Are Scientific and Religious Explanations the Same?

Are Scientific and Religious Explanations the Same?

We recently read, in Parashat Shemini, about the tragic incident involving two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu. It is the opening day of the Mishkan (Sanctuary) in the desert. Aaron and his four sons have performed all the prescribed rites and have prepared the offerings as G-d commanded. The Presence of G-d descends and consumes the offerings in the sight of all of Israel. Next come Nadav and Avihu to the Mishkan with an unbidden offering, and we are told — “A fire came forth from G-d and consumed them.” Thus, Aaron’s sons brought a strange, unsanctioned sacrificial fire to G-d, and they die before G-d as a result.

Then, Moses follows and says to Aaron: “This is what G-d meant by saying: Through those near to Me I shall be sanctified and gain glory before all the people.” He explains to Aaron that through death, G-d had sanctified and elevated Nadav and Abihu. And אַהֲרֹ וַיִּדֹּם (vayiddom Aharon) – “Aaron was silent.”

This event obviously involves the human reaction to death.  But not just any death – these are deaths that are clearly attributable to the hand of G-d. And what is one of the only reactions a human being can have to such a death?  וַיִּדֹּ֖ם  (vayiddom) – silence. So, it reminds us that we are quite content to see G-d in life’s joyous events: At the birth of a child, a brit milah or simhat bat (baby naming), a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, under the chuppah. But what about life’s other events? What about sickness, misfortune, even death? Is G-d likewise present?  How do we deal with a G-d who oversees the less pleasant events? Do we turn to religion for consolation? Do we seek solace in prayer and does that prayer and belief carry us through?

We often ask ourselves: Why did this happen? How could it happen? There’s got to be a reason. When loss occurs, especially tragic events that come “out of the blue,” it is often our nature to seek answers, to do something, and, yes, to be at a loss for words or… to remain silent.

However, seeking answers is a concept that is in many ways at the heart of the discussion that brings us here today in the final installment of our program about Scientists in Synagogues. The overarching question is: can we reconcile what appear to be conflicting ideas about the world as we know it by trying to find answers to questions about our universe and its existence by scientific inquiry, which may seem to be at odds with our belief in a divine spirit, creator/director of the universe, who theoretically has, knows or has created the answers?

Often, we tend to remain silent or be at a loss for words until we can generate some data as a means of “proof.” However, I feel that science and religion draw upon different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations are based on evidence drawn from observing the natural world and conducting experiments. Because these explanations are based on evidence, they can be checked independently by others.

In contrast, religious beliefs don’t depend only on empirical evidence. They can also be based on faith and typically involve supernatural or divine forces or entities – often, a supreme being that is usually not seen or visualized.

The relationship between science and religion has frequently been characterized as one of conflict, especially on the topic of origins of life (creationism vs. evolution). The historical reality is that science and religion have often been complementary to each other, and the relationship has been dynamic.

As a very real example for me, a human geneticist, modern genetics began in 1900 with the discovery of Gregor Mendel’s papers from around 1865 describing the basic laws of inheritance. He is best known for articulating three laws of “heredity”: the Law of Dominance, the Law of Segregation and the Law of Independent Assortment. However, it is important to remember that Mendel was a Catholic priest and an Augustinian friar as well as a scientist and mathematician. Although we don’t know a whole lot about how he perceived the intersection of his faith and his passion for science, we can clearly see that for him there was no conflict between the two. In fact, his very cloistered existence fostered his ability to perform his work.

Many well-known scientists have had strong religious connections. For example, in an address to Princeton Theological Seminary, Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist, he has been quoted as saying: “I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” A quote from Einstein again: “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.

As Galileo, another physicist, stated, “The laws of nature are written by the hand of G-d in the language of mathematics.”

Charles Darwin, a biologist, said: “The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of G-d.” This is interesting to me because Darwin’s theories of evolution are often at the core of the creation-versus-evolution argument. Clearly, we see brilliant scientists with a profound belief in G-d, the invisible force driving the universe. Thus, I would like to digress a bit to discuss the image that I provided on the handout for today’s discussion.

In 1991, collaborating with a group of scientific colleagues who were primarily molecular biologists and geneticists, we wrote a large grant that was chosen for funding. Thus, I became the director of the Genome Center for Human Chromosome 22. The Center was part of the International Human Genome Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health. Our goal was to create a detailed map of human chromosome 22 in order to prepare it for DNA sequencing. Remarkably, we achieved that goal, and in 1999, in the December 2nd issue of Nature (a journal that is considered one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary science and technology journals), the sequence of chromosome 22 was featured as having been the first human chromosome sequenced. Obviously, this was considered an exciting and monumental achievement, which led the way to finishing much of the sequence of the human genome.

Of significance in the context of our discussion today, our scientific achievement was heralded by the journal Nature with a provocative cover illustration featuring an interesting overlay of the hands from Michelangelo’s painting “the creation of Adam” with a DNA sequencing track in the background.

The Creation of Adam is a fresco painted by the artist Michelangelo and forms part of the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It is an illustration of the creation narrative from the book of Genesis in which G-d gives life to Adam, the first human. In the fresco, G-d’s right arm is outstretched to touch Adam’s finger with his, signifying the “spark of life” being passed to humanity. G-d’s and Adam’s fingers are not in contact, which appears to signify the gap that exists between them, and in the background of this illustration that gap is filled by a fluorescent sequencing track, suggesting the aforementioned spark of human Life.

What was interesting to me is that the cover itself sparked significant controversy amongst biologists. A description by the journal editors at the time of the publication was that a new book was being written. A book that would change the way we see ourselves as profoundly as did the momentous books of the past — the great books of religion and “On the Origin of Species” by Darwin. They stated that the first chapter of this new book, the book of genes, is the sequence of chromosome 22 in this journal.

However, subsequently, in a letter to the editor, a question was raised, asking, “Does the elucidation of the human nucleotide sequence provide us with insights into the work of G-d at the creation event?” The editors said that they had decided, in agreement with the authors, that the image, as a whole, combined the iconic symbolism with the science without implying either that the Bible is true, or that evolution is not the key to making sense of biology. This illustrated for me the co-existence or integration of science with religious belief in a very public forum and in a very real and tangible way. A question we might ask and discuss later: is the creation story in the bible “historical fact” or is it an allegory as a way of explaining our universe?

Francis Collins, who was formerly director of the NIH and is now a scientific advisor to the White House, is also a human geneticist. He was very much involved in the genome project as director of the NCHGR before becoming NIH’s director. He, along with 40-50% of scientists polled today, believe in G-d or a supreme being when queried.

In an essay for CNN, Francis has said: I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith. The G-d of the Bible is also the G-d of the genome. G-d can be found in the cathedral or in the laboratory. By investigating G-d’s majestic and awesome creation, science can actually be a means of worship.”

Francis also wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled The Language of G-d: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. I have not read the book but have listened to an audio clip of Francis reading from the text. Several years later, at the time that the completed sequence of the genome was announced from the oval office by President Bill Clinton together with Francis Collins and Craig Venter, Clinton is quoted as saying:Today, we are learning the language in which G-d created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of G-d’s most divine and sacred gift.”

Many other notable individuals have had much to say about whether there is a conflict between religion and science. Dr. Martin Luther King made the following statement which could provide an interesting entree into our discussions later:

“Science investigates; Religion interprets.

Science gives man knowledge, which is power,

Religion gives man wisdom, which is control.

Science deals mainly with facts; Religion deals mainly with values.

The two are not rivals. They are complementary.”

His thoughts about the balance between science and morality are the foundation of many of the ethical practices we invoke in the fields of science today. Such ethical principles in many scientific fields, notably in medicine and research, stress the need to do good (known as beneficence) and to do no harm (known as non-malfeasance). In many ways, this epitomizes the acronym we adopted for our Scientists in Synagogues program by calling it J-STEM – Judaism with Science, Technology, Ethics and Meaning. I look forward to having further discussions with all of you over lunch, and I will close with another quote from Einstein who said:

“The more I study science, the more I believe in G-d.”

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Beverly S. Emanuel is The Charles E.H. Upham Professor of Pediatrics at the
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She gave this talk at Congregation Beth El – Ner Tamid in Broomall, PA on April 6, 2024 as the culmination of their Scientists in Synagogues programming series, titled “J-STEM: Judaism With Science, Technology, Ethics and Meaning.”)

One Comment

  1. Bonnie C. Mitelman

    Thank you for this cogent analysis. You framed this complex question so clearly and then went on to substantiate your opinion succinctly.

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