Do Jews view science differently than other religious people do? What topics are most pressing or interesting in the Jewish community? And have Jews bifurcated their sense of identity when it comes to Judaism and science?
These questions launched a new initiative run by my organization, Sinai and Synapses, called “Scientists in Synagogues.” It is a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore questions surrounding Judaism and science, and to see how some of the most thoughtful Jewish scientists integrate their Judaism and their scientific work. It grew out of a project called the Perceptions Project, which explored how different groups (predominantly evangelical Christians, but also Jews, Catholics and Mainline Protestants) understand science and scientists.
A few weeks ago, we brought together nine rabbis and nine scientists to launch Scientists in Synagogues. We spent the morning exploring the historical, theological and sociological relationships between Judaism and science with three experts. But even before the rabbis and scientists came together, we asked all the congregations to send out a survey (based on questions from the Perceptions Project) about how their congregants viewed Judaism and science.
About 450 people took it, and though it certainly was a self-select group who took the survey, several findings arose that reinforced some previous research about how Jews view science.
1. Jews love science
We asked some questions about how people felt about science, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. 85% believed that science does more good than harm, and 89% believed that because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation. Most amazingly, 100% of the respondents believed that scientific research is valuable for its own sake.
However, even as Jews view science positively, many don’t connect a love of science with their Judaism. That’s because…
2. Jews bifurcate their Judaism and their science
As the Perceptions Project suggested, and our survey reinforced, Jews tend to think of science and Judaism as totally separate spheres. We asked our respondents how they viewed the relationship between science and religion — as being in conflict, as collaborative, or independent. And as I wrote in this space two years ago,
Among all religious groups, Jews were both most likely to pick “independent” and least likely to pick “collaborative” to describe the relationship between religion and science.
In other words, every other religious group was more likely to find that science could enhance their religious outlook than the Jewish community. Instead, Jews were much more likely to separate their religious and their scientific outlooks and keep them siloed off.
The line that I sometimes use, then, is that it’s not a problem to get Jews excited about science. The challenge is getting Jews excited about Judaism.
But there is a potential silver lining, especially when we think about how Jews view God.
3. Doubt and faith go hand in hand
We asked people what their views were about God, and though Jews often grapple with their views on God, only 5% said that they “don’t believe in God.” Instead, between 13 and 27% of people chose one of five other options, with the most popular being “While I have doubts, I do believe there is a God.”
This means that Jews are not as scared of theology as we might think, and that they tend to open to different views of God. So given that Jews love science, we might be able to use science and scientific language to explore different theologies and different views of God.
In many ways, Scientists in Synagogues is designed to address these three takeaways. First, how do we ensure that we are using and exploring the best and most accurate science? Second, how can we better integrate science and Jewish life, Jewish identity and Jewish values? Finally, how can science help us gain new tools and new language to think about God?
As these rabbis and scientists met last month, they began to plan their programming on topics such as the neuroscience of free will, how technological innovation is changing human community and communication, the relationship between the natural and the human-made, and Jewish and scientific metaphors for the cosmos.
Our hope is that through bringing rabbis and scientists together, we can bring Judaism and science together, and use both sources of wisdom to better ourselves and our world.
If you are interested in the presentations from the morning sessions, below are videos of Professor Noah Efron of Bar Ilan University on the historical relationship between Judaism and science; Rabbi Lawrence Troster on the theological relationship between Judaism and science; and Professor Michael Zimmerman on the sociological relationship between Judaism and science.View Transcript
So, to begin, we are going to start at this question of the relationship between Judaism and science from a historical perspective, to this man here on my left, Professor Noah Efron, who is a senior faculty member of the graduate program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel (so he wins the prize for farthest travel). He’s also a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. He’s been appointed to serve on the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture’s Committee to evaluate and regulate genetically modified agriculture, and invited to participate in Knesset deliberations on human cloning. His book Judaism And Science: A Historical Introduction was published by Greenwood Press at the start of 2007. He was awarded a Philadelphia Center for Science and Religion book grant with the support of which – are you still presently writing it, or? Writing the book “Playing God: Human and Divine in the Age of Biotechnology,” which will be published by Harvard University Press. Mr. Efron’s essays on the politics of religion, the politics of science, have appeared in The Jerusalem Report, Midstream, Tikkun, Jewish Action, Hadassah Magazine, The World Jewish Digest, and the Boston Book Review, for which he was a contributing writer. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife daughter, son, mutt and bunny. So please join with me in welcoming Noah Efron.
Thank you, we now have a cat as well, her name is Louisa May Alcatt. And then last year I published a book called “The Chosen Calling: Jews and Science in the Twentieth Century,” which if you buy on Amazon I get $1.25 every time, so you should do that. Geoff, thank you so much, it is such an honor, and really, I’m so happy to be here in this room, which in many ways seems to me to be like that one small step towards where the world become. It’s really – to see so many people interested in this topic that’s so important in such interesting ways, from the proposals that I read.
So I’ll begin like this: an American kid celebrating his bar mitzvah anytime from 1935-1960 was bound to receive, among the Kiddush cups and the prayer books and the watches and fountain pens, an oversized volume called “From Moses to Einstein: They All Are Jews” by a man named Mac Davis. My father’s copy sits on my shelf. The book never went out of print in those 25 years. It begins with biographies of Moses and of Bar Cochba and of Maimonides, but quickly enough it turns to such modern heroes as Abraham Schreiner, the Galicia Jew who first synthesized petroleum, and then to Siegfried Marcus, the Viennese Jew who engineered the first horseless wagon, and then Otto Lilienthal, the German Jew who designed the first manned aircraft, Albert Michelson, the Chicago Jew who calculated the speed of light and who harvested a Nobel Prize, then Paul Ehrlich and August von Wassermann, who discovered a cure for syphilis, an achievement for which they also won Nobel Prizes, then Karl Landsteiner, who devised blood typing, again winning a Nobel Prize, on and on and on through the Nobel laureates, until Albert Einstein himself.
So “from Moses to Einstein” is a charming expression of Jewish pride in the middle of the – for Jews – tumultuous and fearsome 20th century. And it’s also a polemic, arguing that the brilliant distinction of Jewish scientists in the 20th century was the product, in fact, of a tradition of scientific excellence of Jews stretching back thousands of years.
That idea is everywhere. When the great physicist died, Israel’s education minister Ben-Zion Dinur, wrote of him, quote, “Albert Einstein exemplified the ideal man of wisdom as conceived by the Jewish sages through the ages.” But matters are more complicated than this implies. There is no Jewish tradition of scientific excellence. There has never been a unified Jewish attitude towards nature at all, and how and whether and when it should be studied. Throughout history, an almost an archaic pluralism has reigned among Jews when it comes to science. Some saw religious value in it, others didn’t. Often Jews were apathetic about science. There were rare times when Jews opposed this or that theory, or a finding of science, and there were times when Jews embraced this theory or that with enthusiasm, somehow as confirmation of the Torah or of the rabbis.
This babble of attitudes really isn’t surprising. When you think about it, diversity like this is exactly what you’d expect from a people who lived spread around the globe, in contact with countless cultures over three long millennia. So I was asked to speak about the history of Judaism in science, so it’s with some embarrassment that I find myself saying, at the very start, there is no history of Judaism and science. There are complicated multiplicities of histories of Judaisms and Sciences in different times and places. Still, when you look at the long sweep of Jewish engagements with science, some patterns do recur. One pattern is that religious engagement – what some people call theological engagement – with the questions that science raises, is in fact rarer historically among Jews than among Christians and among Muslims. There were some religious or theological engagements; some Jews in different places and times argued that understanding the world that God made does in fact allow us to understand God and his Torah. On rare occasions, others concluded that this or that scientific theory challenged the validity of Torah, and therefore we need to reject it.
This was rare, though, in part because early on, Jews developed an exegetical strategy, a tradition of interpretation that always saw interpretations as superior to literal readings of the text. Always. Thus, when science produced knowledge that seemed to conflict with Scripture, it was always possible, it was even traditional, to reinterpret Scripture. Overall, this had the effect of diminishing the danger of scientific knowledge to Jewish knowledge. It diminished the danger by diminishing the degree to which, strictly speaking, science was relevant to Judaism at all, and vice-versa. Often this had the further effect of diminishing the importance that science held for Jews.
So Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the great Maharal of Prague, wrote at the very start of the 17th century that “what we call science has practical value,” he wrote, “just like the knowledge of a shoemaker has practical value.” The statements of the scientists may be true, Maharal argued, but they really don’t matter in the way that the statements of the rabbis matter. They matter in a certain way, and they’re important, and they’re true, and they’re valuable, they may teach us about the world, Maharal believes, but not about its creator.
Now, historians and sociologists have documented beautifully how among Christians, the study of nature, until the modern era, was often spurred and encouraged by religious concerns. Christians often sought to understand the Book of God’s words, the Bible, by turning their gazes onto the book of God’s works, the universe. For these Christians, science had real religious value. This sort of motivation wasn’t entirely absent among Jews, but it was rarer and usually it was weak. When Darwin published his theory of evolution, there were Jews who embraced it right out, and there were Jews who rejected it right out, but few, if any, saw it as a threat to piety in the way that many Christians, particularly fundamentalist Christians, did at the time.
That’s one recurring pattern. Another recurring pattern is this: Jews often associated natural knowledge with Others and with their place among these Others. From the earliest Jewish texts, the study of nature was understood as quote unquote “external knowledge,” hochmah, that was the name for science for generations –external knowledge. Although there were in different times Jews who argued otherwise, claiming that those Jews, claiming for instance that science in fact traced its origins to King Solomon, mostly science was viewed as knowledge that had been created by Gentiles: by Greeks first, then by Muslims, and by Christians, and not by Jews.
This identification of the origins of science with Others sometimes produced in Jews a feeling of cultural inferiority, but more often it led them to somewhat lightly disparage the importance of science itself, which they often accepted, but accepted as the achievements of others. Given all this, it’s not surprising that Jewish interest in science thrived when and where different cultures met, or when and where Jews met in a profound way with different cultures. It flourished, for instance, in the Judeo-Arabic milieu of medieval Islam, leading up to what’s sometimes called the Golden Age of Spain, and it flared in other places of cultural exchange between Jews and Christians, like late medieval Provence, or the Prague of Emperor Rudolf II, where the Maharal of Prague worked, or 17th century Padua or 18th century Berlin.
In all these places, Jews saw science as something of consequence, something that did matter, that could in fact be shared by Jews and the Muslims and the Christians among whom they lived. Because science is universal, they argued, because it’s about a world that we in fact all share, not a Jewish world, not a Christian world, not a Muslim world, but the world, these Jews saw science as something that could join Jews and others as a bridge in times and places when such bridges were very hard to find indeed.
Something like this was behind the conclusion of many Jews in the modern era that science has a big role to play in integrating Jews into the Western societies in which they found themselves. These Jews looked to science to advance the values of progress, of inclusion, and equality, for which science seemed to stand. They looked to science to dislodge old cultural elites in the United States, dislodge old Protestant cultural elites, and to democratize the public square.
At the same time, they looked to science to dispel the parochialism of Jews themselves as they made their world from isolated traditional communities, from, say, the Pale of Settlement in Russia, into the cultural centers of the West. In the 20th century, Jews turned to science in unprecedented, huge, heroic numbers. Partly because they believe science can help you become part of American society, say, or German society, or French society, or British, or Russian, by helping to reform these societies to make them more fit for Jews, more progressive, more open, more objective, more data-based. And by helping them reform, Jews could make them more fit for modern Western society.
This is the science that my own father knew and loved, and that he loves to this day. My father, whose own parents came here to New York from Russia after the First World War, found themselves greenhorns, kept at bay from the center of power and status in this city, earning their livings by pulling carts and selling whatever they could find to sell to whomever they could find buy. My father, who went to City College and then to Columbia and NYU, like so many of his generation, to master a science, psychology in his case, that would allow him to move into American society in a way that his parents never could. And that would allow him to fight to reform American society, reform in both senses, to reshape it, and to improve it at the same time. To reform American society into a society that lived by the values of science itself, in which the worth of a person is not judged by where he came from, or the timbre of his accent or the nap of his hair, or the building he prays in or chooses never to pray in. So for my father, like so many Jews of his generation, science was a tool, a way into a society in which Jews were still viewed with suspicion and often distaste. It was a tool and it was also an ideal of being meritocratic, objective, progressive, open, and inviting to all who had the talent and the will and the brains and the gumption to take part.
So if one pattern finds in the anarchic pluralism of Jewish history that Jews only rarely care deeply about how the ideas in science, the capital-T Theories, fit with Judaism itself, and if another pattern is that Jews in different circumstances saw science as inseparable from their relations, or from the relations between Jews and others, Christians and Muslims, among whom they lived, a third pattern can be expressed with this tautology: science mattered to Jews when science mattered to Jews. What I mean is, most often, when science mattered to Jews it was not because of a grand abstraction, big bangs and the like. It was because it affected the way we Jews lived our lives. I mean this: for a lot of Jews in the 20th century, as I’ve said, science offered a way into Christian society, and a way to make Christian society less exclusionarily Christian. Science did something to reshape society itself.
For a lot of Jews living in the Yishuv, in Israel, to this day where I live, science matters because it offers a way to protect ourselves, and to enrich ourselves, and to participate in the world as respected, even revered, partners, a dignity that’s not often granted Israel. In these cases, and there are very very very many others, Jews engage with science with brilliant intensity and astonishing success, not because of what science says – the capital-T Theories – but because of what science does, how it helps to reshape societies, the communities and the individuals who embrace it. Science describes the world, but very often science also remakes the world. Jews have been the most interested, involved, and engaged in science when we saw that it might remake our world in ways that matter.
And I emphasize this pattern here at the conclusion of my remarks both as kind of a blessing and as a charge. A blessing because – you are here today, we are here today, you are here today, giving your time, your energy, your creativity, your brilliance, to this project that is being launched today, because you see that we live in a moment when science matters to Jews, a moment when our world is being remade in front of our eyes. This was obvious from the remarkable proposals that you submitted that I saw. I admire deeply what you’re doing, and I find it inspiring, hence the blessing.
But this is also a charge, because the ways in which science is remaking our world are growing before our eyes in number and in complexity. We all feel, for instance, that – that scientific technologies are refashioning our world with unnerving speed. Screens are making people of the book into people of the blog. Social networks draw my children’s gaze from our flesh- and-blood community, our chavurah, towards virtual communities populated by people who are neither fully friends nor strangers, neither brothers nor others. Psychoactive drugs change the way that we understand even our own personalities. Interventions through pill and needle and scalpel make sex and gender more fluid and willful.
These things are often gifts, and sometimes, partly, they’re curses, but they always matter, always and in all ways, they affect what it means to live as a Jew today, to raise a Jewish kid today, to build a Jewish community today. So we need to talk about these things, we need to bring them to our communities, which is, of course, exactly why you are here, so it’s as a Jew that I say that what you are doing is crucial and beautiful and moving, and it’s as a historian that I say that what you are doing is very much in a Jewish tradition. Yasher koach, and thank you.
Geoff Mitelman: So, sitting right over here is Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who is one of this country’s leading Jewish ecotheologians and religious environmental leaders. He is the founder and coordinator of Shomrei Breishit: Rabbis and Cantors For the Earth, Rabbinic Scholar-In-Residence at GreenFaith, the interfaith environmental coalition in New Jersey, and the former creator and director of the GreenFaith Fellowship Program. He is also a number of Al Gore’s Climate Reality project Leadership Corps and run by residents of the Berry forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College.
Rabbi Troster was also the Rabbinic Advisor for Hazon and the Rabbinic Fellow for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). He has published numerous articles, lectured widely on ecotheology and theology in general, bioethics, and Judaism in modern science. He received his BA from the University of Toronto (so Toronto connection here), and an MA in rabbinic ordination from Jewish Theological Seminary. He was recently honored by the Temple of Understanding, one of the oldest worldwide interfaith organizations, as an interfaith visionary. So please join with me in welcoming Rabbi Larry Troster.
Lawrence Troster: So first of all, Geoff, thank you for inviting me. This has already been one of the most stimulating intellectual groups I’ve been with in quite a while, and this goes back to something that touches me personally a very very long time, because before I got into environmentalism and ecotheology, I really began as someone who became very interested in the religion and science dialogue. this goes back to my undergraduate days, when I took a course on Maimonides and the teacher of that course, in the process of which, introduced us to the work of Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, and the idea of paradigm shift and what that does to worldviews. And that fascinated me. And while I was at JTS, I was encouraged by two of my teachers, the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel and Rabbi Neil Gilman, to pursue my interest in the relationship between science and religion with Rabbi Siegel in bioethics, specifically genetic engineering and its implications, and secondly with Rabbi Gillman, in areas of modern cosmology and modern science in general. In fact, the first articles that I published were originally papers for classes of theirs.
I think what I would like to do is to talk about how science is – does, in fact, challenge, creates what I consider to be creative challenges to theological ideas. Now, one of the ways in which I understood how important this was was in one of my previous congregations, one of my congregants, and I don’t even remember the context of the discussion, came to me and said that she comes to synagogue every week on Shabbat, on the Sabbath, because she feels that she is, when she’s in synagogue during services, she’s in an “island of stability and order in a sea of chaos.” And I realized how important the context of finding meaning was. And so now, it’s not a question to me about whether people believe in God or don’t believe in God, but how do they find meaning, and does our tradition, as it is practiced today, or understood today, give real meaning in their lives? From Neil Gillman, I learned the idea that when people come to synagogue and do certain things, it has to serve a real function for them. If it’s just empty, if it’s just repetition, then it’s not going to last. And religious communities have to create a sense of meaning and order in order for people to remain there and find it important.
So for me, the engagement with modern science is part of that quest for meaning. Now as you know, there’s a stereotype that science and religion are in inevitable conflict. And we know, historically, that this is not true, but it’s very common in public discourse, and unfortunately it’s still very common as an idea, because the media in many of our – many of the people who come to synagogues or many members of the Jewish community, even though there was a long and sophisticated literature on the historical and theological models of this [king], which shows that a much deeper paradigm is possible, and I think what I have tried to do is to search for that deeper paradigm. And this is where I’ve been influenced by the works of Ian Barbour, John Hedley Brooke, and Phillip Clayton. And I also had the great pleasure to meet Thomas Perry at a DoSER conference in 1998 at the Field Museum in Chicago, which was about evolution and religion. I also was introduced to some other wonderful speakers at that point.
And one of the things that has always bothered me as a Rabbi is that I have found that many of my colleagues have what I would call a lack of theological courage – to really face the difficult theological questions that the modern world and modern science presents. They would rather, in effect, follow the model of what we would call the kind of “complementary model” where religion is here, and science is here, and they don’t actually have to talk to one another because they are in different places. This is what Stephen Jay Gould called “the different magisterium.” Well, I think that I – that was never really satisfactory to me.
So from my reading, I understand – and I want to give you two examples, well, it’s really kind of one example – of the deep theological challenges that some modern science in fact brings to traditional ideas of meaning, which of course includes God’s relation to the world, God’s providence. So the late biologist Steven Jay Gould, in attempting to disabuse us of our belief that humanity is the inevitable result of a progressive evolution, quotes Mark Twain in one of his books, that if the history of life were the Eiffel Tower, then humanity is the paint on the top. And if anyone thought that this paint was the purpose of the tower, it would be the greatest arrogance.
Gould bases his perspective not only on the age of life on Earth, but also on the contingencies that are inherent in the evolutionary process. He has also famously said that humanity is a “glorious accident,” the result of a long series of evolutionary contingencies stimulated by large-scale environmental change. If it were possible to “rewind the evolutionary tape,” as he once said, and replay it, it would be unlikely that humanity would be the result. Gould’s perspective is a common one amongst not only evolutionary biologists but also physicists, as summed up by Steven Weinberg’s famous statement “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” And it is is this perspective that I know not all scientists share – those of you in this room don’t share –but the public perceives that that is the common scientific view.
And the idea that the universe is pointless has actually been reflected in modern culture, where there has been a noticeable increase in what one writer has called “the rise of nihilism,” that when you look at popular culture, there are many apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and novels and youth literature, there are many dystopian novels, and this evokes the sense that there really isn’t any meaning in the universe. And the great challenges of climate change, therefore, are almost futile to try and do anything, since we’re all going to hell in a handbasket anyway, and what’s the point. And therefore we should, in effect, just enjoy ourselves in whatever time we have left.
This is a serious problem of meaning, that as a rabbi and as a theologian, that’s one of my biggest concerns – is that people find a lack of meaning. Professor Norbert Samuelson listed, among a number of challenges that modern science brings to Judaism, the question, “our universe is too old and human existence is too brief for humanity to provide the reason for the existence of the universe. if we give up this humanist assumption, how can we understand why God created the universe?” And this goes to the heart of the question. Modern science poses challenges to some very critical, traditional theological ideas that the Abrahamic traditions have. For example, God’s just creation, the doctrine of creation, the idea of the soul and the afterlife, free will, and the particular worth of an individual.
Catholic theologian John Haught has further explicated on how evolutionary science and modern cosmology create critical problems for Western religion. And I think that that’s one of the things we have to understand when fundamentalists talk about a scriptural conflicts, there is a deeper conflict that is only reflected, and that more obvious surface one. So we should stop arguing about Genesis 1 and really look at what the deeper challenges are. And there we can in fact find some sympathy for even more traditionalist or fundamentalist traditions, because here’s what happens – the Darwinian theory shows that all living creatures share a common ancestry, and are historically and organically connected. Therefore, the traditional ontological discontinuity between humanity and the rest of creation, which was a central feature of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim theology, no longer exists. As one pointed out, 90% of our genes we share with chimpanzees. We share a huge percentage of our genes with earthworms. So the idea that somehow humans are created in the image of God, which suggests this ontological gap which helps us and is the foundation for much of Jewish ethics, no longer exists.
So what do we mean when we say we are created in the image of God? And the other thing is, you know, because, in a traditional perspective, the universe consists of a hierarchy of distinct levels of being and meaning. The lower levels consist of inanimate objects, followed by levels of living beings in ascending value, plants, animals, humans and finally God, so that has been destroyed. The Great Chain of Being – we don’t see it in that way.
Secondly, Darwinism, as it is now understood, sees no major distinction between life and non-life. Life arises from dead matter as a result of the laws of physics and chemistry enacted over billions of years. Thus evolutionary science collapses and reverses the sacred hierarchy. What is lowest becomes what is most fundamental, and matter is the ultimate source of all things living and non-living. And therefore many scientists believe that any emergent features of the universe like mine are only epiphenomena, the accidental combination of its lowest elements.
Lastly, according to Haught, the theory of natural selection states that the variety of life in the natural world is a product of completely random forces undirected by any intelligent agency or divine providential intelligence. Therefore, the universe is an impersonal structure without any essential meanings. And this is why people are like Daniel Dennett and Richard Hawkings have said that Darwin is – in effect, destroys the notion of God, says there’s no intentional design designer of the universe, and that evolution is a meaningless process. And since we live in an Age of Science, where truth with a big T, despite epistemological quibbles, is still being expressed, that science is the true source of that, this raises some serious real theological problems.
So what do we mean by creation? What do we mean by the way should between God and the world? If God created – if we believe that God creates the natural laws at the beginning of the universe, what is God doing now? How does God interact? That has implications for things like our concept of revelation. How can we claim that revelation, which in its traditional form is a supremely supernatural act, how do we understand that in terms of the modern day, when we don’t see anything from a scientific perspective as being above the natural world? And therefore, if there’s nothing coming from the outside, what does that do for prayer? What kind of God is it they are praying to if we still believe in God?
So, Ian Barbour, of course, among others, created a series of models of interaction between science and religion in the attempt to deal with some of these issues. So we’ve talked about the conflict model and the independence model, and you see the independence model especially true in existentialism. When you look at Martin Buber’s, for example, distinction between “I-thou” and the “I-it,” that’s very clearly an attempt to find a realm of truth for nonscientific knowledge, that is equal and therefore as respectable. And I think on a practical level, you see this a lot in Jewish theology. I’ve seen it even discussed in Orthodox science works, where they talk about Torah truth and Science truth as two completely different realms, so they can do their scientific work and not worry about a conflict with what comes up in Torah, both written and oral.
Well, there’s further models that really show a much deeper sense of integration. First of all there is dialogue, and here’s where science and religion understand that they are intimately connected historically, and in terms of worldviews and [their] implication[s], and this is where nature-centered spirituality can be derived from. This is where we understand that we may have different goals, but epistemologically, they are not radically separated but rather on a kind of sliding scale of understanding things. And the form of epistemology that I follow that is also followed by many scientists is the idea called Critical Realism, where we understand metaphors, whether religious or scientific. We take them seriously, but not literally. And there’s an area Ian Barbour, for example, has promoted a lot, to say “this is where we can meet and understand each other.”
Well then, of course, there’s the deeper ones, which Barbour calls integration, where you can either understand your theology as starting from science, or you can understand your science as flowing from both theology and science. And this is where you get Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, and others, and process theology has been a very good area of ways of trying to integrate science and religion. And in the Jewish community, the Halachic – or in the Jewish world, though he didn’t identify himself as a Jewish philosopher, the late Hans Jonas, you know, in this work, has been a deep influence on my thinking over the last 20 years, because he was essentially a process thinker with some differences, with a white hat. Jonas tried develop his philosophy out of biological science to show that life itself is its own meaning, and that life, the existence of life, and the existence of mind, even on the lowest level of life, shows that there in fact is a sense of purpose and meaning in the universe.
So while the age of the universe, and the many contingencies on both a cosmic and biological level, can pose a serious challenge to classical Jewish concepts of a meaningful creation and a special role for humanity, I really believe it’s possible to reconstruct a theology that takes into account modern science, while leaving room for meaning and purpose. As I mentioned, I find a great deal of influence in my own thinking from Hans Jonas. I believe that this discussion, as what we’re having here, is essential for Jewish theology and ethics in the 21st century. The lack of attention by Jewish theology to modern scientific worldview has made Judaism, for many Jews, seem to be simplistic and irrelevant. As Arthur Green has observed, during the 19th century, the study of Jewish philosophy was confined to rabbinical seminaries, and the study of Kabbalah was discredited as being outside of Judaism. Nonetheless, most Jews’ contact with Jewish theology, even in the liberal denominations, came from the prayer book, whether traditional or revised, which retained many of the rabbinic ideas about God, revelation and redemption, including the nexus of sin and punishment. It was therefore not surprising that many Western Jews, now trained in the new scientific worldview, thought of Judaism as childish and unsophisticated.
And so, I think that that is a critical idea. If we are going to continue to have people see Judaism as a source of meaning, we have to accept the difficulties and the challenges that science presents to us, but we should see that as a creative challenge, not as a destructive challenge. I’ve seen this, by the way, in my own work and environmental writing. But I think that while we have, in our own communities, shown a real lack of interest in this, this being, obviously, a major exception to it, this is why, in many cases, I have sought inspiration from scientists themselves and Christian theologians, and looking at this and trying to translate what they were. I mean, when you look at their writings, many of the issues they consider are our issues: divine providence, evil and suffering, free will, the doctrine of creation. And they have elected to engage with modern science.
I want to leave you with one personal anecdote of how I tried to bring this into actual effect preaching a sermon. It was some years ago; I gave a sermon for the Yizkor service on the last day of Passover, which is a memorial service for the dead. I used that occasion to deal with my own beliefs in the afterlife, and how I had theological problems with the traditional concepts of the soul and resurrection, based upon my understanding of evolution and biology – that not only, you know, how do we believe in a dualistic notion of soul and body, but also ideas about resurrection, which are profoundly supernatural, obviously. These problems stem from the conflict between traditional Jewish eschatology that sees the eventual negation of death [and] the ecological biological necessity for death in the natural world. While admitting that I could not be sure what happened to me after my own death, I use Hans Jonas’s thought to assert that I did believe that a minimum of everything and everyone in the universe would be remembered in the mind of God, long after we would be forgotten in the land of the living. I said how this gave my life some ultimate meaning, and that it was good enough for me.
Many people told me it was the best Yizkor sermon they’d ever heard, and how much it appealed to their own spiritual traditions. I had a couple of people say otherwise, but most of it was quite positive. And so I think Jews today, like many other people, are searching for meaning in a world where shallow ideals and political bombast predominate, and this discourse has often been dominated by atheistic scientists, on the one hand, [who] have tried to remove any sense of purpose or meaning to the natural world, or by religious fundamentalists on the other. But the need for meaning continues, and the relationship between mind, matter, the universe and God should be a central issue for us, for Judaism in the 21st century. I was attracted to Hans Jonas because he faced these issues honestly and bravely, Jewish-centered but not afraid to deal directly with the challenges of science. Thank you.
Our next presenter, who is going to talk about the sociological aspects about Judaism and science, and religion and science, is Michael Zimmerman. Professor Michael Zimmerman is the vice president for academic affairs and provost at the Evergreen State College in Washington. He received his PhD In Ecology from Washington University in St. Louis after earning an AB degree in Geography from the University of Chicago, so we’ve got some Chicago connections here too. As an ecologist, Michael focused his attention on plant-animal interactions, particularly those associated with pollination.
Michael also has a professional interest in science literacy in general and the evolution/creation controversy in particular. He has conducted survey research of various groups – college students, high school teachers, school board presidents, managing editors of newspapers, and elected officials, to determine how widespread the acceptance of pseudoscience actually is. As a newspaper columnist specializing in scientific environmental issues, his work has regularly appeared in the op-eds of many newspapers nationwide. He writes regularly for The Huffington Post. He has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and is also a past editor of the newsletter of the Ohio Center for Science Education.
Finally, he is the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, which I am a proud signatory of, and you should be as well. It is an international organization of more than 15,000 religious leaders and scientists designed to demonstrate that religion and science are compatible, and also founded Evolution Weekend, which is on Darwin’s birthday, to invite religious leaders to talk about science and religion. I think Jennifer was the first person I talked to about Sinai and Synapses, I think Michael was the second person to be able to talk to, so he’s also on our advisory board. And so his expertise is really looking at the ground level of what happens in this question of science and religion. And he presented for us also, for a public program a couple of years ago, called “Can Science and Religion Coexist?”. So please join with me in welcoming Professor Michael Zimmerman.
Michael Zimmerman: Thank you, Geoff. What a pleasure and an honor to be back, and talking to this group. As everyone has said, the projects that you’ve proposed are really thoughtful, engaging, at least in my mind – I think it’s fair to say all of our minds – and I’m sure to your congregations and I hope beyond. I have the really bad fortune of being the last speaker. Good actors say they hate sharing the stage with children and animals, and speakers – they never want to share the stage with people who are better speakers than they are. So I apologize in advance.
What I want to do, in the little bit of time I have, is not do any of the things Geoff said I was going to, because I’m a biologist, I’m an evolutionary biologist. I’m not a sociologist. What I want to do is talk to you about how I came to this work, what I think his work is, and where I think we need to go collectively, or at least where some of us need to go, not everybody.
As Geoff said, I’m a biologist, I’m an evolutionary biologist, I’m trained as an ecologist. I ended up getting involved in the creation/evolution controversy, which brought me to the battle lines, if you will, between religion and science, purely accidentally. I had no intention of doing that; I was very happy studying bumblebees. And they don’t have a religion and science. (laughter) At least not that I know of.
But I ended up finding out about, basically, Christian fundamentalists who were trying to promote their view of religion, and by promoting that, they were perverting the nature of science education in our public schools. I did not know a thing about that. As a high school student, as a college student, as a PhD student, and as a beginning faculty member of the biology department at Oberlin College, I’d never heard of creationism. I didn’t know there were people who just had these bizarre beliefs.
When I found out, I was taken aback, I was surprised, and I was appalled. I didn’t much care about the religious aspect, to be honest, I cared about the damage it was doing to science education. So I started talking and writing and speaking about how science education itself is important. How, I think it was, in one sense, independent of religion. I was really worried that by promoting one particular view, one particular religious viewpoint, scientific education in American public schools was being perverted.
I believe, and I still do believe, in the American democratic society, that we all think we live in, and some days maybe we do. That if we were scientists – if we were creating a culture and a generation or two of scientifically illiterate individuals, we were going to pay pretty serious consequences for it. That is, so many of our public decisions, so many of our public votes, whether we were making them, or we were voting for people who are making scientific decisions, if they were being made based on scientific illiteracy, or just wrong-headed science information, we were going to be making terrible decisions. There was a real consequence for society, I believed. Put another way, I thought we really needed to be able to distinguish between on the one hand science, in the middle non-science, and all the way in the other side, nonsense. And I believe there is a continuum. And unless we educated students about not science itself – not everybody has to grow up to be a scientist, I believe – but everybody should have an understanding of what scientific method is about, how science as a discipline is different from sociology or religion or history as a discipline. Unless we were doing that we will you raise nonsense as much as we were going to embrace science. And that was dangerous, I thought, for society.
I ended up recognizing that the issue became one of making sure people understood scientific methodology, the scientific method, how science is dependent on a particular methodology. The creation/evolution controversy became, for me, a touchstone of that, again, not because I thought it was critical that everybody understand evolution or accept evolution, but when students were able to pick and choose what science they wanted, it meant they had no science. And that was really critical for me.
So I ended up talking and writing a whole lot about it – about that issue. And then after a whole lot of time, an issue came up in the state of Wisconsin, where I was living at the time. It was a school district that was getting ready to put forward legislation that was going to be the most restrictive legislation in the country. That legislation was going to demand that a certain form of creationism be taught in public schools. People reached out to me and said “can you help?” and I tried to do some things to help. One of the things I can do better than I can do other things is write and organize. So I got people together to fight back with this group. But I knew what I was doing was getting scientists to fight, getting science teachers to fight back, getting anthropologists to fight back, but I knew what I really needed to do, which I didn’t know how to do, was to get religious leaders involved. Because I knew, from my previous work, if I as a scientist went into a school board and said “you’re doing something wrong, and you’re doing it wrong because your religion is amiss,” no one would listen. And they weren’t going to listen for two reasons, first because I was a scientist, not a religious leader, second because I was […]. What I had to do was get religious leaders who were local to stand up and say “Not only is this terrible science and bad education, it is also bad religion.”
So what I ended up doing is having a friend of mine who is a UCC pastor write a two-paragraph note which became, what I will tell you, is the Clergy Letter. And we circulated it through the state of Wisconsin, we got 200 signatures pretty quickly, and it helped transform this local school district. After that, we moved this clergy letter, which is basically, as I said, it’s two paragraphs, it’s very simple. It’s designed for Christian clergy, it was written explicitly for Christian clergy.
I didn’t realize it was an issue beyond Christian clergy. And what it says is that there is nothing in modern science, there is nothing in evolutionary biology, that runs afoul of our religious beliefs. That we, as Christian clergy members (I’m using the “we”, I’m not one of them), we as Christian Clergy members are fully accepting of modern evolutionary theory and we believe it should be taught in public schools exclusively, that this is a core tenet of modern science. It concludes by saying something along the lines of “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth, but both are complementary. They both have something to bring to the table.”
I started circulating it, I was hoping for 10,000 clergy members nationally, when we started getting close, actually long before we started getting close, rabbis started writing to me. And they were annoyed. They were annoyed because the letter was for and from Christian clergy, and they couldn’t sign it. They said “what about us?” and I said “what about you?” And I made it clear, if a rabbi were to come forward and draft a letter, I would help circulate it, but I was I was not a rabbi, I did not have a rabbinical voice, I could not write in such a way.
And finally after a couple of years one did, from Oak Park, in fact, Deerfield, Ohio, David Ohler. And we started circulating that. To this day we have 14,300 or so Christian clergy members on our Christian letter, we have over 540 rabbis on our rabbi letter. Why is all of that important? All of that is important for a couple of reasons. One is – we also have – I’m sorry jumping around a little bit – we have 400 Unitarian Universalists on a UU letter, they wanted to be involved – we have 25 Buddhists on a letter. We have a handful of Imams – whole different story of why we have so few Imams, and it’s my fault, it’s not their fault.
The issue is, is there a battle between religion and science? And people have talked about this before. The most important thing the clergy letter can do – clergy letters can do – is to demonstrate, in fact, that there isn’t a battle between religion and science. There’s a battle between religion and religion. There’s a small group of people, fundamentalists in general of all stripes, doesn’t matter what religion, there are some fundamentalists in Judaism who are just as extreme about their science. There are a portion of their science who are willing to reject some modern science.
The goal of the clergy letters, the goal of scientists and religious leaders coming together, is to demonstrate that religion, religious leaders of all stripes, are all together agreeing that modern science has no negative impact on their religious beliefs. And unfortunately, there are some religious leaders who feel differently. The scientists just happened to agree with one group of religious leaders . So the battle is between a group of religious leaders, another group of religious leaders, and most of the scientists are lined up on one side. They’ve lined up on one side because the scientists understand. And Jennifer’s Perceptions Project agrees to some extent with what I’m going to assert, but I like my assertion better than the data. I feel like Donald Trump. (laughter)
I believe that the vast majority of scientists understand that science is one of the few fields that self-doubts itself. That it says, “within this box, we have a methodology that works very well.” Outside of this box, our methodology is not appropriate. That science doesn’t have a whole lot to say about aesthetics, in many interesting ways. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say about morality. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say about some aspects of life. It doesn’t have a whole lot to say about some aspects of spirituality.
Within that box, within the box of materialistic naturalism, scientists say the natural world is all there is. That’s all we can study. But once you move into the box of philosophical naturalism, you can extend beyond, if you will, you can extend beyond the realm of science, and there are really important questions that are open to scientists, that are open to humans, that scientific methodology does not touch.
It’s that difference, the difference between materialistic naturalism and philosophical naturalism, that I think is so absolutely critical. We talked earlier: what does truth mean? I think science searches for truth. If you ask me what you have a love of this search for truth, you never know when you find it. You have to be open. You know that the world is going to give you new data, and some new experience, and some new answers, you expose them to new ideas that will demand that the truth be changed, that our perception of the world be changed. But that perception means still means when we’re looking for a particular kind of truth, we cannot assert that truth is.
Religion brings to us a different kind of both of them. Both are important in the human condition. And I think most good scientist recognize that the two can be complementary and they can be different. But they don’t touch on one another directly. We talked earlier about the realm of the human mind. One of the reasons a good number of religious leaders of the fundamentalist stripe don’t like, or at least they say they don’t like, evolution, which is a touchpoint, it’s a flashpoint of science, it’s not – Jennifer, as we were talking earlier, has the good luxury of talking about the broader reach of science, the Clergy Letter Project really focuses on one narrow piece – evolution. But it’s an important piece, because when you throw out a piece you don’t like, you’re throwing out a piece of methodology. se when for a while, when you say “I don’t like science,” you’re throwing out a part of methodology. You don’t have the luxury of throwing away that methodology. Some say that some of these fundamentals are they don’t like Darwinism because it leads to social Darwinism. And that’s exactly where religion comes in. Science tells us perhaps where we came from but not where we have to act. We have the ability to choose our choices of action, our beliefs, but not our scientific beliefs. Our truth claims cannot go against those obvious facts of the natural world. But those truth claims don’t have to extend beyond that.
The last thing– I want to say two more things, I guess. Jumping around, trying to tie together some of the things that others have said. Geoff started, I think, earlier this morning by talking about the fact that individual stories are so important. And that’s one of the reasons what you are doing is so very important. One of the things the clergy letter project does, as Geoff mentioned, is we have an event each year called evolution weekend. It used to be called Evolution Sunday. The first two years it was Evolution Sunday. Both Jews and some Muslim leaders said “Evolution Sunday? That doesn’t help us.” So we extended Evolution Weekend to get the leaders involved. bring up as well.
And the reason that evolution has worked with us is not for congregations all over the world to do something to advance the dialogue and the relationship between science and religion on one Saturday, one Friday. The reason I know it works is I’ve heard so many stories from congregants. From rabbis and ministers telling me about their congregants saying – this one woman, for instance, came to the service, she was dead to come, she hasn’t been in church for 25 years because she was so frustrated by the nature of the Church’s view of science. She had tears in her eyes: “Had I known it could be like this I’d be back here 25 years ago.”
So one of the things I’ve learned from working in the Clergy Letter Project, working with thousands of religious leaders, is that the battle between science and religion does really terrible things for science – we know that – but it also does really bad things for religion. What we ended up doing was having religion defined as, the norm being defined as, the most extreme view of fundamentalists. That’s how religion is. We need religious leaders, we need their congregations, to take up the definition of religion, to demonstrate that religion can be robust, religion can be real, religion can interact well with the natural world, it can interact fully and productively with scientific knowledge, and there is no conflict there. Once we view that, we can transform the way the vast majority of the people in the country come to understand both religion and science, and can come to an appreciation of both.
The last thing I want to say is one of the reasons people move away from science is they’re worried that once you understand the natural world, you lose something in its understanding. You’ve seen those pictures. Those pictures lead us to a greater understanding. But the word that Jennifer used, and the word that I like to use a whole lot is “awe.” When you see those pictures, regardless of what you understand, I don’t think you lose any of the awe that’s embodied in the natural world around us. There are things about this world that, as a scientist, I am typically more in awe of than I ever was before.
So I think it’s clear that Jewish leaders and members of Jewish congregations, as Jennifer’s data have shown, are more understanding, more accepting of science, but the issue isn’t just those scientists and those in the congregations. It’s extending the conversation beyond those scientists. And I think we all, as members of a democratic society, as individuals who care about both religion and science, we have an obligation to extend beyond our congregations, to demonstrate that science and religion really can work hand in hand.
Because when they do, we end up not allowing scientists to have the last word about public policy. Because scientists shouldn’t have the last word about public policy. They should inform public policy, science should inform public policy, but everybody else in other disciplines should have just as much to say about how we utilize our science, how we implement our science. Not what science tells us, but the implications of that. And when we bring the world’s religions together and say “all of us are comfortable with all aspects of science,” because science is just a way of knowing, it’s just an understanding the world around us, we are richer for it, we are better able to make rational, informed decisions when we come to that agreement and understanding. Let me stop there.
Thank you, Michael. And you did talk about sociological pieces of this, because it really is about how do we enhance society as individuals.