Rabbi Sacks on a Response to Atheism

JInsider (March 2010)

What is my response to the atheist? Very simple. Human beings are meaning-seeking animals. That is definitive of who we are. Take away meaning, you take away humanity. Almost every great achievement in the arts, in politics, in ethics, any great thing human beings have done has always been in response to a sense of meaning.

Now, we now have to think about the meaning of any system. And I propose the following axiom, the meaning of the system always lies outside the system. So for instance, supposing our ET, our martian arrives here on earth and sees you going into a shop and using a credit card. He says, “Hey, that’s very interesting. Let me examine it.” He looks very carefully at the plastic and he says, “What, you lend them that for a minute and you get all that stuff from the shop. This is very magical stuff. Now tell me what property of the plastic is it that magic’s that stuff into your possession?”

Well, you could not explain to anyone the meaning of a credit card in terms of the properties of a credit card. You’d have to teach them a little bit about barter, exchange, money, and then the abstract forms of money in which it is not the object of value, but the object that symbolises value. In other words, you would have to teach a great deal about human history, cooperation, economics, and the rest. The meaning of the system lies outside the system.

Or you see some people playing chess. Well, you can see the piece is made out of wood. The board is there in that checkerboard way. And the pieces are moving in certain ways. And a stranger might understand all those things, might even be able to play chess quite well. After all, computers can beat chess masters. But do they really understand the meaning of chess? In order to do that, you have to understand the long history of human conflict and how people try and avoid or prepare for conflict by turning it into symbolic forms that we call games, and why those games have a particular appeal to those who want to learn strategically. So there’s no way that you can look at the board of chess and understand the meaning of chess. The meaning of the system lies outside the system.

Therefore, the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. And either you believe there is something outside the universe, or you believe in a meaningless universe. That is why atheism can never answer the question of the meaning of the universe. And without meaning, we are less than human.