Writing About Science and Religion Within the Promise of Rosh Hashanah

09/29/2011 03:46 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011
  • Noah Efron Fellow, Shaharit: A Think Tank for New Israeli Politics

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time of reflection, and I find myself reflecting on this.

In January, I wrote an essay, posted here, suggesting that we ought to think differently about science and religion. What many of us think about first when we think about how science and religion meet, I posited, is the sniping that erupts every so often over, say, whether or not the truth of evolution is open to dispute. (If you're looking for a good recent example, see Richard Dawkins' essay in the Washington Post, "Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a Fact." My point was that the putative conflict and confluence of ideas -- of theories and theologies -- are only part of the story of religion and science. I ended the piece grandly, with a pledge. "Over the next months," I wrote:

I will present in a series of essays examples of these other sorts of meetings of science, technology and religion: on Wall Street and Main Street, in bedrooms and boardrooms and examination rooms, in bistros and bodegas, in short, in all the places where, as a matter of course, we live our lives.

Nine months have passed, and in that time I have written not a further word about religion and science. Until now.

There is a reason why I fell silent then, and there's a reason why I'm breaking silence now. I shut up because I was unnerved. People responded to the essay, not in huge numbers, but still more than I expected: several hundred reader comments beneath the original post, dozens of bloggers wrote about it, other sites reposted it, and I received a quick quantum of emails from folks who dug up my university address.

The replies were of many sorts. Some were appreciative, some uncomprehending, some critical. A small number were angrily dismissive. On The Huffington Post, readers commenting on my essay took to attacking each other. If it had been a saloon, tables would have overturned, chairs splintered and bottles shattered.

In my essay, I had cited with admiration an encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI about the Internet, causing some to conclude that, although I am an observant Jew, I am a covert apologist for the Holy See. "This is clearly a pro-Pope and pro-Catholicism article," one reader wrote, "and has no place in a serious discussion about Religion and Science." The Pope's analysis, I had written, was alive to the power and pathos of new science-driven technologies, expressing sympathy for what goes on "behind the locked bedroom door of a teen at a screen, waiting, forlorn, to be friended." One reader commented that "perhaps Efron finds being 'friended' a lot more exciting than most people?" -- intimating, I think, that contemplating teens on-line is for me a source of perverse sexual pleasure.

Much of the criticism was less exotic. Jerry Coyne, a biology professor at the University of Chicago, reprinted a big piece of the essay on his blog, "Why Evolution is True," introducing it with this:

You'd think there would only be a finite number of arguments about why science and faith are compatible, but Noah Efron, a city councilman in Tel Aviv, Israel, has come up with a new one. It's not worth spending much time on, but we have to keep up with the enemy. In an article at (where else?) HuffPo ... Efron finds the loving concordat of science and faith in the internet.

Enemy? I was puzzled. Figuring that Coyne was a university sort like me, a colleague committed to civilized discourse, I added my own comment to his blog:

A friend forwarded me your post and, as I'm the guy getting slagged, reading it is a strange, dismaying experience. I wasn't arguing for "accommodation" (whatever that would be) or a "loving concordat between religion and science" (whatever that might be). What I was saying is that so much of the discussion of the relationship between religion and science focuses on the pretty abstract issue of evolution, when there are a million points of contact between the two that aren't about abstract ideas, but about other more practical things, like RU486 and Prozac and the internet.

You can agree or disagree with this, but it's weird that it meets with the anger that it does here, or the icky innuendo... I'm a historian of science, university professor, avid advocate of science, unnerved opponent of creationists. So why the vitriol?

Coyne didn't respond, but one of his readers did:

all atheistic thinkers simply want zero commentary about anything from religious folk, from the Pope on down, about the internet, evolution, you name it. Their commentary is "tainted", just like any and all food from a restaurant that has been judged unsafe by the health department.

Which left me stunned and bummed and enervated. This is not faux naiveté. I know that the internet incubates incivility, and that it is a Newtonian law of digital culture that for every statement posted on the internet, there will come an equal and opposite response, this one questioning your intelligence, hygiene and sexual appetites. What dismayed me about this discourse was not so much the suggestion that I am a child-seducing, papist imbecile. It was that the act of merely considering together religion and science is so disturbing to so many people that it almost cannot be done. It dismays me to think that "all atheistic thinkers simply want zero commentary about anything from religious folks," for while that statement is doubtless an exaggeration, it expresses something that is true, I think, for a great many people.

I am flummoxed by the stark us-vs.-them of public discourse about science and religion, and the brio with which people flame one another when the subject is raised, because I myself am both us and them. Many people are, I suspect. I chose history of science as a profession because science offered so clear a demonstration of the nearly boundless extent of human creativity and genius. At the same time, the Judaism with which I was raised, and with which I now raise my own kids, binds me to others in my community, and to generations past and generations to come, with an intimacy and intricacy that lends my life power, amplitude and meaning. My commitments don't clash, but they do meet in perplexing ways. What a doctor sees as a serotonin deficit, a Rabbi may see as existential angst, and the relative weight I give to these two descriptions (each perhaps true in its own way) determines much about the texture of my life in middle-age. This is a matter -- a religion-and-science matter -- that I want desperately to discuss and, in time, understand. And there are many other like it.

Which leads me back to Rosh Hashanah. The word shanah ("year" in Hebrew), comes from the verb "to repeat." A new beginning. Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The promise of Rosh Hashanah is that sometimes you can do the same thing, with courage and faith and maybe a sense of humor, and different results will come.

Which is why I'm writing again about religion and science.