As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.
Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?
Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.
The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.’”
Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”
But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”
So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.
The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.
But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?
Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.
So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.
The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.
But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.
An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who
…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.
Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”
Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.
The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.
So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.
This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.
The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.
Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”
When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.
So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)
So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.
Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.
When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.
The most important question is: how are they being used?
(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)
Passing a billboard saying, “Return of Christ May 21st, 2011” in Los Angeles is very different than passing a billboard for the Red Bull Soapbox Race, also this past May 21st. The motto “Red Bull gives you wings” adds a practical dimension to the rapture. Alas, since the 21st was the Sabbath, and as an observant Jew, I did not attend either event. As a rabbi, the billboards sponsored by Harold Camping, owner the Christian Family Radio Network were troubling. While I honestly celebrated their strong connection to God, I lament the distancing between those Christians who believe that that particular day was the rapture and the other 92% of Americans, including myself, who believe in God. I have Christian friends, and even Christian family. I am glad to have been invited to Christmas dinners, though I am told that they are even better if you eat the ham. The pork hurdle may soon be remedied as scientists at Holland’s Eindhoven University are growing pig organs from cells cultured in a Petri dish – I keep meaning to contact them with an eye toward winning the contract for Kashrut certification. Christmas ham aside, the basic ethos of Judaism and Christianity are so similar that we in America are comfortable with the term “Judeo-Christian values”. We get along wonderfully, lately anyhow, and especially in this country, it feels odd to be suddenly left out.
To be blunt, Jews and Christians differ on the matter of Jesus, and among some Christians, the issue of the rapture. To be sure, these are not small things, but as long as the rapture was some far off idea it was easy to ignore, but all of a sudden it’s upon us. When my Christian friends remind me that Jesus was Jewish, I swell with pride. Spielberg, Madoff, Bernanke, part of the trinity; we’re everywhere! Even though in my circles Mel Gibson is dismissed as an anti-Semite, I found The Passion of the Christ compelling, though I was conscious of being the only one in the theater wearing a yalmaka and likely the only one at my particular screening who understood the entirely Aramaic script (it’s true, Mel did make some words up!). In fact, I appreciate trying to be saved. As we say in this town, it’s an honor just to be considered. My attitude resembles a story I was once told about the German sociologist-theologian Martain Buber. He was speaking to a group of Jewish and Christian scholars. He said to one group, “You think the Messiah has come before and will return.” And to the other group he said, “And you believe that the Messiah has not yet come, but will arrive soon.” Addressing the whole crowd he said, “Let’s not argue. When the Messiah arrives, we’ll simply ask him if anything looks familiar.” Whether he really said that or if it’s an apocryphal story I cannot say, but Buber’s wait and see attitude works for me. Maybe that is the issue with the billboards: Some of us don’t like to be rushed. Could I have a couple of thousand more years, please?
To be fair, the billboards did not just alienate rabbis, or even just Jews. The FamilyRadio.com and the WeCanKnow.com folks represent only a small fraction of Evangelicals. So it is likely that all the Atheists, Muslims, Buddhist, Catholics, Mormons, other Non-Evangelical Christians, and even the majority of Evangelicals who themselves distrusted the May 21st prediction of the rapture likewise have trouble with the billboards. Even Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, which depicts the rapture and subsequent period of judgment over twelve volumes, calls Camping’s prediction “ bizarre,” “dangerous,” and “100% wrong.”
To be fair, I felt exactly the same way when a fringe group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem took to the streets in yellow stars reminiscent of the Holocaust, protest against the secular government: “An organizer of Saturday’s protest in the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood told Israeli television that the actions of the authorities were like a “spiritual holocaust” (New York Times: 1/1/12). The volume of the fringes of religion still sound the loudest, but they don’t speak for the rest of us. They just make it embarrassing to be religious at all.
According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, Evangelicals represent between 30-35% of Americans (perhaps as many as 100 million worldwide). What percent give credence to the May 21st prediction?
I am not sure, but selfishly I am excited by the seismic shift represented by another Evangelical, Pastor Rob Bell, the author of the new book “Love Wins”. One might say that Pastor Bell’s view is more Jewish than Camping’s. If Bell is right, God’s compassion is so great that He will not punish me for my particular way of believing in God. From this perspective, my being Jewish could be seen as a forgivable and honest mistake. Between these two Evangelical positions I selfishly much prefer Bell’s “love conquers all ” to Camping’s “hell on earth.” Faith that divides and chooses among us instead of uniting us has the potential to upset the pluralistic religious support we share, and in my view and in Bell’s, it is at odds with the ultimate teaching of God’s grace and love. Not to tell Evangelicals how to go about their business, but Pastor Bell’s approach. Why? Compared to hell, love is cooler.
The Judgment Day billboards had little impact on me, nor, my guess is, on the majority of those who drove by them. More people were excited about the soapbox race than concerned about about Judgment Day. I actually had to explain to people that the billboards are religious in nature and not promotional material for a remake of an awful Mario Van Peebles movie. Such is life in Hollywood. We are living in an age and place in which religions are so weak that they resemble entertainment.
The singer-songwriter Michael Franti says that, “God is too big for just one religion.” There is a Hassidic Tale that teaches that the Shechinah, God’s presence on Earth, needs to be rescued from the hands of those who claim to honor her. I think the moderate religious people of the diverse faiths of America need each other more than some can accept. It may take a collective approach to save God from those who lay claim to God the loudest.