Am I a fundamentalist rube? Can we reconcile science and religion?
My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy Column for January 2017
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
I recently realized that a religious publication that I thought was factual has at times presented fictional material as fact. I would rather not reveal the source, because that will expose me in two ways. First, it will let people know how gullible I have been. And second, it may expose me to social criticism for doubting authoritative religious writings.
Am I a naïve rube for not picking up earlier that people make stuff up, call it fact, or even sacred fact, and will not tell us that it is fiction?
Awoken in Weehawken
It’s hard to answer an elliptical question that leaves out details. I don’t know exactly what you previously thought was factual and what you believe you now know is fictional.
We all tend to accept what we read at face value much of the time. It would be exhausting for us to question and doubt every written “factual” item that we encounter. So you took published material as fact, when perhaps some of it was fabricated in order to make a point or teach a lesson.
In religious writings the use of parables or stories is common, and helps to put a face on human strivings, conflicts, doubts, and other challenges. The midrash and the aggadah, for instance, are literary genres that use narratives, allegories and legends to teach moral lessons based on biblical and rabbinic personalities and events.
Rabbi Ari Shvat explains in a paradoxical way that “all midrashim are true, yet not all are historically factual, and the best thing to do is to study them with a rabbi who is experienced in the field and constantly search for the deeper meaning.” That formulation helps define the quandary of understanding religious principles and articles of faith.
By definition, “faith” is not something that needs to be or can necessarily be proven. But it is a cornerstone of religious belief. What if you woke up and began to question the factuality of your published sacred religious books in the same way that you now doubt the complete veracity of that other publication?
What if you realized suddenly that a lot of stuff you accepted as true, straightforward fact, or wait, that a lot of revered writing that you took as factual non-fiction, might actually be made up, invented, augmented, illuminated, or exaggerated?
That would be totally okay — with some stipulations. If you continue to attend shul and pay your dues, if you do not share your disillusionment and doubt with friends and family, if you continue to go along with the “tradition,” then you are demonstrating a level of faith that does not require empirical evidence. You may take personal satisfaction that you have awoken and are not a complete fundamentalist rube, but you may also find comfort and meaning in adhering to practices even if you don’t view them as based on empirical fact.
Neuroscientists who map the brain have begun to explore the complex ways our neurons process the visible world, the world we experience, the world of fact.
The parts of our brain that process dreams, aspirations, questions, confusion, doubt, and faith still are mostly a mystery.
Your awakening is a personal step in the direction of making sense of the neural processes that are critical for human existence and contribute to the well-being of individuals and society.
You certainly are not a rube. Good luck in all of your serious quests for knowledge.
Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
My son has questions that I find challenging to answer. He makes note of the mention of giant humans in the Bible, and yet no evidence or remains have been found to confirm that giants walked the face of the earth. He also finds it strange that the creation of dinosaurs, whose existence is backed up by tangible evidence, was never referred to in the Bible. I guess this is the classic science vs. religion conundrum, but I would be interested in how you might answer his specific questions.
Bewildered in Bergen
Your son is most certainly not the first to uncover this type of quandary. What advice do you think that your son wants? Among the strange things in Scripture, do these alone bother him?
Please accept that I am not going to be able to reconcile religion and science here in a column in the local Jewish newspaper. But let me try to offer some advice. When you do take a close look, you may find that there are many troubling things about the Bible.
For example: I have studied science and find that it conflicts with the Tanach, in ways like those you mentioned. I believe that science is based on solid empirical evidence and study. Does that mean I must believe that the Tanach is false? If science is truth, maybe you want to ask, why I should continue to be a religious Jew?
If that is the case, I have an answer. Yes, you should continue to be a religious Jew, even though science and religion may be incompatible in many ways. Each discipline of the intellect deals with different challenges of humankind’s eternal quest to explain existence. Science explains a massive set of concerns about the physical and biological universe. It has paradigms and models for verifying its conclusions. It is based on rigorous disciplines of investigation and thought. And religion explains an equally great number of questions about life and the spirit.
Both modes of thinking and investigating life are powerful and true in their own ways.
My view is that trying to reconcile them is a worthy task, but not one that has much chance of success. They are fundamentally incompatible disciplines.
A wise friend of mine told me recently that you ought to answer your son’s type of question as follows. You must become comfortable with mystery and our limited powers of understanding. Everything we purport to understand is only a sliver of a glimpse. Both science and religion ultimately are flawed and limited attempts at trying to get at the “Truth.”
Just to be clear, let me add a few thoughts. The field of ethnobiology teaches us that we humans have evolved to cherish and rely on both science and religion, because doing so makes us stronger and fitter. Science provides us with great power to know and control the world via experimentation and invention and engineering.
And have no doubt, religion inspires us to great heights and binds us together to achieve national, social, and communal goals and benefits for the sake of all humanity.
Humankind will not survive and thrive without all our great human accomplishments and disciplines. I can’t argue with those who say put science first. Yet I cannot disagree with those who say religion is indispensable to human existence.
I hope those thoughts help you and your child respect and ponder the great ways men and women seek to use the powers of science and religion to create goodness, mercy, and lovingkindness in our world.
Tzvee Zahavy received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books about Judaism, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.