved intelligence, has helped us do that. As such, it HAS been a foundation of society. That doesn’t mean it’s been all good, just that it’s provided a structure.

    Now though, it’s being challenged by reason, and IS starting to fall apart. Because there’s currently nothing universal to replace it, that IS having a bad effect in some parts of society, because a moral structure is missing.

    So, what we need is something to replace the good parts of religion. I believe that countries like Denmark have done that already by replacing religion with a secular structure, but that countries like mine (the UK), still have a long long way to go.

    In other words, the problems we see as religion dies may well be real AND due to that dieting process as Sacks argues, don’t mean it shouldn’t happen, but do mean we need something else.

    Simples 🙂

  24. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    DH, ‘rickety’ bridge analogy? As a big fan of the pun, I loved that.
    Obviously my own thoughts on this are far from clear, but expanding on it will have to wait; a friend of my wife is here with her very excitable, demanding, and loud 2-year old boy, so as concentration is impossible, I’m off to play with the little brute.

  25. csrster says:

    I live in Denmark and the beer and bacon is pretty crappy. Also the Blasphemy Law “§140” isn’t much better, except that it doesn’t seem to be enforced. Of course secularism != blasphemy.

  26. Acolyte, you must recognize priorities. Enjoy.

  27. For me, John Moriarty’s Seneca quote really helped focus my thoughts. MarkyWarky says that this is simple: Religion helps people cooperate. I disagree. People cooperate just fine all the time without the slightest reference to religion. Have you ever had a job anywhere? Maybe MarkyWarky is saying more what AoS clarified his position to; People cooperate now and even as long ago as ancient empires, but religion helped people cooperate when people were moving from the hunter gatherer tribe of say 25 to 75 individuals up to the federation of 5 to 50 tribes. The people in the tribes were cooperating with each other, but no tribe to tribe cooperation without religion.

    I find this hypothesis tenable. I certainly can’t prove it to be false and I have read that it is true in other places. But now throw in John Moriarty’s Seneca quote: “Religion is thought to be … TRUE by the masses, FALSE by the educated elite, USEFUL by the ruling elite.” I am thinking that religion has never ever helped people cooperate at all. What religion has done has helped the guy in charge convince people that they should cooperate with his ideas. So then if his idea is to build the institutions that increase the human condition, then we see religion as increasing the human condition. If he is a tyrant then we see religion as tyrannical.

    This idea doesn’t show AoS or MarkyWarky to be wrong. You could still look at religion as the scaffold that helped the leader leverage his idea into actualization. And it helped people cooperate towards that actualization. But I am putting the spin on it that religion is a pawn not a prime mover and I believe I can actually prove that if anyone thinks I am wrong. So then a leader with a good idea in a religion free world would have had to sell his idea with a reasoned argument, but in this world he is free to use divine authority instead. If you buy that (and here I am on shakier ground) then it stands to reason that fewer bad ideas would have been implemented without the crutch of unreasoned, unchecked and uncheckable divine authority. So if religion is a scaffold to help people cooperate stupidly, but without it people would have cooperated smarter, I am claiming religion isn’t actually helpful.

  28. Ah, Rabbi Sacks – the guy who rejoiced that his dying father didn’t have the option to speed up the process, because he, Rabbi Sacks, got to take care of him. He never once considered what his father might have wanted.

  29. UncoBob says:

    If you start thinking about the role of religion in morality, the certainty shown by the Rabbi that morality is founded in religion isn’t so clear-cut.

    It’s not even certain that ‘do unto others’ is a universal principle if you look at the range of religions. I remember an anthropology assignment requiring discussion of the hypothesis that religion in ‘pre-literate societies’ is fundamentally a technology i.e. a way of making sure that the crops don’t fail or the hunting is good.

    Now some religions have rules about being nice to others or to look after the poor, but outside that, the rules are not so warm and fuzzy. The rabbi’s ancestors for example had rules allowing them to kill people of other religions and steal their land, or just because they worshipped the wrong god. Then there are all the other rules about whom you can/must kill – apostates, adulterers, blasphemers, gays, kids who hit their parents, witches etc. After that, we get into the sexual morality side of things – what you can do in bed (or wherever), rules about menstruation. And how about dietary rules… but then there’s been enough said about ham sandwiches.

    I’m not sure I’d be so ready to claim my religion as the basis of any meaningful morality – it’s even arguable that morality develops despite religion.

  30. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    FKS, look at my final paragraph to my original post on this:

    I’m not suggesting that religion itself was vital in the forming of civilisation, just that it happened to be the mechanism that worked at the time. Had people been smart enough to find common ground without the need of throwing gods into the mix, I believe that it would have been achieved so much faster and with a lot less bloodshed on the way.

    and compare it to the end of your last post:

    …then it stands to reason that fewer bad ideas would have been implemented without the crutch of unreasoned, unchecked and uncheckable divine authority. So if religion is a scaffold to help people cooperate stupidly, but without it people would have cooperated smarter, I am claiming religion isn’t actually helpful.

    I think we’re talking around each other to say the same thing,
    The transition from small-scale transient hunter-gatherer groups to larger, permanant settlements would have come with its own set of unique problems, not least of which would have been in overcoming our evolutionary preference for living in small, close-knit groups and for avoiding potential disputes over territory and other resources by the simple expedient of avoiding other, rival groups where possible, and only coming together with others for the purpose of breeding, and later for trading goods (something we have yet to master fully; ever wondered why the denser the population the less friendly the people?).
    So to enable large, unrelated groups to live and work together some common ground was required, and if there’s one thing that these people had in common it was a belief in the spernatural; the gods were as much a part of reality as rivers and trees. The details may have differed from group to group, but they all ‘knew’ that the gods decided whether a hunt would be successful, or whether the annual rains would come or not, and so on.
    By the relatively modern standads of Senaca, for example, the flaws in this were obvious, the potential for its exploitation all too clear, and with the clarity of hindsight it’s easy for us to say that there are better alternatives, but 10,000 years or more before Senaca had his insight, for an unsophisticated and superstitious population religion was the obvious answer to the problem of maintaining order and coherence within the new communities. The fact that it was soon to be exploited for personal gain, or to justify attrocities is neither here nor there for the purpose of my argument, which is simply that, whilst it could be said that farming itself was the catalyst for civilisation, religion was the means by which common values and aims could be achieved.
    Yes, religion was soon to be corrupted and exploited and distorted way beyond recognition, but for that relatively short transitional time it worked. It would be nice to be able to say that reason and rationality would have worked just as well, but the fact is that there are very few (I personally can’t think of any off-hand) archeological finds of early permanant settlements that don’t show evidence of some kind of religious belief.
    As I hinted at in my original post, religion had outlived its usefulness within a few tens of generations of cooperative living – people had to have noticed that the rains came or failed irrespective of what rituals or sacrifices were made to the rain gods, likewise crops grew or didn’t, diseases killed or not, and so on, but unfortunately by that time it had become the religion that Senaca remarked on, a tool transformed into a weapon, and one too valuable and too powerful for those in charge of it to discard lightly, and the rest, as they say, is history.

  31. Acolyte of Sagan says:

    UncoBob, just a quick point about your comment “the certainty shown by the Rabbi that morality is founded in religion isn’t so clear-cut.“.
    What the Rabbi (intentionally?) forgets is that it was people that gave morality to religion, not the other way round. The trouble for Sacks and his ilk is that by recognising this fact, it makes committing some of the more unsavoury acts demanded by the gods becomes harder, if not impossible to justify.

  32. Ophelia, just one of the questions they don’t ask. Another is: Would you like your dick trimmed? They claim religious freedom while denying it to their sons. Seems they get it wrong on both ends of a life.

  33. Yoav says:

    Beer, bacon and blasphemy. Sure beat that milk and honey crap.

  34. Yahweh says:

    I gave up on Sacks when he played the anti-Semitism card on Richard Dawkins in their last televised debate. Fortunately, Dawkins seemed rather bemused and didn’t make anything of it.

    But when apologists talk of religion it is a useful thought experiment to replace the abstract with the concrete.

    Sach’s question then becomes “But if asked where we get our morality from, if not from science or religions (pl), the new atheists start to stammer.”

    Getting our morality from religions as opposed to religion reminds us of how many, different and specific they are and implies that their content and truth is immaterial – which is rather at odds with any claim of superiority.

    It also makes clear that Sach’s argument advocates for Ba’al just as well as Yahweh – not something I suspect Isaiah would have gone along with.

    Or maybe I’m being subtly anti-Semitic 😉

  35. kLevkoff says:

    I think the comment about “social animals” hit the crux of the matter. Ants and bees cooperate at a chemical level – because they are “operated” by pheromones and genetic programming. Humans have evolved such complexity that we operate by “reason” and “justification”. A religion works well as a “scaffold” because it *is* stiff, unyielding, and inflexible. It gives humans a “narrative” to build around. Unfortunately, however, since it isn’t base don reality – it isn’t a very *effective* narrative. Now that we recognize this, we need to come up with a more effective, and more rational, narrative to work towards and around.

  36. CatCan says:

    You need a hyphen in “well said.”

  37. Suffolk Blue says:

    AoS – yes, the scaffolding should have been dismantled long ago. And to stretch your analogy to breaking point, the rent we have paid on this redundant scaffolding over the millennia has been exhorbitant too.

    Though I’m not sure how you can squeeze in a bit about rival construction companies killling each other because they disapprove of the others’ form of scaffolding.

  38. FreeFox says:

    Suffolk Blues: Mafia style turf wars of course about who gets the government contract and the undue cut of the tax payers’ money, I’d say…

  39. UncoBob says:

    Moral relativism?: Definition, please. I presume it’s shorthand for ‘moral principles are determined by the time, place and society in which you live, moderated by your own views’. A further presumption is the alternative: ‘Do what I say that my god/my gods/the spirits dictate or you’ll be punished when you die, if we can’t punish you now’. However the deities seem to change what they dictate, albeit slowly at times, based on time, place and society. Examples – death to gays becoming support for gay marriage, the advent of the ham sandwich and seafood lunches.

    So where does the difference lie, except the people decrying moral relativism are either those who claim the right to interpret for the god/s or those who expect to profit from their relationship with him/it/them either now or post mortem?

    Perhaps Sam Harris’s attempts to find fundamental/natural moral principles will produce some results, but until then, we seem to be stuck with the age-old debate.

  40. FreeFox says:

    What do you mean, UncoBob, “until then”? Have you read/listened to Sam Harris? I’d say he’s past “attempts to find fundamental/natural moral principles” and already well into the “now we gotta figure out the details” phase…

  41. MarkyWarky says:

    FKS, I didn’t mean religion has helped us cooperate because of its assertions, just because it’s a structure and our societies operate best with one. I think maybe the actual beliefs matter little as long as most people are prepared (or forced), to live by them. Klevkoff interpreted me very well.

    Maybe I’m just not as optimistic as you are. Maybe I think religion IS psychologically necessary for most humans, in order for them to function as social animals. As a race we’re not ready to operate purely on reason. That might well explain the prevalence and durability of religion.

    The point s that now we have an alternative to simply accepting what’s plainly untrue, but not yet a structure we can all work to. I think there is an element of “do what you want because there’s no consequence” in our societies these days, and we need to find a secular solution to that.

    So, religion bad, structure good, religion = structure historically, so we need a new structure going forward.

  42. Micky says:

    “The greatest tragedy in mankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion” Arthur C. Clarke.

  43. fenchurch says:

    Much like how believers credit their gods and not nature/doctors for medical ‘miracles’, so do believers credit religion for community structures and shared values we social animals are naturally inclined to exhibit anyway.

    Another example of spinning B.S. into gold– slap your own label on it, make a buck!

  44. Martin_z says:

    “Bacon sarnies, Carlsberg, Danish salami and the greatest goalkeeper of all time.”

    Gordon Banks was Danish??

    PS – don’t I have to swear I’m a spammer any more? Is it enough to assert it?

  45. HaggisForBrains says:

    I think we should all have to “affirm” that we are not spammers. On the rare occasions I have had to give evidence in court, I have always made a point of affirming, rather that swearing by almighty doG. Is this option available in the southern US states, and if so, does it mean that one’s evidence is then tainted?

  46. hotrats says:

    Author, many thanks for amending the ‘spammer’ text. We can at last be spared the regular appearance of witticisms by people who have noticed that the word ‘swear’ is ambiguous (nothing personal, HfB).

  47. Yet in the same book, the Mishneh Torah, he writes: “Whoever vows to God [to become a nazirite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy . . . Indeed Scripture considers him the equal of a prophet” (Hilkhot Nezirut 10: 14). How does any writer come to adopt so self-contradictory a position – let alone one as resolutely logical as Maimonides?

  48. Yet in the same book, the Mishneh Torah, he writes: “Whoever vows to God [to become a nazirite] by way of holiness, does well and is praiseworthy . . . Indeed Scripture considers him the equal of a prophet” (Hilkhot Nezirut 10: 14). How does any writer come to adopt so self-contradictory a position – let alone one as resolutely logical as Maimonides?


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