Science + Religion = Better World

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman

Extremist ideologies have for too long framed the conversation about the role of religion in society.

“We have a…sin problem,” proclaimed former pastor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee in response to the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado. "And since we’ve ordered God out of our schools and communities, the military and public conversations…we really shouldn’t act so surprised when all hell breaks loose.”

“Mock [religious people]. Ridicule them! In public!...With contempt!” exhorted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins at the 2012 “Reason Rally” in Washington, DC.

If you’re like most Reform Jews, you don’t identify with either extreme. You might want to embrace both science and religion, but with an either/or scenario driving the public discussion, it becomes difficult to find a comfortable way that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting.

Is there such a way? The answer is yes. And this path can lead us to improving ourselves, our relationships with others, and our ability to bring about tikkun olam. In essence, science and religion, when properly conceived, can work harmoniously in pursuit of a better world.

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, explains that we can use four main models to understand the relationship between religion and science: the conflict model, the contrast model, the concert model, and the contact model.

The Conflict Model

The conflict model claims that religion and science are inherently at odds—if you accept one, you must reject the other.

Interestingly, while this outlook generates much passion from people on the extremes of America’s culture wars, a majority of learned citizens appear not to buy into it. A study of 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members of 21 research universities in the United States found that 70% believe that religion and science are only sometimes in conflict. Only 15% of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, and 15% said the two were never in conflict (Rice University Religion and Public Life Program study, 2005–2009).

Moreover, the majority of Americans, 61%, say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs (Pew Research Forum study, 2009). Even 52% of those who attend worship services at least once a week see no conflict between science and their faith.

The Contrast Model

The contrast model posits that science and religion address different realms that do not intersect. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould termed this idea “Non-Overlapping Magesteria,” asserting that science covers the empirical realm — meaning what the universe is made of and why it works the way it does — while religion deals with questions of ultimate meaning and moral values.

Actually, the realms of religion and science are not mutually exclusive. For example, morality, which traditionally was categorized as a subject of religious exploration, is now also a subject of scientific inquiry. Books such as Moral Origins by biological anthropologist Christopher Boehm and The Blank Slate by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker show scientifically how our deepest moral convictions, such as altruism, empathy, and justice, are all products of human evolution.

Pinker explains, for instance, that as humans evolved on the African savanna, they had to continually balance two competing needs to survive: taking care of themselves and aiding others. Tens of thousands of years later, the emotions associated with those two needs continue to drive our social mores. “Contempt, anger and disgust prompt [us] to punish cheaters. Gratitude…prompts [us] to reward altruists….Sympathy, compassion and empathy prompt [us] to help a needy beneficiary….And guilt, shame and embarrassment prompt [us] to avoid cheating or to repair its effects.” This survival strategy explains why some version of the Golden Rule has appeared in almost every culture and underlies almost every religion.

Or consider the virtue of compassion. Exploring what he calls the “science of compassion,” Professor David DeSteno, who directs the Social Emotion Group at Northeastern University, conducted an experiment on the human motivation for kindness which he described in a 2012 New York Times article:

We paired up participants in teams: one real participant and one confederate. First, they had to tap their hands on sensors to tones played over earphones. In some cases the tones led them to tap their hands in synchrony; in other cases…to tap in a random mismatching manner. We next had the participants watch their tapping partner get cheated by another confederate, which resulted in the partner’s being assigned to complete a stack of onerous word problems. As participants were leaving, they were informed by an automated message that if they desired, they could help complete some of the work assigned to their partners. If they did so, we timed how long they spent working on the task.

The results were striking: The simple act of tapping one’s hands in synchrony with another caused participants to report feeling more similar to their partners and to have greater compassion for their plight: it increased the number of people who helped their partner by 31 percent and increased the average time spent helping from one minute to more than seven.

These results suggest that if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves — even a relatively trivial one — the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.

DeSteno notes that there is often tension between our religious beliefs and our religious identities — between our religious teachings that tell us to be compassionate to all people, and the way religious groups can create an “us” and “them” mentality. And he shows that, if we are looking to engender more compassion towards others, we don’t always need religious teachings to get us there — a sense of commonality can also pave the way. There is nothing special about tapping in synchrony; any such commonality will do. Increased compassion for one’s neighbor, for instance, can come from something as easy as encouraging yourself to think of him as, say, a fan of the same local restaurant.

In short, religion and science are not opposing realms. A realm such as compassion, which was traditionally viewed as the sole purview of religion, has a scientific basis, can be studied empirically, and can be applied toward the benefit of society.

The Concert Model

The concert model reconciles science and religion by explaining away incongruities between the two. For example, because it seems unlikely from a scientific perspective that the world could have been created in seven days, a “day” in Genesis has been redefined as eons lasting up to a billion years. As for the “miraculous” parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus, it has been explained as the likely crossing of a waterway at low tide.

This model is very fragile, however, because scientific knowledge is always changing with new discoveries and revised theories. For example, the Genesis text describing how God created the universe served as the basis for cosmology (study of the origins and fate of the universe) for millennia until the early 20th century, when most astronomers adopted the “Steady State Theory” of no beginning and no end to the universe. This theory appeared to contradict Genesis and created theological problems—so many religious leaders were heartened in the 1960s when new evidence supported the “Big Bang Theory,” which allowed science to explore what happened after the first few moments of creation, and religion to maintain that God started the creation process.

Then in the 1980s scientists introduced the “Inflation Theory,” hypothesizing that the universe ballooned in a rapid burst soon after the big bang, exponentially increasing its size. This theory set the stage for today’s “Multiverse Theory,” in which “inflation” may have spawned an infinite number of universes simultaneously, among them our own.

Therefore, if we tie our religious outlook to scientific findings, as the concert model suggests, whenever the science changes, the corresponding religious beliefs are called into question as well. This approach is not sensible or helpful. Ultimately, the biggest problem with the concert model is that religion is not science.

The Contact Model

The most useful and workable model, as I see it, is the contact model, which allows science and religion to remain in their own spheres, while also placing them in conversation, predicated on the understanding that both are intended to help humans solve the mysteries of nature and give our lives meaning. The contact model asks us to consider how religion and science can be integrated in the service of self-understanding as well as bettering our society and our world.

Consider the field of memory. Most of us wish we had a greater capacity for memory. Why can we remember some things well and other things poorly? Joshua Foer was inspired to train for the 2006 USA Memory Championship because, he writes, “Among the things I regularly forgot [were] where I put my car keys (where I put my car, for that matter); my girlfriend’s birthday, our anniversary, and Valentine’s Day; why I just opened the fridge; the year the Redskins last won the Superbowl; and to plug in my cell phone” (Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything).

Recent scientific discoveries show that the most crucial reason we remember some things and not others is because we tend to remember the things we think about most frequently. When we learn something new, it takes a while for the synaptic connections to strengthen in our brains. The operative phrase in neuroscience is, “Cells that wire together fire together.” Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains it this way: “Your memory lays its bets this way: if you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored. Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember—it’s a product of what you think about.”

Notably, this is essentially the same message found in the Torah. We Jews are commanded to remember through acts of repetition. We are instructed to participate in the Passover ritual (“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” Deuteronomy 5:15 et al.). We are reminded to observe Shabbat each week (“Remember Shabbat and keep it holy,” Exodus 20:8). We are obliged to remember our loved ones by observing their yahrzeits (Shulchan Aruch).

Thus, Jews are enjoined to take action in ways that become constant reminders of what is most important. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf points out that “the idea of memory as will is uniquely Jewish. Memory is not seen as something that befalls a passive consciousness. It is something purposefully appropriated in awe and love.”

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidic Judaism, taught that “Redemption lies in remembering.” We remember the good and the bad so that we can make tomorrow better than today and yesterday. We honor Jewish tradition, our past, not for its own sake, but for the future. Embodied in Judaism is the hope that, despite inevitable setbacks and missteps, we can become the people we want to be and help create the world we wish to see.

From both the Jewish and scientific perspectives, the more frequently we think about our heritage, the more likely it is to become a permanent fixture of our memory and to influence our thoughts and actions. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio explains, “Memory is responsible for ceaselessly placing the self…between a thoroughly-lived past and an anticipated future.”

Another area where science and religion both provide insights is in controlling impulses and delaying gratification. Scientists have examined why we often ignore our better judgment to pursue immediate pleasure. Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains that different parts of the brain, which he terms “modules,” have evolved for different functions. Sometimes more or less independent modules have evolved to work in tandem, such as our visual and auditory systems, which have come to associate sights with sounds, because most of the objects we see occur with sounds.

Other modules have evolved to work in conflict:

Some modules are designed to get you to satisfy immediate needs. These are important modules…associated with the basic necessities of survival and reproduction….These [impatient] modules cause you to do things that often get put under the heading of “instantaneous gratification”….Humans have other modules that are more farsighted. These are the modules that cause you to forgo the regular Coke because the sweet taste now is not worth the extra calories you’ll have to contend with later. They cause you to get out of the bed in the morning to get your run in, sacrificing snoozing now for feeling better and healthier later….So, the brain, with all its patient and impatient modules, somehow has to make many trade-offs.

—Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite—The Evolution of the Modular Mind

The effort to exert self-control, then, triggers a battle between two different brain modules — one of which seeks immediate pleasure because you never know if today’s opportunities will recur tomorrow, and the other which looks for long-term gains because tomorrow’s opportunities might actually be much better than today’s — both good evolutionary strategies.

Our rabbinic sages explored this tension some 1,500 years ago through what they called the “yetzer hara” — the impulse to evil, or, alternatively, the part of ourselves that seeks immediate pleasurable gratification. Without this impulse, we are taught, “no man would engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7). At the same time, however, the yetzer hara is dangerous. Not only does it yearn for what is forbidden (Yerushalmi Yoma 6:4), it is a powerful force that can quickly grow if left unchecked. We are told: “Who is mighty? The one who subdues his yetzer [hara]” (Pirkei Avot - The Chapters of Our Sages).

Both science and religion can help us in gaining mastery over our impulses. We can learn, for example, from the strategies children employed in the classic scientific “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the late 1960s. A group of four-year-olds were told that if they waited while the experimenter ran a 15-minute errand, they would receive two marshmallows when he returned. If they ate the one marshmallow in front of them, they wouldn’t receive a second one. The children who controlled their desire for immediate gratification employed various strategies—covering their eyes, talking to themselves, singing, playing games, trying to sleep—to block out the temptation. A dozen or so years later, researchers tracked down these children, now teenagers. “The emotional and social difference between the grab-the-marshmallow preschoolers and their gratification-delaying peers was dramatic,” Daniel Goleman writes in Emotional Intelligence. “Those who had resisted temptation…were now more socially competent… unlikely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress…self-reliant and confident… [and] still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.”

A religiously-based approach to impulse control can be found in the Jewish tradition of Mussar, which provides tools for personal spiritual growth that include developing inner traits such as patience, strength, contentment, and equanimity, all of which can play a role in fostering self-restraint. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, who founded and led the Mussar Movement in the 19th century, recognized that we don’t all tend to be susceptible to the same impulses, and so he developed a three-stage approach to personal change: 1. hergesh, meaning “sensitivity,” in which we pay attention to traits in our inner world where we have a pattern of strength or weakness; 2. kibbush, literally “conquer,” in which we use our intelligence and will to stretch ourselves toward the ideal expression of the traits in which we’re challenged; and 3. tikkun, usually translated as “repair” but better understood as “transformation,” in which we take on practices that will transform the impulse itself and thereby change the pattern of our behavior so that we can reach our highest spiritual potential. (To learn more, visit and

While the contact model shows us how we might integrate science and religion to improve our lives and our world, it does not address a fundamental religious question: the existence of God. If we cannot “prove” the existence of God, how can science be part of the conversation?

Reframing our understanding of what constitutes “science” can help. What we believe to be true can change at any given time as a result of new data, instruments, analysis, and/or interpretations. In this sense, a scientific discovery may be better seen as temporal and historical than as an eternal, unchanging truth.

In fact, Professor Steven Goldman of Lehigh University, co-founder of the National Association of Science, Technology, and Society Studies, suggests that viewing everything around us as “scientific objects…is a useful way of eliminating much of the controversy [surrounding] the [imperfect and temporal] status of scientific knowledge and truth claims.”

We can apply the same metaphor to God — yes, even conceiving of God as a “scientific object.” This does not mean that God can be studied scientifically or that if we find enough evidence we can prove or disprove God’s existence. It simply means that our understanding of God can change with new knowledge and insights. It means that we are willing to rethink or reexamine what we believe about the Divine.

I have regular discussions about science and religion with a friend who is a self-described atheist. “We need to have a clear definition of ‘God,’” he tells me. “Otherwise, we don’t know what we’re talking about.” I reply that what we really need is a “working definition of ‘God,’” a theology that can adapt when new knowledge or experiences arise. Rather than saying either, “This is what God is, and I know that I am right,” or, “There is no omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent God that created the universe and directly impacts the world today,” we can instead say, “Given what I know now, this is what I believe God is and how God acts in this world. But I might later need to change my understanding.”

Even people who do not believe in God have different perspectives about the Divine. A recently published study about atheists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga identified six types of non-believers: intellectual atheist/agnostics (who enjoy engaging in discussions of science, philosophy, and epistemology); activist atheist/agnostics (who pursue social justice work); seeker agnostics (who don’t avow a clear ideological stance because they recognize the complexity of theological questions); antitheists (who actively try to convince people that religion is harmful); non-theists (who are generally apathetic about religion and its role in society); and ritual atheist/agnostics (who find inspiration in ceremonies, meditation, yoga classes, holiday traditions, and the like). Many Reform Jews appear to fall into this latter category.

Moreover, Reform Jews who believe in God have a diversity of perspectives. Women, for example, tend to view God more in terms of relationship and interdependence, and men conceive of God in more abstract, autonomous ways. And Reform Jews often change their beliefs about God in the course of their lives. Younger Jews, for instance, are much more likely to God-wrestle than middle-aged adults, and seniors encountering illness and death return to question God’s presence (“Theology: How Reform Jews Picture God,” Reform Judaism magazine, Spring 2013).

For all these reasons, just as scientists have (more or less) been willing to broaden what is known about the universe to include metaphysical questions, so too we should be willing to embrace a “working definition” of God, approached metaphorically as a “scientific object,” that changes with what we come to understand about the metaphysical world.

Ultimately, instead of trying to “reconcile” religion and science, let us continue to find the ways in which they support one another. As Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, president of Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, says, “Maintaining a dichotomous understanding of religion and science not only fails to maximize the contributions of each, but also keeps us from embracing and maximizing who we are and what we have to contribute.”

When we live by the wisdom that emerges from both science and religion, we can, among other things, become more compassionate, more able to control our impulses, and more mindful of Jewish tradition and values. Then we not only better ourselves and our relationships with others, we maximize what we have to contribute to tikkun hanefesh and tikkun ha’olam — self-repair and repair of our world.

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is founding director of Sinai and Synapses, a project bridging the scientific and religious worlds which is being incubated at Clal—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership; and associate rabbi at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, N.Y.

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