What is Most Surprising About the Religion and Science Discussion?

Heather Wax, editor of the outstanding blog Science and Religion Today, has been posing a question to several people: “What is most surprising about the religion and science discussion?”

This was my response, which just went on their homepage today:

Over the last several centuries, as science helped us gain more knowledge and a better understanding the world, it has also made inroads in fields that were traditionally viewed as “religious.” So as science developed, religion changed, as well.

First, religion stopped being the source of ultimate truth for most people. If you asked, “Where did we come from?”, for most people living in most of Western history, the stories in Genesis would have provided the basis for that truth — the world was created in six days, with humans being the apex of creation. But eventually, Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin provided more accurate answers, meaning that the Bible could no longer be relied upon for factual, scientific information.

Next, religion stopped being the source of morality for most people. If you asked, “How should we act?”, for most people living in most of Western history, the Bible would have been the basis of their ethics. But eventually, Enlightenment thinking, universalistic ethics and a historical analysis of religiously-fueled atrocities like the Crusades and the Inquisition showed that religion and morality were not necessarily always linked.

So today, since a large percentage of the population feels that religion is not a source of ultimate truth or morality, those of us in the religious world need to ask what the purpose of religion should be. For me, as someone who values pluralism, autonomy, and critical thinking, I believe that religion needs to become primarily a source for personal spiritual fulfillment, a place to find community, and a way to make a positive impact on societal and global issues.

And what’s most inspiring and most surprising about this outlook is that while conversations about truth and morality often pit science and religion in opposition to each other, when we talk about meaning and values, science and religion can come together in productive ways.

From gratitude to compassion to morality to decision-making to memory, science has been providing us with new ways to think about these issues — and so now, religious leaders can integrate the latest findings when they teach and preach.

For example, if we want to talk about war and peace, we can use the data in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to explore what would lead to Isaiah’s vision of people “beating their swords into plowshares.” If we want to talk about what it means to be “sacred,” we can look at Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind. David DeSteno has done research on compassion, Martin Seligman has written about human flourishing, and Dan Ariely has examined how we make decisions — and all of the scientific knowledge gleaned from their research can be brought together with religious teachings to strengthen ourselves and our world.

If the purpose of religion is to advance a narrow vision of truth, or to dictate how we should act, then religion will close itself off from science and reason, since they are clearly threats to that worldview. But if the purpose of religion is to elevate ourselves, to strengthen our social bonds, and to improve our world, then I believe that science can be an enormously valuable partner in that endeavor.



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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

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 on 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?


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How Much Do We Value Our Values?

A friend of mine — an ardent environmentalist — just had a baby. She was trying to decide whether she would buy cloth diapers, which would be much friendlier to the earth, or go with disposables. She naturally started with cloth, but within a couple of weeks of washing and reusing and washing and reusing and washing and reusing, she gave in and bought disposables.

“I love the environment,” she said. “Just not enough.”

Very often, when we talk about values, we want to talk about simple right and wrong — we should be good stewards of the earth, or remember that we have a responsibility to help those in need, or ensure that every human being has certain rights. But while some values are about simple right and wrong, in truth, the vast majority are actually about costs and benefits.

Indeed, even one of the greatest scholars in Jewish tradition realized that doing the right thing often has a cost — and doing the wrong thing sometimes has a benefit. In Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinic sayings, Rabbi Judah had suggested that we should “calculate the loss of doing a mitzvah against its gain, and the gain of a transgression against its loss.” (Avot 2:1)

And yet there is something unsettling about thinking about moral values in terms of gains and losses. After all, each of us has certain core beliefs — sacred values that define who we are and that we would never compromise on.

But as my friend realized, we don’t always know how much we value our values. So when do we look at values in terms of right and wrong, and when do we look at them in terms of costs and benefits?

Two Different Ways of Looking at Values; Two Different Parts of the Brain

A recent study at Emory University showed that when we think about our principles, our mental processes lead us to think differently about the values that we hold most dearly and the values that we are more willing to compromise on.

In this study, as participants were placed in an fMRI, they were presented with 62 pairs of two contradictory statements, such as “you support gay marriage” and “you oppose gay marriage.” They then had to choose which one they agreed with.

After people decided on which side of the fence they fell, the experimenters gave them an option: if they agreed to sign a statement that was the opposite of what they believed, they could “auction off” that value, and receive up to $100. But if they truly felt strongly about a particular moral tenet — what the researchers called a “sacred value” — participants could refuse the money.

The experimenters weren’t interested in which particular values people held; instead, they were wondering how those values were processed in the brain. And the results were striking.

Gregory Berns, the author of the study, explained that “the brain imaging data showed a strong correlation between sacred values and activation of the neural systems associated with evaluating rights and wrongs (the left temporoparietal junction) and semantic rule retrieval (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex), but not with systems associated with reward.” In other words, depending on whether a particular value viewed as “right and wrong” or as “costs and benefits,” a different part of the brain was activated.

Not only that, when it came time to decide whether they would pay money to give up their sacred values, the participants’ amygdalae were aroused, which happens only when there is an emotional reaction. As Berns noted, “Those statements…would be expected to provoke the most arousal, which is consistent with the idea that when sacred values are violated, that induces moral outrage.”

So perhaps surprisingly, we think about our values in two very distinct ways. Some are dispassionately calculated in terms of gains and losses, while others are emotionally charged and are felt to be inviolable.

The question is, what causes us to think about values through one frame or the other?

Perhaps not surprisingly, religion plays a big role in that answer.

Religion and Values

There was one other intriguing result from the Emory study: people who were more connected with groups had stronger activity in the parts of the brain that correlate to sacred values. Berns posited that “[o]rganized groups may instill values more strongly through the use of rules and social norms.”

Organizations with a purpose, therefore, can help us internalize values. They not only give us a common language to talk about what we hold most dear, their social nature also reinforces those ideas.

And “organizations with a purpose” is a textbook definition of religious institutions.

Jonathan Haidt is an expert on the psychology of morality, and has an upcoming book entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics.” And as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes:

A big part of Haidt’s moral narrative is faith. He lays out the case that religion is an evolutionary adaptation for binding people into groups and enabling those units to better compete against other groups. Through faith, humans developed the “psychology of sacredness,” the notion that “some people, objects, days, words, values, and ideas are special, set apart, untouchable, and pure.” If people revere the same sacred objects, he writes, they can trust one another and cooperate toward larger goals.

So while humans certainly don’t need religion in order to be moral, religion brings people together around a shared sense of mission and purpose. And perhaps the greatest impact religion has had on the world is that it helps us move the discussion of values from “costs and benefits” to “right and wrong.”

A Unique Moral Code

The most well-known statement of religious values is, of course, the Ten Commandments. We may think that the reason they continue to inspire and to resonate is because they outline a moral code, or are simple to understand, or because “ten” is an easy number to remember.

But biblical scholar Dr. Joel Hoffman has a different idea. What makes the Ten Commandments unique, he believes, is that the five commandments surrounding interpersonal relationships — don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, and don’t take your neighbor’s possessions — were designed to focus on “right and wrong,” and not on”costs and benefits.” As Hoffman explains:

The entire body of [legal] code in America doesn’t make any distinction between right and wrong. It never says, for example, that killing someone is wrong. All it says is, “If you do, here’s what happens…”

Here’s an example: let’s suppose you’re a 16-year-old boy, a high-school dropout, and you have no future in front of you except for flipping burgers. Fortunately, you have caught the eye of a very, very wealthy 55-year-old woman. Being 16, you think that 55 is “almost dead,” and so you marry her. Then you realize that she might live for a long time…And so what you do is take your wife’s money, put some of it in an off-shore account and then you kill her. And you figure you’re going to get a good defense and you’re going to out in 7-12 [years]. So at the end, you’ll be thirty years old, single again and wealthy and you say to yourself, “It’s worth it.”

There is nothing in the entire body of American law that says you are not entitled to make that calculus. Nowhere does it say that even if you’re willing to do the time, you shouldn’t do the crime.

That’s why the Ten Commandments are so important. The Ten Commandments are a list of things that are wrong even if you are willing to pay the punishment. They are unlike any legal code, unlike anything I can see in America.

Every society has laws. But those laws are almost always about the consequences of violation. In contrast, the section of the Ten Commandments that govern human interaction — the ones where we would be most likely to see consequences listed — don’t even mention costs and benefits. While the writers of the Torah didn’t have access to modern neuroscience, the Ten Commandments seemed to have been intentionally written in order to activate the “right and wrong” part of our brain, and not the “costs and benefits” part.

How Should We Talk About Values?

We don’t often realize that we categorize values in two different ways. Some are experienced emotionally, while others are computed more rationally. So our task is one that is at the same time very simple and very complicated — namely, to recognize when we are moving from one system to the other.

On the one hand, we often forget how hard it is to be rational when we are emotionally charged about something, and that rational evidence never convinces anyone (even ourselves) when we are riled up.

On the other hand, as my environmentalist with the baby friend realized, sometimes the values we hold most dear are actually the result of a cold cost / benefit analysis, and we often forget that doing the right thing has a cost.

So the real question isn’t, “What do we value?” That’s a comparatively easy question to answer — we all talk about things like justice, peace, and fairness. The real question is, “How are we experiencing this particular value?” Are we deliberately calculating, or emotionally reacting?

Because only by answering that question can we learn how much we truly value our values.


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Give Your Brain a Rest

Generally, our minds have no problem with coming up with lots of ideas — it’s fairly easy for us to think about creating something new. And with perseverance, we can often turn our ideas into reality.

But too frequently, we don’t recognize which ideas should have just stayed in our minds until we’ve already expended our time, our energy and our resources — just think about New Coke, Qwikster or M. Night Shyamalan.

So is there way for us to better determine which ideas are worth pursuing in the first place, and which are not?

It turns out that there is. While hard work is the way ideas get actualized, rest is an effective way for us to evaluate our ideas.

In a recent article for Wired, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment which shows the value of a mental break. In this study, 112 students were given two minutes to create as many solutions as possible to the problem of how to improve the experience of waiting on line for the cash register. Half the group was then told to go straight to work with no break, while the other half played a unrelated video game for two minutes, giving their brains a short respite.

While both groups came up with the same number of ideas, there was a huge difference in terms of how well they recognized good ideas. As Lehrer explains:

[G]iving the unconscious a few minutes…proved to be a big advantage, as those who had been distracted were much better at identifying their best ideas. (An independent panel of experts scored all of the ideas.) While those in the conscious condition only picked their most innovative concepts about 20 percent of the time — they confused their genius with their mediocrity — those who had been distracted located their best ideas about 55 percent of the time. In other words, they were twice as good at figuring out which concepts deserved more attention.

And yet it’s not simply taking a break that helps us evaluate our ideas — it’s also about using that rest to engender positive feelings. As Lehrer tells us, “Taking a break is important. But make sure you do something that makes you happy, as positive moods make us even better at diagnosing the value of our creative work.”

So rest and joy are two things that can help us assess our ideas before we try to transform them into reality. And those two aspects are what define one of Judaism’s signature contributions to the world — Shabbat.

Judaism recognizes that unbridled creativity isn’t all that constructive. And so Jewish tradition has even set up guidelines to help us deliberately stop creating.  According to the Mishnah, there are thirty-nine specific activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, which include lighting fires, writing, and cooking. The common theme among those thirty-nine items (called melakhot) is that they were the specific actions that the Israelites undertook when the were building the mishkan, the dwelling-place for God.

So even though building the mishkan was sacred work, the Torah reminds us that even sacred work needs to stop for one day a week. And to the Rabbis, that meant that no matter how important our work may be, on Shabbat, anything we want to make, anything we want to do, anything we want to design — it has to wait.

And yet taking a break is only part of Shabbat. While we are supposed to be intentionally non-creative on that day, the Rabbis also outline certain things we should do to help make Shabbat a day of joy and peace.  Not only are we supposed to shamor, “guard” Shabbat by avoiding certain tasks, we are also supposed to zachor, “remember” Shabbat by elevating our sense of holiness and delight.

So on Shabbat, we’re supposed to have a festive meal, with special food and a celebratory atmosphere. We’re supposed to be with friends and family — and to truly be with them. We’re supposed to read, to reflect, and to rediscover the blessings in our lives.

Ultimately, Shabbat is there to remind us that it’s far too easy for us to fall into the trap of constant business and constant busyness. And as Lehrer argues, constant creativity prevents us from distinguishing mediocrity from excellence.

So if we want to invest our precious resources in developing only our best ideas, then we need to structure our time so that we have an opportunity to stop creating, and give our brains a rest.


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Getting our B’nei Mitzvah to Understand (and Love) Torah Study

Helping 13-year-olds understand a 3,000-year-old text is challenging, to say the least.

After all, trying to glean lessons from the Torah for 21st-century America is hard enough, even if you have some background in text study. So when you have only 13 years of life experience, go to religious school for only two hours twice per week, and are still learning the skills you need to write and speak effectively, it’s even harder.

Yet as our kids become b’nei mitzvah and create their d’var torah — the teaching they deliver about the weekly Torah portion on that Shabbat morning — we often miss a great opportunity. Not only can we help them understand the content of that particular Torah portion, we can also help them appreciate the process by which we can engage with serious Torah study.

In other words, we have a golden opportunity to use the “what” as a vehicle to develop excitement around the “how.”

Formulating Good Questions

At Temple Beth El, we wanted to help our students truly embrace the process of Torah study. So to prepare our b’nei mitzvah, we decided to experiment with the “Question Formulation Technique” (QFT), designed by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana and outlined in their outstanding book Make Just One Change.

The purpose of the QFT is to shift how learning occurs: rather than having students respond to questions proposed by the teacher, the students themselves develop the questions that most effectively direct their own learning. After all, if the students are the ones posing the questions, then they will naturally develop a deeper level of ownership over their own learning.

The rules are simple — the teacher begins with a prompt that can lead to multiple lines of inquiry. For example, the teacher might write on the board something like, “Religion does more good than harm,” or “A synagogue should be a sacred and spiritual community.”

Then, in small groups, learners need to come up with as many questions about that prompt as they can. Their instructions are:

• Ask as many questions as you can.
• Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
• Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
• Change any statement into a question.

After creating their long list of questions, the learners then focus on the handful that speak to them the most — and so that’s the direction where the research, the discussion or the conversation goes. And so since the learners create their questions, and the learners then choose the ones that excite them the most, the paradigm shifts radically: instead of the teacher imparting information from the top down, the students are creating their learning from the bottom up.

Sacred Questions about Sacred Texts

In Judaism, questioning has always been a sacred activity. Throughout Jewish history, when we study Torah, we are asking questions like, “What might this verse mean? How can we read it in a new way? What other allusions does it have?” So applying the QFT was a natural way to help our b’nei mitzvah develop their divrei torah.

As part of our family education program, eight families came together about four months before their children become b’nei mitzvah. And we began by having them write a collective d’var torah, in order to help them understand the process. We focused on a passage from Deuteronomy 8: “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember Adonai your God, for it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth…” (v. 17-18).

First, we unpacked what this meant — that we are not the sole producers of our success, but that we need to have a level of humility and gratitude if we have been blessed with wealth. The text doesn’t say, “wealth is bad,” but rather, “if you are wealthy, make sure you remember the true source of that wealth.”

I then wrote up four words on the board: “Gratitude for material things.” And then I told them to write down as many questions as they could about that idea, that they weren’t allowed to answer or discuss the questions, to write down every question exactly as it was stated, and to change any statement into a question. And then I simply walked around eavesdropping on the conversations.

Almost instantly, the families created a flood of questions. In less than five minutes, they had come up with over twenty different questions: “What’s the difference between what we want and what we need?” “How do we show gratitude?” “If we show gratitude, does it have to be towards God?” “What’s the difference between material and non-material things?” “What happens if you don’t show gratitude?” “If you lost all your material things, would you still show gratitude?”

The energy was palpable, as everyone was considering what it really meant to “show gratitude for material things.” After a short discussion, we decided to go in depth about how gratitude acts as a check on entitlement — an issue that is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago. We studied commentary, explored interpretations and shared our own opinions. And most crucially, the students now had a process to apply to the study of Torah, discovering ways to find meaning from the text.

So now, it was time to have them use this process on their own Torah portion.

They began by focusing on their specific verses that they would be reading, and came up with an eight-word description of the verses’ gist — “the special clothes Aaron wore,” “the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle,” “the laws of keeping kosher.” As two to three families joined together as a small group, each student’s summary acted as a prompt for creating a list of questions. After hearing and creating many, many possible questions, the bar or bat mitzvah student then chose the one question they would be most excited to research.

We then placed copies of Torah commentaries (The Torah: A Modern Commentary and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary) for all the families and said, “Take a look — see if you can find responses to your questions. What have other scholars had to say about what you’re wondering about?” For the next thirty minutes, families were poring over texts, excitedly yelling, “Oh! I found something!”, and began crafting their own thoughts. They proudly shared with me their ideas, and were so excited about what they themselves had created.

It was simply remarkable. Afterwards, the parents and the students shared how much they loved learning as a family, how much they enjoyed researching commentary on the Torah portion, and how smart and successful they felt as they drew lessons from the Torah. Not only did the quality of the divrei torah improve dramatically, but the students had clearly gained a new set of skills they could apply to study a whole range of texts, and perhaps most importantly, truly owned their learning process.

Building Skills for Life-Long Learning

Too often, preparing students to become bar or bat mitzvah feels like “studying for the test.” And as anyone who has ever “studied for the test” knows, the day after the test, all the information goes in one ear and out the other.

Instead, becoming bar or bat mitzvah should truly be about making a transition — namely, from being a child in the Jewish community to becoming an adult. And so as our 13-year-olds grow and develop, and as we celebrate their entrance into the Jewish community, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach them skills for life-long learning.

What are those skills? To be able to connect the present to the past and to the future. To be able to add their voice to a Jewish conversation that is 3,000 years old. And most of all, to be able to formulate good questions, since after all, what we learn is simply defined by the questions we ask.

So let’s help our students learn how to ask good ones.

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Does Religion Make Your Brain Happy? An Interview with Science Writer David DiSalvo

Quite often, what makes us happy and what is actually good for us are directly at odds with each other. What worked for us evolutionarily over the millenia frequently becomes counter-productive in our current world. For example, fat was a scarce and valuable resource when Homo sapiens evolved on the African savannah, but with vending machines, Starbucks Trentas and the KFC Double-Down, what made our bodies happy millions of years ago are now things we should be trying to avoid today.

But if those same issues arise with our bodies, what about our brains? What do we do with our evolutionary cognitive history?

David DiSalvo, who writes about science, technology and culture for Scientific American, Forbes and Psychology Today, has a new book coming out entitled What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. DiSalvo, exploring questions about the cognitive aspects of religion and atheism, hope and faith, certainty and doubt, and the creation of meaning.

1. You recently wrote a piece asking, “Religion vs. Atheism: Which Fights Dirtier?” If we wanted to tone down the anger on both sides, what would help facilitate a more productive discussion?

DD: I think the major thing would be for all of us to realize that we’re operating with essentially the same cerebral hardware, with all the foibles and biases contained therein. We often begin difficult discussions about belief (religious or otherwise) as if we are somehow set apart from the biases that plague the other person. In truth, we are all swimming in murky water, and there is nothing flawless or absolute about the iterative process of learning to navigate the waters with more clarity.

GM Response: I think DiSalvo is right — recognizing that we are all “swimming in the same murky water” allows to focus the question differently. Rather than asking someone, “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why don’t you believe in God?”, we can ask, “What do I believe? What is leading someone else to believe something different? And what are the consequences of my beliefs?”

My rule of thumb whenever I talk with anyone (believer, atheist, or anything in between) is, “Will this be a productive conversation?” I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that God has told them what to do, and I have rarely had productive conversations with people who are totally certain that there is no God (and there’s a big difference between “being certain there is no God” and “not being certain there is a God”). But I have had many wonderful conversations with people across the spectrum of belief about the question, “How can I create more fulfillment in my life and make a more positive impact on the world?”

So he’s right on — we all need to realize that we are not set apart from the biases others have. Accepting that none of us has absolute truth and that we all see the world through our own imperfect lens is what allows us to engage in fruitful dialogue, rather than vituperative attacks and counter-attacks.

2. You say in the introduction to your book, “If we could live our lives without bias, distortions and delusions involved, the world would truly be idyllic.” Yet hope and optimism — which certainly bias and distort the way we view the world — are crucial aspects for our drive to make ourselves and our world better. So when do we need to look at the world as it is, and when do we need to envision the world as it could be? How do we reconcile those two ways we look at the world?

DD: The “bias, distortions and delusions” I discuss in the book are outcomes of mismatches between several of our brains’ evolved tendencies and our social and cultural environments. My contention is that cultural evolution moves much faster than natural evolution; as a result, the built-in leanings of our brains are frequently as odds with the situations we face on a daily basis.

Hope and optimism are “biases” of a different sort – arguably, they are adaptive responses to the constant undercurrent of adversity we face as self-reflective, sentient beings living on this planet. Recently a solid body of research has emerged suggesting that optimism is actually an evolved trait (cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot’s work comes to mind).

Another way to describe the difference is by way of comparison. Would we be better off without, for example, restraint bias, which leads us to believe we can expose ourselves to more temptation than we can actually handle? Probably so. Would we be better off without the transformative power of hope that drives us to overcome obstacles and adversity in our lives? Certainly not.

GM Response: Actually, Tali Sharot’s book The Optimism Bias was one of the inspirations for this question. And I love the image on the cover of her book — a pair of glasses, with one lens clear and the other rose-colored.

And I think we need to look at the world through both of those lenses. The scientific lens can help us see the world as it is, since it strives to give us objectivity. The religious lens can help us see the world as it could be, since it strives to help us examine the subjective nature of our experiences.

It’s important to remember that hope and optimism are primarily subjective experiences — they cannot change reality, but they can change how we look at reality. They change how we feel about our lives, and they give us fuel to keep going when life becomes difficult. And in fact, I think that’s what draws people to religion — a desire to find a sense of purpose, meaning and hope, all in the context of a supportive community.

So as DiSalvo implies, even if hope and optimism aren’t rational, they are valuable. So yes, when it comes to objective truth, science needs to be the way we look at the world. But religion can help us enhance our subjective experiences, as it allows us to make moments powerful, to create deep connections with others, and to find hope and purpose.

3. You mention that one of the problematic things our brain does is to create meaning out of coincidence. But there’s a difference between believing that meaning is inherent (such as thinking that “clearly this was God’s plan”) and believing that we create meaning (such as asking, “How can I make sense of what’s going on?”). So do the same problems arise in creating meaning as they do when we believe meaning is inherent? What would it imply if “meaning” arose in different ways?

DD: Your question highlights one of the more frustrating aspects of being human. It is precisely because our brains evolved to “makes sense of what’s going on” that we stumble on pattern-based biases like the clustering illusion, and are prone to stringing together coincidences in search of an explanatory pattern. In a sense, we can’t escape this tendency no matter how aware of it we become, because pattern identification is so central to our brains’ reason for being.

What we can do, however, is short-circuit pattern detection on the verge of, or already going, haywire – as is the case, for example, with people who live their lives around certain sequences of numbers appearing as signs telling them how to think and act in given situations. Psychics and other hucksters exploit these sorts of tendencies, in effect making a living on peoples’ absorption in patterns.

Frequently, believing meaning is inherent goes hand-in-hand with searching out patterns to make sense of what’s going on. Once, for example, someone invests confidence in a psychic to tell him what the patterns in his life mean, it’s a short journey to believing that someone or something must be producing the patterns. Whether that thing is thought to be a personal God, or some impersonal force (“the universe” etc.) depends largely on the socio-cultural context that person lives within.

So, yes, I do think some of the same problems occur whether we are searching out or “creating” meaning as they do in believing meaning is inherent, because the underlying “meaning infrastructure” of our brains is prone to tendencies that we are all, in one way or another, subject to.

GM Response: I think we agree on what “meaning” is — it’s about how we place events and facts into a larger context, helping us make sense of the world. But for me, the most crucial question about meaning is how it arises — is it top-down, dictated and discovered, or is it bottom-up, self-owned and created? Since we all have a “meaning infrastructure,” who do we see as its builders?

Think about how we read a text. The author certainly has an intended meaning. But what the readers find in the text may be very different from what the author had in mind. Now, who owns the meaning of that text? While the answer is clearly both the author and the reader, it’s a major mistake for the reader to say, “I know what this author meant.” Instead, the reader needs to be able to say, “This is my own interpretation.”

So the problem with psychics, hucksters and religious fundamentalists is that they try to prevent the reader from creating their own interpretations. They encourage a top-down approach to meaning, and lead people to say, “This is what God / the universe / the Bible means.” But a bottom-up approach of creating meaning may be able to prevent that system from going haywire, since we can later edit or revise our interpretations.

We will always be looking for patterns and meaning — but I think there’s a big difference between thinking we “discover” meaning and realizing that we “create” meaning, since one implies an eternal, unchanging truth, and the other implies an ability to re-write as need be.

4. Why is doubt so valuable? And since our minds seek certainty, how can we embrace doubt more easily?

DD: Doubt is an applied “checks and balances” mechanism that is not unique to humans. My speculation is that it’s an adaptive trait that began evolving very early (well before human ancestors arrived on the scene) as a means to differentiate beneficial from harmful things in the environment, particularly when the differences were slight. We see this trait evidenced by primates and monkeys in lab studies: when offered grapes under two different conditions, one slightly more cumbersome than the other, a capuchin monkey will quite observably make a doubtful evaluation about the grapes with more strings attached.

In humans, the only true existential animal on the planet, doubt is elevated to far more abstract levels of evaluation (“is there a God?” and similarly high-level questions), but is also useful at lower levels such as determining if another person’s intentions are sincere. In that practical application, among others, doubt can save our lives.

The interesting thing is that to exercise doubt about meaning-laden positions (those involving belief and value judgments), we have to face off against other tendencies of our brains like the desire for stability and certainty. That’s what makes those high-level evaluations so spirited, tense, and frequently explosive. If someone is “certain” that their belief position is correct, someone else introducing doubt about that position is likely to set off fireworks. But it’s important that we have those discussions because peoples’ lives are directly affected by the outcomes.

GM Response: That face-off between doubt and certainty is absolutely one of the biggest challenges we face when we are engaging in conversation about beliefs and values. The challenge is how we embrace stability without it lapsing into absolutism.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, talks about the need to be able to be committed without being certain. The analogy that I like is to a marriage. You are never certain when you get married what the future will bring, and if you are always looking for surety, you will never be satisfied. But at some point, even though you will never be certain, you make a decision to commit to this other person, because that’s how you will build a life and a relationship.

It’s similar to how we need to look at our worldview. In order for us to make an impact on the world, we need to stake our claim somewhere — we need to hold certain beliefs and values, because if we always we go, “I’m not sure, it could be this way, or it could be that way,” we become paralyzed and cannot make decisions.

So the goal should be seeking stability without requiring certainty and clarity — indeed, we can’t ever find certainty in science, religion or life in general. Instead, we need to make a commitment despite the lack of certainty, and use that sense of doubt for (as he says) a mechanism of “checks and balances.”

Because while certainty shuts down conversation and fosters a sense of arrogance, doubt can open up the dialogue and encourage humility.

DiSalvo argues that many of the things that make our brains happy are now more harmful than helpful. And some people place religion in that category, as well. Religion is like fatty foods, they claim — something we should outgrow and move beyond. But I think the better question is, what aspects of religion should we try to outgrow?

Because religion is not one thing. Religion has so many varied parts to it that rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can try to move beyond the elements that are so counter-productive, and at the same time, try to keep the ones that are valuable.

Clearly, when religion fosters absolutism, certainty and a lack of critical thinking, it is doing more harm than good.

But we need hope and purpose in our life when it seems dark and difficult. We need to find ways to strengthen our commitments when we feel adrift. And we need a sense of community when we feel isolated and alone. Those are the things we can and should never outgrow — and so those are the things religion can and should offer us for today.

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The Beauty in Science and the Beauty in Judaism

Think about the most inspiring piece of art you have ever looked at. Or the most powerful book you have ever read. Or the most moving play or movie you’ve seen.

Now — why did you find it so beautiful?

There were probably any number of reasons — it may have changed the way you thought about things. It might have emotionally affected you. It almost certainly stuck with you afterwards.

But despite the fact that whatever you chose was personal and subjective, there seem to be certain facets of beauty that cut across all genres, times and places. Educator Howard Gardner argues in his book Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed that there are three main elements of beauty: we find something beautiful if it is interesting, if it is memorable, and if it is has a “pull” to it, leading us to continually come back to it.

In fact, it’s that third factor, what he calls the “invitation to revisit,” that is the sine qua non of beauty. The most beautiful objects are ones we can’t seem to leave alone — there always seems to be more to them than meets the eye on first glance, and the more we experience them, the more we appreciate them. And Gardner explains that this “invitation to revisit” could arise from several possible factors: “one likes the experience, one has curiosity to learn or to understand better, or one has a feeling of awe…” (53)

But what’s fascinating is that two of those elements — curiosity and awe — are two of the driving forces behind both science and Judaism. They are what lead us to see their inherent beauty.

The beauty of science was eloquently described by Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who talked about what he saw when looked at a flower:

As he says, while he could appreciate the surface beauty of a flower as well as anyone else, knowing about the science broadened and deepened his experience: “I see much more about the flower… I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty…It adds…[a]ll kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.” So a fuller understanding of science gave him a richer sense of beauty. And notice what specifically what enriched it: curiosity and awe.

So how do these two elements give us a sense of beauty both in science and in Judaism?


As Feynman tells us, the more questions we can ask about something, and the more ways we can look it, the deeper our appreciation of it will be. Indeed, curiosity in science almost demands an “invitation to revisit,” asking how we can look at the same set of facts in a new way, and looking to see how an answer to one question leads to a whole host of new ones.

But that same process also guides the study of Jewish texts.

Study in Judaism begins with the Torah. But when we study Torah, we are not supposed to stop at the p’shat, the simple, literal level of the text. Instead, we are primarily seeking to create drashot, inerpretations of the text. We are asking, “What are the unspoken assumptions here? What other questions do we need to ask? What are the different ideas that this text is trying to teach, and how many different ways can we read it?”

We do this because while the text is static, we are dynamic. While we read the same words each day, each week, and each year in our prayerbook and in our Torah, what we take away from them changes. We revisit the same texts because when we repeatedly come back to the same words, we find new meaning in them and new ways to discover values that guide our actions. The text is the always the same — but we are not.

And so curiosity, asking new questions, always wondering “What else could this mean?”, leads us to revisit both scientific data and Jewish texts, and elevates our sense of beauty in both realms.


Science easily gives us a deep sense of wonder, whether we are looking out onto the vast reaches of space, or are examining how our mind works, or are wondering how the variegated species on this earth arose. But even as we intellectually explore those ideas, there will always be an emotional aspect to that experience that we cannot describe in words.

After all, when we feel a moment of awe, we are not seeking to analyze or describe it. Our most powerful experiences, our most wondrous moments, our most significant encounters simply cannot be put into words, let alone dissected and scrutinized. Indeed, it is that very inability to describe those experiences that makes them so beautiful.

And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains in his landmark book God in Search of Man, that sense of ineffability is the root of religion, as well:

[I]n religious and artistic thinking, the disparity between that which we encounter and that which is expressed in words and symbols, no words and symbols can adequately convey. In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement. We have an awareness that is deeper than our concepts; we possess insights that are not accessible to the power of expression…

The roots of ultimate insights are found…not on the level of discursive thinking, but on the level of wonder and radical amazement, in the depth of awe, in our sensitivity to the mystery, in our awareness of the ineffable. It is the level on which the great things happen to the soul, where the unique insights of art, religion and philosophy come into being.

[Our experience of God] is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning. Faith is the response to the mystery, shot through with meaning; the response to a challenge which no one can forever ignore. (116-117)

So no matter how often we look at a sunset, we will never cease to be amazed by it. No matter how accurately we understand the way babies develop in the womb, when we hold our child for the first time, we will never stop calling it “the miracle of birth.” We are simply overwhelmed by those experiences.

And so religion, as Heschel argues, is how we respond to that sense of awe. Religion doesn’t begin with trying to prove the existence of God. It doesn’t even begin with asking whether we “believe in God” or not. It begins with a moment of mystery. And even if we can scientifically explain that mystery, it will never lose its emotional impact.

Indeed, while curiosity broadens our minds, awe deepens our souls.

Turn it and turn it

Ultimately, it’s that combination of curiosity and awe, that mixture of breadth and depth, that joining of head and heart that allows us to see the beauty not only in science, but in Judaism, as well.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Bag Bag taught that there is always more to Torah than meets the eye. And so we are to “turn it and turn it, because everything is in it.” (Avot 5:21) But it’s not that the Torah has all the answers — it’s that the more we turn it and turn it, the more we learn about ourselves and our place in the world.

Because there is beauty when we see connections that we had not made before. There is beauty when we discover things we never knew. And there is beauty when we realize just how much we don’t know.

After all, the most beautiful things are ones we keep coming back to — not because the objects themselves have changed, but because we ourselves are constantly discovering new levels of meaning within them.

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