On May 29, 2014, Sinai and Synapses partnered with Central Synagogue to present a panel discussion on the topic “Can Science and Religion Co-Exist?” It was a provocative and respectful discussion among three distinguished panelists:
- Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of the book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism
- Professor Michael Zimmerman, Professor of Biology and Vice President of Academic Affairs at The Evergreen State College and Founder of The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend
- Professor Hank Davis, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Guelph, Ontario and author of the book Caveman Logic: The Persistence of Primitive Thinking in a Modern World
Below you will find the video from our program, in both audio and video, with chapter markings for the seven main questions that were asked. Video:
Good evening everyone and welcome. I’m Rabbi Lisa Rubin, one of the educational rabbis here at Central Synagogue. It’s such a pleasure to get a nice crowd for what I know is going to be a very thought-provoking discussion and panel this evening on the nexus of science and religion. Tonight’s panel is presented in partnership with an organization called Sinai and Synapses, whose mission is to offer people a worldview that is both scientifically grounded and also spiritually uplifting. Sinai and Synapses aims to provide tools and language for learning and living to the millions of people who see science as their ally as they pursue personal growth and seek to repair the world. The purpose of Sinai and Synapses is to bridge the scientific and religious worlds by exploring topics from both perspectives, which is exactly what we’re going to do tonight.
Our moderator this evening is Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Rabbi Mitelman was ordained, like myself, from Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. And his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on many websites, including the Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, My Jewish Learning, and WordPress.com. He was also interviewed by BBC Radio about the religious implications of the Higgs particle. He’s also on the planning committee for the new URJ Six Points Science Academy. It’s my pleasure to introduce you and welcome, maybe to the podium, or you’ll stay there?
Geoffrey Mitelman: Sure, I’ll come up here for the very beginning and thenmove to here so Thank you very much.
My colleague and old friend Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you, Rabbi Rubin. Rabbi Rubin and I, Lisa and I, go back almost – oh no, over ten years, at this point – twelve years – where we were at each other’s weddings, so it’s wonderful to be able to be here, so thank you Rabbi Reuben. And thank you to Central Synagogue for hosting and partnering on this exciting program this evening. And of course thank you to all of you, who will be in for a real treat as we explore the question “Can science and religion co-exist?”. Far too often, the conversation around religion and science quickly devolves into acrimonious debate, and the public discourse ends up just being attacks and counterattacks and counter-counterattacks. But what would it look like if there was more nuance and more substance to the discussion? What would it look like if there was a conversation that was both provocative and respectful? And that’s the purpose of tonight, to give people some new tools, some new language, and some new ways to think about the relationship of religion and science.
Before I introduce our panelists and we jump into our conversation, I want to explain what the cards on your seat are for. Without a doubt, throughout this evening, there are going to be many questions that everyone’s going to have. We ask that if you have a question that you write it down on the cards, and someone will come by and collect it for you. There’ll be sweeps throughout the evening, so if there’s a question that strikes you, write it down, and it will get passed, and you’ll be able to ask. I guarantee you we won’t get to every question, but we’ll get to hopefully at least a lot of them.
But to begin, and to get ourselves thinking about the interaction of science and religion, I’m going to ask you to take one of your cards, and for just a moment, on one of the cards, write down, in one word, what your reaction is when you think about religion and science. We’re going to collect the cards – and don’t overthink this – just write down the one word that most immediately captures your view on the relationship of religion and science. So take a moment, there are pens throughout there, and then, you know, I think Rabbi Reuben and some other people will collect those cards.
So as people have written on their cards, and as the cards are being collected, it’s a great honor and pleasure for me to introduce our three distinguished panelists here. I’m going to introduce all three of them at first, because what we’re looking forward to is a real conversation among the three of them. There are three people that I’ve known for a long time, and it’s a real honor to be able to share the stage here with you. So farthest to my left is Professor Michael Zimmerman, who is the founder and director of the Clergy Letter Project, an international organization of several thousand religious leaders and scientists created to demonstrate that religion and science need not be in conflict. The Clergy Letter Project sponsors Evolution Weekend, an annual opportunity for hundreds of congregations to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. Professor Zimmerman has conducted research on the public’s understanding of evolution and the nature of science, and his work has appeared extensively on the op-ed pages of many newspapers. As a fierce advocate for the importance of the liberal arts, he has served as an academic dean for twenty years in addition to being a professor of biology, and his peers have elected him a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education has honored him with their Friend of Darwin Award. Additionally, he is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. So please join me in welcoming Professor Michael Zimmerman.
Next to him is Professor Hank Davis, who is an award winning winning professor of evolutionary psychology, who teaches at the University of Guelph, Ontario. He’s the author of several books on behavioral science and popular culture, and more than 100 scientific papers. His most popular book that you can pick up in the back there is “Caveman Logic: the Persistence of Primitive Thinking in the Modern World.” In it, he argues that “It’s time to move beyond the one size fits all safety and comfort- oriented settings that got our ancestors through the terrifying Pleistocene night.”
In contrast, Professor Davis advocates advocates a world in which spirituality is viewed as a dangerous rather than admirable quality, and suggest ways in which we can overcome our innate disposition towards irrationality. He concludes by pointing out that “biology is not destiny.” Just as some of us succeed in watching our diets, resisting violent impulses, and engaging in unselfish behavior, we can learn to use critical thinking and the insights of science to guide individual efforts and social action in the service of our whole species. So please join with me in welcoming Professor Hank Davis.
And sitting right next to me here is Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who is an expert on Religion and Public Life, and he offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide. A popular guest on many media outlets, has appeared on CNN, PBS, MTV and NPR., and has written for FoxNews.com, The Washington Post and The Huffington Post. He’s the author of the book “you don’t have to be wrong for me to be Right: Finding Faith without fanaticism” and is also the co-founder and executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. Rabbi Hirschfield is an Orthodox rabbi and received his M.Phil from the Jewish Theological Seminary and his BA from the University of Chicago. I also am very lucky because my office is only a few doors down from him, because he is the president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center committed to religious pluralism and the healthier use of religion in American public life, and CLAL is the organization that is incubating Sinai and Synapses. So please join with me in welcoming Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.
So to our three panelists, to Michael and to Hank and to Brad, I think we should start with the first question that is the title of our talk, “Can science and religion coexist?”. So from your experience, both personal and professional, can science and religion coexist, and what makes you say either yes or no? And we’re actually gonna start with Michael, and then we’ll go down the line here to be able to give your answers to that question.
Michael Zimmerman: Thank you, Geoff. What a pleasure to be here tonight. Since you mentioned the Friends of Darwin Award, I had invited him to join me tonight, but he was busy. The simple answer for me to that question is absolutely, science and religion can co-exist. But. Science and religion can co-exist very comfortably, as long as religion doesn’t make truth statements that can be falsified in the natural world and hold to their truth statements that are falsified. Most religions don’t do that. Some religions do, however. That is, lots of fundamentalists make truth claims that we know are untrue. Truth claims about the natural world, not truth claims about morality. Those are different, those are interesting, those are in many ways beyond the reach of science.
As founder and executive director of the Clergy Letter Project, the whole – I have to believe that science and religion can co-exist, because the whole purpose is, as Geoff said, of that organization, which has about 15,000 members, is to demonstrate that we can have rational discourse about the value of religion in society, and we can have rational discourse about the value of science in society and discuss where those intersections are, where that dialogue can raise us to new heights and recognize that there’s – the two disciplines really so often are asking very different kinds of questions. As long as you recognize that there are different questions being asked, the answers shouldn’t be frightening to anybody.
What I want to do is read you two or three sentences from what was the original Clergy Letter. What what happened years ago, about 12 years ago, when the Clergy Letter Project started, it started with a letter for Christian clergy members. I can tell you that is a fabulous letter, because I didn’t write it. It was written by a UCC minister, United Church of Christ minister, who was trying to help me with a problem of a school board going crazy in northwest Wisconsin. And I had written letters to the school board on behalf of biologists and Religious Studies faculty members and geologists, and I could pretend to be all of those people, like, to pretend to be their voice, and got hundreds of signatures from all of those people. But I knew what I needed to do was write a letter from religious leaders and I couldn’t, because I don’t have a religious voice, I didn’t know the language. So I asked my friend to do that and I expected him to circulate it to lots of people and get signatures, and then the world would be a better place, and he wrote this wonderful letter, but he didn’t circulate it and the world, because of that, is not a wonderful place anymore.
But I ended up circulating it in Wisconsin, and then when things blew up beyond Wisconsin, I realized, if we had 200 signatures relatively quickly in Wisconsin of Christian clergy members, and I thought if we took that national, and had – there are 50 states, and I couldn’t do the math, it took me about three weeks to figure out if you have fifty states and about 200 signatures, I knew it was a lot, but I’ll save you some trouble, it’s 10,000 – I thought if we got 10,000 clergy members, Christian clergy members, to sign a letter saying religion and science can co-exist, we would change the face of the religion/ evolution, religion/science controversy in this country.
Turns out it didn’t work that way. There’s still a controversy, if you didn’t know. But what I want to do is read you a couple of sentences from that letter, because it makes the case so incredibly clearly about what the role of religion is and what the role of science is. Before I read that, I want to make it clear, this is a letter for Christian clergy. Very early on, like, the day three that I was circulating this thing, I had a bunch of rabbis wanting to sign it, except they said it starts out “within the community of Christian believers,” and then it says “We the undersigned Christian clergy,” and they said “I can’t sign that.” And I said well yeah, it wasn’t written for you. “But if you want to write a rabbi letter let’s do that.” And it took about four years before somebody wrote one, I have it here as well. So I’m going to read the Christian clergy letter first, and not the whole thing, I’m just going to read the last couple of sentences from the – it’s only a two paragraph letter. Let me just read this.
“Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible, the creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, convey timeless truths about God, human beings and the proper relationship between Creator and Creation, expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information, but to transform hearts.” And then the letter ends with a final sentence, “we ask,” – and the letter is really written to school board members around the country, it has a broader reach than that, but that’s how it was originally written – “we ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different but complementary forms of truth.”
So what we have is a letter, to this day, signed by about 12,960 Christian clergy members in the United States, who are attesting to the fact that their religion, their religiosity, their faith, in no way is challenged by either evolution in particular, or science in general. They understand that their faith is enriched if it’s embedded in a culture that is truly understanding of the natural world around them. We have a similar letter signed by well over 500 rabbis in the United States. We have another letter that took a lot of time and trouble to get, because they were Unitarian Universalists, and they wanted to talk about everything and argue with every word, and we have hundreds of Unitarian Universalist clergy members. We have a Hindu – no we don’t –, we have a Buddhist letter, and we have a Muslim letter. So all of these religious faiths have come together to say “We have no problem with the best that modern science has to offer.”
There are some within those religious communities that are relatively narrow-minded and make truth claims – truth claims that the world and scientists and some of us, just through our everyday life experience, know to be false. And if those people are willing to say “my truth trumps your truth because I read it someplace,” and if that’s the core of their religion, I think religion and science cannot exist. But the vast number of religious people in this country and in the world don’t hold that particular view. So from that perspective, I think religion and science, in fact, can come together, and can enrich each other in many different ways.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you. Hank, I’m assuming you’re going to have a somewhat different point of view.
Hank Davis: Yeeeeeah. Michael, that’s a great story, it’s a feel-good story. I wish it bore some relationship to reality out there. You know, in principle, science and religion can go hand in hand off into the sunset. That’s a fantasy. And I want to – I’m going to be the bad guy, I’m going to offer an unqualified “No.” So if you want a target to, you know, throw your barbs at, I will not be a moving target. I will absorb them.
But before I do that I just want to say, Geoff, when you were talking the introduction of me, I told you if there’s anything that has to get qualified, I’m going to mention it here. So your introduction was basically great, except it left one thing out. I’ve got six books and a hundred-something scientific papers, who cares. This week was the anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. (laughter) And I just happened to look at a piece of paper and it said “Today is May 24th.” And I thought, my God, that’s my Bar Mitzvah Day! And I was suddenly overcome with a bitter panic. I’ve forgotten my portion! You know, I can’t retrieve it. And then I realized, “should be OK, because that was a couple years ago.” That number, by the way, is 60. So I was bar mitzvahed on May 24th, 1954, and this is, I think, the second time I have been in a shul since then. It’s not that bad, but it’s close.
Michael Zimmerman: And I’m going to interrupt for one second. In the small world category – my bar mitzvah was May 28th. We probably have the same piece.
Hank Davis: Brad, wanna just–?
Brad Hirschfield: I think April. But I spend more time in synagogues, they start to blur together.
Hank Davis: OK, all right. So getting back to the important question, can science and religion coexist? You know, at a personal level, sure they can. I think you can be a good Catholic, a good Jew, a good Methodist, you can go to work in the morning as a molecular biologist, as a botanist, as a sociologist, as a high school science teacher – you can avoid conflict by compartmentalizing these different points of view in your head. Then you don’t have any conflict. But take a real look at the supernatural beliefs that underlie your religion, and take a real look at the core methodology of your profession as a scientist. There is nothing reconcilable about those two positions. You can reconcile them personally, again, by being in denial about one or the other, or by defining one or the other in such an idiosyncratic way that you’ve thrown the conflict away – you’ve thrown the inconsistency away. But these are not reconcilable world views.
On one hand, you have faith-based supernatural claims, which are part of the systems of most religions. And on the other hand, as a scientist, I am guided by strict empiricism – In other words, I believe what my senses tell me – and logic. You put those two systems together, I promise you, they do not go together, unless you are prepared to live in a world of denial.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you. Brad, that’s, uh…
Brad Hirschfield: You can’t wait to hear what I say now. Look, for me this is pretty straightforward – we’ve had a passionate yes and a passionate no. And I’m a guy wrote a book called “You Don’t Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right.” So I’m gonna go very rabbinic, but it’s what I actually believe. The answer is, it depends. And that’s not a dodge. I don’t think there is such a thing as religion, and I don’t think there’s such a thing as science. There is no one religion, or one way to do religion, and there is no way, one way, to do science or be scientific. It turns out that we live in a moment when people have so much access to so much information, they construct foils to play against. And so each side compares the worst expression of whatever they don’t believe in order to feel good about what they do believe. It turns out that that’s actually the reasons, not for tonight, it’s the whole Western evolution cannon’s development that was premised on actually the notion that “you DO have to be wrong for me to be right.”
And so we think of science as singular, to its detriment, I think. We think of religion as singular, to its detriment, I know. And so it really leaves me saying, the answer to the question is, “it depends.” Now whether or not this is the ground of reconciliation, I don’t know. But I will tell you this. There are common features that, my guess is, we have all experienced as either, or possibly, both science at its best and religion – whatever we mean by it, because remember, there isn’t one, there in fact is many religions or way to religion, because it’s actually better as a verb than a noun, as there are people who want to.
And the common ground that I think we’ve all experienced between them both are three things at least. If I had more time I could give you a longer list. But they are curiosity, humility, and wonder. And it seems to me, if you look at every faith tradition and every scientific tradition that has actually made real leaps forward – sometimes leaps forward that were horrific, mostly that were wonderful, because you actually can’t know. That’s the funny thing about evolutionary models, and I say it with great trepidation, sitting next to you, but no one ever postulates an evolutionary model and says, “we’re the pond scum”. Everyone always imagines “Yes, here’s the evolutionary model, and we are its apex.” Because you can’t know where you are in the process if it’s going to keep going on, but you can actually look back and know that both good religion and good science have always been animated by curiosity, humility, and wonder.
And it seems to me that’s one of the reasons why, on a family trip that we took last year to England. We have three daughters, my wife and I, they’re 20 and 17 and just about to turn 13. And one of my favorite places in London, one of my favorite religious places in London, and one of my favorite science places in London, are all the same place – Westminster Abbey. I love that place. And I love who’s buried in that place. And I love being able to walk my three Yeshiva-trained daughters through the place, soaking in, first, Darwin, and then Isaac Newton, and it being seamless for them, and them saying “What happened to America? What happened?”.
Because it makes perfect sense that our middle daughter said at Newton – because you actually see Lady Wisdom, a real character in the Bible, handing over Science. And she goes, “I get it, that’s from Proverbs, right, that’s Hochma, that’s Lady Wisdom.” I go, “I guess the education actually did rub off a little bit.”
And so it seems to me that really the takeaway from that moment, and why I’m really not joking when I say it’s yes, and no, and it depends, is that both religion and science are like fire. You can burn down your house. Or it can warm your home and cook your dinner. It isn’t about the fire, it’s about the people wielding it. There is no one fire, there is no one religion, there is no one science – there’s us. And it’s really up to us how we use the fires in our lives. So for me, my interest, ironically, remains very much like Michael’s founding interest. I have really – I don’t want to rally the faithful who share my views, though I could happily sign the letter. That’s not where I think the most important things are, although it’s a good project, but it’s a rallying-the-faithful project, which is why I was never a good synagogue rabbi.
For me, the interesting space is who’s not signing the letter. Who does believe that actually religion and science are not inherently antithetical, because they know nothing is inherently anything, and is trying to stimulate the conversation between the yeses and the no’s? That will actually be the next great intellectual and religious evolutionary leap that we can take together.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you, very interesting perspectives. And one of the things that struck me about one of things, that all three of you were talking about, was not so much the philosophical divides between religion and science, but how do individual people and how do society use or misuse both religion and science? How does that relationship within individuals, or between individuals, manifest itself, and when is it going to be productive, when is it going to be destructive?
And so it leads to another question that I’ve been wondering about, because for a lot of the people who are most invested in the science and religion discussion – and I know Michael, this is something that that you fight against a lot in in the evolution versus creationism debate – for a lot of the people in this discussion, it’s how they make their money. So, for example, Richard Dawkins, who’s one of the staunchest anti-theists – he actually doesn’t really so much describe himself as an atheist as more of an anti-theist, that he doesn’t want there to be a belief in a God. And Ken Ham, who’s the director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky – they have obvious vested interest, and actually economic interest, in talking about the religion and science relationship, and particularly polarizing it, because that’s how they make their money. If everyone was all nice and happy, Richard Dawkins would be out of a job, at least in terms of a speaking gig, and the Creation Museum would shut down in Kentucky.
There are people who are the loudest voices, but I think most of the people in this room, I think Hank actually in many ways, we go about their lives in the way that you tend to talk about, which is compartmentalizing – of doing one thing in the morning, one thing in the evening, or one thing on the six days and acting in another way on the Sabbath. And so they don’t actually find the conflict which could potentially be there.
So why should we, as the general populace, why should we care about the relationship between religion and science? What does that represent? What does that allow us to do? Why is it important to be able to go beyond simply rallying the faithful? Why is it important to be able to fight against the extremes on both sides? Why is it important to be able to not live in the compartmentalized world, and actually run towards the conflict there? So actually, Hank, I want to start, I’m gonna put you on the spot here for the first question.
Hank Davis: I think there are several reasons for caring about the conflict. I mean, it seems to me that very few people are simply agnostic about this. I think if you force people to say “choose column A or choose column B,” A being religion and B being science, most people would express a preference. Some would tell you, “oh, I’m good with both of them,” and again I think that’s, with all respect to my colleagues, I think that’s nonsense. I don’t think you can serve those two masters.
I think the reasons why we should care about what’s going on – how can these two antithetical positions exist – is because the question leads to some very uncomfortable viewpoints on how humans work. You know, I could ask, for example, “which is better?” And you’ll say, “well, hold it, what do you mean by better?” But which is better? Which fills me with pride, saying “I am a religious man” or “I am a scientist.” If that question means which feels better, there is no doubt in my mind that religion wins that round. Of course religion feels better than science.
But that may not be the ultimate criterion. You know, if I say “which is better in terms of generating death, human suffering, war, genocide, tribal loyalties,” I think religion wins that one too. So, you know, again we have to choose choose what the metric is. Which is more highly evolved? Which is less diluted? Which is, sorry, less ignorant? Well, if I quote Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, religion is an insult to human dignity. I’m with him. I think it is. if I go to the Creationist Museum and I look at exhibits of dinosaurs with saddles on their backs so Adam and Eve could ride the dinosaur to Sunday School, I say to myself, well, this is the result of religion, or some particular type of religion, or I guess, as you’d say, certain people who adhere to this type of religion.
I see that as so lacking in dignity. We are – our species, Homo sapiens. Sapiens. Thinking. That kind of religion is an insult, a slap in the face to what our species is supposed to be all about. So yeah, I think we should care about the question, and although it’s, you know, I understand that we’re not supposed to be judgemental, I really think at some level, pick science if you care about the dignity of our species. And if you don’t, I suppose it’s OK to hang out at the Creationist Museum and teach your children well about that kind of nonsense. But I think you’re working against our species if you do. So I think caring about these things is the least we can do as human beings.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So I’m going to turn to Brad.
Brad Hirschfield: Oh my god, so many responses. The first is – no, no, this is religion does this too. So it’s not about what you just did. it’s about a method that we all practice. When we compare our best to someone else’s worst, we’ll always win. But it’s an empty victory. I get how it feels good, but you’d have to explain since you told me feeling good is not important, but you feel great being here, so I guess it’s not an important experience. Because if religion makes you feel good, and that’s one thing that’s a low order of satisfaction, your warmth and glee, which is wonderful, it being here, would have us believe it should be disqualified, which I would never want to do. The question is “why would you say, wow, feeling good is a whole way of knowing and being in the world?” It’s not the only way, but nothing is the only way. Because you feel good being here. In fact, if you had the same views but didn’t have that good feeling this wouldn’t be fun, it would just be ugly.
So it turns out that feeling good – I would just caution about how quickly we discount good feeling. I think that’s really, really important. I would also ask any of us, can we think of any time when essentialist definitions of anything as big as either science or faith served humanity well? It seems to me that that’s the real challenge. Can we actually passionately care about anything, any intellectual discipline, any religious practice, any national identity, any tribe, or family, or person, and actually care deeply enough that we would write a half dozen books, the three of which that I’ve read are unbelievable, and you shouldn’t leave – and all I can do is, it’s not my book, do not leave without buying the one that’s available. Because it happens to be a really good book to read. But – when we essentialize, we lose so much. The track record just isn’t very good.
It seems to me we know this from least two things. First of all, on the religion side, we can get the first 1800 years, from the time of, like, the founding of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, till about 200 years ago, down to one sentence, at least far as I can tell. And the one sentence is “let’s kill people for God.” And everyone who had the opportunity to do it actually found some scripture to thump and justify it.
But here’s the rub. The response for the next 200 years, because people said wow, this is sick – the corrective was, “let’s kill God for people.” And it turns out that in the intervening 200 years of killing God for people, we murdered as many people in the name of our modernist new gods as medieval and ancient peoples did in the name of their gods. So it seems to me now all we’ve proven is that the real issue is, could you imagine a world in which you didn’t have to get rid of the trajectory you don’t practice in order to make room for the one that you do? Because I’m pretty sure we’ve exhausted the paths of getting rid of something, or someone, to make room for what we care most about. What it’s going to look like, I don’t know, because we’re at the very very very beginning, but I’m really interested in getting as many people to participate in that process as possible.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So before, Michael, before you jump in, I want to know, Hank, if you have a reaction to that.
Hank Davis: I’ve got half a dozen (laughs). OK. A very quick story. Very, very quick. My partner and I just got back from Costa Rica. And I had an absolutely peak experience there, driving, flying over the rain forest in an aerial tram, looking at this incredible beauty, and listening to our guide talk to us about the process of evolution, and be able to point to moments, say, “Look at that tree, look at that sloth hanging from the tree. Do you realize he depends upon–” you know, explaining fundamental core principles in biology. And there they are, alive. He brought it to life. He described these Darwinian principles with such clarity and such beauty, and he never used the word “evolution.” And he never used the word “Darwin.” And I’m sitting there, wondering why? This is a Darwinian workshop!
And I talked to him afterwards and he said to me “I can’t. I’m not allowed to.” Why? “Because our tourists are from North America. And if I spoke the word Darwin, there’d be a mutiny up there above the rainforest. If I use the word ‘evolution,’ I’d end up in a shouting match with somebody, or somebody would petition my boss and I’d get fired.” This is not the 16th century. This is not the Catholic Church censoring Copernicus and Galileo. This is 2014, and religion is still exercising this stultifying effect on what we can know, think and believe. That’s the best response I have to Brad.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So Michael, I want to get your thoughts here, because I know a lot of the work that you do is trying to help people understand not just why, but how, they can care about science and religion. And I know you’ve worked with a lot of different communities and a lot of populations where evolution is not always so looked at so warmly. So I would love to hear your thoughts about both the question of why should we care about religion and science, and also any reactions to what Brad and Hank have said.
Michael Zimmerman: Frankly, I’d rather just sit here and listen. I mean it’s hard, it is hard to follow that discussion – it’s not hard to follow, it’s easy to follow – it is hard to talk after it. But in response to some of that, I want to start, I think, by reiterating, probably not nearly as articulately as Brad did, the point that I think is so important. And that is that fundamentalism, whether it be religious fundamentalism or scientific fundamentalism – and I’m a scientist – is really problematic. When you know, and you know that you’re right and you know that everybody else is wrong, there’s a problem. When you know without respect, there’s a problem.
What I know – funny way to start a next sentence after that – what I know is, dealing with lots and lots of religious leaders – and I am not religious myself – what I know, talking to lots of those religious leaders is: early on, many of them want to find a balance between science and religion, but so many of them have said to me if Richard Dawkins – are you all familiar with Richard Dawkins, most of you? You know, he’s come up before. He’s one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever heard speak and one of the brightest individuals I’ve ever read. He was a professor at Oxford in a Chair of the Promotion of Public Understanding of Science. He has done more damage for the spread of public understanding of science than, I think, any other human being in the world.
And what people have said – religious leaders have said – is “if what science is about is the way Dawkins talks about it, and the way he trashes what I believe, I have to choose between the two, and I’m not going to go there. If that’s what science is, I don’t want any part of it.” That does damage to both religion and science. If your goal – and the reason I came to this work of promoting religion and science isn’t from a religious perspective, it’s from a scientific perspective. I’m an evolutionary biologist. I care really deeply about evolution and about biology and about what it tells us about the world. And I learned very early on, people believe they have to make a choice. And if they have to make a choice, as, basically, you said – whoever this guy is – you said, Hank –
Hank Davis: The guy with the beard. (laughs)
Michael Zimmerman: – most people will, in fact, choose religion. They can’t tell you why, and they’re not necessarily deeply religious, but it’s safer. And if you care about public science literacy, you’ve got to make it clear that that’s a dichotomous choice that’s false. You don’t have to choose. And the reason is so important to get there.
And the reason I disagree with you, Hank, is that I’ve learned so much from the religious leaders I’ve dealt with, and what I’ve learned is that they understand the use of metaphor. For years, scientists, biologists have been trying to figure out what separates humans from the other animals. And at one point, it was the use of tools. And now we know lots of animals make tools, so that’s not it. [Then] it was the ability to communicate, and we know that’s not it.
Maybe it’s the ability to use metaphor. So far, nobody has differentiated another animal species that can use metaphor. If that’s one of the things that absolutely sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and all of the plants – and I know it sets us apart from the plants – if that’s what it is, the use of metaphor, and so many religious texts are centered (according to religious leaders who are not fundamentalists) are centered on the use of metaphor, that they use that metaphor to teach deeper truths – they don’t teach truths about the evolution of the world, they don’t teach truths about erosion and geology, and about the origin of the universe. They teach what people believe are truths about human nature, and they use that metaphor to do that. Why can’t we embrace that? And if you look at religion in that way, I don’t think you have to compartmentalize. I think it’s just a different piece of the world that we’re asking questions about.
From that perspective – the controversy – dealing with the controversy is really critical, because, and Brad, you said this – if we take, if we don’t get people to talk about why religion and science can coexist and how so many different religious traditions and religious leaders across those traditions believe they can co-exist, what we’re doing is setting up, as religion, a caricature of religion. We’re taking Ken Ham and his dinosaurs and saying that’s what religion is all about. And we’re saying Dawkins and his anti-theism, saying that’s what science is all about. And when they are that far apart, you really do have to choose. And when you have to choose, invariably, when that’s the message we’re sending to the public, we’re doing great damage, either to religion or science. And that’s not healthy for anybody.
That’s why I think it really is critical that we reach out to the huge number of people in the middle – people who have no real clue, they say they’re religious, but they don’t have a real clue what religion is – they say, “yeah I can understand or appreciate science,” but they don’t have a real clue what science is. It’s those people that we have to talk to. And that’s – the one thing I disagree with what you said, Brad, the Clergy Letter Project isn’t designed to talk to the faithful. It’s designed to take, to help people who are religious, and are religious leaders, who understand that the two can be compatible, and reach out to the vast people in the middle – you know, Nixon’s silent majority (God, did I say that?) – and convince and convince them that there really is a way you can promote modern science without having to give up some core belief.
Geoffrey Mitelman: So thank you. That actually leds us nicely to the next question I want to ask. Before I actually pose that question, I just want to invite people, if they do have questions, you can be writing those down. I know that Rabbi Rubin and Samantha are going to collect them, so feel free to be able to write lots of questions – we have still a lot of time to be able to explore some of these.
But Michael, that goes to a really excellent question too, which is that for all of us, we have a limited amount of energy. We have a limited amount of time. We have to make decisions of where are we going to invest our resources. And I think we all agree, and a lot of the cards that showed up, were that the conversation about religion and science generally is perceived as being pretty toxic – is not perceived as being a productive conversation.
So what is the best use of our energy? How can, how should we be using our energy to try to at least elevate the discourse in some way and try to be able to reach as many people as we can, to what purpose? Because I think that ultimately everyone here, and everyone there, we’re all trying to understand ourselves, understand our world, improve ourselves, improve our world, but very often it becomes trying to convince the other side, which can be very complicated, but maybe that’s where we need to be going.
What is the best use of our energy? Should we be trying to convince other people? Should we be strengthening the middle? Is it a combination? How should we be using our time and our energy in this conversation? And Brad, I actually want to start with you on this one.
Brad Hirschfield: Oh I thought we were going right back to my – OK, such a good setup! So. I want to start by explaining that for me, the almost-always nasty debate between hard-edged, fundamentalist, fanatical faith and hard-edged, fundamentalist, fanatical science is just a metaphor for a larger problem in the culture. That’s why it’s compelling for me. Because on any given day, I’m prepared to give up on either or both, science and religion – because the fighting is so toxic.
But it’s not just in that field. It’s in everything. And there are reasons why, and it has to do with being the first time in human history when we have access to more information than we have ethics to process it. We are actually the first generation in human history to be so rich in data, while being so poor in wisdom. And that’s a really new challenge. And it’s going to take at least a couple of generations to try and catch up, let alone successfully do it. This one happens to be an easy way into that debate.
And so I guess what I would say is there are two places to invest energy, whether it’s on this topic or any other time you feel yourself drawn into one of these toxic conversations. The first is: don’t try and solve it. There is a real difference between a debate and a conversation. The truth is, the world will not go south if we have fewer debates. But we actually may be destroying ourselves for want of conversations. And really, the way you’ll know you’re in one and not the other is, you’re not scoring points based on how much the other guy starts looking like you. In fact, here I think Buber was right. The mark of a truly covenantal conversation is that both parties are changed – dare I say, evolve – in the process.
And so it seems to me the energy needs to go toward finding conversation partners who don’t agree with us, who are not just mirrors of what we already believe, even though it’s really hard. Because right now you can spend 24/7 simply collecting people and views and news clips and audio files of people who always say the same thing: “you’re right!” And it doesn’t matter how far left or how far right, how far religious or how far secular. You can fill up all your days now, because of information technology, simply hearing one message over and over: “you are right – everyone who isn’t like you is an idiot.”
So find someone who actually doesn’t agree with you. And actually dare to have a conversation instead of a debate with them. And the other piece is really ask not so much about the conclusions, but what are the animating values? So those are the three that I first shared in this. I actually don’t care so much where people come down on any of these issues, as long as what we actually do nurture in our world is greater curiosity, deepening humility, and a genuine sense of wonder about whatever it is that animates your life.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Well, you’re very lucky, Brad, because I think someone is right next to you who disagrees with you and probably would be able to respond to that question.
Hank Davis: Actually, the funny thing is, I actually agree with part of what you said. I can’t – maybe there’s some kind of transformation going on here. I agree in part. What I would have said is, you are not going to convince somebody through logic or reason. Forget it. Don’t even try. If you’re talking about religion vs. science, look. These kind of beliefs weren’t encoded at a logical, rational level. So to try to go there and make changes, it’s just – it doesn’t happen. Those brain centers are not – there are no synapses – sorry to borrow the term – there are no neurological connections between the centers, by and large, that control religion and the centers, by and large, that control science. You know, it’s not that there is a God Center in the brain and a Newton Center in the brain. It’s not that simple. But by and large, they represent different systems. And to try to argue somebody out of their position is a bloody waste of time.
I have a friend, a colleague, a philosopher, who insists on going to these creationist evolutionary debates. And he puts so much energy in these debates. You know, my attitude is “better you than me.” I stay away from those things like the plague. He has learned a very interesting fact. When he goes to these debates – and, my God, he’s an articulate man – I don’t think he convinces anybody. And he realized that. What he learned – he’s an atheist – is, he now takes his wife and his two young sons to the debates. Oh my god – that has done a world of benefit to the cause of atheism. Because there are people sitting in these debates, sitting in the audience, thinking, “An atheist with a family? They’re not out, you know, participating in godless orgies all night or something?” He’s an atheist. He has a lovely wife and two lovely sons. “Maybe I better think about this, rethink what they are really like.” That’s the level at which the coercion takes place, if any coercion takes place.
I’m not a big fan of “the middle.” I don’t think the middle, you know, in terms of the way Geoff posed the question, I really don’t think the middle should be strengthened, mainly because I don’t even know what the middle is in terms of science and religion. So I don’t know how I go about strengthening it. I mean, picture somebody in 1860, saying “oh, I only have three slaves.” Is that the middle? I mean, you’re for it or you’re against it. Three slaves – I don’t understand. This isn’t a continuum where you can point to and say “that’s the middle and I’m safe there.”
To me the solution is very clear, and this is not an end run on finding the middle. The solution is called Secular Humanism. It’s a – I don’t know if it’s a doctrine, but it’s a viewpoint I strongly believe in. You get all the morality that you want, all the decency that you want from religion, without any of the supernatural claptrap. Seems like a good thing to strengthen to me.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Michael, how would you respond to that there?
Michael Zimmerman: Simply, I’m against claptrap. It’s… where in the world do you start? Let me tell you something I alluded to earlier. I came to this controversy accidentally. I came to this controversy as a scientist, with absolutely no knowledge of any religion, literally. I mean, May 28th some year, I don’t know what year, I was barmitzvah, and that was the last time I was in a temple until I started talking about evolution and creationism. Now I get invited to temples all the time, and it’s very weird. I came to the debate because I cared about science. I think in a democracy, where we vote on things, it really is important that people understand what science is. If they don’t understand what science is, what science can do, and what science can’t do, we’re going to be making – and we have made – ridiculous decisions occasionally.
We’re facing one of the biggest challenges the human race has ever faced – two of them, they’re related. One is global climate change, that’s due to us, and one is the Sixth Extinction, where we’re in the middle of an extinction that’s rivaling and exceeding some of the biggest we’ve ever seen. We have to deal with that. We have to deal with that by recognizing the science behind it, and then figuring out some way of dealing with it politically.
Scientists know nothing more about politics than anybody else. But if the world can’t – if our citizens can’t differentiate along a continuum, with science at one end and non-science in the middle and nonsense at the other end – we’re in trouble. We have to be able to have that discussion about what science is and what science isn’t. It turns out that the biggest challenge to having a publicly literate scientific population – now everyone say that – the biggest challenge comes from the religious right. They’re controlling – they’re a very loud voice – they’re controlling what is taught in public schools or what’s not taught in public schools. If you want science taught in public schools, you have to counter the religious right, it’s that simple.
Who is best able to counter the religious right? Not scientists. I mean, I used to be, when I was living in Ohio – I used to be asked to come into a school board and talk to people, and I realized very quickly, it doesn’t make sense for me to come and talk to people to tell them that creationism shouldn’t be taught. I would say “you don’t want me,” and they would say “why not,” and I would say, “because I don’t really want to travel there.”
Then I said “no, and I didn’t mean that, you didn’t hear that. you don’t want me because I’m from out of town and I’m an expert and people don’t want to hear from an expert. I’m a scientist. They’re going to think I’m biased.”
“So who do I need? Who do I want?”
And I said, “You want somebody who’s a local.”
They said, “We can find somebody.”
“And you want somebody who’s religious.”
You want a religious leader, because it’s the religious leaders speaking in favor of science, and there are thousands of them all over. They’re in our midst all over. When they speak in favor of science, people have to listen. It’s very similar to your friend bringing a family, an atheist family, to a creationist event or a debate. You have to sit up and think differently when religious leaders are saying “hey, this evolution stuff? It’s really important.”
So why do we care? We care, I think, I invest my time in this, because I care about science. I care about public discourse. And the only way to get people to understand that science is OK is to make it clear to them that they don’t have to jettison their religion. Now, I am not interested in debating Ken Ham, although he hijacked me on a radio talk show once and did something completely dishonest. And then when I asked him about it, he said “well, it’s OK to lie for Jesus.” I didn’t know that, so I was educated, I learned something from him. I’m not interested in convincing fundamentalist Christians or fundamentalist anybody to change their beliefs.
What I’m interested in doing is dealing with the middle ground. The middle ground isn’t people who accept supernaturalism on, you know, on Tuesdays and science on Wednesday. The middle ground, for me, are people who are comfortable with religion, whatever that means, especially the metaphor part of religion. And let them know, they don’t have to give that up to express a belief in and an acceptance of science, and they don’t have to give up their religion to have their kids learn good science in public schools. That’s the middle ground for me. And it’s not asking them to change their beliefs, it’s asking them to understand their beliefs even better than they thought they did.
Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s interesting, you know, you bring up a question. I want to bring up a question from the audience here. You talked about metaphor because, that’s something that came up, and it comes actually into this interesting question of the importance of using religious leaders to advocate for science in that kind of way, that you’ve got to be able to have the right people in that kind of sense. And the way the question was phrased is “how do you reconcile particular articles of faith, such as Adam and Eve, or the binding of Isaac, or the Noah story, with scientific knowledge?” And I might even push that a little bit of “what is the role of metaphor in reading religious texts, in understanding Biblical literature, or in connecting with a religious community?”
Is metaphor one way to be able to combat some of the Biblical literalism, or if not, how would you talk about what often are the most complicated conversations, in at least the creation/evolution discussion, or at least science and religion, which is “this is the Word of God, it was handed down, it’s literal, Adam and Eve were real people, and wait a second, that conflicts with the theory of evolution and the Big Bang Theory.” How do we reconcile, how do we bridge those kinds of discussions, of the Biblical stories and the scientific knowledge that we have today? And I’ll open this up to whoever would like to jump in.
Hank Davis: I just want to say one sentence before reacts to the approach of this are you. I agree with what Michael said before. Our species is unique. We are incredible. We are capable of generating metaphor and allegory. Semi-colon: our species is uniquely stupid. We are capable of not being able to tell the difference between allegory and metaphor on the one hand and literal truth. You’d think that a species that could generate this stuff could get what it is, and that it is different from literal truth, but that what defines our species is this incredible cognitive superiority on one hand and incredible cognitive inferiority at the same time. So that’s what sort of casts a pall over any discussion. Any answer to Geoff’s question, I think, has to take that into account.
Brad Hirschfield: Yeah, I mean I’m fascinated by this, and I could just sit now, the rest of the night, ask you questions about that. I’m not a scientist. But I have a lot of reason to believe, based on experience, that the two phenomena you just described are not polar opposites, but in fact deeply interdependent. And that in fact, our embrace of metaphor is so long and so rich because it creates truths and realities to which we have no other kind of access.
That doesn’t mean they’re the same, right. And I want to be very careful. It does not mean that they’re the same. But it means they’re not independent of each other, and I suspect if we did enough research, and enough people, and enough brains, we would actually begin to locate ways in which the ability to generate metaphor as a rich way to organize our lives, and the ability to be able to know what concrete facts are, as an equally rich way to organize our lives, and then get on to – because those are the data points – to the wisdom of knowing how to deploy which, when. And it’s very, very new. But that’s a big shift from thinking “we can do this or we can do that, but we can’t do both,” to saying “oh my God, not only can we do both, it may be that our ability to do the one grows directly out of having the ability to do the other.”
And I think that’s actually why, so often, local relationship – because that’s how I would summarize Michael’s comment – and also the experience of your friend at those crazy conferences – local relationship will almost always trump – with reasonably healthy people, whatever they believe – global doctrine. And that’s a very powerful piece of who we are. They have whatever views they have of atheists. “Wow, a family!” – now all of the sudden, even in ways they can’t understand, they are not able to hold together what they used to think they thought, because they have a new experience which they cannot articulate.
In the same way, and this is why I push, and this is why I worry about the ones who won’t sign, because [what] we both know is that a UCC minister amongst a bunch of Missouri Synod Lutherans is about as helpful as you and me. In fact, they’re worse, because they go “Well, at least that was an atheist scientist and some Jew from New York. But that one’s a fake Christian! That one’s pretending to be a Christian! And they’re not!”. And so I think that a big piece of this really is figuring out how we’re going to be in local relationship with precisely those people we have no shot of sharing doctrine with. And that that’s where the leaps will be made.
Is that a metaphor? Yes. Is it real? Yes. And that’s my answer on these stories, right, and then I’ll – just last piece. And I’m not asking anyone to identify themselves, but my guess is whoever asked that question does not actually relate to those Genesis narratives as literal truths, which means you’re asking about “how does someone else deal with it.” And my advice would be: make a friend who actually has that belief, and ask them. You don’t solve these things in the abstract. That’s the importance of this letter. It’s not abstract, because each of those 15,000+ is really one person times 15,000. Find someone who actually thinks that Adam and Eve walked around – and made clothes for themselves after talking to a snake. And it’s hard. You’re going to have to not laugh at them. Because we tell you something, folks, in this country alone, there are at least as many of them as there are of us.
So if we don’t want to be a version of them with a hipper rap, and laugh with them as they laugh at us, the test is on us: will we build those relationships? Will we engage it seriously? Let alone the fact that in my own personal life, the answer to those questions, and are they true or not, I don’t know, how old are you? When my four year old daughter looked at me one night as I was putting her to bed and said “Abba, I know who God is!” And I said “you do?” she said “Yes!”. She was four. she can you tell me yes. “She is a 12-year-old girl who loves me very much.” And I said “you’re absolutely right,” and I kissed her on the head, and left. Because at the age of four, that’s actually not a bad theology. Now, if she walks in the house at the age of 20 and says that, OK, we have to have a different conversation. But it’s not because it was false and now it’s true. It was true then, and what she believes now, actually studying neuroscience, is true now.
Michael Zimmerman: With two rabbis on a panel, I shouldn’t be talking about metaphor in religion, but let me read you the sentence again from the Christian clergy letter. This is what 13,000 religious leaders have said. “While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice. The overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible, the creation, Adam and Eve, Noah in the ark, convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and Creation, expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation.” If that’s what religion is about – of explaining our role in the world – and I don’t know what religion’s about, but if that’s one of the things that religion is about, and metaphor helps us do that, and story and allegory helps us do that, and has helped us for all this time, how is that bad?
Geoffrey Mitelman: So I was looking through the cards that people wrote, that you all wrote at the beginning of the evening, and there are some very very interesting ones, ranging from “difficult” to “God” or” oil and water.” That’s a whole range, “two sides of the same coin,” but there is one that I think is an important one to be able to to ask, that actually leads to a question that someone wrote here. One person is there one word wrote “confusion.”
And a question that came up was: how do we define religion? I think defining science is challenging, sure, but we can know what the purpose of science is – that it’s a methodology. Defining religion is a lot more complicated, because there are so many different varieties of religious experience, to use William James’s word, William James’s title of his book there. And a question of you, and Hank, when you would said about if you were living in 1860, of how many – would three slaves be enough in the middle, I think to me, I think that’s not necessarily the right analogy, because there are so many different ways to be able to talk about religion in so many different kinds of ways. So I’m curious how each of you might define the word “religion.” What does that mean when you’re when you’re talking about these kinds of conversations? And I know Brad, you’re probably going to say there are multiple ways of relating to this, of “religioning.” But if you were to give at least as clear a definition as possible to help us understand when we’re all talking about religion, what are we talking about?
So that I think I’ll start with you, we’ll go down the line again here.
Brad Hirschfield: I’m hesitant because I don’t want to strip out, in my definition, the pieces of religion – and now I don’t care, with a God, without a God, in a church in a mosque, in a lab – the parts that actually resist description. Because actually that sense of wonder, and maybe this is the definition, whatever it is that we pursue most seriously, that evokes our sense of wonder and drives us toward greater purpose and meaning, that’s our religion.
Hank Davis: It’s a lovely definition. If that’s the definition, I have zero problem with religion, I see religion and science being compatible, forget everything I said this evening up to this very moment. I don’t believe that’s a workable definition of religion, though. And that’s why I still believe everything I said to you up to this point.
Michael Zimmerman: Religiously.
Hank Davis: Religiously, passionately.
Michael Zimmerman: Belief’s a funny thing.
Hank Davis: Religion is not a secular matter. If your religion does not have some kind of supernatural being or beings at the core of it, whether you want to dwell on it or not is not the issue. It’s whether your religion has that. I think if it does, that’s religion. If it doesn’t, we’re talking about something else. Just wonder and awe, that’s not enough. I believe the kind of religion I have been talking about all night has at its essence a supernatural belief, whether it’s a Santa Claus figure in the sky, you pray to him, he’s happy, he laid some favors on you, you don’t, he’ll punish you, maybe you burn in hell, I don’t care what the specifics are. I’m saying that, to me, when I use the word religion, I am talking about something which despite all the filigree around the edges, has at its core a supernatural belief, no matter how much it might embarrass you and how much you don’t make social conversation about it, it still is there. If it’s there, it’s a religion. If it’s not, it’s something else. It’s a very nice, wonderful, beautiful thing, but it’s not religion. So for me, that’s the definition.
Michael Zimmerman: I don’t have – I’m just a poor scientist. With the focus on poor. I don’t have a definition of religion, but there are couple things, since I have the microphone, I can talk about anyway. One is I think what I what I’m most interested in is different ways of knowing. I’m interested in how people ask questions and how they come to answers.
One of the things that’s really fascinating about science is because it is a methodology at its core, it’s one of the few disciplines, when, I think, it’s done well, it sets limits on what it can know. That is, there are boundaries of what the scientific method can teach us. Now, there are a couple of scientists who disagree with me, that think that science – that there is nothing in the human condition that’s not open to science. But I disagree. I think there are some things that are about morality, or about perhaps art, or about, you name it, that are outside the realm of science. If there are things that are outside the realm of science, and they happen to be within the realm of religion, what’s the problem?
I think to go back to what Hank said about the supernatural, I think we need to make a deeper distinction, and that is, we need to make a distinction between what scientists, some scientists like to call, methodological naturalism on one hand, and on the other hand, philosophical naturalism. If we talk about methodological naturalism, which is what every scientist that I know, when they practice science, demands – and that is, they assume that the method they’re using excludes, by definition, any supernatural. If you bring the supernatural into science, you no longer are doing science, you no longer can do anything, because you can always say “I don’t need to study it any longer, God just did it this way,” or some other supernatural event happened or some other supernatural deity, entity, created something.
Science, methodologically, has to assume there is no supernatural, OK. That’s a scientific view, it’s a philosophical view, but it’s a practical scientific view. That’s completely distinct from philosophical naturalism. Philosophical naturalism, you have a choice. Do you believe, in the world, that there might be something that is supernatural? Personally, and I don’t say this publicly very often, but in this group – I don’t believe such a thing. I don’t believe there is a supernatural out there. Can I prove that scientifically? Absolutely not. By definition, I can’t. If you want to believe that there is something out there that is supernatural and you keep it out of your science, OK, that’s good. I have no problem with that. But it’s not scientific. But it doesn’t have to be scientific, because it’s outside the realm of science.
So as long as we are willing to make a distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism, I think we really are all good to go, and science and religion don’t necessarily get in each other’s way. It’s those people who decide, and Ken Ham is one, he’s not a methodological naturalist. He believes the supernatural occurs every day in every way, and that’s his explanation for things. People who believe in intelligent design – they’re even more dangerous than Ken Ham. What they say is “some things are so complex they had to be created as they are, and we’ve done enough science, we’re done with science, we know the answer to this question, God did it.” That’s both anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. That’s the worst thing we can be teaching our kids.
Good creationism, if there were such a thing, the old thing, creation science, isn’t that – that’s what got me involved in this controversy, creation science – it’s not that terrible, because there are some there are some predictions. The prediction is – Ken Ham predicts that he says the world was created in 4004 B.C. on October 23rd at 9 AM. He doesn’t say it is Eastern Standard Time or Greenwich Mean Time. We know that’s a predictable thing, that’s a falsifiable hypothesis. We know he’s wrong. For things like intelligent design, there is no way to know it’s wrong, because by definition of the intelligent designers, we’re done. Stop looking for scientific answers.
Well, it turns out every time they’ve had a poster child, we found out a scientific answer. I mean Darwin, on his Facebook page, said this so well – maybe wasn’t his Facebook, maybe it’s “The Descent of Species.” (laughter) I thought it was his Facebook page. He said “those who are most sure know the least.” And that’s the problem with creationism – and he said it better than I did, but you know, it’s just in photons on that Facebook page. That’s the problem with accepting a view of religion that is too narrow.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you. And you know, one of the interesting things that came up and actually comes up – there are a couple of questions that are linked that I want to move to, because talking at the level of supernaturalism, I think the other thing that religion often brings up that makes people uncomfortable is a belief of the afterlife. For some people to believe “is there an afterlife?” is also the same unknowability as the level of God. And yet, one step before the afterlife is people who are in a bad state of health, who are struggling in a hospital in some kind of way, and that’s also an area where science and religion often come at odds. I’ve met a lot of people, and I’m sure a lot of people have had people, who are going through a wonderful life and something terrible happens to them, and [they] ask “why did God let this happen?”. And people really grapple with the question of what’s the role of God and religion and spirituality when it comes to the health.
And so the two questions – I’m going to be able to phrase these here, and you can respond to either of them, because they’re very similar in this kind of way, one is how do you see science and religion in the determination of brain death, and what do you tell families and providers at that moment? And the other question is, when we’re praying for God to cure cancer or cure illness, is prayer or medical research, which – is it worth using both, is it one or the other? That’s a wonderful example of where science and religion sometimes can really come together in a wonderful way, and sometimes can really push each other’s buttons. So, looking at this question of science, religion, and particularly, health, and how people approach those end-of-life decisions or grave illnesses, how do we square that circle with science and religion when people are in that type of situation?
Michael Zimmerman: Let me answer the easy part, and that’s the second portion of the question. The first is way outside of my knowledge base, and I’m not even going to I’m not going to go there. The second though, do we pray for the sick, is really kind of a fascinating question. The simple answer is “well it’s up to you,” but the deeper answer, “does it work?”. We know. The answer is it doesn’t. For the sick – it may work for you, and it turns out, there was a paper in about 1991, published in the Southern Medical Journal, by a deeply religious individual who published a paper where he had individuals praying for people in cardiac care units, and showed that individuals who were prayed for recovered faster than people who were not prayed for, OK. I read the paper and I said – I can’t tell you what I said. (laughter) But I wasn’t a good scientist, because I said “this can’t be true,” after I said those other words. Because I just didn’t believe it.
So I read it again and had some questions. And I went to a friend of mine, who’s deeply religious, It turns out, but is a statistician and I said, “help me, there’s a problem here.” He said, “how do you know?” and I said “Because it can’t be right.” So we talked some more, and we looked at the methodology, and we published a response, saying methodologically, his results are terrible. I mean, he didn’t do the study the way he should have.
And we know from other studies 100 years ago, where Darwin’s nephew did a study looking at the lives of kings and queens who were prayed for often, to see if they lived longer than regular people. And turns out they don’t. So we know, and there have been other studies now since the 1991 paper showing that there is no double blind study showing that prayer makes any difference to the person you’re praying for if they don’t know about it. Now, if they know about and they feel “all these people care about me,” maybe they will rally. Maybe it makes you feel good. Nothing wrong with all of that, but we shouldn’t get confused about the efficacy of prayer for somebody else who doesn’t know. That’s an easy answer.
Hank Davis: Yeah. There is, actually – I read a further collateral to that study that showed that people who had been prayed for and knew about it actually did worse. And you know, that set off a whole lot of pondering – one of the explanations that I found fascinating was, people who knew that they were being prayed for felt under pressure. I mean, think about it. You know, I still have a terrible pain in my chest, but I’m being prayed for – and you know and I believe in God – Oh my! You know, that extra stress on a cardiac patient, you know, who needs it, right? (laughter)
So I absolutely agree with Michael, it was a terrible study, it’s a ludicrous thing, but it does sound like it’s an empirical situation. If a religious person wants to throw himself into the arms of scientific method, he better have his act together. And in this case, he did not. And just at an intuitive level, I’d like you to – you can find so many people who will testify to the efficacy of prayer. You know, they will give you anecdotal reports. “I wanted this desperately, whether it’s a new car, or the life of a pet to be spared.” At any level “I prayed for it, I prayed for it ,and it happened. Therefore, I am convinced and of one sample size and of one, that prayer works.”
OK, if that’s your standard of evidence, that’s great. But consider that every single day on the this planet there are billions of prayers that go unanswered. Every day – billions. So when somebody says, “hey, I prayed for, you know, a new TV or you know, an iPad or whatever, and I got one,” when they tell you that, I’m not denying it’s true – just see it as a fraction. See, that one in the numerator of a fraction, the denominator of which is so unbelievably large that it’s really not the most impressive demonstration for the efficacy of prayer.
Geoff Mitelman: Brad why don’t you–?
Brad Hirschfield: Just, I can’t resist, because methodologically everyone here knows that’s a bad example, because you told the story of one guy who the answer was no and billions [for whom] the answer was yes, so you know the example itself is flawed. What I would say is this study, I do know, it was garbage then, it’s garbage now. This one I don’t know. But I do know that people can pray, and the answer can be no. We tend to ask questions like “should I pray?” and assume “well, it’s only worth it if I get what I want.” If you’re developmentally three years old, that’s true.
At some point you actually come to a place in your life – forget God, and forget prayer – with other human beings you care about. You think it’s worth asking them, even though you might not get the answer you want? And you know the answer is yes. So the truth is, it’s once again a case of needing our philosophical or theological maturity to catch up with our psychological and relational maturity.
But the most important thing in those two questions is that they are not questions of morality or science or theory, they’re ethical questions, which means we dare not ever answer them in the abstract. Tell me who the patient is. Tell me who the person on the vent is. Let me talk to their family. The one thing I know in those kinds of moments – the first response is never, and I rarely use that word, never answer until you get more information. And when someone says “how much more?” The more the better, because if local relationship trumps global doctrine at these life-or-death moments, intimate relationship is always preferable to local relationship. And global doctrine, we all know intuitively, appropriately goes out the window. Ultimately, the test of any healthy ethic is that the human being in front of you better be a whole lot more important than the ideology inside of you. If not, leave the room.
Geoff: So this will be our last question – I actually am going to adapt this question that was here, it’s a very good introduction, and I’m just going to change the question around a little bit. So the introduction says that “Science like religion is filled with mystery. Not all scientific questions have definitive answers. Moreover, science often contradicts its own historical dogma. As a result many scientists in contentious fields take sides take sides and adopt characteristics of religious zealots.” And very often, obviously, as we were talking about there can be fundamentalism on both sides and entrenchments and “I’m right, you’re stupid,” not even “I’m right you’re wrong”, but “I’m right you’re stupid.”
So if we want to have a more productive conversation, what would be one thing that you think science could potentially learn from religion, and what’s one thing that religion could potentially learn from science, maybe as correctives, from each other? What are some of the things that science can learn from religion, religion can learn from science, and potentially what can we use from both of them for ourselves to be able to learn? So I think we’re going to with with Hank and then Brad and then Michael.
Hank Davis: I have a half an answer. The one thing that I wish with all my heart that religion could learn from science, and maybe this is the worst kind of religion, because I think Brad’s right, I think that, you know, it’s easy to see yourself at your best versus somebody else at their worst, or something at its worst, but the one thing I wish religion could just import from science would be the criterion of falsifiability. If religion would just use that standard, I think I could become a believer. And perhaps not literally, but you know. When and if I go to a debate like this, a creationist/scientist debate, the first thing I always want to ask my opponent, and this is true if a student comes up to me also, and says “Do you just have five minutes to talk about this with me, I’m in terrible conflict, you know, your lecture really got me thinking, and now my uncle hates me and all” – OK.
As soon as they start to talk, I ask them one question. It’s the ultimate litmus paper. They start to tell me about their belief and I say, “Tell me before we start, what would it take to falsify your belief?” And they’re talking about matters of fact, Ken Ham-type stuff, what would it take? And the truth is, I have never met one, and this is a large sample who could answer that question, because nothing can falsify the kind of dogma that these kids or these people are toting around. Nothing.
Flip that over and say to a scientist, what would it take to falsify your belief? I’m an evolutionist. What would it – is there any evidence that could falsify my belief? You bet there is. There’s tons of outcomes that would immediately get me to say “Whoops, I was wrong. So are a lot of other folks, but I had it wrong.” And that is the most beautiful, exquisite thing about science to me.
The glib answer, as far as evolution goes, by the way, the famous answer – “rabbit fossils in the Precambrian stratum.” If such a thing happened, religion, I’m sorry, evolution would have it wrong. That doesn’t mean, oh, then religion had it right, it just means evolution had it wrong. So there is an answer for scientists. There is no such answer for a religious person. It’s simply a matter of faith. And I think – and I don’t see faith as a virtue. How many people have you met in your life named Faith? OK, think about that. Faith. If I had a daughter, I’d think about naming her Doubt. (laughter) “Here’s my daughter, Doubt Davis. I’m proud of her.” Don’t you see, you’re laughing because our culture disdains doubt. I think doubt, skepticism, are beautiful things. We should name children after them. I wish religion could get this from science. As far as the other half of the question, Geoff, go, on because.
Brad Hirschfield: That is the challenge. And I don’t mean to be rough, but that is the challenge. If we’re not going to be able to cultivate a gratitude for the other’s existence, whichever side of this we’re on, we are actually contributing to the destruction of what we most love. The reason you love and would name your child “Doubt” is because that’s your faith. And that’s OK. That’s actually a really healthy faith, the way it’s deployed with naming a child.
But if you asked what we need to learn from each other, I don’t know, because each of them, I’m back to the beginning. There’s lots of ways to do science and lots of ways to do religion, some good, some bad. What I know we need to do for each other is cultivate gratitude for the insights that arise precisely from those worlds that we actually don’t feel so comfortable in. Because at the end of the day, if you really are grateful for the presence of the other, and here, because it’s often more pressing. If hard-edged religionists who are genuinely grateful for the presence of hard-edged scientists – not in agreement with them, but understood, “wow, my world wouldn’t be so good without those people I spend time fighting at the school board and cursing out in the press,” It’s amazing how those fights would be different, and the cursing would be a lot less prevalent. [We’re] not going to convince each other, but we could actually learn gratitude for each other.
Michael Zimmerman: I think both religion and science, or the practitioners of both, are searching for truth. I think, I know, that scientists recognize, and what for me makes science absolutely so much fun, is you’ll never know when you find that truth. The way the question was originally framed talked about the fact that science has changed – things we’ve known are no longer known to be correct. Hank talked about falsifiability. Science proceeds not by proving things, but by disproving things. All we know scientifically is what we don’t know, and we have the best ideas, we have the best data that are still consistent with the truth as we know it, but they’re not – they may be truthful, but we will never know if they’re right. All we can do is keep striving to disprove ideas, and to correct and to come back with better current hypotheses as we disprove more ideas. There is no scientific experiment you can do to prove something is correct, other than a trivial fact, but in terms of scientific theory, you can’t do that.
So I think both non-scientists who should be part of a literate scientific population, and religious leaders, need to understand that science is a search for truth through the movement of falsifiability. I think scientists need to understand that many religious leaders and many religious individuals are doing exactly the same thing, looking for different truths, using different methodology, and they’re asking different questions that fall outside that realm of science.
The problem is, I think, there are a whole lot of people within the religious arena, Ken Ham is one, who have science envy. They want to embrace science because it seems to work, so they can’t say “we’re not interested in science,” they say “we are science, we are scientific, we just know the answers,and the answers have to be as our book tells us.” By definition, they put themselves outside of science. The question that Hank asked, “what would make you doubt, what would make you not believe what you currently believe?” in the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, was asked of Ken Ham, and he said nothing. I mean, he said the word “nothing,” he didn’t not say anything. And that was – and Bill Nye recognized it immediately – that was the telling moment of the debate. It’s not a debate between people who share any kind of worldview. What has to happen is what Brad has said so well. People have to come together and recognize their differences and understand that it’s OK not to overlap, and it’s OK for Ken Ham to say “there’s a science out there and I don’t have to define it in my own image.” And until we can do that, we’re going to keep fighting, and that’s not healthy for anybody I think.
Geoffrey Mitelman: Thank you Michael, and thank you Michael and Hank and Brad for an incredibly thought-provoking discussion. I think that – I know I’m leaving with a whole new host of thoughts and questions and things to be able to think about, and I want to say for everyone here that this is a lot of what Sinai and Synapses is trying to do, trying to be able to use the best of science, the best of religion, in the service of making individuals and society better. How do we elevate the discourse? How do we have a productive conversation among people who may not always agree or in fact, who often disagree, on a lot of different pieces but are able to have a respectful, interesting, challenging conversation for everyone here to be able to think in new ways and have some new tools, some new language.
If you’re interested in being involved in Sinai and Synapses, we’re always looking for all sorts of different ways of involvement. Please feel free to come up and talk to me afterwards, and I want to thank all of you for coming here. I’m going to turn it back over to Rabbi Rubin, who will conclude us for this evening.