In this podcast, recorded at the May 2017 meeting of the current and former Sinai and Synapses fellows, Kat Robison, Sara Gottlieb, Connor Wood and Mark Goodman speak about the place of skepticism in science and religion (and how we express this skepticism), the different needs science and religion fulfill in our lives, and the place of ritual in both.
Geoff Mitelman: Hi, I’m Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, founding director of Sinai and Synapses. Sinai and Synapses bridges the worlds of religion and science, offering people a worldview that is scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting, incubated at CLAL, the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. The following podcast is a product of a select interfaith group of clergy, scientists and writers who are committed to elevating the discourse surrounding religion and science. To find out more about the fellowship and our other programs, or to help support us in our work, please visit us at http://www.sinaiandsynapses.org, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
Kat Robison: Hello and welcome to the first of a series of podcasts recorded at the May 2017 meeting of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship. My name is Kat Robison, and I’m a doctoral student at the University of Alabama studying space policy, and a member of this fellowship, where we seek to personalize the relationship around religion and science. The fellows are models for a productive conversation surrounding these areas. They are dedicated to exploring their own stories, their own commitments, their own doubts, and also dedicated to learning about and from other people’s journeys.
For the first part of this conversation, I am joined by three colleagues from the fellowship, Reverend Mark Goodman, Dean of St John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Goodman: Thanks. Hi, nice to be here.
Kat Robison: Sara Gottlieb, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome, Sara.
Sara Gottlieb: Hi. Thanks, Kat, for having us.
Kat Robison: And Connor Wood, a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston, Massachusetts. Welcome, Connor.
Connor Wood: Hey. Great to be here.
Kat Robison: And we welcome you all into this conversation. Over the course of the past two days, we’ve had many conversations about religion and science. One question which has emerged is how do science and religion interact with our institutions? In this conversation, we’d like to explore that question further. Connor, would you start off speaking a little bit about your experience with this?
Connor Wood: Yeah. So I straddle worlds, like a lot of people in this fellowship. I work in both the sciences, specifically the social sciences and information sciences, as well as the humanities and the world of religion. And that means that I end up in a lot of contexts where I’m the only person in the room who is maybe a working scientist, or the only person in the room who attends church regularly. I found that when I go to conferences where many people work in the sciences, it can be kind of a social door-closer to mention anything about religion, whether that I study it, or that I practice it. And that sort of gives the lie, in my personal experience, to the claims that people make that there’s no necessary conflict between religion and science, or the conflict narrative about religion and science is overblown.
On one hand, I agree that there is no logically necessary conflict between religion and science, at least most of the time. I mean, I think if you’re talking about Seventh-Day Creationism, then there is a conflict, but epistemically, I think that there’s room for both. But on the ground, in reality, in terms of the institutional nature, and the norms and the unspoken tacit expectations of different communities, there actually is quite a bit of tension. So I might actually prefer to phrase it in terms of tension rather than conflict. When you are at a conference, one thing people often do is go out for drinks or dinner after the presentations. You go out with a bunch of people you didn’t know, or have only met a few times. And again, if you say “I went to this church this morning, you know, because I’m in a new town and I want to do that, see what the churches are like” –
Kat Robison: We’re not, possibly, equipped to have this conversation. Because of the tension between science or religion, it can be a difficult conversation when you’re in a professional context – if your profession is science – to bring up religion, or to talk about religion, or even in your case, to study religion. Mark, Sara, any thoughts on this specific sort of tension that Connor has brought up?
Mark Goodman: Personally, I’ve experienced it from my side as an ordained leader in the church. There is definitely a tension, because, for example, if I’m leading a Bible study and we’re studying some of the miracle stories in the New Testament, to bring that into a scientific perspective – and to begin to talk about the rules or natural laws, and what they have to say about the probability or not of certain miracle stories – that definitely puts a chill in the room. Because the natural inclination for people of faith is to believe the miracle stories at face value, and to begin to put that into a different context, and to begin a different conversation on that, really does introduce a level of tension that can be difficult to bridge.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I would agree with that, and I think Connor and I are in somewhat similar fields. I’m in the cognitive sciences, and I have found that generally in psychology and cognitive science, there is often an assumption that everybody in the room is not religious. And that’s something I’ve definitely been guilty of as well, and something that I’ve found actually really beautiful and meaningful about this fellowship, is that it’s been really eye-opening to be around people who straddle both worlds, as I’m usually exposed to only the people in the sciences who either don’t admit that they straddle into a religious world as well, or just simply don’t at all. And that the people who are part of this fellowship are people who really can see that practicing science, practicing religion really can be quite compatible.
Kat Robison: I really like what you said, that practicing science and practicing religion are compatible. And I think this goes back to your point, Mark, discussing sort of that chill that comes into the room, where we don’t know how to discuss that. Or as you said earlier, prior to starting this podcast, like, what’s taboo? And how does this sort of science and religion, or religion and science being a taboo subject, how does that affect our conversations, or how does that affect our practice of either science or religion?
Mark Goodman: Well for me, it – I mean being the priest in the Episcopal Church is a different context than perhaps being in a more strictly Evangelical context, or a Fundamentalist context, because you can have conversations about science and religion, that’s not something that’s taboo. But what does begin to feel taboo is when you begin to – I would want to say, call into question, or bring into doubt, not a literal interpretation of scripture, but a more conventional interpretation of scripture in the light of scientific research. For example, Sara and Connor, being in cognitive science, and the whole area of investigation into the cognitive base of religious experience. If you begin to talk about that, then all of a sudden people – you can just see it in their faces, the switch that goes on where they’re thinking, “oh, you’re just saying that religious experience is just a chemical reaction in the brain, and there is no such thing as God, and there is no such thing as a spiritual experience.” And so it’s those sort of subjects, when introduced – that they don’t slam a door, but you can see that there’s like a wet blanket.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah, I agree with that. I’m sure Connor has some interesting perspectives on that as somebody who more directly studies the psychology or the neuroscience of religion. But I think something that is important to acknowledge, especially when we are studying topics like the phenomenon of religion itself or the phenomenon of the belief in God, or spiritual practice, transcendence or transformative experience, whatever you want to call it – is that just because we bring science into this, into the discussion, doesn’t mean that we’re totally taking away the mystery of it, right? There is still room for it to be a sacred topic, a sacred experience, even though we’re describing it in scientific terms, right. We’re not saying that the experience isn’t real or grounded in something real if we’re studying the phenomenon of religion itself, just perhaps maybe using a different language or different level of analysis.
Kat Robison: Do you think maybe when we – and Connor, you probably have some thoughts on this, and Sara, you might as well – that when we study religion in a scientific way, it scares people because people perceive science as cold?
Sara Gottlieb: I definitely think so. And I think that stems, in some part, from maybe a misunderstanding, or not particularly thorough understanding, of what science is. So many people have this lay notion of science being an impersonal third-person perspective or description, which might speak to that cold feeling you described, right, so devoid of emotion, devoid of feeling, devoid of any opinion, kind of factual and cold. But that’s not the case, right – so scientists’ opinions guide their research all the time, research and degrees of freedom are a real thing that are guided by transmission of ideas and opinions and social norms and the political or cultural climate of that time. It’s not necessarily a cold enterprise.
Connor Wood: I’d like to bring the conversation to the level of material things, because I agree with Sara that science is not necessarily this sort of cold, impersonal or third-person activity, and it’s true that scientists’ research agendas are often driven by very first- person concerns. They call it “mesearch,” and that’s especially common in psychology.
Sara Gottlieb: Very common in clinical psychology – they say research is “mesearch.”
Kat Robison: I’ve never heard that phrase before, but it’s quite apropos, because I’m researching space, because I care about space. So, I will be taking “mesearch” to Alabama.
Connor Wood: Yeah. Which, by the way, I’m really grateful there are people researching space, because space is awesome. But when you look at what people actually spend their time doing, there’s a real fact that in science, you have to work a lot of hours. You have to work a lot of hours to make it work. E.O. Wilson has a quote in one of his books, the entomologist, that in order to be a scientist, you need 40 hours a week to take care of your teaching and basic administrative responsibilities, another 20 hours a week to do decent research, and another 20 hours a week on top of that to do really great research. So at a minimum, to be a great scientist, you need 80 hours a week.
That means – what kind of situations are you in? You’re in lab settings, you’re in conferences, you’re in classrooms. The material things in those environments don’t reference the past very often. They don’t reference tradition. And I think there’s a point where I would like to maybe challenge Sara a little bit – science, from the get-go, from Francis Bacon onward, has been designed to challenge tradition. You’re not supposed to take things on authority. We do, but you’re not supposed to. You’re not supposed to pass rituals down, because they’re rituals. You need to wonder whether they’re effective.
We know that rituals in religion, though, don’t work if we try to figure out necessarily how they work. You do need to just accept some things on authority. So when I was in a church recently, singing a hymn, an Episcopal church, I saw that the hymn had been written in the 1700’s, and I realized that the material things around me, the hymnal, the stained glass windows, the Eucharists, the incense, were all things that referenced the past and that constitute repetition instead of innovation.
So that’s where there’s a real tension institutionally – is that science is and has to be about innovation, not necessarily taking what’s come before as granted, whereas religion often is and needs to be. And I think we need to acknowledge that that tension is real and isn’t necessarily a sign of a flaw in either one of those institutional forms.
Mark Goodman: I would agree with that, Connor. And I think that those different perspectives, if you will, or those different foundations institutionally, also get translated into definitions, or probably more accurately, misdefinitions, so that the scientific institutions then look at religion, or religious institutions, and create a definition of religion based upon the lens of innovation and the lens of scientific method through which they’re looking. And likewise, religious institutions then look at scientific institutions because they’re based on those rituals, those continuing rituals that come out of tradition. They look at science as being iconoclastic. And so their definition of science, then, comes through that lens, or misdefinition of science.
And so part of the tension is that each institution sets up a straw man for the other institution and reacts to that misapprehension, rather than a true view of science. For example, Sara mentioned that there’s the sense that science is cold and devoid of emotion. Whereas in fact, scientists are intensely passionate people about their work, and approach it with, oftentimes, a sense of great emotion and mystery. But people from a religious perspective often don’t see that, and so they react accordingly, I think. Which then lends to that sort of taboo nature of bringing up one subject in each context.
Kat Robison: It’s a very important point, that you bring in this idea of the misdefinitions, or the misconceptions, or how do we see each other, how do the institutions see each other, because there does exist institutional conflict between science and religion, and conflict, as well, between scientific ways of knowing and religious ways of knowing. What are some ways in which you see those conflicts or those tensions playing out, or even what are your ideas for how do we begin to shift our thinking as scientists, as people of religion, to better address these tensions?
Connor Wood: I think part of the thing we have to keep in mind is that although science is not asocial, I think it is social in a different way from religion. I think religion – one cognitive scientist of religion calls religion “the most conservative of all human institutions.” And if you look at, I think that’s true. Doing a Passover Seder looks very similar now to how it did 2000 years ago. There’s not very many of the things that we do that have retained their form that long. And that consistency of form and ritual has anchored a community, many communities, of families, children, intergenerational contact, for two millennia (of Rabbinic Judaism).
So in a sense, I think you have to keep in mind that religion is about self-reproducing communities. You live as a postdoc in Boston, everybody is 20’s to 30’s, highly educated. You go to a church, it’s the only time all week where all of a sudden you’re around people of many different generations, children, older people, retirees, people with stories from eras that aren’t your own. That’s about society at a sort of multidimensional level. Whereas when you hang out with scientists at a conference, normally the conversation’s mostly about the work, even when you’re having drinks afterwards. It’s fun, you’re talking about ideas, you’re arguing with each other. But you’re not telling stories about what it was like when you were a kid.
I’m not sure how to reconcile that tension other than to just know it, to know that religion really is about sort of anchoring long-term communities. And you see this even in the fact that religious people are often more interested in social things, like family reunions. People who are atheists are literally less interested in family reunions, and a lot of scientists will say, well, that’s less important than – to me just personally, than the research.
Kat Robison: It’s interesting when you were talking about the traditions that have remained unchanged over thousands of years, and then I think that there is a tradition that science has, right – the scientific method. And is that a point of entry where we can talk about maybe some shared practices among institutions? We have a religion – within religion, we have religious practices that have been passed down from generation to generation. But even within science, you know, although we do different types of science, we’re using the same method of which to arrive at our questions for research, the way in which we research.
Sara Gottlieb: Yeah. I have a question for Connor. Not a challenging question, I don’t think. So one can respond to you by saying that maybe the scientific community could be more cohesive, maybe more effective, have higher well-being, right, than have all the palliative, perhaps, effects of religion, if they adopted some of the same practices. So like, what if the scientific community had, like, song and dance?
Kat Robison: (laughs) Dance your thesis! Isn’t there a competition –
Connor Wood: Synchrony!
Sara Gottlieb: Song and dance is a powerful ritual. Some people think that can deliver some of the same palliative affects of religion in terms of creating strong bonds among people, community feeling, a sense of belonging, sense of awe and wonder, but then a lot of people push back on that as well, being like, well, you know, those might be kind of silly practices, or maybe water down religion, maybe water down science. What are your thoughts on that?
Connor Wood: I think I would love to see a bunch of evolutionary biologists dancing around a fire at the end of a conference.
Sara Gottlieb: A completely silly question.
Connor Wood: That would be great, well, you know.
Sara Gottlieb: But the non-silly version of this, is what is the place of ritual and science and tradition?
Connor Wood: I think that’s a great question. And I think that my contribution of the conversation is maybe to raise the question of whether that is actually the place to be looking. Because I think that maybe science doesn’t need to be like that, and in fact, I’m on the side of people like Francis Bacon who say taking things on authority, doing rituals that bind us into communities, can create what he called a “warped mirror,” a set of cognitive biases that interfere with seeing natural laws – of objective natural laws.
So I guess my answer is yeah, I think that science could do that, you could get people to do rituals that bind them together, that create more warmth and community, or more cohesion. I’m not sure it would be science anymore. I think there’s an element in science where you actually have to brave the winds and the cold of the area outside the warm fire of tradition. And that’s sort of what the beauty of science can be. It is difficult, I think we need to acknowledge, it can be difficult to leave that warm place of tradition and community. But when you do, you’re the one that says, “oh my gosh, guys, we didn’t see before, there’s this new mineral over here that nobody else has seen because everybody’s been hanging out by the fire,” if that metaphor makes sense.
I think they really fulfill different functions, and one analogy that’s maybe useful is that religion is conservative and science is liberal. Not to reify the current culture wars, but scientists, I think, really should fulfill the function of being the people who are more innovative, less willing to accept social convention just because it’s convention, more willing to sort of strike out boldly to the edges and find new things, and the religious are sort of more the people who do accept convention, who do want to do things the way that people have done before, to sort of anchor the continuity of culture.
And in my view, you just really need both types of people, and they shouldn’t be forced to try to be each other. In a functioning big community, both sort of that progressive impulse and that conservative impulse would understand that they need each other. And so the tension between religion and science that I’m feeling might actually be a symptom of the larger sort of tension between the conservative and progressive, you know, the culture wars that we’ve been experiencing.
Sara Gottlieb: Do you think that institutional tension you feel between science and religion is necessary for religion to survive? So, if scientists were all running in religious communities where they were forward-looking, change-driven, skeptically challenging the authority and status quo at every moment, do you think there’s room for religion to survive in the face of that?
Connor Wood: I think so. Yeah. Because tension doesn’t mean destruction. You know, I think in any marriage or long term relationship, there are things that just don’t work and are not ever going to work. There are going to be a few things, right, where the two people are not ever going to really see eye to eye, and you learn to sort of deal with them, you learn to accept that there’s just tension. And in fact, if there were no tension, I’m not sure it would really be a relationship. So it could be that it’s not reconcilable in the way that you’re describing, Sara, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there has to be a total cleavage either. We could just live in tension.
Mark Goodman: I’d like to agree with that, because I think tension is healthy and tension is creative. On the other hand, I’d also like to suggest that there’s a common place for religion and science, and I think that’s story. And I think that religious communities have stories that bind them together, and scientific communities have stories that bind them together. For example, when I began in graduate school in Botany, my major professor had all of her graduate students come together one evening over dinner, and he told a story. And the story was the history of taxonomic research, beginning from the earliest investigators in Greek natural philosophy through Linnaeus, through natural historians in the New World, and that set the story. And because he told the story, then, we could put ourselves in context in that story. We became part of the story. And that really bound us together, not only as a research community, but also in that larger research community of botanical taxonomical research. And I think each field has its own story that we set ourselves in, just as each religious community has its own story that we set ourselves in, and that acts as sort of a glue to bind us together. So I think that’s a commonality that helps to – not overcome the tension, but perhaps to make it more creative and less destructive.
Kat Robison: When you bring this up, it sort of reminds me of this moment in my life where, very influenced by this idea that “we all are star stuff,” right, that we come from the dust of stars, I remember one afternoon, and it was a beautiful day, so the windows were open and the warm air was blowing in. I lived in the desert at the time time so it’s a little dusty, and I’m reading in the Proverbs, and one of the Proverbs talks about “from the dust of the world.” And it was in that moment, that I had this beautiful sense of peace that came, because it was as if my two stories have collided, and suddenly we’re in a crossover universe, where my knowledge about science, and how the universe had come together to create the matter that was me, sort of collided in the most beautiful way with my religious experience, as a person who is reading the sacred texts about how “I am from the dust of the world.” And I think that’s an important point, where we can see the institution of science and the institution of religion, sort of, there are places where they can collide and that tension can create something beautiful.
Sara Gottlieb: One thing that I really appreciate about science is that it requires a really high comfortability with the unknown, and a really high tolerance for being comfortable with what you don’t know. So, people in science would always tell you that the more people, specifically probably who are getting PhDs, and in a very narrow area – that the more they learn, the more they get deep into their particular field of study, the more they realize they don’t know, right, so the more you know, the more you also realize you don’t know, and that can be a very scary feeling.
So in this sense, really being comfortable and appreciating that there are limits to what we can know, that science is an ongoing enterprise, an ongoing quest for knowledge, can be a really virtuous thing, and I think really tie it quite strongly to some things that are encouraged by religion as well. And I realize I come to this idea from a very particular background, which is that my only first-hand experience with religion is through Judaism, and very liberally-minded Judaism, in which asking questions is really encouraged. And I was wondering if you could talk a bit about you guys’s particular experiences with skepticism and question-asking, and the search for knowledge in religion and other religious traditions as well?
Mark Goodman: Yeah, I mean, the religious tradition in which I grew up was one in which skepticism was certainly not welcome. And just very very briefly, as I was growing up – we were members of a Sunday morning Sunday school class – we were invited to teach a lesson. And I was in high school, and the lesson that I decided to teach was the congruence of the Creation account of Genesis and natural selection. And later that day, after I taught that lesson, my father got a phone call from the leader of the Sunday school, who said “we think that Mark probably shouldn’t be in Sunday school anymore.”
And so that, I mean, that was very clear, what the limits of questioning and skepticism were in that particular tradition. There was none. There was no tolerance. On the other hand, in the Episcopal church, much like, Sara, what you’re talking about, in your experience, is that questions are encouraged. And in fact I’d go so far to say that in much of Anglicanism, it’s not universal, but in much of Anglicanism, the questions are as, if not more, important than the answers.
Sara Gottlieb: As is true in science as well. Probably the most important lesson you learn around doing a PhD.
Mark Goodman: Right, because what you learn is based upon the questions, and the questions set you on a path to discovery, and that’s really the exciting part of my religious tradition, I think.
Kat Robison: I couldn’t agree more. I think science taught me, as Rilke, the poet says, to love the questions themselves. And I think, through science teaching me to love questions, I became more comfortable with uncertainty in my religion, because I began to love the uncertainty, and love the question. So sometimes, when faced with something difficult, you tend to question your higher power, whether that’s God or whatever it is for each person, but you’re like, “why this, why do you let this happen.” And through science, you learn that you have to be comfortable with and love that “why.” And so for me personally, that was one important way in which my scientific self influenced positively my religious life.
Sara Gottlieb: A very good example of this is on Passover each year. We recite the four questions, right, Passover is a whole religious tradition and ritual, the Seder is built around understanding the night and educating. And I’ve hosted some Seders before where we’ve had people who have come for the first time, who have never been to a Passover seder, and it’s all about asking questions, and generating new questions, and parts of the story that we didn’t discuss in previous years. And there’s a very well-known book that many bar or bat mitzvah-age teenagers receive, called The Jewish Book of Why, that I think really embodies that questioning nature of Judaism.
Kat Robison: Connor, what’s your experience with this?
Connor Wood: Well, I want to start with my father’s experience of it actually, because he grew up Baptist and Southern Baptist, depending on where the family was as they moved around. My grandfather was in the U.S. Geological Survey, so when they were in the South or in Texas, they were Southern Baptists. And my dad is a curious guy, that’s part of where I got it, and he asked too many questions and was basically told, you know, stop it, and left the church because of that.
So you know, I’ve got this sort of story of his coming up against the limits of what you can question. And then because everybody always rebels against their parents, in my own life, I’ve been much more comfortable with religious institutions, and partly because I have learned, from just doing, that even though there is a place – you know, I often attend the Episcopal Monastery Chapel, so it’s liberal but liturgical and serious – when you talk with the monks or the other people who are there at the services, it’s all smart people, you know, lots of people with PhD’s. They ask questions, they have doubts about faith. But during the liturgy, you don’t act like you have to have doubts about faith, right? When the hymnals are open, you don’t sit down and say, “well I’m not sure if I believe this, so I’m not going to sing this hymn.”
Ritual works, you know. This is true in liturgical traditions like Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Catholicism and Judaism, the actions, the things you do, are not always direct indexes of what you think at the time, but as you do them more and more and more, over the years, you come to shift your awareness, your understanding of things, not to get brainwashed, but so that you interpret the personal experiences of life, like marriage, death, springtime, etc, through the lens of the psalms, through the lens of the liturgy you’ve partaken in.
So I guess my answer is that, or not my answer, but my response, is that science helps to create doubts that are productive and useful, in that you question your assumptions, and I think that’s its great contribution to humankind, that we didn’t have science proper before we started saying, “dang, a lot of things that we think are just wrong and we need to figure out which ones those are.” But the confidence, and I think the faith, that comes with continuing to participate in a tradition through the ups and downs of doubt, is something that’s valuable in religion, that is not really a species of doubt. It’s actually a species of faith. you say “OK, I’m going to I’m going to pick up the hymnal and sing anyway.”
Kat Robison: That’s fantastic. Well, we are running out of time, unfortunately, for this podcast. However, I would like to ask if you have any last thoughts that you’d like to share before we wrap this up.
Sara: Thanks Kat.
Kat Robison: Well thanks again for joining us again, Mark. Thanks for joining us, Sarah and Connor. And we thank you all for listening.
This podcast was made possible by the Sinai and Synapses fellowship and our founding director Rabbi Geoff Mitelman. Our audio engineer is Kassy Tamamini. And I’m your host, Kat. Again, we thank you for joining in on our conversation and we hope that you continue this discussion in your own communities.