3.12.2006

Religion, Science--the Whole Megillah

I am pained and exasperated by ongoing and increasing fundamentalism in the world’s major religions today. Irshad Manji, for example, changed the title of her book The Trouble with Islam to The Trouble with Islam Today when it came out in paperback to encourage us to separate current fundamentalist extremism in the Muslim world from previous, more enlightened eras, when the Islamic world offered magnificent libraries, extolled education and critical analysis, celebrated life.

Discussions of “Creationism,” that frightening pseudo-concept that reminds one of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” more than of a logical and meaningful combination of religion and science are more disturbing than I can say as a college professor. It seems clear to the point of inarguable to me that what science intends and how science works is incompatible with the concept of religion. Religion and science are, in intent and usage, often simply antithetical.

Take the scientific method: a systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the formulation of a question or problem, collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Religion is simply not interested in data collection, experiment, and testing, except metaphorically or philosophically (and not even that if we’re talking fundamentalism). Religion is about taking things on faith. So, we plain and simply cannot bring religion into the science classroom. It just won’t fit through the damn door.

This said, science should not be taken for/as religion. There are questions science is entirely uninterested in, ill-suited for, or just plain incapable of addressing. Chemistry lab can’t help me answer “Do human beings have a soul?”, nor need it do so. If science becomes the only valuable way of knowing, we place equally artificial limits on ways of seeing and being in the world. There are questions of personal and cultural values that science cannot adequately address for me. But then, organized religion often cannot either.

In a recent issue of Reform Judaism, I read an article entitled “Evolution and Eden: Why Darwinism and Judaism are Perfectly Compatible” (Spring 2006: 44-46, 48). The Encino, CA rabbi who wrote the article, Harold M. Schulweis, may go places I do not because I am a secular Jew, but he offers some discussion of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or “Old Testament”) that I wish other well-meaning people of faith would grasp.

Schulweis asks, “What rescued Judaism from a rigid, fundamentalist literalism?” and answers that the Torah “possesses the essential character of poetry, not literal prose. To comprehend Torah you have to understand symbols, parables, metaphors, and allegories. Torah is art, a spiritual interpretation of life, not a mechanical record of facts—more like a love sonnet than a legal contract.”

I remember to this day a course at the University of Iowa taught by the amazing Rabbi Jay Holstein. His Old Testament Survey courses were among the most popular at the university when I attended graduate school there. The story of Cain and Abel as he tells it is illustrative. Let's take just a moment of it, stylized in my own fashion:

Q: If the name Cain is based on the Hebrew verb “to buy” and Abel means “vapor,” what are the odds this story is more important at a literal level (a tale of the children of the first humans) than as parable (what happens when you try to buy God’s favor)?

A: Who the heck names their son “vapor” and expects him to stick around, for pity’s sake?!

Frankly, I don’t engage much with religion in my life because religion is too slippery, too ripe for self-fulfilling prophesy and bandwagon craziness. The beautiful “poetry” of the Bible, for example, is in too many minds and hands a tool to interpret with personal bias then beat people over the head with. If I agree with Rabbi Schulweis that “Science is concerned with facts. The Torah is concerned with values,” I may not agree with him on defining and/or applying those Biblical “values.” If “Science is concerned with ‘what is’” and “The Torah is concerned with ‘what ought to be,’” then I’m very nervous about who gets to decide “what ought to be” and how these “morally driven” religious folk come to their conclusions.

What Schulweis does not distinguish is as important as what he does. We are allies in not wanting religion in the science classroom, but I do not believe you need religion to address the fact that “because science is morally neutral it is morally malleable; it can be made to justify healing or greed, selflessness or selfishness.” Everything is political, nothing is “morally neutral”—especially not the way it is practiced. A textbook definition of the scientific method may be “morally neutral,” but this method has been developed by “moral” beings within specific historical, political, and social contexts. It cannot be free of that stain, nor can any way of doing or being.

Certainly, I am thrilled to know that “[r]are is a rabbi” who would argue that “permitting the use of federal funds for medical research with stem cells taken from human embryos […] runs counter to God’s will,” yet I do not know that “[s]cience needs the conscience of Torah.” Science needs conscience, Torah needs conscience, “all God’s children” need conscience. But who decides the contours of that conscience, who decides how, when, where, and why to apply conscience? That kind of question I don’t want (interpretation of) Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, or any religious text to dictate, in or out of the classroom.

3 comments:

Kate said...

Religion, however it is dressed up does not belong in the science class. I think what the world needs, what young children need, starting with pre-school, is a study in ethics. What do I do when no one is looking? Don't need a religious tome of any kind for such study. What is "moral"? A way of behaving. Learning that all people deserve a degree of respect. I am not a religious person, I do believe there is a God. But the one I believe wants us to use all of ourselves in this world. I don't think he wants blind faith, a great bumper sticker I saw says, God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts. I've never understood why some people have wanted to force their beliefs on others, for whatever rational they dream up. The only thing that matters to me is that I do the right thing, when no one is looking.

Grace said...

i agree with Kates comment.


Are you familiar with the Science of Mind practitioners. It's based on quantum physics and the belief that all are whole, all are parts of a divine whole...there is no calling outside of self for help,etc....based on Thoreu, Emmerson, Ernest Holmes, many different prophets teachings. Working with the essence of their teachings from a scientic perspective.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

No, thomai, I don't know of it - but thank you for the reference, I'll look into it.

And Kate, you are so right that doing "the right thing" is most important when no one is looking.