Is Religion a 'Science Stopper'?

05/22/2013 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013
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Like the idea that religion is the cause of most wars (see my earlier blog), the idea that there is a conflict between religion and science is often presented by well-intended, educated individuals as a self-evident fact. This comes from the assumptions that being religious means that one must reject any scientific discoveries that contradict religious doctrine, and that believing in God means that one is satisfied with supernatural explanations for natural events, and therefore has no interest in looking to science for answers.

Let's briefly examine these assumptions by first looking to history. There is a common belief that in the past any scientist who dared to challenge religious doctrine was arrested, tortured or even brutally killed by religious authorities. There appears to good evidence to support this idea: The burning at the stake of Dominican friar Giordano Bruno in 1600 for his cosmological views, the house imprisonment of Galileo from 1634 until his death in 1642, the excommunication of Baruch Spinoza in 1656 for teaching the "abominable heresy" of pantheism, to name a few...

These are tragic incidents for which religious establishments must be held responsible. But a detailed investigation reveals that these tragedies are much more nuanced than the simple model of religion vs. science allows. These incidents were generally more about political power and personal ambition at times of change than religious dogma, and much of what we think we know is not wholly true. For instance, the popular image of Galileo brought to trial in chains to face a sadistic Inquisition, where he uttered his defiant statement "but it moves," before being thrown into the papal dungeon, is a dramatic 19th century fabrication. In fact, the pope at that time, Urban VIII, had been a good friend and supporter of Galileo, and reluctantly confronted him not because the Church condemned heliocentrism, but because Galileo publically mocked the pope (and while not minimizing the injustice of Galileo's punishment, one can well imagine that mocking a secular ruler at this time in history would have resulted in a much more severe consequence than being confined to a beautiful Tuscan villa with servants and wealthy visitors).

Incidents of persecution by religious authorities against scientific research are actually quite rare. Over most of its existence, in fact, the Catholic Church was the center of open scientific investigation, supporting mathematicians, physicists, botanists and astronomers. Many people are surprised to learn that, in spite of common belief to the contrary, the Catholic Church did not oppose Darwinism (Christian opposition to Darwinism came in the early 20th century from the newly created sect of Protestant Fundamentalism), knew that the Earth was round as determined by ancient Greek calculations, supported human anatomical dissection and openly accepted geological evidence concluding an age of the Universe which is vastly older than counting days in the Bible. There was no perceived division between theology and science because the Bible was read for wisdom, not scientific facts. The 16th century Italian Cardinal Caesar Baronius made this position clear in his defense of Copernicus, saying, "The Bible teaches us how to go to Heaven, not how the Heavens go."

Judaism too has always supported rational, scientific investigations. Certainly there are ultra-Orthodox communities, as in every religion (and in every institution), that do restrict questioning and seek to silence those who disagree, but these are a tiny fraction of the Jewish population, and do not represent traditional Judaism, which has always urged us to dig below the surface to uncover truth. "Examine the contents, not the bottle," the Talmud advises.

The idea that religion has historically been opposed to science is simply an erroneous and unsupported construct that was created in the late 19th century, primarily as an anti-Catholic polemic. And it is an idea that all (yes, all) knowledgeable historians categorically reject.

Some critics of religion argue, though, that religious beliefs themselves stop science; that for believers "God did it" is the final answer, and so the need to discover natural, measurable causes never arises. This theory has been labeled the "God of the Gaps" and goes something like this: Ancient people saw natural occurrences such as lightening bolts flashing across the sky, and knowing nothing about natural causation, assigned the cause of the lightening to an angry man in the clouds, which was the best explanation that they could up with, given their level of knowledge. And in order to appease this fictional angry man, religions were created. If these ancient civilizations had known that electrical discharges cause lightening, this theory posits, the need for a sky god, which once filled a gap in scientific knowledge, would disappear, along with the religion. But, this theory asserts, these ancient people, like religious people today, were so invested in the need to believe in their imaginary gods and to follow their tribal religion that they refused to consider scientific explanations. And so, this theory concludes, the conflict between religion and science was born and continues.

Last year I saw the "God of the Gaps" theory played out on television. In a debate with a prominent atheist who called religion a "scam," Fox TV host Bill O'Reilly answered, "I'll tell you why [religion's] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can't explain that." In response, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart asked noted astronomer Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson to respond to O'Reilly's comment. Dr. Tyson explained that the motion of the tides is caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon, not by supernatural forces. The audience applauded the victory of reason over superstition.

While in its presentation O'Reilly's "tides" comment was not sophisticated theology, I'm sure that he, like all educated adults, knows that the Moon's pull on the Earth causes tides. (And I know the risk of defending O'Reilly and criticizing Stewart on HuffPost...) He wasn't suggesting that God is a cosmic magician who wiggles a finger to make the tides slosh around, but rather that God, as the creative intelligence of the Universe, created a reality that operates according to finely established physical laws, resulting in predictable movements, such as the tides, in which the Moon is a causational component.

God doesn't replace natural phenomena as the cause of an action, but God is the first cause of all action. Natural phenomena, like gravity, are secondary causes. (To be clear, I'm not asserting that God is not active and does not intervene, but the topic of God's involvement can't be addressed in this short format.)

All actions and objects have multiple causes, and we don't need to pick only one. For example, a car operates because a designer conceived it, workers fabricated and assembled it, and the engine operates in accordance with the physical laws of internal combustion. All are necessary, non-conflicting causes. Declaring, "Ford did it" doesn't means that one no longer desires to understand internal combustion and metal fabrication. Quite the contrary. Through the exploration of the workings of the car one can uncover and marvel in the mind of its designer. Conversely, taking apart the engine and understanding the laws behind its mechanical operations doesn't mean that there is no designer.

To assert that religion is inherently in conflict with science is, I believe, to deeply misunderstand both. One can certainly question God's existence and qualities, and a vast amount has been written on this, but we must recognize that the belief in a Creator -- who goes by many names over many traditions -- does not contradict natural explanations, and the Bible is not, and historically has not been, seen by most religious leaders, thinkers and followers as a replacement for science. We need not choose between religion and science, faith and reason, because both are needed for a full experience of life.

As a rabbi I fully agree with Pope John Paul II, who wrote in his 1998 encyclical, "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth." To me, the majestic 13.7 billion year journey from the explosive beginning of our Universe, to the coalescence of matter into spinning galaxies, to the fits and starts of life as it struggled toward consciousness, is the greatest story ever told. In addition, I find personal and communal growth in my religious practice, and I find my purpose and my life in my relationship with, and contemplation of, the eternal loving God.