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Kickstart School 5778: Science and Torah

How to deal with the hard questions students ask about how science and Torah interface.
When: Sun August 27 10:40 AM - 11:35 AM

Thoughts

Finding God inhering naturalistically in all things -- a theory usually called panentheism -- is the only adequate religious response to science.
-R. Jeremy Kalmanofsky

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

The Rebbe Meets Einstein: A Dialogue

Monday, June 5, 2017 @ 09:06 PM
posted by Ronald W. Pies, MD

“The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” — Galileo Galilei
There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. —R.G. Ingersoll

 

Introduction

                When I was a resident in psychiatry over thirty-five years ago, one of my mentors said something that forever changed the way I thought about my profession. “In psychiatry,” he said, “you can do biology in the morning and theology in the afternoon.” My teacher was being a bit facetious, but on a deeper level, he meant what he said. I understood his message to be simply this: the problems of my patients could be understood and approached from both a “scientific” and a “religious” perspective, without fear of contradiction or inconsistency. Yes, I know—there are many critics of psychiatry who would challenge its “scientific” bona fides, but that is a debate that would take me far afield. Instead, I would like to use my teacher’s claim as a point of entry into a much broader question; namely, in what ways do science and religion differ, and in what sense do they have features in common?

                This is hardly a new question, and I don’t claim to have any revolutionary new answers. But I hope that by distinguishing between the truth claims and the wisdom claims of these two realms—science and religion—I can make the case for a modified form of “compatibilism.”  To do this, I will draw out the ancient Augustinian distinction between scientia and sapientia, whose meanings I will try to make clear presently. In addition, as an illustration of how this distinction may be helpful, I will present an imagined dialogue between two seminal figures in the realms of science and religion: Albert Einstein and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as “the Rebbe.” What makes this dialogue different from the usual “Science vs. Religion” boxing match is the eclectic and nuanced positions of the two figures. For in an important sense, Albert Einstein was a deeply religious scientist–and the Rebbe, a deeply scientific theologian. read more

Paleoanthropology in Genesis

Tuesday, December 1, 2015 @ 05:12 PM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

According to the Bible, God commanded Homo Sapiens to “fill up planet Earth” (Gen. 1:28), and as a species we have most certainly done that. But what motivated prehistoric mankind to spread out throughout the entire world, in the evolutionary rapid time of less than 60-80,000 years?  

Homo Erectus originated somewhere in East Africa almost two million years ago, and then slowly spread out to inhabit South Africa, the southern parts of Europe (Spain and Italy), the Caucasus, India, China, and Indonesia over the next million years. Homo Sapiens reached Indonesia and Australia within 40-50,000 years of its exodus from Africa. New research by a paleoanthropologist at the University of York suggests that moral and emotional reasons, especially betrayals of personal and communal trust, are the best way to understanding the rapid spread of our own species around the world.  read more

Faith in Religion, Confidence in Science

Monday, June 22, 2015 @ 11:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Yale

In response to a theoretical physicist’s article regarding developments in cosmology and the then current debate about whether the universe had a finite age or was in a steady state without beginning or end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, initiated a brief but revealing correspondence. The correspondence was prompted by Schneerson’s deep concern over what he considered to be widespread misconceptions about science and his perceived urgent need to correct those misunderstandings. In this correspondence, Schneerson demonstrated an expected devotion to the text of the Torah and traditions relating to it, but also a certain and perhaps unexpected awareness of technical issues, for instance whether light was an electro-magnetic wave or “corpuscular” or both. More importantly, in the course of the correspondence, he articulated his approach to faith and science and what some asserted was a conflict between them.

Schneerson thought the purported conflict was the result of a misconception of the nature of science. The “sciences,” he said, “are at bottom nothing more than assumptions, work hypotheses and theories which are only ‘probable’ . . . .”  By contrast, he viewed “religious truths” as “definitive and categorical.” Consequently, science could not challenge religion because “science can never speak in terms of absolute truth.”  read more

Why Did Homo Sapiens Become Gentler?

Friday, August 22, 2014 @ 01:08 PM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Although, based on the news media, it is difficult to believe that Homo Sapiens (“HS”) have become biologically gentler, an apparent reduction in testosterone about 50-60,000 years ago led to human personalities becoming gentler and human faces becoming more feminine, according to a new study based on measurements of more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls. This led people to have gentler personalities and to great advances in art and tool making.

The study, published in the August 2014 issue of the journal Current Anthropology, found that human skulls changed in ways that indicate a lowering of testosterone levels at around the same time that culture was blossoming. The study’s lead author, Robert Cieri, said: The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament resulting from having a little less testosterone in action.  read more

The Coyne Wars Reach Einstein

Sunday, March 9, 2014 @ 10:03 AM
posted by Roger Price

Q: What do Jonathan Sacks, Ross Douthat and Albert Einstein have in common?

A:  Let’s see. The first is the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, the second is a New York Times based columnist who writes frequently    about religion, and the third was the pre-eminent physicist of the twentieth century, responsible for teaching us how light can bend, time can slow, and mass and energy can convert into each other.

Oh, I know. In recent months, Jerry Coyne, biology professor at the University of Chicago, and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, has written critically of each.

In the cases of Sacks and Douthat, Coyne was responding to an essay. Rabbi Sacks’ piece appeared in The Spectator under the title “Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can defeat the new barbarians.” In it, Rabbi Sacks railed against two forces he saw as detrimental to an enduring, moral society: first, the idolatry of “the market, the liberal democratic state and consumer society,” aided and abetted by tone deaf, humorless secularists, the “new atheists,” and, second, a religious fundamentalism which combines into a toxic brew “the hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights.” read more

JEWISH SOCIOLOGY: PEW’S IMPRECISE AND MISLEADING CONSTRUCT OF “JEWS OF NO RELIGION”

Monday, November 25, 2013 @ 04:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

Credit: Pew Research Center

Of the many interesting aspects of the recently released survey of Jewish Americans by the Pew Research Center (the “Pew Portrait”), perhaps none is more troubling than the distorted bisection  of American Jews into two primary sub-groups, one labeled “Jews by religion” and the other “Jews of no religion.” Once those designations were established, Pew, among other things, then sought to determine whether members of the two sub-groups had different attitudes or characteristics, whether, for instance, a person assigned to one sub-group was more likely or less likely to believe or behave differently than a person assigned to the other.

How large is the group of “Jews of no religion?” Pew found that about one fifth of adult American Jews (totaling approximately 1.2 million individuals) were Jews of “no religion” and that among Jews born after 1980 (“Jewish Millennials”) the fraction increases to one in every three. (See Portrait, at 7, 23, 32/214.) Pew’s survey director reportedly said that the rise in the number of Jews “of no religion” was the most significant finding of the study.

Just as one might expect, as soon as the Pew Portrait was published, the commentary class waxed wise on Pew’s findings about the Jews of no religion. Much of the concern expressed was about related findings that Jews of no religion were less connected to the Jewish community, less likely to be involved in Jewish organizations and less likely to raise their children as Jewish. (See Portrait, 60-62, 67-69/214.)

In all the hubbub, an important fact seems to have been overlooked: not only is the label “Jews of no religion” awkward, nowhere in the more than two hundred pages of the Pew Portrait does Pew precisely define what it means by “religion.” Pew’s failure to do so has created unnecessary ambiguity and confusion and muddled its survey results. At one point Pew says that Jews of no religion are “also commonly called secular or cultural Jews.” (See Portrait, at 8/214.) But those characterizations were not offered as primary choices in Pew’s survey questionnaire.  (See Portrait, at 177, 186/214.) A look at the survey, beyond the executive summary, reveals some of the problems of Pew’s binary construct which is, perhaps, more provocative than probative. read more

Science and Judaism: One Rabbi’s Personal Theology

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 @ 04:10 PM
posted by Rabbi George B. Driesen

A few years ago on a Shabbat evening at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland an almost surely unprecedented event occurred. Through the magic of the Hubble Telescope, the internet, and the digital projector, congregants were able to see large images of the vast, exploding universe in which we are all suspended. As the images were paraded one by one before the amazed eyes of the congregants, Steve Brody, an Institute for Science and Judaism Board member and astrophysicist, identified and explained them. Some were familiar; most were not.

There were galaxies, clusters of galaxies, clouds of interstellar gas in which stars are being created, dying stars, and the remains of a supernova. While Steve explained the scientific significance of these denizens of space, a rabbi declaimed passages from the Tanach, our Hebrew Bible. In apposition to a photograph of the Milky Way in which the profusion of stars that comprise it appeared in all their glory, the rabbi quoted God’s promise to Abraham:

      [God] took him outside and said “Look toward heaven and count the stars,
if you are able to count them.”
And He added “So shall your offspring be.”   read more

Extraterrestrial Life-Forms: A Religious View

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 @ 10:10 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world.

Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God. The value, meaning and importance of a human life, is not a scientific issue; it is a religious issue.

So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. read more

The Evolution of Human Spirituality

Thursday, July 11, 2013 @ 10:07 AM
posted by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Religion is not a maladaptive “illusion” (Freud), nor is religion a manipulative “opiate” (Marx). Religious behavior is a ubiquitous biological adaptation rooted in Homo Sapiens, because religion like intelligence and language helps human communities survive. Religion, like intelligence and language, can be used for both good and evil purposes, but this is also true of culture, science, politics and all other important human activities. Since almost all revealed religions teach that humans have a pre-birth soul that predisposes them to respond to a Divine call even before the revelation occurs, I identify the existence of a biologically based, self-conscious spiritual soul with the evolution of Homo Sapiens spirituality.

A reference to a prescriptural, prehistoric period when spiritual evolution was unaided  by God appears in the book of Genesis (4:26) where it states, “At that time humans began to invoke YHVH by name.” Most of the rabbinic commentators translate the verb hukhal to mean ‘profane’ taking this as a negative statement. But ‘began’ is the more normal meaning of the verb. The Torah asserts that prior to Enosh humans did not practice religion based on the divine insight of revelation (i.e., “invoke YHVH by name”) that they were able to do later. Mystical and spiritual experiences were interpreted by human intelligence without the benefit of prophetic revelation. In the spirit of this Torah insight I offer the following account of the evolution of pre-historic human spirituality. read more

Einstein, Kaplan and Heschel Walk Into A Bar

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 @ 06:09 PM
posted by Roger Price

It was in 1953, or so. The exact date is lost to memory.  The pub was somewhere just north of Columbia University. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of the century, picked the place in part because he was visiting an old friend at Columbia, as he was traveling from Princeton to his summer home on Long Island.  Not coincidentally, for he did not believe in coincidences, it was also not too far from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Einstein wanted to meet JTS luminaries Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and had heard that the bar had a booth in the back that was conducive to conversation. He was interested in Kaplan because he had heard of Kaplan’s attempts to create a Jewish theology without supernaturalism. The idea of a naturalist philosophy, or trans-naturalist as Kaplan sometimes called it, appealed to Einstein. Anyone whose prayer book was radical enough to get burned, by Jews no less, was a bonus for the seventy plus year old, but ever rebellious, Einstein.

Heschel was a different matter. A dozen or so years earlier, Heschel had been severely critical of Einstein because he thought Einstein had dismissed the God from heaven. Einstein was aware of the criticism, but had also heard Heschel described by some as a pantheist and by others as a panentheist. Einstein’s theology, such as it was, fell in there someplace, too, usually. It made no real difference to Einstein. All agreed that Heschel had a mystical bent. That approach made no sense at all to Einstein, but to some degree that was one of the points of the whole pub exercise.  He was there for a variation on one of his thought experiments. Except this time he was interested not so much in experimenting (though the idea of having a German Jew, a Polish Jew and a Litvak at the same table was intriguing). He was just enjoying thinking about thinking. read more