05/27/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

3 Major Stumbling Blocks in the Science and Religion Debate

Why is the discourse about science and religion so utterly unproductive?

Almost every day, we hear about school boards fighting against scientific literacy, or screeds about how religion brainwashes our children. Why is it so hard for us to talk about religion and science in any meaningful and constructive way?

I'd suggest that there are three major  stumbling blocks that are making a conversation surrounding religion and science unproductive.

1. We create a false dichotomy

This is, far and away, the biggest problem in creating a constructive conversation about science and religion -- it's often presented as "science versus religion," assuming that when anyone talks about religion and science, we have to pick one or the other.

But for most people, the question is presenting a false dichotomy. If you were to ask religious people who are not fundamentalist, "Do you accept science or do you accept religion?" the answer you would likely hear is "yes."

That's why people like Professor Michael Zimmerman have created organizations such as "The Clergy Letter Project." Currently, over 13,000 religious leaders have publicly stated:

We...believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.

On the scientific side, while scientists are generally less religious than the general population, there are very many who have a positive (or at least neutral) view on religion, and some atheistic scientists even use words such as "sacred" to describe their work.

Yet because the media feeds on conflict, we tend to see lots of article about "science versus religion." In truth, however, only a small percentage of the population buys into that outlook.

2. Offense makes people play defense

Let's say you're a somewhat religious person (however you define that) -- and if you are an American, there's a high likelihood that's the case. You also view yourself as a "reasonable" person, so a "Reason Rally" shouldn't be the least bit threatening -- in fact, you think that a little more reason in our public discourse would be a good thing.

You then see a clip of this "Reason Rally," where one of the most influential scientists tells a huge crowd of people to "mock [you], ridicule [you], in public, with contempt."

If this person represented "the scientific community," how would you feel about science? You probably wouldn't say, "You know, this scientist makes  a really good point -- I should reject my worldview." Instead, you'd probably become more and more entrenched in your point of view, and feel less and less inclined to embrace scientific findings and knowledge.

Offense makes people play defense, so when people like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne or Lawrence Krauss rail against the evils of religion, they end up making it harder for religious people to find the value in science.

Indeed, one commonality between religious people and scientists is that they both are human beings, and when we humans are attacked, we fight back.  We stop fighting for a common cause, and end up fighting each other.

So when the science and religion discussion becomes attacks and counter-attacks, the public conversation quickly devolves into deeper polarization, making it harder for us to work together to address the huge issues our country and our world face.

3. Strawman arguments

The third challenge for advancing a productive conversation about religion and science is that when it is portrayed as a debate, each side portrays the other as a strawman.

Religious people who push against teaching evolution, for example, argue strongly that they see a clear link from science to atheism to immorality. Yet we know that neither of those steps are guaranteed to happen, or are even likely to occur. After all, we all know many people who don't believe in God, but are kind and compassionate people!

Even more importantly, when scientists are trying to study, teach or do research, their goal isn't to destroy religion and corrupt our children.  They are focused on their work, trying to solve problems and advance human knowledge.

On the other side, religion is much more varied and nuanced than "follow the rules handed down by an invisible Father Figure in the sky." Most people join a religion for a sense of community, for the chance to come together to advance social justice, and for some structure and meaning in our lives.

There's a quote in the Talmud that says that "we should judge everyone in the pan of merit." Most people in this world are not trying to harm others and make the world worse. Rather, they are doing their best to improve themselves and the lives of others.

So real, actual religious people and scientists are much more than strawmen. Fighting against caricatures of either side keeps us from engaging with the individuals who are both multi-faceted and are trying to do good work in this world.

So what do we do?

What is the best way to overcome these stumbling blocks? It's to model an effective and constructive discussion surrounding religion and science.

Rather than framing the conversation as "choose either science or religion," or encouraging attacks and counter-attacks, or presenting simplistic views on each side, what would it look like to have a provocative, respectful and thought-provoking discussion on this topic?

That's why on Thursday, May 29 at 7 pm, Sinai and Synapses and Central Synagogue will be presenting a discussion on the topic "Can Science and Religion Co-Exist?" with three brilliant scholars:

We will looking at questions like, "Has science replaced religion? If evolution has supplanted Genesis as our origin story, are there other realms where we have to re-think the role of religion today? How should religion evolve in our scientific age?"

This will be free and open to the public at Central Synagogue (55th and Lexington Ave. in New York), in the hopes of overcoming some of these stumbling blocks.

Because ultimately, if we can see the best in both science and religion, we can find the tools and the language we need to bring out the best in ourselves -- and in one another.