“The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline luggage.”
– Mark Russell
Did you know that every modern scientific discovery already appears in the Bible and its various interpretations? Perhaps you didn’t know that tidbit, but many Orthodox Jews are brought up with this knowledge. This includes not only things that science has already found, but also things not yet discovered.
Purely from a mathematic point of view, there are not enough bits of information in the Bible to cover all of modern scientific knowledge (part of which is scientific research of the Bible itself). Nevertheless, you’ll often hear about the vast knowledge of our holy fathers in the areas of math and physics, as if Abraham had been busy solving differential equations between prayers.
A preacher would say, “Only nowadays are scientists starting to discover things long known by the Holy Bible.” This is usually accompanied by the simple yet effective sales pitch: “Scientific theories keep changing all the time, while the Bible is eternal.” and sometimes, even, “Science keeps proving that the Biblical knowledge is right”.
Furthermore, over the years, many ultra-Orthodox Jews have sort of studied science from their holy texts. For example, one just need to delve a little into the tractate of ‘Chulin’ in the Jewish Talmud to find how scientific decisions were taken by the process of comparing the sayings of various rabbis, rather than by actually examining things in the real world. This art of gedanken experiment (German for ‘thought experiment’ that one carries out in his or her head) has been very popular as a major substitution for modern scientific research. Note that in many cases, from the believer’s point of view, the belief is the reality.
It’s a fact that science and religion do not always get along. Evolution is just one example, as is the study of the age of our planet. Archaeology in the Middle East is yet another branch of science where religious stories and interpretations are found to be in conflict with tangible evidence. Did the ancient people of Israel in fact participate in the massive Exodus from Egypt around 1500 BC? Was King Solomon’s kingdom truly so large and strong around 950 BC? Was the human female created from a rib of the human male around 3700 BC? Scientists and archaeologists suggest a simple no for an answer to each of these questions (as well as many others).
In the core of this argument we frequently encounter the question: What is evidence?
Nicolaus Copernicus published his Little Commentary in the beginning of the 16th century, when he reached the conclusion that the Earth revolves around the Sun. At that time these ideas were too revolutionary for most people to believe for it would compel them to combine their religious education with evidence that wasn’t concrete. People simply knew the Earth was stationary. Some hundred years later, Galileo Galilei provided the evidence using a new invention – the telescope. Galileo was of-course prosecuted by the Vatican for heresy. It took 359 additional years for the Catholic Church to officially admit that the Earth revolves around the Sun (Pope John Paul II in 1992) and thus to absolve Galileo of guilt.
Do Galileo’s observations constitute evidence? Perhaps the Earth is still at the center of the universe and the rest of the planets move in very complex paths, which look as if the Earth and they circle the Sun?
In 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted their famous Michelson-Morley Experiment, using another new invention – the Michelson Interferometer. By measuring the speed of light in various situations, they managed to prove that the Earth was not moving relatively to the ether – the stuff that was considered to fill space itself. The Michelson-Morley Experiment triggered a whole new branch of science that yielded, among other things, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.
Neither the Old Testament, New Testament, Koran, nor any other ancient collection of stories and rules, knows anything of light interference or of modern relativity. It is true, however, that the notion of absolute evidence in physics is not always defined. In fact, this is exactly the thing that initiates the advancement of science, as opposed to the stagnation of religiously-based knowledge.
Much of our scientific knowledge is known to be true with high probability. When archaeologists speak about ancient discoveries, they analyze and compare them with other findings and common knowledge. When biologists research the influence of a chemical on our body, it is again tested for actual results and compared with other contradicting findings. These are all subject to later changes, if and when new evidence surfaces. The ability to raise doubts and the mandate to keep on researching is the cornerstone of science. This is what has caused technology to advance enough, so that the text of this chapter could be brought in front of your eyes.
Religion, in contrast, is not very tolerant of raising doubts. How can religious knowledge advance when it is forbidden to claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and it is considered a crime to even teach evolution? In a way, religion lets the text do the thinking for the people.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Moses Maimonides) who lived in the 12th century is considered as one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and the most famous codifier of Jewish law in history. Though possessing certain scientific knowledge of his time, he ordered, “Those who say the Bible is not from Heaven … he who kills one of them, follows his duties greatly”. This duty was reinforced later by other famous Rabbis and codifiers – so much for modern Bible research. Quoting the Bible, “and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers, chapter 15, verse 39), he forbade dealing with any thoughts that may contradict the essence of Judaism. According to this idea, religious people are indeed not allowed to read this book! And if you think this is some kind of a joke, you are cordially invited to spread copies of this book in fundamentalist neighborhoods, let them be Jewish or Christian or whatever.
The above is even more disturbing, as one of the most common tactics used by religious preachers is to politely invite you to examine their religious claims. The preacher will try to persuade you that you shouldn’t be “narrow minded”, and will perhaps mention phrases like “what do you have to lose?” Just try returning this invitation, equipped with appropriate so-called heretical material, and see what happens.
Rationalism and logic play a major role in science. They link evidence with conclusions. In the opening chapter of his book, “Journey to the Depths of Existence”, Rabbi Mordechai Neugershel talks about rationalism: “We shall not start our discussion … before we declare that … our belief is strong and unshakeable. Following this declaration, we can peacefully access the rational discussion.” – these words speak for themselves. Religious rationalism goes like this: First we decide on the outcome of the discussion, and only then can we argue rationally. No wonder Galileo was put on trial.
This seems to give the religious preacher an advantage when arguing with the scientist: The latter is inherently more open to changing his or her mind. If tomorrow some hard evidence is found for the existence of a man named Methuselah, who lived for 969 years (Genesis, Chapter 5) – the scientist will have no problem believing this story to be true. In fact, this is a big advantage of the scientific way of thinking.
Perhaps even more than demonstrating who’s got the advantage, this demonstrates that a common language is a basic requirement for a fruitful discussion. There’s not much use for a conversation between two sides, when the very notion of a conversation is perceived differently: When one side shall not start the discussion before declaring the result.
On a slightly different note, the Admonitions of Ipuwer, known also as the Ipuwer Papyrus, is a famous archaeological discovery from Ancient Egypt. It is comprised of phrases like “the river is blood” which prompted some historians to call attention to the obvious link to the Biblical story of the Exodus. In actuality, it is safe to assume that the old Biblical story was greatly influenced by an even more ancient Egyptian culture. As in other similar cases, both texts probably evolved from older stories of an ancient environmental disaster.
The selective reliance on scientific evidence is yet another remarkable feature of religious preaching. Whenever there is a tiny piece of evidence lending credence to a Bible story, or some scientific opinion against an aspect of evolution, we find large parts of the religious community celebrating. Suddenly they all become experts and scientists, but somehow seem to forget what the majority of the scientific world has to say, and how the scientific community draws conclusions.
This religious community of “newly born” experts also enjoys quoting famous scientists. By way of speaking, many people, including true scientists, often use phrases that contain ‘God’. This alone may serve those who like to assign their own beliefs to the quoted person. For example, Albert Einstein is a popularly cited character, especially since he is no longer alive and cannot speak for himself. Back when he could still defend his own opinions, this is what Mr. Einstein had to say about people quoting him:
“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings … … it was, of-course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”