Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks — a renowned religious scholar and philosopher — spoke about his new book, Not in G-d’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and addressed the growing problem of religious radicalism in the world at a lecture Wednesday.
“What is happening in the Middle East, what is happening in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen South Sudan … is genuinely terrifying,” Sacks said. “I doubt anyone would have expected this would happen in the 20th century.”
Sacks turned to history to understand the problem of religious violence, discussing times when religious hostilities exploded and when they receded.
“Let’s go back and ask when did this last happen?” Sacks said. “Maybe we can learn from when it last happened, and it last happened in Europe in the 16th century.”
Sacks traced both the 16th century violence of the Protestant Reformation and current religious violence to revolutions in information technology, which he said empowers marginal groups.
“The single most important factor [in the 16th century] was the revolution in information technology, which in the Reformation was the invention of printing,” Sacks said. “The internet is changing the world and it is empowering groups like ISIS which otherwise would be completely marginal and small scale.”
Sacks also talked about how peace was achieved in the 17th century, saying “wars are won by weapons but peace is won by ideas.”
“In the 17th century, people solved the problem of religiously motivated violence by separating religion from power,” he said.
He cited famous figures like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, arguing that new solutions are needed today because extremist religious groups are seizing power.
“What was not looked at in the 17th century are what I call the ‘hard texts’ of religion, those texts which if taken literally and applied directly lead to violence and war and murder,” he said. “You have to confront the religious roots of violence.”
Sacks added that in his book, he examines passages from the book of Genesis for the roots of violence.
“I’ve tried to develop a theology for the 21st century that is deeply religious, but one which will allow us — as Jews, Christians, and Muslims — to serve God with respect and friendship across the barriers between our faiths,” he said.
Sacks explained this theology focuses on sibling rivalry as the origin for religious violence.
“The whole relation between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is not a zero-sum game, is not a justifiable case of sibling rivalry, because divine love is not finite, and God loving me does not mean that he has to love you any less,” he said.
Sacks explained that his book grew out of a moment he shared with several British religious leaders of different faiths at Ground Zero, shortly after September 11, 2001.
“We all stood together at the ruins of Ground Zero, sharing our prayers and our tears,” he said. “And I suddenly realized: these are the two faces of religion. Religion harms, yet it can also heal.”