Britain's Chief Rabbi has accused Professor Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world's most famous atheist, of writing "profoundly anti-Semitic" statements in his bestseller The God Delusion.
Dawkins, an Oxford evolutionary biologist, called the charge "ridiculous" at the BBC's RE:Think festival in Salford on Thursday, telling Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a debate about religion and science, that the piece was "anti-God" not anti-Semitic.
"The beginning of chapter two, which says the God of the Old Testament is the most unpleasant character in all fiction, that's a joke," he said.
"How you can call that anti-Semitic, I don't even begin to understand. I can see why you might be offended by it, I can see why a Christian or a Muslim might be offended by it too - but not anti-Semitic."
Lord Sacks, who represents the largest stream of Orthodox Judaism in the UK, had pinpointed a passage in the book which compares God as portrayed in Jewish scriptures and the Old Testament as a cartoonish villain, a "vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser", who is "jealous", "homophobic and racist", "petty", "pestilential", a “megalomaniac” and a "bully".
Lord Sacks, who will retire as Chief Rabbi next year, said: “There are Christian atheists and Jewish atheists, you read the Bible in a Christian way. Christianity has an adversarial way of reading what it calls the Old Testament – it has to because it says 'we’ve gone one better, we have a New Testament’.
“So you come prejudiced against what you call the Old Testament and that’s why I did not read the opening to chapter two in your book as a joke, I read it as a profoundly anti-Semitic passage.”
“It is anti the Jewish God, Richard.”
Dawkins said he believed that the God described in the Old Testament had deplorable values, mentioning "all that stuff about slaughtering the Amalekites”.
Lord Sacks insisted in the question session that followed that he and Dawkins were on very friendly terms. "I was not concerned that Richard was an anti-Semitic at all.
"I was concerned that he was using an anti-Semitic stereotype, which has run through a certain strand of the Christian reading of what is called the 'Old Testament' as a result of which thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, died in the Middle Ages because that's how people spoke about the God of the Old Testament."
The debate was the second time that Professor Dawkins and Lord Sacks have clashed in public, they debated on BBC Radio 4 in 2011.
The debate followed a BBC documentary, made by the Chief Rabbi for Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah which is next week.
The rabbi explored why science and religion were so often at odds, declaring himself to be "fascinated by science".
He told the debate" "The rabbis in the 10th century laid down the following principle: if a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be read literally."