Tag Archives: Science

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.

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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.

Contrast

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.

Concert

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.

Conflict

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.

Contact

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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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?

Curiosity

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.

Awe

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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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.

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Are Rational Religious People All That Rare? (Part I)

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book called Caveman Logic, by Hank Davis. The main thrust of the book is that our Stone-Age minds still cling to superstitious thinking, and that in order to act more appropriately, we have a responsibility to move past those primitive impulses and cognitive mistakes that make religion feel so “natural” and appealing to the average person.

Obviously, religion can easily quash critical thinking, and instead, encourage blind faith. Our minds very easily cling to a “Santa Claus” view of God, believing that if we do good things, we will be rewarded, but if we do bad things, we will be punished. That may be comforting when we are children (or even as adults!), but when are able to become more rational, we see that it’s a hard belief to justify. Not only that, uncritical religious thinking can easily lead to narrow-mindedness and arrogance, and has justified wars, genocides, oppression and great injustice. So Davis argues that because of all of these reasons, it’s important for human beings to move beyond religion.

I, of course, disagree. The issue in my mind isn’t what religion is, but how it is used. If it is approached and presented compassionately, if it pushes people to act more justly, if it brings more meaning into their lives, and if it elevates us to become stronger and kinder human beings, it can be a great good. To me, our goal shouldn’t be getting rid of religion — it should be about moving beyond the “Santa Claus” view of God to create a more sophisticated theology, and using religion to improve our world, rather than harm it.

A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed Hank Davis, to share these points, and he was kind enough to respond. So with his permission, I am excerpting a few our e-mails, to pose two questions: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people all that rare?

The Initial E-mail

GM: …Rather than rejecting God, I think it is much more valuable to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world, and then check our experience against it. And if that means we need to change our theology, so be it. Indeed, my personal theology is very close to what you articulated…

I believe it is essential to develop a sense of gratitude. I believe that there are many things outside of my control and that I will never understand. Since I have absolutely no idea what happens after we die, I believe my greatest responsibility is to do the best I can to improve myself and our world here and now. And most crucially, I believe that what we say about God has much more to do with who we are than what God is. In fact, I often teach that “all theology is autobiography” (in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller). And since people are looking for meaning, relevance and purpose in their life, I have come to believe that a rational, scientifically-grounded view of spirituality can have enormous benefit…

Real spirituality, in my mind, is not about angels or talking to the dead. Instead, real “spirituality” involves looking within ourselves to see who we are, and striving to make ourselves and world more just. And while religion is certainly not necessary for this process, if presented well, it can easily help support that journey through communal support and through language to articulate it.

Hank Davis’ Response:

HD: …If you were even remotely typical of the clergy, I would change my view and probably would never have written Caveman Logic. But you’re not…you’re probably way to the left of center in your own denomination. In short, I’d like and admire you as a friend, but I can’t imagine you as a spokesperson for either religion or the clergy. You speak for what it might have been had it gone right. But it didn’t…

[Your point of view is] sadly, about 3 standard deviations to the enlightened side of average.

We are still writing back to each other, so Part II will be coming soon, but I wanted to explore those questions listed above: 1) can religion allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people as rare as Hank Davis thinks they are?

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