Science, religion called friends, not enemies
By Deborah Moon
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The relationship of science and religion, and how that influences education, has far reaching implications for the future of this country. That belief was a driving force behind the creation of Evolution Weekend, during which some 750 congregations across America hosted programs such as Temple Beth Israel’s “Conversation in Two Realms” in Portland Feb. 10.
Portland attorney and TBI Vice President Michael Simon moderated the discussion and provided statistics and background.
In a country where 60 percent of adults believe that Bible stories are literally true (ABC News/Primetime poll, February 2004) and 55 percent believe God created humans in present form (CBS News poll, November 2004), one may not wonder that among developed nations this country has slipped into the bottom half in terms of math and science education.
Oregon Health and Sciences University researcher Dr. Roger Cone and TBI Senior Rabbi Michael Cahana don’t think it is a coincidence. The two were the panelists for “The Rabbi and the Scientist—A Conversation in Two Realms.” Cone, an MIT graduate, is president of TBI.
(Comparing the scores of 15-year-old students in the United States to their international peers, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in December that U.S. students fell to 25th place in math and 21st place in science out of 30 member countries.)
“We rank poorly in scientific teaching in this country and it is affecting our ability to be leaders in the realms science teaches us,” said Cahana, mentioning engineering, research and technology.
Reflecting on the origin of Evolution Weekend, both the rabbi and the scientist came down firmly opposed to teaching creation or Intelligent Design in science class, though neither objected to them being taught in comparative religion classes.
“If you are teaching science, you have to use the rules of science,” said Cahana.
“The moment you invoke a supernatural cause, it is simply not science and should not be taught in science class,” said Cone. “Furthermore, it’s so blatantly wrong.”
Cone said those who subscribe to intelligent design, the belief an intelligent designer guided evolution, claim that some things such as the human eye are so complex they could not have evolved naturally. Cone said that theory of irreducible complexity is false, noting that “any biologist can see rudimentary eyes,” or pigment spots that detect light, in simple multi-celled organisms.
Cahana also said that evolution does not conflict with religion because Bible stories are not meant to be taken literally. “We use our text to get to the essence … (of) what we know it means to be human beings. … Genesis is a story about humans’ place in creation. We are part of the process.”
On the more general topic of the relationship of science and religion, the panelists were also in agreement. Both men referred to famed physicist Albert Einstein’s quote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
“Many of us see religion and science not as enemies, but as friends who have alternate ways of describing the universe,” said Cahana. “When we talk about ethics, we use religious terms; when we talk about process, we use scientific terms.”
“We care because religion and science are seekers of truth … in different modalities,” the rabbi continued.
Cone agreed: “I agree that science and religion are clearly very different ways of knowing. … Science and religion do inform each other.”
While Cone said science is “incredibly useful,” he said it is also amoral, in the sense that it simply observes the world and tries to come up with theories that best fit those observations.
“We need good government and good policy to harness science for good rather than bad,” he said. Later he added, “I think there is a need for religion and moral and ethical views on what science gets funded and used. Science is incapable of deciding how science is used.”
He noted that while harnessing petroleum’s energy essentially created modern society, it also created global warming. But, he added, “it will take science to fix” global warming.
Cahana said that is another area where science and religion are compatible: “We have a relationship and responsibility to the world.”
“We are the first beings from this planet who have the ability to destroy the planet and we have a responsibility to that,” he said. “The point is, we live in a covenantal relationship with God. … Religion is about meaning and responsibility.”
“Humans are arrogant,” the rabbi continued. “We have the power to create and destroy. Science has unleashed tremendous power. … If we see ourselves as partners with God, perhaps it will teach us humility.”
However, Cahana noted, “belief is not testable” and in public policy “we must deal with what is scientifically testable.” Still, he added, public policy “should be guided by respect for human life.”
Both men also discussed how science has changed religious understanding throughout history.
“Sometimes science discovers things that bring religion into question,” said Cone, noting Galileo’s discovery that the sun did not circle the Earth proved Earth was not the center of the universe.
“The history of science is taking human beings out of the center,” said Cahana. “The more we learn, the more we are outside the center. The universe gets bigger and we get smaller.”
Cahana said he believes religion provides the meaning that appears to disappear as man becomes a smaller speck in the universe.
“When we see God at the center, … meaning is there because we are in relationship with God.”