Orthodox Judaism and Science: can they be reconciled?

Robert Bender November 2010 Atheist Society Talk

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attitude towards evolutionary science, which I examined a couple of years ago, comes from a sect in which few if any members are practising research scientists, so the profound hostility towards science and serious befuddlement about the nature of science comes from critics on the outside, sniping at something they do not understand.

The Jewish community in western countries is very different, as they are much more involved in mainstream activities, aspire to high educational achievement and many are actively involved in science, which challenges their talents. But the belief system of orthodox Jews is just as seriously threatened by many aspects of current science as is the belief system of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It creates serious dilemmas for orthodox Jews wishing to retain their orthodox beliefs, but also wishing to be honestly involved in scientific research.

In 1975 an American organisation, the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, published Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems, a volume of papers on the many issues where there is conflict, for the guidance and enlightenment of sincerely believing Jews who want to continue their scientific work but are often confronted with scientific theories which are in stark opposition to their orthodox beliefs. This applies especially strongly of course to evolution, as orthodox Jews get caught up in the rejection of evolution as an alternative to creation of the universe 5771 years ago, but also to other issues involving the age of the planet and the stars, geology and its systems of periods dividing the Earth’s 4.6 billion year history, and the usual suite of issues around freewill, Providence, ethics, population control (contraception, abortion, euthanasia, etc), and biblical criticism – all very familiar issues to those who follow the anxieties of fundamentalist Christian sects.

The book has 35 papers of varying length on a wide range of issues, 12 of them devoted to issues around evolution vs creation. I propose to discuss only three of these, given the limited time I have

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902 – 1994) was Lubavitcher Rebbe – chief rabbi of the Polish city of Lvov, seventh in his family. Because of the persecution of Jews in eastern Europe, he took his congregation to the USA and settled there, continuing his orthodox way of life surrounded by a secularised culture. He contributed a letter on Science and Judaism to the anthology, and a similar but somewhat different letter was found among his papers after his death. He was implacably hostile to the idea that the universe was not created 5,722 years before he wrote in 1961 (this year is numbered 5,771). The letter is written to a young scientist who had just attended a meeting at which the young man said something that bothered the rabbi. "It was quite a surprise to me to learn that you are still troubled by the problem of the age of the world as suggested by various scientific theories which cannot be reconciled with the Torah view that the world is 5722 years old. I underlined the word theories for it is necessary to bear in mind, first of all, that science formulates and deals with theories and hypotheses, while the Torah deals with absolute truths. These are two different disciplines, where "reconciliation" is entirely out of place." His concern was that his correspondent would waver in his commitment to daily orthodox practice of ritual prayers and other acts.

The basis for his concern appears in the letter found among his papers, in which he wrote: "The attempt to reinterpret the text of the first section of Bereishis (In the beginning [Genesis ch 1]) to the effect that it speaks of periods or eons, rather than ordinary days, or to apply indiscriminately the dictum the Torah speaks in the language of man, etc., is not only uncalled for, but it means tampering with the Mitzvah [commandment] of Shabbos [Sabbath] itself, which balances all the Torah. For, if one takes the words one day out of their context and plain meaning, one ipso facto abrogates the whole idea of Shabbos as the seventh day stated in the same context. The whole idea of Shabbos observance is based on the clear and unequivocal statement in the Torah: for in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he ceased from work and rested. Days, not periods." Schneerson’s entire concern was the theological support for the concept of the Sabbath. Reinterpret the days of creation as billions of years or anything other than days as we all understand the term and the concept of the Sabbath as a celebration of their god resting on the seventh day becomes a nonsense, an obviously human invention rather than a command from the god. The only protection against such destruction of the religious basis for the institution of the Sabbath is to preserve the 6 days of creation and to propose that the scientists have somehow got it all wrong, but might come to their senses at some time and accept that the word of the god in Genesis, an absolute truth, was right all along and the findings about billions of years was just a mistake.

To sustain this claim that Genesis contains absolute truth and science is all based on fallible proba-bilities, so should not bother an orthodox believer, Schneerson offered several familiar arguments, distinguishing between "empirical or experimental science, dealing with and confined to, describ-ing and classifying observable phenomena, and speculative ‘science’, dealing with unknown phenomena sometimes phenomena that cannot be duplicated in the laboratory. ‘Scientific specu-lation’ is actually a terminological incongruity; for science, strictly speaking, means ‘knowledge’, while no speculation can be called knowledge in the strict sense of the word." This is a refusal to accept that everything we know is based on probabilities, is more or less uncertain, and that is the nature of the human condition. Schneerson believed in absolutes and the only place to find them was in the Torah.

He then discusses the difference between interpolation and extrapolation, the latter being more or less illegitimate, speculative and producing unreliable results. "All speculation regarding the origin and age of the world comes within the second and weaker method, that of extrapolation. The weakness becomes more apparent if we bear in mind that a generalisation inferred from a known consequent to an unknown antecedent is more speculative than an inference from an antecedent to consequent." This supposedly powerful argument is supported by a silly number game. This "can be demonstrated very simply: Four divided by two equals two. Here the antecedent is represented by the dividend and divisor, and the consequent – by the quotient. Knowing the antecedent in this case, gives us one possible result – the quotient (2). However, if we know only the end result, namely, the number 2, and we ask ourselves, how can we arrive at the number 2, the answer permits several possibilities, arrived at by means of different methods: 1 plus 1 equals 2, 4 - 2 equals 2, 1 x 2 equals 2, 4 ÷ 2 equals 2. Note that, if other numbers come into play, the number of possibilities giving us the same result is infinite, (since 5 – 3 also equals 2, 6 – 4 equals 2, etc. ad infinitum)." Thus is all science reduced to meaningless and baseless speculation, as there is an infinity of alternatives to the ‘scientific’ explanation and no way of choosing among them.

"Add to this another difficulty, which is prevalent in all methods of induction. Conclusions based on certain known data, when they are ampliative in nature, i.e. when they are extended to unknown areas, can have any validity at all only on the assumption of ‘everything else being equal’, that is to say on an identity of prevailing conditions and their action and counter-action upon each other. If we cannot be sure that the changes would bear any resemblance in kind; if, furthermore, we cannot be sure that there were not other factors involved – such conditions or inferences are absolutely valueless!" With such generalisations based on little word plays, and no examination of any observational evidence and no acknowledgement that science is based on using confirmatory evidence, Schneerson reassures his reader that science can be no challenge to the absolute truths of the Torah, so the orthodox believer should have no hesitation in continuing his daily ritual practices, and suppressing all doubts.

Later in the paper he discusses the issue of fossils, and demolishes their evidence with two arguments: "In view of the unknown conditions which existed in ‘prehistoric’ times, conditions of atmospheric pressures, temperatures, radio-activity, unknown catalysers, etc, etc, …conditions that is, which could have caused reactions and changes of an entirely different nature and tempo from those known under the present day orderly processes of nature, one cannot exclude the possibility that dinosaurs existed 5722 years ago, and became fossilised under terrific natural cataclysms in the course of a few years rather than in millions of years, since we have no conceivable measure-ments or criteria of calculations under those unknown conditions." This is very much the non-scientist’s defence – you weren’t there, so you don’t know what it was like and can’t say anything of value about what was happening. You can only do that if you were there at the time.

His other defence is rather adventurous, but regrettably familiar: "Even assuming that the period of time which the Torah allows for the age of the world is definitely too short for fossilisation, we can still readily accept the possibility that god created ready fossils, bones or skeletons (for reasons best known to him) just as he could create ready living organisms, a complete man, and such ready products as oil, coal, or diamonds, without any evolutionary processes. As for the question, if it be true as above, why did god have to create fossils in the first place? The answer is simple: we cannot know the reason why god chose this manner of creation in preference to another, and whatever theory of creation is accepted, the question will always remain unanswered. The question, why create a fossil? is no more valid than the question, why create an atom? Certainly, such a question cannot serve as a sound argument, much less as a logical basis, for the evolutionary theory. What scientific basis is there for limiting the creative process to an evolutionary process only, starting with atomic and subatomic particles – a theory full of unexplained gaps and complications, while excluding the possibility of creation as given by the Biblical account? For, if the latter possibility be admitted, everything falls neatly into pattern, and all speculation regarding the origin and age of the world becomes unnecessary and irrelevant."

Unfortunately he does not offer any thoughts about what sort of god might decide to create artificial fossils so Earth looks ancient, but was actually made just this morning. We have a term for people who produce fake antiques, and Schneerson is so absorbed in his reverence for his god’s freedom to decide whatever pleased him, he didn’t see what an absurd and mischievous god he was proposing.

He concludes with a large claim: "If you are still troubled by the theory of evolution, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that it has not a shred of evidence to support it. On the contrary, during the years of research and investigation since the theory was first advanced, it has been possible to observe certain species of animal and plant life of a short life-span over thousands of generations, yet it has never been possible to establish a transmutation from one species into another, much less to turn a plant into an animal. Hence such a theory can have no place in the arsenal of empirical science."

His concluding advice is that the young man should continue his daily ritual practices untroubled by niggling doubts about evolutionary theory, reinforcing his opening statement that "obedience to the divine law can never be conditioned upon human approval. In other words, lack of understanding, and even the existence of ‘legitimate’ doubts, can never justify disobedience to the divine command-ments; how much less, when the doubts are ‘illegitimate’, in the sense that they have no real or logical basis, such as the ‘problem’ in question."

What seemed uppermost in Schneerson’s mind was deep reverence for the power and freedom to act as he chooses, of his god, which no human can hope to understand, and should not question, and the overwhelming centrality of the institution of the Sabbath in Jewish observance, which demands that the six days of creation recounted in Genesis 1 must be six ordinary days, or the Sabbath is deprived of all meaning, and the organisation of Jewish life around this weekly cycle for thousands of years is rendered comically nonsensical. So in effect all science must be rejected as valueless speculation. "Needless to say, it is not my intent to cast aspersions on science or to discredit the scientific method. Science cannot operate except by accepting certain working theories or hypotheses, even if they cannot be verified." This is an amazing echo of the argument used during the tussle of the Catholic church with Galileo in the early 17th century, that when what scientists were doing could be explained as just making sense of the appearances, without suggesting that any of it was really the explanation of reality, the church was not threatened. But when Galileo, discovering the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus, and the mountains of the moon, proposed that all this was really there, he must be made to recant.

Another contribution to the anthology was by Rabbi Simon Schwab (1908 to 1995) a contemporary of Schneerson, who migrated from Frankfurt in Germany to the USA and settled in Baltimore from 1934 and in the 1950s moved to New York, as rabbi of a large congregation of conservatives. His contribution is titled "How old is the universe?" Like Shneerson, his central concern is the validity of the institution of the Sabbath, as a command from god to commemorate six ordinary days of creation, verifying that the world was then really 5722 years old. Schwab acknowledged the modern understanding that the Earth is an oblate spheroid with different time zones, and feels a need to explain Genesis 1’s account of there being a light and a darkness on the first day while the sun was only created on day four.

"One may ask, what could possibly be the simple meaning of yom (day), when there was nothing visible in the sky which could indicate a lapse of time? What does it mean when the Torah speaks of the first, second and third ‘day’ of creation? How can one tell time as long as the earth consists of naught but a dark undefined mass? When did the first day start and when did it end? Obviously there is a different time for the beginning of evening and morning for each point on earth and not one uniform ‘evening’ and morning’ for the entire planet? Does something like absolute time exist as an independent entity outside of heaven and earth?" This at least shows a desire to avoid silly word games and ground what he is saying in the realities of a rotating planet lighted by a distant sun. But there is the over-riding need to accept the absolute truth of Genesis and somehow fit what Schwab knows of the realities of our planet into this framework.

His study of Genesis 1 yielded this: "The very first sentence reports the prime act of creation: ‘Out of absolute nothingness the entire Universe and the earth were called into existence. ‘Shamayim" [a Hebrew plural word meaning ‘the heavens’] means the Universe in its totality, complete with all the heavenly bodies….Not until the fourth day did the sun become visible in the sky thus becoming a regulator of time. During the first three days of creation the sun and the stars were not recognis-able from the earth." This is the same fudge I found in the Jehovah’s Witness interpretation. Genesis 1 clearly states that on the fourth day the sun and stars were created, but this is obviously absurd so it is massaged to become creation of these objects on day 1, and their becoming visible on earth on day 4, so it now sort-of makes sense to discuss mornings and evenings and days. Except of course that if they were invisible from earth, mornings and evenings and days would still have no reality here. So Schwab invents a concept of his own called the Creation Light.

"We will now go on to the second divine word ‘Yehi or – there shall be light’. What sort of light was that? The Torah does not mention any source from which this Light was coming. However, we should say that this or was visible light in the simple sense of the word…This ‘Light’ was real and not a figment of an excited state of mind. This ‘Light’ was real in the sense that it was incorporated into the reality of the physical universe and its manifestation was experienced as a physical phenomenon. We continue: ‘God saw the Light and it was good. God distinguished between the Light and the Darkness.’ Light was first intermingled with darkness. This ‘darkness’ seems to have been not an absence of light, but a created ‘darkness’, the exact nature of which is not revealed. Maybe it was akin to what scientists today call a concentration of cosmic dust, dark ’nebulae’ or the like. Here we are back into simple word games, about lights and darknesses both of which are created, which are not explained to us so we can’t really be sure what it means. What darkness means that is not an absence of light is a total mystery to me – even dark nebulae merely prevent the light from objects on the far side from reaching us, so this is an absence of light.

Schwab makes his Creation Light take a standard 24 hour period to fluctuate from dark-mingled-with-light (evening) to full blaze of day (morning), and suggests this fixed cycle was imposed by his god at the first instant of creation to set a standard of absolute time, and based on this he proposes two parallel time systems. "We have found that the time span of each of our days here and now on earth can be defined by two methods: the rotation of the earth, and the appearance of the creation Light. These two time systems are synchronised since the seventh Day, the first Sabbath. However, nothing compels us to assume that before the Sabbath, while the Creator was still engaged in the process of creating, this synchronisation had already taken place. During the period of creation, while the time-system of the Hidden Light – the ‘cosmic time clock’ was functioning regularly as it does today, the earth could have turned around its axis much more rapidly. This would mean that while the creation Light would register only one day, the earth could have experienced any number of days.

Following this method of reasoning to the very end, we can now advance the following suggestion, that the duration of the six regular earth days and that the billions of years which science claims to have calculated, all actually occurred during six ordinary days. Even if science could never substantiate its theory of longevity, it could never be construed as contradiction to the Torah." Here we have the ultimate bit of word play – just posit a somewhat more rapid rotation and all contra-dictions are removed – the scientists, gulled by their unnoticed rapidly rotating earth into seeing billions of years, can be allowed to persist in their error, while orthodox Jews, who have absolute truth in their possession in the form of Genesis 1, can continue confident in their truth.

I did a simple calculation of the speed of rotation of the earth needed to satisfy Schwab’s little word game, if the 4.6 billion years since earth formed were to be reduced to 6 days, and it turns out the 40,000 km earth equator would need to rotate at 432,000 times the speed of light. Was Schwab totally unaware of the implications of this for levels of radiation energy, angular momentum and centrifugal force? Apparently not, for he mentions one little concern about these issues. Though the word games suggest all is well with the fantasy:

"Even if we could imagine that at a given instant the speed of all motion everywhere were multi-plied millions of times, actually nothing would noticeably change. The same applies, of course, if all motion everywhere would be at one instant uniformly halved or simultaneously divided by a thousand or by a million. It stands to reason that, for instance, if all motion everywhere were multiplied ten-fold, we would become ten years older within one year. In other words, the "one year" and the "ten years" would be actually the very same time." This is the word game, but then there is a little niggle of doubt about its benign impact. "Of course, this illustration like all oversimplifications is slightly misleading and we must not take it too literally. It is obvious that if all motion were uniformly multiplied all radiation, for instance, would become lethal. The accelerated speed would turn every particle into a deadly missile. Also a multiplication of the rapidity of all motion would upset the balance of mechanical forces which function differently at different speeds." So there is a little awareness of the centrifugal force which would rip all physical objects apart. I can heartily agree that this is "slightly misleading". But then we are back to the word games again: "Therefore we should rather think of a uniform nexus of changes in the entire system of the natural order which is observable today, a uniform variation in all functions within the framework of natural law in conformity with the new universal velocity, not upsetting the intricate balance of all physical phenomena." To save the word game from being ridiculed by anybody with any knowledge of mechanical forces, he proposes that the nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational forces all increase in proportion to the earth’s speed of rotation, so everything would work just as if it was speeding along at velocities such as we see around us now.

"The rapidity of the creative process during the first six days remains forever unknown. And whatever is unknowable lies outside scientific inquiry and description. Science does not know of the Creation light. This was revealed to Israel by the Creator. Therefore at this stage, science cannot help but count the age of the universe by billions of years. Yet these billions of years lasted six ordinary days. There is no inherent contradiction involved." The only issue is that orthodox Jews know six days when they see them, and can count days reliably, and no scientists can do that, and keep mistaking six days for billions of years.

A little later in his paper, Schwab wrote, "when the sixth day terminated, the creator rested, i.e. he stopped creating at one given instant. Uniformly and simultaneously all motion everywhere in the Universe was slowed down. From that moment on the earth began to rotate around its axis so slowly that one rotation takes exactly as long as one appearance of the Creation Light." Schwab offers no ideas on the deceleration stresses in our infant universe as everything slowed down in "an instant" from 430,000 times the speed of light, to the earth rotating its 40,000 km equator at its current speed of 1,600 kmh. It is just a little word game to save the sacred absolute truth of the Torah from being found to conflict with current science. What these two rabbis show is that what they regard as "evidence" to which they want to appeal is only evidence about the overt and hidden meanings of words in their Torah. There is no appeal to any evidence from what is known about the operation of the natural world, as this is of no significance to a person who lives his life focused on Torah and its teachings, as something dictated by his god. Next to that, anything learned from merely human research pales to nothing. Scientists and orthodox rabbis truly live in different worlds, no real dialogue is possible between the two camps as they do not march to the same drummer.

So far it looks as though the orthodox defence of the absolute truth of their Torah sacred text is a worthless joke, based on ideas from people profoundly ignorant of what they are writing about, who therefore unblinkingly offer one absurdity after another and invite only scorn. But several of the papers were contributed by practising scientists, and one in particular deserves serious attention as a counterbalance to the nonsense offered by the rabbis as it is scientifically literate and thoughtful and tries hard to be sensible and sensitive to empirical evidence. It emerged from a panel discussion in 1971 attended by science student members of AOJS. It is spread over 28 pages so I can only deal with some of its ideas. No author is named, so it is apparently a group effort.

The authors describe alternative reactions by conservatives to development of evolution as the basis for biological science, including "the common tendency to equate belief in creation with belief in the literal meaning of Genesis. This inevitably leads to the familiar picture of faith and evolution locked in a life and death struggle…Many religious people feel impelled to try to refute and reject the evolutionary viewpoint at all costs." This puts Schneerson into the camp of deniers.

"However, the difficulties involved in an outright rejection of the evolutionary time-scale, combined with a determination not to deviate from the literal interpretation of Genesis, have given rise to several attempts to have the best of both worlds. Attempts are made to hold the two apparently incompatible views simultaneously. Sometimes this is done by positing a realm of ‘religious truth’ as against a ‘scientific truth’. Another type of solution achieves the apparently impossible by modifying the time-scales in one way or another. An ingenious example of this genre is" Rabbi Schwab’s paper. "In fact, what this type of solution amounts to is that the literalness of the text is preserved only verbally, while in reality the inevitability of a non-literal reading is acknowledged." In other words, the defence fails as there is a tacit admission that a literal reading is indefensible. This sounds more like a contribution from someone with whom it is possible to have a discussion based on appeal to the evidence collected about how the universe really works, instead of only to obscure meanings of ancient sacred texts.

One of the familiar issues in the creation vs evolution and other debates over empirical science vs faith is about whether humans should use their brains to try to understand the world, or should distrust their intellect as likely to lead them astray with mere human fallible reasoning and sacrifice their need to investigate things for themselves in an effort to retain their faith. It is part of the motive of those sects which take their children out of school at the minimum leaving age, because they are so suspicious of the tantalising attraction of secular knowledge and its corrosive effect on religious faith. These orthodox Jews are aware of this problem, and being cerebral, do not like the trade-off: "What if a sincerely orthodox person considers what he feels to be the mounting and interlocking evidence of all kinds and becomes convinced that the most reasonable explanation is some sort of evolution, some sort of succession of life forms on the earth over geologic time, and the various solutions referred to do not satisfy him. What do we say to him? Do we have to confront him with the stark alternative: deny your intellect; surrender your rational faculty; or consider yourself no longer amongst the ranks of believing Jews? Some do indeed say that this is the choice that has to be made…We must realise, they say, that human intellect is fallible and must be sacrificed whenever it conflicts with emuna (faith)…But the real question is whether the literalness of Bereshit [In the beginning – the first word of Genesis 1] is an integral part of our emuna demanding such a sacrifice." What is easy to see here is that the tug of intellectual excitement is at least equal to the tug of traditional beliefs and rituals, so the rabbis’ priorities of preserving the literalist traditions of genesis, and the all-importance of unquestioning obedience have been matched with another loyalty, to scientific theories tested against observable evidence.

They discuss at length the problems confronting people faced with the impact of the new knowledge of the structure and extent and age of the universe on traditional religious beliefs: "Reluctance to admit even the possibility of non-literalism stems…from fear of the emotional impact of such re-thinking of entrenched positions. Minds accustomed to the accepted time-scale, it is said, find the utmost difficulty in adjusting to the billions of years demanded by astronomy and geology. So much seems to have been going on during these vast aeons of time without any apparent relevance to mankind, that the 5,700-odd-year history of civilised man seems dwarfed into insignificance by comparison. It is natural that such considerations would tend to weaken one’s faith.

Against this worry and doubt, a new rationalisation develops, familiar to anyone who examines the irresistible attraction of scientific method and the excitement of understanding the world coming from understanding the power of scientific theories of physics, chemistry, geology, biology: "Our sense of the ultimate significance of man is derived from his spiritual status as a free, conscious being, responsible to his Maker, and not from any inspection of comparative time-scales….Our faith no longer suffers from the realisation that our Earth is not the fixed centre of a spherical universe but a small planet revolving round a very mediocre star in a corner of one of a billion galaxies. We realise that significance does not depend on location in space. In the same way our faith need not be affected to the slightest degree by the brevity of our existence on this earth compared with the immensity of time that went before. It is quality that counts, not quantity, whether of space or time." This is an attractive argument, and it is a path along which most of the mainstream Christian religions have marched, to separate their theology from outmoded explanations of the size, age and structure of the universe. This has enabled them to still feel their organisations and dogmas are legitimate ways of interpreting experience even if they let go of the Bronze-Age views of the nature and age of the universe. It looks as though some orthodox Jewish scientists are following the same path.

The students move on to ask the hard question about their faith and the idea of evolution: "What attitude is…the sincerely believing orthodox Jew…to adopt to the theory of evolution? ... He will find on reflection that various options are available to him. He may accept as established what are called ‘the facts of evolution’, that is to say, the great succession of life-forms on the earth indicated by the geologic record, and their inter-relatedness. But it will be open to him to either accept or reject the ‘orthodox’ synthetic theory of Neo-Darwinism which states that all the phenomena of life are explicable in terms of random mutations plus natural selection…" So here we find the ‘god-of-the-gaps" making its appearance – there is still room for clinging to some modified form of the ancient traditions by attaching oneself to those areas of evolutionary theory in which there is still room for alternative explanations. So they draw attention to the conservatism of biological organisms, the extent to which the genetic code explains differences between organisms. The authors do not look very hard at the question of what they will do when these gaps close, as they inevitably will over coming decades – some already have since the essay was written in the late 1970s, due to advances in genetics. They just express confidence that "even if ways were found eventually of fitting all these divergent facts satisfactorily into the framework of the synthetic theory of evolution, no religious issue would be involved. Contrary to the pronouncements and assump-tions of ‘religionists’ and ‘evolutionists’ alike, the issue is religiously neutral. The hundred years of evolutionary polemic has been a century of misplaced effort."

The really positive development the authors announce is their rejection of the god-of-the-gaps way of defending traditional beliefs, using areas of unresolved explanation where there is room for alternatives to claim there is still room for an active personal god. "It is in any case a primitive view which can see evidence of non-material reality only in the gaps in the material process, and which sees ‘god’ and ‘science’ somehow in competition as explanations of the world. The Jewish viewpoint is incomparably more profound. We see god not only in what science cannot explain, but also – and perhaps above all – in what science can explain. The universe itself together with the mind of the scientist who tries to explain it, and the scientific process itself, all speak to us of the wonders of god." What these students wish for is not to be torn between their faith and their fascination with the science in which they commit their career futures, so they have found a way to apparently reconcile the two.

"The conflict between ‘religion’ and ‘evolution’ has outlived its usefulness and it is high time it was allowed a quiet demise. Those who think they must disprove evolution to maintain faith must realise that our consciousness of the reality of the spiritual world is based on stronger foundations than gaps in the fossil record. And those scientists who proclaim that by explaining certain aspects of the mechanism of life they have banished purpose from the universe must be made to realise that they have done nothing of the sort." This all sounds very good, but I do not for myself see how they can reconcile such an obviously tribal god, who favours one little group of nomads invading the settled lands of another ethnic sister group, and who orders the genocide of other groups the same god supposedly created, because of their idol worship, or just because they are in the way, and who loves the smell or roast sacrificial cows, and really cares whether its favourite tribe eats molluscs or not, is really reconcilable with a scientific appreciation of the immensity and complexity of the universe. But more profoundly I do not see how a proper appreciation of evolutionary theory leaves any real room for purpose. So I think they are really equivocating. Still, if this is the future for orthodox Jews, and enables them to feel less torn between their faith and their science, and does not corrupt their scientific interpretations of evidence, that is a huge improvement on the denials of the rabbis.

The authors spend several pages examining what was then a new direction in science, the Goldilocks theory, the effort to understand why the size and electrical strength of sub-atomic particles seems to be neatly arranged to admit the possibility of the emergence of living organisms and eventually ( a very provisional eventually, as the game isn’t over yet) of intelligence and consciousness. They finish up with a section entitled "losses and gains", in which they offset the tendency of traditionalists to "insulate themselves and their children from the influence of evolutionary thought" which enables them to "evade the necessity for any adjustment of thought", against a list of five gains:

  1. Faith becomes deeper and more comprehensive
  2. "One’s insight into the vastness and wonder of god’s creation can be enormously enhanced by allowing one’s eyes to be opened to the riches revealed by the paleontological record ….the amazing versatility of life-forms on this earth in their progression thorough geologic time together with the basic unity revealed in their structural plans, is something that can only awaken the awe and reverence of all who see it."
  3. Modern science refutes the eternity of matter (thus supporting a creation at some long past time – in the 1970s the tussle between Hoyle’s "steady state" theory of an eternal universe with continuous creation of matter, and Gamow’s "big bang" theory of the universe having had an origin some billions of years ago had just been resolved.
  4. "Realisation that the evolutionary framework is completely consistent with the outlook of true faith could at last free believers from their defensive attitude in relation to science, and allow them to go over to the offensive. Torah has a vast amount to teach the scientist, as human being, about his true place in the universe."
  5. "Such a transition once achieved would remove what is considered by many to be an unnecessary tension from Jewish intellectual life. It would also remove an unnecessary tension from the educational sphere, where the conflict between what is taught in the Hebrew Department and what is taught in the Science Department of Jewish day schools is often very marked. This might also remove a tendency to intellectual dishonesty and release energies for more positive gains."

These science students wanted to have their cake and eat it too – wanted to accept scientific ideas which are really quite incompatible with a tribal god, and still accept the tribal god, while emphasising, as do many modern Christians, the universal aspects of their god, as creator of galaxies and of conscious humans.

That was a sign that all is not lost in reconciling Jews with strong traditional faith to having honest careers in science without serious internal conflict. What happens in practice is, however, quite different, as was reported by Alexander Nussbaum in The Skeptic in 2005, in a paper entitled Orthodox Jews & Science: An Empirical Study of their Attitudes Toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology

Nussbaum found that most children of orthodox families were not permitted by their families to attend secular universities and especially not to enrol in science courses. But he visited the kosher section of a New York university cafeteria and found 176 orthodox students prepared to respond to his questionnaire. He did his interviewing at lunch time, which excluded the even more orthodox who attended Yeshiva classes during the day and were only able to attend university in the evenings. So these are relatively secularised orthodox Jews on whom he is reporting.

His questions are all directed towards exploring acceptance of various indicative ideas and facts associated with evolution, particularly evolution of humans. Some of the questions one might nit-pick at, but the general drift is obvious.

Evolution correctly explains the origin of life. True 14 (8%); False 156 (92%)

As it happens, evolution is NOT about the origin of life, but about the mechanism of its development once self-replicating organisms appeared. But the drift is clear anyway.

Human beings evolved from apes: True 11 (6%); False 163 (94%)

As it happens, humans and the currently surviving ape species are believed to have evolved from some common ape-like ancestor, but again the divide between accepting the general idea of evolution or rejecting it is very clear.

Scientists know that evolution has been discredited, but they are deliberately lying: True 47 (28.5%); False 118 (71.5%)

So 28% of these university students seemed to believe that scientists, all of them university graduates, routinely lie to preserve a theory they know is false.

What is the age of the universe? About 15 billion years 45 (27%); About 7,000 years 123 (73%)

The sort of evidence these students used to arrive at their belief is not the sort that one would expect of university students, educated in the culture of their times.

Current land animals descend from those on Noah’s Ark. True 159 (91%); False 16 (9%)

Again, the strength of belief in the literal truth of the Genesis stories is very great, and much stronger than belief in the universe being only 7,000 years old.

Hebrew was spoken universally until about 4,000 years ago: True 81 (48%); False 88 (52%)

This is a more esoteric one – there must be very few people in our civilisation who know much about the history of language. But again, the idea that the language of the Bible is the original language of the Aborigines, the Eskimos, the Patagonians, the Easter Islanders and other peoples remote from the eastern Mediterranean is really pretty amazing. These young people showed uncritical acceptance of the centrality of their own culture.

Which of the following is true of dinosaurs?

Lived at the same time as humans 68 (40%)

Extinct millions of years before the first humans 70 (41%)

Never existed 31 (18%)

The last answer would be consistent with the belief of some of these students that the scientists routinely lie, so it would make sense that all the dinosaur skeletons in our museums are elaborate fakes. The really surprising one is the middle one, that 41% of them accept dinosaurs became extinct millions of years before humans appeared on Earth, although only 27% accepted the universe is older than 7,000 years. This group was not strong on consistency in their ideas.

The sun revolves around the earth: True 22 (13%); False 151 (87%)

That 13% of these students do not even accept Copernicus’ revolution in our concept of how the solar system is organised, but still interpret Joshua’s command to his god to make the sun stand still until the battle was over, is amazing and shows what a big gap there is between the ideas coming from the scientific community and those inculcated in orthodox Jewish children. But the really interesting thing is that 87% of them accept the centrality of the sun, despite Joshua, which suggests some internal conflict. It also shows that Copernicus is less of a threat to conservatives 530 years after Copernicus’ Orbium Celestium was published than are Darwin and Wallace a mere 150 years after The Origin of Species. The cental position of humans in the value system is more important to them than the central position of the earth.

What we see here is an almost uniform rejection of evolution as the explanation of the origin of species and the development of life on Earth, and of any biological relationship between humans and the other apes. Almost a third believed scientists maintaining evolution as the accepted explanation know this is false and lie about it. Three quarters accept the universe is less than 7,000 years old. 90% accept that all land animals on Earth now are descendents of the pairs Noah took on the ark. Half of them believed Hebrew was the original human language (even of Aborigines and Eskimos, Patagonians and Chinese) and the diversity of human languages now is a radiation from Hebrew over the past 4,000 years. A sixth denied there were ever any dinosaurs and over a third believed dinosaurs existed at the same time as humans. One seventh accept that the sun revolves around the earth (which is entirely acceptable to a relativist, but is not the general under-standing of planetary orbits. There must be very few people who understand that the calculations can be done on either assumption).

When Nussbaum’s students were classified according to the courses in which they were enrolled it became even more startling. 50 of the students were enrolled in science majors and the other 125 in non-science courses. The percentage of respondents who rejected evolutionary theory was larger among science students than among non-science students. For example, the first one, about evolution being the correct explanation of life on earth:

True False

Science students 2% 98%

Non-science students 3.5% 96.5%

The age of the universe 15 billion 7,000

Science students 16% 84%

Non-science students 31% 69%

On the issue of routine lying by scientists, the positions are really quite amazing:

Scientists Lie Don’t lie

Science students 33% 67%

Non-science students 27% 73%

This suggests that the science students had less faith in the integrity of their teachers and their fellow professional scientists, than the non-science students, who showed a weaker prejudice about the dishonesty of scientists. 33%, one third, of orthodox science students were attending classes conducted by professional scientists, and maintained that the entire profession systematically lies about a fundamental issue of modern science. Yet they continued to attend classes, perhaps just to get the credits they wanted to get jobs, with the mental reservation that much of what they were required to learn was not actually true, but was systematically falsified.

All this suggests this particular sample of orthodox Jewish university students were nowhere near as liberated from biblical literalism as the group whose paper was published thirty years earlier in Challenge, and that the rabbinic defensive denial of the reality of the world explained by modern scientific theories still holds strong sway in the minds of orthodox American university students. It is difficult to imagine people with such beliefs being able to develop a meaningful career in astronomy, geology, palaeontology, biology, archaeology, or just about any other field of modern science and still sustain these beliefs. It seems clear that their families and religious communities still believe that the way to retain these young people in their religious commitments is to teach them that Bronze-Age understandings of the age, structure and biological ordering of the universe must be instilled and sustained in them and they should be deeply suspicious of the integrity of the scientific community which denies these traditional beliefs.

It is not just orthodox Jewish students of course, as it reflects fairly closely what Michael Archer found in his regular surveys of the beliefs of biology students at the University of NSW – a very large fraction of students holding beliefs in stark contradiction to fundamental tenets of modern science and this fraction increasing as students advanced through their courses. It is hard to believe a civilisation can be so totally committed to science and technology for solving a multitude of problems in organising life, yet so thoroughly reject its basic ideas. How do we keep going in these circumstances?

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