Tag Archives: Religion

The Science of Compassion — A Conversation with Professor David DeSteno

Compassion is a deep-seated value in every religious tradition. Judaism teaches that the world stands on Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness. Christians celebrate the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke. And a major reason the Dalai Lama is so honored is because of his Buddhist teachings on compassion.

But compassion can also be studied scientifically, and one of the foremost researchers on compassion is Professor David DeSteno, author of the book Out Of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us and the director of the Social Emotions Lab at Northeastern University.

On Sunday, April 15th at 4 pm, Professor DeSteno will be speaking about the science of compassion at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. I had an opportunity to ask him some questions about how the science of compassion can inform our religious and ethical outlooks:

GM: Does religion foster or hinder our ability to be compassionate?

DD: It’s a trickier question than one might think. There’s been a debate going on in psychological science for the past decade about the nature of morality. Do our moral sentiments spring from innate intuitions (e.g., ubiquitous evolved responses) or from conscious dictates (e.g., religious doctrines, ethical principles). There’s data to support both sides, and therein lies the reason for the ongoing debate. It’s not simply one or the other. It is true that the challenges of human social life, among which is the question of when to feel compassion and act altruistically, have existed for much longer than we’ve had the cognitive wherewithal to engage in rational analysis. So, it makes good sense that we have moral intuitions that automatically guide our actions. We never would have made it out of the “ancestral savannah” if we didn’t.

Of course, the more recent ability of the human mind to engage in abstract reasoning opened up additional ways for us to embrace (or avoid) ethical actions. The result is that we’re of two minds — an intuitive one and a deliberative one. The trick is to realize that they’re both attempting to solve the same problem — how to navigate the social world optimally. Neither “mind” is more moral than the other, and that’s the most important fact to understand in learning how to live more ethically. You can’t always trust your intuitions or your rational mind. Both are capable of leading you astray.

When it comes to compassion, I think we can all agree that most religions embrace the view that compassion is a virtue and that we should help those in need. So, at a conscious level, I think religion works to increase the likelihood that we will help others. However, religion also functions as a social category; it can divide us into “us” and “them,” into believers and nonbelievers.

What we know from our own research is that, on the intuitive level at least, how much compassion we feel for others is a direct function of how similar we feel to them. For example, our work has shown that simply having people wear similar color wristbands to denote their membership in a recently created “team” alters the levels of compassion they feel for each other. When one individual is harmed, the level of compassion another feels for him is modulated up or down depending on whether the victim is wearing the same color wristband.

Consequently, we have to be aware that while our religious beliefs may be urging us to act compassionately, our religious identities may be introducing an asymmetry into our responses. We may feel the pain of our brethren more and the pain of others less.

An interesting fact here can be seen in some traditions of Buddhist meditation. A basic technique of compassion meditation is to realize that all beings are equally similar. That technique is quite congruent with our findings. The more the mind automatically comes to see all beings as alike, the more ready it is to feel compassion equally for all in pain.

GM: What situations most bring out our compassion? What situations bring it out the least?

DD: As I’ve hinted at above, the level of compassion we feel for others is greatly influenced by whether we see ourselves in them. If you think about it, it makes great sense biologically. Feeling compassion usually motivates us to act to help others, often at a cost to ourselves. If a person were moved to feel compassion for everyone in every instance, it could become paralyzing. That person would experience constant sorrow and utilize all of her or his resources to help others. Now, this might be a noble goal, but in terms of evolutionary logic, it’s anathema.

Consequently, the intuitive mind makes us feel more compassion for those with whom we share some affiliation. Of course, that affiliation can take many different forms — familial, team membership, or group-based identities along various social dimensions (e.g., vegetarians).

In short, it’s not just the nature of the tragedy that makes us feel compassion; it’s also whether the victim is likely to help us in the future. No one would be surprised that an American soldier would feel more compassion for a wounded comrade than for a Taliban fighter who sustained the same injury. But this phenomenon of relativism is so deeply ingrained in the mind that we find the same asymmetry simply due to mirroring another’s movements. If you tap your hands in time with a person right before they are victimized, you’ll feel their pain more and work longer and harder to help them than if you didn’t tap your hands in time with them. Synchronous movement, after all, is an ancient marker for joint purpose.

GM: What’s the relationship between compassion and ethical action?

DD: Compassion, like all emotions, is a feeling state that serves as an engine for action. Once we feel an emotion, it increases the likelihood that we’ll engage in certain behaviors (or at least makes us work harder to avoid them). Fear prepares us to flee. Anger prepares us for conflict. Compassion prepares us to support others. If you accept the view that emotions function to increase adaptive responding, then it makes great sense that humans have a suite of emotional responses that impel them to build social capital. We’re a social species at heart. We depend on others to flourish. Consequently, we have to possess emotional responses that enhance prosocial actions and not just ones that are aimed at selfish pleasure or competition and aggression.

In Judaism, compassion is not primarily a feeling — it is an action. “Just as God is compassionate, we should be compassionate. Just as God clothed the naked (by making clothes for Adam), we should clothe the naked. Just as God visited the sick (by going to see Abraham after he was circumcised), we should visit the sick. Just as God comforted mourners (by speaking to Isaac after his father died), we should comfort mourners. Just as God buried the dead (by burying Moses), we should bury the dead.” (Sotah 14a)

As DeSteno noted, there often is 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.

But “who we are” is very much “what we do.” If we act compassionately, we begin to view ourselves as “compassionate people.” Our sense of identity arises not only from the group we associate with, but from the actions we take.

So when we think about using religion to foster compassion, then, the focus should not be on how we strengthen our sense of identity — that simply reinforces divisiveness. Instead, as DeSteno’s research on science of compassion shows, we should aim to strengthen our values, to think about how we behave, and to consciously expand how we can “see ourselves” in others.



Filed under General

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.


Filed under General

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?


Filed under General

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.

1 Comment

Filed under General

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.

1 Comment

Filed under General

Religion Can’t Be an End Unto Itself

These were the words I shared on Yom Kippur at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester on Saturday, October 8. Enjoy!

As some of you may know, my wife Heather is a fiber artist. She creates quilts, wall-hangings and even three-dimensional structures based on Jewish texts and social justice themes. And for the last two years, she has been going to homeless shelters through New York City to talk to men, women and children, in order to turn their stories into a piece she is calling “Temporary Shelter.” It’s based on a sukkah, the temporary hut we build each fall on Sukkot, and evokes the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, the time when our ancestors were homeless.

“Temporary Shelter” will be traveling to different churches and synagogues throughout the City in November and December, but there was one church that had a rather unique idea. The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea wanted to host it, but they weren’t sure they’d be able to because of logistical reasons. “At first there was some concern that your piece would be too big with all the Christmas decorations and such,” said Cassandra Agredo, who directs Xavier Mission.  “Then someone suggested that instead of a stable, we could use your piece as the crèche for Jesus.  After all, Jesus was born a homeless baby.”

Heather didn’t  quite know how to respond to that offer. Her piece — which was based on a sukkah — as a creche? Would that be OK? How would she feel about it? So we talked about it. And the more we talked about it, the more we realized that this idea was a pretty cool idea — this Christian church wanted to sanctify the stories of predominantly Christian homeless New Yorkers by linking their stories to Christianity’s most sacred story, the birth of their Savior. But they would be doing it through a Jewish symbol made by a Jewish woman, who was making this piece because of her commitment to her Jewish values. And so we realized that this was a story about religion at its most nuanced and at its most complex in 21st century America.

Because for far too long, and even today, far too frequently, religion is far too simplistic. Often, religion is about trying to convince people that “my way is the only way.” But here, the church wasn’t looking to convert Heather to Christianity, and Heather wasn’t looking to have the church become Jewish. And yet at the same time, no one was moving in the other direction and simply proclaiming that “we all believe the same thing.” No, Heather was using very specifically Jewish language with her sukkah, and the church was using very specifically Christian language with its crèche. So it’s equally important to recognize that the church wasn’t watering down its Christianity, and Heather wasn’t watering down her Judaism. Miraculously, both the church and Heather were able to demonstrate both openness to the other and deep devotion to themselves. How did that happen? I think it’s because everyone realized that in 21st century America, for religion to work, religion cannot be an end unto itself. Instead, religion has to be a means to an end.

We don’t need to look far to see the problems of viewing religion as an end unto itself. At its very worst, religion tells people that if others don’t share our belief system, then they don’t deserve the most basic human rights, including their own lives. Nearly a thousand years ago, that is the ideology that fueled the Crusades. Ten years ago, it led 19 people to hijack four airplanes. And even earlier this week, it caused a group of people to burn down a mosque in Northern Israel. But even when religion doesn’t lead to violence, we still find stories here in the United States about the problems it creates. We hear about how religion leads people to reject the science of evolution and climate change, how it excludes and denigrates gays and lesbians, and how it fosters hubris and arrogance when people say “I know what God wants.” So as we hear so much about the worst of religion, we naturally ask, why would anyone want to become religious?

And the answer is, we wouldn’t. We deeply prize openness and acceptance, so we understandably and legitimately recoil against someone trying to convince us to change our belief system. We fight against the sense of superiority of “my way is the best way,” let alone “my way is the only way.” And we decry the violence that religion so easily fuels. So when we see all the evil that is done in the name of religion, we naturally want no part of it. But the truth is, the problem isn’t with religion per se. The problem is with seeing religion as an end unto itself.

And in fact, that’s what creates such tension for those of us who identify as a “religiously liberal Jew.” On the one hand, we know that the goal of Judaism is to make our world more just and our selves more whole. But at the same time, we want our children to have a strong sense of Jewish identity and strong Jewish values. And so in a world with more choices than ever before and more diversity than ever before, it’s hard to hold both of those ideas at the same time – how do we act as both a universalist and a particularist? That’s why so many people in the under-40 demographic are asking the very hard and yet very important question, “Why should I be Jewish?” They see all the evil that has been done in the name of religion, and so religion – including Judaism – is simply not compelling to them. But it’s because they are seeing Judaism presented as end unto itself.

So what it would look like if we didn’t focus on what it means to “be Jewish” or to “be religious”? After all, how do we even determine what it means to “be Jewish” or to “be religious”? Who decides the answers to those questions? What’s the metric we use to gauge if we’re being successful or not? The question isn’t “how Jewish are we?” or “how religious are we?” The real question is, “How can Judaism help us to become better people and to create a better world?” In short, we need to see Judaism not as an end unto itself, but as a means to an end.

And there are two analogies that I like. First, we can think of Judaism as a language to articulate our values, and second, we can view it as a lens through which we perceive the world.

Let’s start with language. Language is obviously designed to help us communicate, and there are certain similarities across all languages – there are nouns and verbs, certain ways that words can and can’t be put together into sentences, and even a limited number of sounds that the human larynx can produce. But no one speaks “language” – people speak English, or Hebrew, or Chinese, or French, or Swahili. Each of these languages has its own structure, its own grammar, its own way of talking about the world. And so while there are certain universal rules that undergird every human language, how those rules transform themselves into particular languages can vary quite widely.

Similarly, there are certain universal values that undergird human society. Our most basic values – respect, empathy, fairness – aren’t really “religious” values at all. They are human values. That’s why some formulation of the Golden Rule has been expressed in almost every time and every place in human history. So what Judaism gives is us a particular language to talk about those values.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner talks about the difference between “neighborly morality,” which every society is based on, and “the ethics of roles,” which talks about the specific responsibilities we have as family members, as friends, and as citizens. (Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, 82-87) “Love your neighbor as yourself” is great, but it’s far too broad to apply to the all the complex ethical dilemmas we face. When we need to ask how we respond when someone wrongs us, or are wondering what the financial and legal responsibilities employers have to their employees, we need more than just “be fair” or “think about others.” We need to go in depth on those questions, to explore a variety of sources and responses, and then to create an answer that works for us. Judaism gives us particular ways to try to address those questions. Because in the same way no one speaks “language,” no one can live “morality.” We need specific approaches to talk about these ethical questions in order to try to answer them.

The second analogy for Judaism as a means is to give us is a way to look at the world through a particular lens. After all, what we see, and how we interpret what we see, are what we respond to in this world. There’s a story about a four-year-old boy who was obsessed with cement mixers, fire engines and all kinds of construction equipment. And one day, his uncle took him to a homecoming parade. There were football players, cheerleaders, the school band, even fireworks. But all the boy saw were the floats, led by big 4x4s. Afterwards, his uncle asked him what he thought about the parade. “I loved it!” the boy exclaimed. “That was the best truck parade I’ve been to!” (based on Stone, et al., Difficult Conversations, 31). So yes, there are facts in this world that we cannot change. But we determine what facts we pay attention to, and we determine how we interpret them.

And so Judaism leads us to see the world in particular ways. We are commanded to seek out blessings to celebrate. We are taught that our world is in need of repair and that we can do something about fixing it. We are told that every human being is to be viewed as having been created in the Divine Image, and is therefore worthy of infinite dignity. And we live our Jewish communal experiences the twin lenses of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, which as Rabbi Elliot Dorff notes, “permeate Jewish liturgy and holidays.” (Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good, 4) And as inheritors of not only biblical but rabbinic tradition, we are to challenge, to question, to ask “how do we know this?” So there is a particularly Jewish lens through which we see the world.

But what’s so powerful about viewing Judaism in this way – as a language and as a worldview – is that it doesn’t preclude someone else from having a different language and a different worldview. When religion is a end unto itself, it’s a zero-sum game: “I’m right, you’re wrong.” But when religion is a means and not an end, we can honor the fact that many different methods can lead us to the same end – to a world of justice, compassion and peace. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, none of the above – they can all help us find meaning in our lives and help us build a better world.

And yet as we keep that vision in our mind’s eye, we also need to remember that we need a specific language and a particular worldview in order to help us get there. Writer Cynthia Ozick once taught that “a shofar has a broad end and a narrow end. If you blow in the broad end, you get nothing. If you blow in the narrow end, you get a sound everyone can hear.” (Wolpe, Floating Takes Faith, 17)

Starting on Sunday, October 23, I’m going to be teaching a four-week course called “What’s the Point of All This?” It’s going to look more closely at how Judaism can be the means to lead us to the end we are hoping for – becoming a stronger and kinder human being, opening up our minds and our hearts, striving to build a more just and a more peaceful world. And the curriculum will be the four pillars of our congregation’s mission statement. We’ll look at how Torah can help us clarify our values and give us a language to speak about them. We’ll explore how prayer can raise our awareness of the holy potential of everyday life. We’ll examine what Judaism has to say about the most pressing social and economic issues of our day. And in a world where so much of our communication is in 140 characters or less, we’ll consider how we develop a deeper sense of connection with the people around us. Ultimately, its goal will be to see how we can create religion at its best, in order to enhance ourselves, our society and our world. Because the question isn’t “how Jewish are we?” The question is, “how can Judaism help us to become better people and to create a better world?”

I’ve told the story about Heather’s sukkah potentially becoming a crèche to many people, and one of them was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the co-president of Clal, a national Jewish think tank that aims to foster religious pluralism. He shared with me that the message he got was that both Heather and the church were focused on the same goal – telling the story’s of New York’s homeless population. But the other piece we need to remember, he told me, was that the church was no less Christian for using a sukkah, and Heather was no less Jewish for making a crèche. And perhaps because he, too, doesn’t believe that religion is an end unto itself, he wrote a book which he entitled You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. And in it, he reminds us that

[r]eligion captures the very best and very worst of who we are, and to see only the best or the worst of religion is a dangerous error. If you see only the good, you become an apologist and take no responsibility for the incredible violence that religion is so capable of unleashing. If you see only the bad in religion, then you miss all the biggest questions, the most profound longings, the deepest fears and the greatest aspirations that define us. When faith is working right it can be profound, inspiring and a great force for positive change in the world, and it can help us lead more giving, productive, and fulfilling lives. (Hirschfield, 9)

The question isn’t “how religious” we are. The question is how we use religion to make ourselves and our world just a little bit better. So if we can see religion as a means, but not an end, then we can realize that someone else doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – we are all on a journey, all of us hoping to become a little better this year than we were last year, and making a world a little more whole this year than it was last year. So on this Yom Kippur, remind us that the end we are all striving towards are tikkun hanefesh, the repair of our souls, and tikkun ha’olam, the repair of our world. But remind us that there are many paths to that same destination, and that others’ journeys are not our own. And yet also help us remember that we need our own path that we can embrace. So help us find our specific language to articulate our values. Help us see the world through a particular lens. And so most of all, help us to create religion is at its best, when the values of openness and devotion don’t contradict each, but instead, bring out the best in each other.

Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and g’mar chatimah tovah.


Filed under General

Why Can Judaism Embrace Science So Easily?

I recently had a conversation with a neuroscientist, who also happened to be a self-described atheist. He knew I was a rabbi and so in the middle of the conversation, he very tentatively asked me. “So…do you believe in evolution?” I think what he was really asking was, “Can you be a religious person who believes in science?” And my answer to that question is, “Of course.”

While some people think of science and religion as being inherently in conflict, I think it’s because they tend to define “religion” as “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” Quite honestly, if that’s what religion really was, I wouldn’t be religious!

In fact, it’s not “religion” in general, but that particular definition of religion that is so often in conflict with science. Instead, my experience with Judaism has been that it embraces science quite easily. So why is that?

While there may be many reasons, there are three in particular that I have found to be especially significant:

1. The Bible is almost never read simply literally

Yes, the Bible is the basis of Judaism. But Judaism as it is practiced today is not biblical, it’s rabbinic, which means that it’s about studying and engaging with the text, but not stopping at face value. I’ve met people who haven’t understood that distinction — when I had a student pulpit in Sandusky, Ohio, for example, a group came to the synagogue asking “where we offered up our sacrifices,” because they believed that Jews still followed the literal laws of Leviticus.

Instead, when Jews read the Bible today through a rabbinic worldview, we are trying to answer two separate questions — first, what did the text mean in its time, and second, how can we create interpretations that will give us lessons for our time?

Indeed, the Bible shouldn’t be taken simply literally today, because circumstances, societies, norms and knowledge have all changed.

A great example of that comes from how the Rabbis interpret the verse “an eye for an eye.” While that is what the Bible says, to the Rabbis, that’s not what the verse means. Instead, the Rabbis argue, “an eye for an eye” actually means financial compensation, and they go on for multiple pages in the Talmud trying to explain their reasoning. They don’t read that verse on its simple, literal level, but through the lenses of fairness, of common sense, of other verses in the Torah, and of the best legal knowledge they had at that time.

So now we can also see why in Judaism, the beginning of Genesis is not in conflict with the big bang theory or natural selection. On the one hand, for its time, the Bible provided an origin story that was a story that worked then, but now, science provides a much better explanation for how we got here.

But the Bible isn’t meant to be taken only literally — it’s designed to be a source of study and exploration for the questions of our time. The point of the Creation story is really to challenge us with questions like, “How should we treat people if everyone is created in the image of God? What are our responsibilities to this world if it God has called it ‘good’?”

In Judaism, there’s no concept of “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Instead, Judaism pushes us to embrace the text for what it was back then, and to create new ways of reading the text for what it can be now.

2. Questioning is not only acceptable — it’s encouraged

There’s a phrase that recurs all the time in rabbinic literature — “How do we know this?” The Rabbis always had to explain their reasoning. And if there was a choice between believing something because of a Divine miracle or believing something because of thoughtful and reasoned arguments, there was no question which one the Rabbis would accept — reason and logic would always win.

The classic story about this comes from the Talmud, where a Rabbi named Eliezer was arguing with all the other Rabbis about a minute detail of Jewish law, and trying to convince them all that he was right. As the story goes,

…Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Rabbis did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: “If I am right, let this carob tree prove it!” Sure enough, the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits, and some say 400 cubits, from its place. “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” the Rabbis retorted.

And again he said to them “If I am right, let this river prove it!” Sure enough, the river of water flowed backward. “No proof can be brought from a river,” they rejoined…

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If I am right, let God Himself prove it!” Sure enough, a Divine voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!” Rabbi Joshua then stood up and protested: “The Torah is not in heaven! We pay no attention to a Divine voice, [because now that the Torah has been given to humanity, people are the ones who are to interpret it.]” (Baba Metzia 59b)

So even though the Torah was seen to be a gift from God and was sacred scripture, as soon as the Torah had been given to humans, any arguments would have to be settled by logic and reason — and would trump even a voice from God.

Similarly, science is never to take anything on faith. Science is about continually questioning assumptions, revising theories, and integrating new data. So critical thinking — an essential aspect of science — is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

3. There is no fixed, systematic theology

There’s a great Yiddish expression that says, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” In fact, I think that claiming that you “know God’s will” is an act of incredible hubris. Instead, what we say about God has much more to say about us than about it says about God. There are, in fact, a whole range of different theologies within Judaism (you can find some of them in the terrific books Finding God and The God Upgrade, both of which describe a whole range of differing — and sometimes even conflicting — theologies.)

And while I can only speak personally here, to me, “God” isn’t really a noun at all — it’s a verb.

Here’s why. The most common name that God gives Godself in the Torah is “YHVH,” a name that is sometimes thought to be so holy that no one was allowed to pronounce it. But that’s not exactly right — it’s not that “YHVH” was not allowed to be pronounced, it’s that it is possible that it is literally unpronounceable. Hebrew is written with only consonants, but the four letters that make up the word “YHVH” (yod, hay, vav and hay) at times also acted as vowels. And as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner once said), if you tried to pronounce a name that was all vowels, you’d risk serious respiratory injury.

But perhaps even more importantly, the name YHVH is actually a conflation of all the tenses of the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s name could be seen as “was-is-will be,” so God isn’t something you can capture or name — God is only something you can experience.

And indeed, when Moses is at the burning bush, having just been told by God that he will be leading the Israelites out of Egypt, he says, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God responds that God’s name is “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” which is often translated as “I am what I am.” But it could also be translated as, “I am what I will be.” So God is whatever God will be — we simply have no idea. Indeed, for my own theology, I believe that God is found in the “becoming,” transforming “what will be” into “what is.”

Science, too, is very much about process. Science at its best is about testing hypotheses, setting up experiments, and exploring ideas. And if new data or new evidence arises, scientific knowledge changes. Science can’t be tied down to old theories — it is dynamic and ever-changing.

Just like our experience of God.

And perhaps that’s how science and religion can be reconciled — not as two realms that are in conflict or as “non-overlapping magesteria” (as Stephen Jay Gould once described them), but as things you do.

Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.

So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict — especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead, religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.


Filed under General