Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who Needs Science When You’ve Got the Bible?

And what hope is there for secular government when you’ve got Republicans?

Rep. John Shimkus (R., Illinois) is a candidate for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In a meeting of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on March 25, 2009, he opened a copy of the Bible and read passages from it, declaring them to be “the infallible word of God” and affirming on the basis of them that “the earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth.” He also said that the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere is a matter of “theological debate.” In the view of Mr. Shimkus, we must look to theology to answer questions of the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, and to the Bible to answer questions of the earth’s future and of environmental policy.

Here is a transcript of Mr. Shimkus’s words, with my comments interjected (I have made available a transcript without the interruptions here):
The right of free speech is a great right that we have in this country, the very few times that we use it to espouse our theological or religious beliefs.
“The very few times” that we use the right of free speech to espouse our theological or religious beliefs?! I should think that this right is exercised by millions of Americans every day. But perhaps by “we” the Congressman means not “we Americans” but “we members of the US Congress,” or perhaps by “free speech” he means speaking in a session of a subcommittee of that body. Yes, it is a comparatively rare occurrence for members of Congress to argue for policy positions on the basis of Bible tags, and no wonder: the very same Constitutional amendment that guarantees us (the people, not just the members of Congress) the right of free speech forbids the US Congress to make any law respecting an establishment of religion.
But we do have members of the clergy here as members of the panel, so I want to start with Genesis 8, verse 21 and 22.
Members of the clergy are present at a meeting of a congressional subcommittee, so let us read from the Bible: a curious reasoning. Mr. Shimkus seems to have been alluding to the fact that one of the witnesses before the committee on that day was Lutheran Bishop Callon Holloway, appearing on behalf of the National Council of Churches. The Bishop, according to the script of his testimony deposited in the records of the committee (PDF file), after mentioning that “for many people of faith, the conviction to be good stewards of the earth is grounded in God’s command in Genesis to keep and till the earth (Genesis 2:15),” made an argument for taking measures against global warming on purely secular grounds. But let us see how Mr. Shimkus argues:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.
He is apparently reading from the New International Version. Notice that the second sentence begins with the qualification “As long as the earth endures.” It looks to me as if God left himself an “out” there. If we render our planet uninhabitable, then the earth will have ceased to endure; and God doesn’t say that he won’t prevent that from happening, does he? But the lameness of Shimkus’s biblical exegesis is the least of his absurdities. He continues:
The second verse comes from Matthew 24. “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”
In the video, Mr. Shimkus’s manner of utterance makes it difficult to tell at what point he ceases to read and begins to speak in his own person; but one can confirm that the quotation ends here by looking up the passage (Matthew 24:31).
The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.
My first thought when I read this was that destruction by a global flood is not exactly what we are concerned about. But then I reflected that one effect of global warming is a rise in sea levels; so perhaps Shimkus’s observation is not as irrelevant as it appears. If you think that the Bible gives us reliable information about the future of the earth, then this observation is relevant.
And I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith so that we can get into the theological discourse of that position, but I do believe that God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.
The term “persons of faith” seems to have come into vogue as a device for making the class of religious believers seem comparable to the class of so-called “persons of color,” as if the former were burdened by a comparable history of unfair treatment. I have not known the term to be used to mean “members of the clergy.” In any case, as I noted earlier, the one clergyman in the lineup that day, though he made brief use of what might be termed “theological discourse,” offered it only as an indication of the source of his ethical stance and not as infallible and perfect truth. The good bishop, unlike the bad congressman, understood that arguments from scripture had no rightful place in the deliberations of a committee of the US Congress.
Two other issues, Mr. Chairman. Today we have about 388 parts per million in the atmosphere.
Actually, our atmosphere contains a million parts per million: all its parts are there! But presumably Mr. Shimkus means to speak of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. His figure of 388 ppm is indeed the scientifically established figure for the moment at which he was speaking, though in the year and a half since that time it has risen above 389 ppm (source).
I think in the age of the dinosaurs where we had most flora and fauna we were probably at 4,000 parts per million.
I don’t know if Mr. Shimkus thinks that “the age of the dinosaurs” was tens of millions of years ago or just a few thousand years ago. If he believes that it was millions of years ago, then it might be interesting to know how he reconciles this with his belief that the Bible is the infallible, unchangeable, and perfect word of God. If he believes that it was only thousands of years ago, it would be interesting to know why he accepts scientific findings that he thinks support his political position but rejects those that do not.

No, on second thought, to learn those things would probably not be very interesting at all.

Anyway, the figure of 4,000 ppm of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere is indeed true of a time in the age of dinosaurs; but it does not support Mr. Shimkus’s view that we need not worry about global warming. Quite the contrary. A recently published article confirms the findings to which he is presumably alluding:
The first direct evidence supporting the idea that a recently-discovered period of global warming, one of the hottest in Earth’s history, was caused by CO2 has been published this week. Before the Middle Eocene Climatic Optimum (MECO), which occurred 40 million years ago, temperatures were much higher than today, but steadily falling. . . .

Bijl’s team found clear evidence of MECO warming, and relatively high alkenone levels showed similar temperature and CO2 profiles, with a matching peak in each. They found that the baseline CO2 levels in the broader Eocene period [about 40 million years ago] were around 1000 to 2000 parts per million (ppm). During the temperature peaks atmospheric CO2 levels reached 4000 ppm or higher, backing the theory of the greenhouse gas cause. By comparison, current atmospheric CO2 concentrations have grown from around 280 parts per million (ppm) before the industrial revolution to almost 390 ppm today. (“Prehistoric CO2 double-up gives warming data,” at Simple Climate, November 6, 2010)
So, yes, the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere was indeed once ten times as high as it is now: and the average temperature was higher by 4°C. That may have been fine for dinosaurs, but it would be dire for us human beings.

Shimkus adds:
There is a theological debate that this is a carbon-starved planet, not too much carbon. And the cost of a cap and trade on the poor is now being discovered.
He goes on to remark on the economic costs of the cap-and-trade legislation. I have no idea if his claims have any merit. Whether they do or not, at least they are arguments from empirical facts rather than from supposed divine promises revealed in scripture. But how on earth (if you’ll pardon the expression) the discipline of theology is supposed to be able to deliver findings on whether the earth has “too much” carbon I have no idea. Does Shimkus even understand that the question pertinent to the deliberations of his committee is not whether there is too much carbon in or on the earth—that is something that, so far as I understand, has changed very little since the planet was formed—but whether there is too much carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere and what should be done about it? Does he have any idea what he is talking about? Does he care at all whether he does or not?

Perhaps it doesn’t make much difference whether people derive their dogmatic idiocies from the Bible or from other sources. But it is peculiarly unsettling to see persons of influence in the US government invoking scripture as a basis—and not just any basis but one that is “infallible, unchanging, [and] perfect”—of beliefs about the natural environment and the effects of our actions upon it.

Related articles:

Energy Committee Chairman Candidate Says Bible Shows No Catastrophic Climate Change Can Occur,” at Center for Inquiry, November 10, 2010

‘The planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah,’ says politician bidding to chair U.S. energy committee,” at Mail Online, November 10, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Judaism, Jewry, and Jews

The statement “Judaism is a people, not (just) a religion” seems like an important truth, but it is not even logically coherent. “Jewry is a people” is true and coherent, but banal. Here is how to capture both the truth and the importance without losing coherence.

GS on his blog OrthoModerndox posted an entry today with a title well calcluated to attract my interest: “Judaism as a nation, not [just] a religion” (the square brackets are part of the title). In this piece, GS offers some thoughts provoked by his reading The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel by Michael Wyschogrod. “One of his main themes,” he says of Wyschogrod, “is that Judaism is a people / nation rather than [just] a religion” (the square brackets are, again, in the original text). This is a topic on which I have written on this blog before (in “Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish” and “Reply to Comment on Jewish Identity”), and I’m not sure that there is anything new in what I have to say about it here. But that one sentence raised some thoughts in my mind of which I make an occasion for reviving my own blog. The new year (5771) seems like as good a time as any for doing such a thing.

Now, I don’t doubt that GS, like most bloggers, and in sharp contrast to me, writes quickly, without spending a lot of time recomposing his sentences, as I invariably do. The typing error in his first sentence (“intersting” for “interesting”) is sufficient evidence of that. Nonetheless, I am going to pick on the statement that I quoted from him, for the following reasons.

First, it is a very difficult matter to state the relation among the concepts of Judaism, religion, and peoplehood. One can’t just make an incoherent statement on that point and then say, “Well, you know what I mean.” If you can’t say what you mean, then you can’t assume that your audience knows what you mean, because you have not shown that you know what you mean.

Second, the statement “Judaism is a people,” given the now current meaning of the word “Judaism” (more on that qualification in a moment), is not a coherent one. The predicate term “people” and the subject term “Judaism” do not belong to the same logical category. Of course Judaism is a religion: that is what we have the word “Judaism” for, as contrasted with terms like “Jew,” “Jewry,” and “Jewish people” (as a singular or plural noun). To say “Judaism is a people” is as senseless as saying “Five is a color.”

Now I have to admit one qualification here. I recently learned from the Oxford English Dictionary that the term “Judaism” was at one time used in a sense corresponding to that of judaismus in medieval Latin, namely to mean “Jewry.” Thus, a source from 1884 (the latest example of this usage provided) says: “The revenue of the Judaism, as it was termed, was managed by a separate branch of the exchequer, termed the exchequer of the Jews.”

If GS meant the term in this sense, then his statement is not logically incoherent at all. It was much as if he had written: “Jewry is a people,” “The Jewish people is a people.” But, for one thing, I find it unlikely that he had in mind any such rare and antiquated sense of the word “Judaism.” For another, if he did mean this, then his statement is banal and uninteresting. I prefer to assume that he was trying to say something both true and interesting.

I think that what GS was trying to say can be most exactly expressed thus: “The status of being a Jew is essentially a matter of belonging to the Jewish people rather than one of professing or practicing the Jewish religion.” This, I think, is an interesting statement, and a true one as well (subject, of course, to questions about the meaning of the crucial adverb “essentially”: more on that in a moment).

But the statement contains at least the suggestion of a falsehood. For it suggests that the connection of being a Jew with the Jewish religion is accidental: as if “Judaism” were the name of a religion that just happened to be practiced by a large portion of the Jewish population—as, e.g., Armenian Orthodox Christianity is practiced by a large portion of the world’s Armenians, but is not what defines them as Armenians.

As a matter of history, such a suggestion (concerning the Jewish people) is obviously false. The Jewish people have, through most of their history, defined themselves as the people of the Torah. In some sense, we still are so defined: that is, we are definable as the descendants of the people of the Torah, even if we are not all practitioners or believers of the Torah. Such a definition, whatever exactly it means, clearly depends religious terms.

The slippage between “Jew” and “adherent (by profession or observance) of Judaism” comes about because, according to the Torah that defines the Jewish people collectively, the individual Jew is defined as such by his or her birth. In terms of the category of “religion,” this means that it is a religious practice that defines that status, though it defines it in terms of birth rather than in terms of belief or observance.

So those who consider themselves Jews in something more than a purely ethnic sense but who cannot accept Jewish (or any) religious beliefs have the problem that their self-identification as Jews presupposes a religious practice whose fundamental beliefs they cannot accept. They are—that is, we are—in an inherently uncomfortable position.

This discomfort does not arise merely for those who are, like GS, “Orthoprax,” that is, observant of the ritual practices of Orthodox Judaism while rejecting most of the beliefs that support that practice (such as “TMS,” the doctrine that the whole Torah, oral and written, was given to the Israelites through Moses at Mount Sinai). It arises even for the “three-day-a-year” Jew, whose observances do not extend beyond partaking of a seder at Passover and going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (something that I have bound myself to do every year by accepting a paid gig in the choir of a Reform temple), as long as he or she does so under some sense, however vague and unformulated, of an obligation other than an immediate social one. It applies to the unbelieving Jew who refrains from eating pork and shellfish for reasons that cannot be attributed to personal distaste or matters of health (false rationalizations notwithstanding). The unbelieving Jew who considers himself or herself under so much as one obligation—one mitzvah—merely because he or she is a Jew has this problem.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jewish Education in America: A Historical Note

Given the conditions of Jewish education in the United States, it is not surprising that so many children behave badly and learn little in Hebrew school. What is surprising is that this situation has existed for at least 140 years.

In a piece published on the Web in January of this year under the title “Stop Blaming Hebrew School,” Rabbi Benjamin Weiner responds to comments reportedly made by a prominent Jewish philanthropist in an interview on cable television. These comments included a characterization of the American institution of Hebrew school as “a shandah—an abysmal failure. . . . Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than ‘Hebrew School’? There were six kids in the 20th century who liked it!”

Weiner contests the claim that Hebrew school has been a failure: “Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage . . . should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination,” he writes. But his main point is that “such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse.” Weiner likens “the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people” to “stripping your parents’ house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.” He writes further:
What created the supposition that two to six hours a week of after-school guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don’t think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation—from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the “verbiage” of the Jewish religion “realistically upon our lives,” it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house—despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.
The point is that historical circumstances have made the institution of Hebrew school, with all its limitations, the primary arrangement by which Jewish parents seek to transmit Jewish knowledge to their children. The results are dismal because the hours in the classroom are meager and no homework can be assigned—not that having longer hours or assigning homework is a serious option, given that the sessions are supplemental to the children’s weekday schooling.

My attention was arrested by Weiner’s felicitous observation that “the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house.” The phrase seemed to me exactly to describe my own experience of Jewish religious education, and moved me to post a comment under the heading “I have long wondered why we all hated Hebrew school so much,” in which I wrote:
I am ashamed to recall the way that I and my fellows behaved in religious school. I had Sunday school at one Reform synagogue and evening classes once a week at another, with a different crowd at each, and we were all completely ineducable. As far as I recall, the only teacher who got any respect from us was a tough, sarcastic rabbi from Brooklyn (in Seattle, such a creature was rather exotic) who had a great knack for humorous abuse à la Don Rickles, and who would throw erasers at students whose answers he didn’t like. I can't speak for the other boys (I don’t recall the girls being as troublesome as we boys were, though they may have been just as inattentive), but I was certainly interested in the subjects that I studied in my secular day school, and it would never have occurred to me to misbehave in class there.
The puzzle is that youngsters who, in their daily secular schools, showed at least a reasonable degree of interest in their subjects of study and a reasonable standard of behavior became inattentive and intractable during the measly two hours or so that they were expected to spend in learning about Judaism. Weiner, though he notes this disparity, does not attempt to explain it.

Reader Becca Lish, however, does so in a comment in which she writes that the Jewish philanthropist mentioned earlier “might wish to look to the vast majority of parents who expect our children to embrace beliefs and practices which we ourselves eschew. . . . The degree to which we integrate ‘Jewishness’ into actual family life will always be the prevailing factor in determining both sentiment and practice in the next generation.” I am inclined to agree. In fact, just a few days before her comment appeared, I had written something in a similar vein in a comment on my own blog:
Though I was industrious and well-behaved in my weekday secular school, I and my classmates in religious school were rebellious, inattentive, and virtually unteachable. I think that the underlying cause was simply that Jewish observance played so little role in our everyday lives that any study of it or of the thinking on which it was based literally bored us silly.
As I ruefully concluded my comment on Weiner’s piece: “In my adulthood, I wish that I could have learned much more [about Judaism when I was a child], but I don’t know how anyone could ever have taught it to us.” The ineffectuality of Jewish education outside of day schools and yeshivot reflects the thinness of most American Jewish practice.

But why is so much American Jewish practice—at least, so much American Reform Jewish practice—so thin? I think it is thin because the underlying beliefs are thin; and I think that the beliefs are thin because modern scientific and historical knowledge has made them so. But I know too little about the subject for my historical speculations to be worth publishing here.

Recently, I have been making my way slowly through Michael A. Meyer’s compendious Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). The following passage—and this is really what this whole post has been leading up to—caught my attention:
Limited to a few hours a week, the religious school was unable to undertake the intensive curriculum which had been taught in the day schools. Most met as few as two hours per week. Hebrew especially suffered, students but rarely achieving any real competence in the language. While in the majority of schools some Hebrew was taught, it was often optional and in quite a few not taught at all. Children who behaved well in public school resented the additional burden of weekend classes. As one observer noted, comparing the two: “There attention and quiet, here indifference, often wild noise; there decent respectful behavior toward the teacher, here only the opposite.” (286)
I quote this passage here because, although it almost exactly describes my own experience of Hebrew school, it refers to the situation approximately 140 years ago: the quotation within the quoted passage is taken from a piece published in 1871! Rabbi Weiner, in a passage quoted earlier, claims that “at the turn of the last century”—that is, circa 1901, in contrast to developments in subsequent decades—“there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them.” I don’t know how to square this with Meyers’s historical account. If the passage from that account quoted above is at all reliable, then the ineffectuality of Hebrew school and the refractory behavior of its recipients are not only not recent developments: one could fairly say that they belong to a Reform Jewish tradition.

Previous post: A Dilemma for NOMA

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Dilemma for NOMA

The diversity of religions presents a stubborn problem for Gould’s idea that religion has its own magisterium. The idea that the teaching authority of religion pertains to practices rather than beliefs shifts the problem slightly but ultimately does not solve it. On the other hand. . . .

 Stephen Jay Gould on The Simpsons (episode 908, “Lisa the Skeptic”)

To people who, like me, are neither religious nor anti-religious, Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (“NOMA”) holds considerable appeal.1 To recapitulate it for the benefit of anyone not already familiar with it, this is the thesis that science has “teaching authority” with regard to questions of how the natural world works, while religion has such authority with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. I have argued in my two previous posts on the topic (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion” and “More on Gould on Science and Religion”) that, while a plausible rationale can be suggested for Gould’s account of the magisterium of science, his account of the magisterium of religion faces serious difficulties. Not only is it questionable whether religion has teaching authority in the domain that Gould assigns to it, but it is questionable whether religion has teaching authority in any domain whatever. In short, it is to be doubted whether there is any such thing as “the magisterium of religion.”

This conclusion can be reached by either of two ways of looking at the matter. The first way is to note the logical disparity between how the non-count noun “religion” relates to the count noun “religions” and the manner in which the corresponding nouns “science” and “sciences” relate to each other. A science is simply the science of a particular subject matter, and all sciences are parts of science. For all the differences of method and content among them, there is no incompatibility between one science and another. There are conflicts between theories within the various sciences, but the work of science consists largely in resolving such conflicts. Religions, by contrast, do not belong to a coherent whole. Different religions do not relate to one another as different sciences do, as parts of a whole, but in something closer to how one scientific theory relates to another theory concerning the same subject matter, that is, by mutual incompatibility. As a rule, one cannot coherently combine the teachings of one religion with the teachings of another. (I include the qualification “as a rule” not because I know of two religions that can be combined in this way but simply because I do not know that there are no two that can be so combined.)

From these reflections it emerges how dubious Gould’s attribution of teaching authority to religion is. Remember that his thesis is not that each religion has its magisterium, but that religion itself, in kind, has a magisterium. He elaborates what this means in the following passage:
Each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution. These accepted standards, and the procedures developed for debating and resolving legitimate issues, define the magisterium—or teaching authority—of any given realm. (Rocks of Ages, 52–3)
This passage seems perfectly adequate to characterize science as a domain of inquiry; it may also be applicable to the domains of individual religions, considered separately, and perhaps even to the procedures of some ecumenical religious councils. But applied to the entity “religion” in general, it is a non-starter. Religion considered in kind, as contrasted with individual religions, plainly has none of the attributes that Gould describes as constituting a magisterium.

Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to consider the following dilemma. Take the body of beliefs that are taught by a given religion. Either that body of beliefs is founded in reason and experience—or in “natural reason,” as Thomas Aquinas would call it—or it is not. If it is, then there is no room for any specifically religious authority with regard to it: it falls within the magisterium of science, perhaps supplemented by (secular) philosophy. If, on the other hand, the body of beliefs is not founded in reason and experience, then no authority—that is, no power to determine the truth or falsehood of the beliefs—is possible with regard to it. At most, a political authority may determine what beliefs may be professed, and legislate penalties for heterodoxy. (I believe that this arrangement has been tried: it was called the middle ages, was it not?) Either way, there is no such thing as a specifically religious teaching authority. Therefore, there is no such thing as the magisterium of religion.

Those are the two arguments. What they have in common, besides their conclusion, is that they make use of two facts, (1) the incompatibilites among the teachings of different religions and (2) the unavailability of any specifically religious way—or perhaps it would be better to say generically religious way: i.e., a way belonging to religion in kind and not to any individual religion—of resolving those divergences of teaching. From these the conclusion is drawn that no teaching authority pertains to religion as such.

As with any well-formed argument, criticism of this one can focus either on the truth of premises or on their sufficiency to warrant the conclusion. Take premise 1 first—the assertion of the incompatibility among the teachings of different religions. There are those, like the present Dalai Lama, who like to emphasize what the world’s religions have in common and what adherents of one religion can learn from other religions.2 But, so far as I know, not even those who believe in a common core of the world’s religious teachings deny the diversity and incompatibility among the less central elements. Nor is it evident that these disagreements are merely peripheral. The teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate is central to the Christian religion, while Jews and Muslims stoutly deny it. Disagreement of beliefs among the world’s religions is not a mere appearance to be explained away but an undeniable and unalterable fact.

What, then, about premise 2, the unavailability of any system of standards or procedures for adjudicating conflicts of belief among the world’s religions? Might one hold that such a system is not impossible but merely not yet formulated, or that it already exists and merely wants development? It is not easy to refute such vague and speculative suppositions. This much, however, can be said. First, the only known body of standards or procedures that can be applied to religious claims is the one that makes up the composite body of what we call scientific method, logic, and common sense. The existence of such a body of standards and procedures plainly provides no support to the idea of a specifically religious form of teaching authority. Second, if there is a body of standards or procedures belonging specifically to religion, no one has yet produced it; so to invoke it to establish the existence of a religious magisterium is as vain as to call upon a phantom to clean one’s house.

The premises of the argument, then, seem unassailable. This leaves only the question of their sufficiency to establish the conclusion. And here, as I suggested in my previous post on this topic, there is a bit of wiggle room. To begin with, suppose that we separate the idea of teaching from that of belief or truth claim. After all, there are plainly forms of teaching that have nothing to do with imparting beliefs: teaching someone how to cook a soufflé or how to play cards, for instance. The application to religion is not hard to see: religious life is manifestly not a mere matter of belief, but also, arguably even primarily, of observance. Religions are first of all practiced; to speak of “believing” a religion is surely a rather late, and I suspect a specifically Protestant, development in the grammar of religious language.

The idea here is not that religious teaching does not include religious beliefs, but that religious teaching authority does not extend to such beliefs. As far as religious authority is concerned, religious beliefs are, on this view, epiphenomena of religious practices. The incompatibility between one religion and another is then less like the logical incompatibility between two propositions than it is like the physical incompatibility between being in one location and being in another, separate location. That is, one person cannot coherently maintain two or more distinct religious practices (or at least, cannot do so in general); nonetheless, if two people practice two different religions, their mere practices are not in any inherent conflict, but only such practical conflict as may arise from circumstances.

Some people, I suspect, will find this idea far-fetched and bizarre. For my part, I find it very attractive, and I suspect that anyone who finds it unworthy of serious consideration is simply accustomed to the Protestant conception of religion as essentially a matter of belief. Still, there is no denying that it is strange, and, what is more to the point, I suspect that it fails to solve the problem at hand. The reason is that, even if we set aside the logical incompatibility between religions by making practices rather than beliefs the objects of religious authority, we still have the problem of diversity in those practices. Each religion teaches a particular practice: there is no common practice or body of practices that religion itself teaches. In fact, it is not clear that there is anything that religion itself teaches: there are only the diverse teachings of different religions. The fact of religious diversity remains a problem for the idea of a religious magisterium.

There remains, so far as I can see, one possible way out for NOMA. I have presumed so far that, where a “teaching authority” exists, only one possible teaching can be authorized. Would it make sense to suppose that mutually incompatible beliefs, and perhaps also mutually exclusive practices, can all be authorized within religion? A magisterium, according to Gould, comprises standards and procedures for “debating and resolving legitimate issues.” Well, then: why assume that incompatibilities between one religion and another are legitimate issues? Perhaps the only legitimate religious issues are doctrinal (and perhaps also practical) differences within a religion. Gould’s idea, then, would be that there is a common body of procedures or standards for resolving religious disputes, but it concerns only disputes within a religion, not between one religion and another. Disputes between religions are then not legitimate religious issues, but if anything secular issues, to be resolved on non-religious grounds if at all.

This conception of the magisterium of religion is one that I have not seen considered elsewhere. Perhaps, after I post this, I will find some fatal weakness in it, but for now, I offer it for consideration.


1See Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999) and “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).

2Tenzin Gyatso (the Fourteenth Dalai Lama), “Many Faiths, One Truth,” The New York Times, May 25, 2010.

Previous entry: More on Gould on Science and Religion

Next entry: Jewish Education in America: A Historical Note

Sunday, June 6, 2010

More on Gould on Science and Religion

The criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis of non-overlapping magisteria (for science, questions of how the natural world is; for religion, questions of ultimate meaning and value) can be reduced to one objection: Why should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

Stephen Jay Gould (source)

As I explained in a previous entry (“Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion”), Stephen Jay Gould’s thesis that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria” (“NOMA”) is meant neither as a description of the actual scope of claims made by practitioners of science and religion nor as a proposal for how those two activities can stay out of each other’s way, but rather as an account of the range within which each of the two has “teaching authority.” Science, on Gould’s view, has such authority with regard to questions of how the natural world works, and religion with regard to questions of ultimate meaning and value. There is, according to Gould, no conflict between science and religion as such, because their respective domains, though they adjoin each other, do not overlap. Claims about the natural world made on the supposed authority of religion as well as claims about ultimate meaning and value made on the supposed authority of science are one and all void.

Interestingly, while many defenders of science have been highly critical of Gould’s thesis, their principal complaint has been not that it grants too little to science (though some have made this objection: more on that on another occasion) but that it grants too much to religion. The objection is that, even if questions of ultimate meaning and value lie outside the competence of science, it does not follow that they lie within the competence, much less the exclusive competence, of religion. After all, such questions are and always have been prominent concerns of the discipline of philosophy. To hold that they can only be resolved by reliance on religious sources is itself a substantive philosophical position, and an unpopular one among professional philosophers at that.

At the same time, as I noted in my previous entry, these critics find fault with Gould for drawing the boundaries of religious authority in an implausibly utopian fashion. To hold, as Gould does, that such authority pertains only to questions of ultimate meaning and value and not to questions of natural fact excludes a vast body of actual religious claims, such as the historical narratives on which the Abrahamic religions depend. Gould’s assertion that the conflict between science and religion “exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects” (Rocks of Ages, 3) requires so vast a disparity between the supposed “logic or proper utility” of religion and how religion “exists . . . in people’s minds and social practices” as to make his conception appear more wishful thinking than historical or philosophical analysis. In the satirical summation cited by Daniel Dennett, the thesis of NOMA says in effect: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have.” In other words, while Gould’s formulations make a show of giving to science and to religion each their respective shares, in effect it only allows to religion a portion of what is left over after science has done its work.

In this light it is all the more remarkable that religionists (if that is the term for those who follow some religion or other) who have commented on Gould’s thesis seem to be content with his delineation of the religious magisterium. Yet it is not difficult to guess the reason for this. Presumably, it is only the exponents of modern, liberal, intellectually catholic (with a small “c”) interpretations of religion—religionists well up in secular learning, who will not feel pinched or chafed by the strictures of NOMA—who have anything to say about Gould. For them, the role of the defender of the faith in relation to scientific findings that conflict with traditional beliefs is not to refute those findings but to reinterpret the tradition to accommodate them. By contrast, creationists and other religious reactionaries, who take their favored scriptures or clerics to be authoritative for all time and in all questions whatever, are not likely to pay attention to what an evolutionary biologist—a proponent of the hated doctrine of “Darwinism,” which they equate with atheism—has to say about the proper scope of religious claims. It’s either that, or I just haven’t heard their grumblings because they have not carried beyond their closed circle of communicants.

So, to sum up, the objections to Gould’s thesis of NOMA are (1) that it grants religion an authority that it lacks in questions of ultimate meaning and value, and (2) that, however attractive it may be as an ideal scheme, it is too remote from the actual practice of religion to be credible. Alternatively, one can sum up all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould’s thesis by defenders of science in one rhetorical question: By what right does Gould assume that religion has teaching authority about anything? Why, in other words, should we believe that religion has any magisterium at all?

There is an evident contrast with science on this point. Science, one could argue, is defined by a body of methods that can be derived from the inherent requirements of human epistemic rationality. Thus the definition of science—not the definition of the word “science” but the rule by which in practice science is identified—explains why science has the magisterium that it has, and a fortiori why it has any magisterium at all. Science has teaching authority with regard to how the world is because its methods are derived from the requirements for learning about how the world is. This is true not only of science as a whole but of any particular science. Particular sciences are individuated not as competing claims (there are competing claims in the sciences, but there is a commonly accepted methodology for adjudicating among them), but as the science of this or that particular subject matter.

With religion, things stand on an entirely different footing. The various religions of the world are not parts of a whole called “religion” except as a matter of verbal classification. As far as their beliefs are concerned, religions are not complementary at all but conflicting, and there is no common method or practice or principle of operation among them by appeal to which differences of doctrine can be resolved. Gould defines a magisterium as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (Rocks of Ages, 3). It may be fair to say that religion or the religious mode of teaching, whatever exactly that may be, holds the tools for meaningful discourse, but resolving differences of belief is precisely what it cannot do. Each religion may contain the tools for resolving internal doctrinal disputes, but no religion contains the tools for resolving differences between religions, except to the utterly parochial satisfaction of its particular adherents; much less does the abstract generic entity “religion” possess any such tools. Thus, while the existence and extent of the magisterium of science can be derived from the nature of science, consideration of the nature of religion only makes it difficult to sustain the claim that religion has any magisterium at all.

There is, I think, a way out of this, both for Gould and for religion. In making the case for the pedagogical incompetence of religion—the non-existence of anything that can be called its magisterium—I relied on a restriction of religious teaching to beliefs, or truth claims. If religious teaching is essentially concerned with telling us how things are, whether in “this” world (as if there were another) or in some putative world beyond it, then, I think, Gould’s atheistic critics are surely right, and religion has no teaching authority at all. But the assumption that religious teaching concerns beliefs may be called into question. Religion may have teaching authority with regard to something—I am not venturing to say what—that is not essentially a matter of belief at all. Another possibility is that the proper task and scope of religion is not captured by the idea of a magisterium. I hope to explore these possibilities in another entry.

* * *

Correction, added June 10, 2010: I overstated matters in my final paragraph, above, when I equated the non-existence of a religious magisterium with the “pedagogical incompetence” of religion. To lack teaching authority is not the same as to lack competence to teach. Any religion is competent to teach what it will, in the sense that there is nothing inherent in religion as such that prevents given religious teachings from being authorized by some non-parochial standard. But the only non-parochial standards available are (as the term suggests) non-religious ones. Thus, for instance, the fact that certain histories offered in the Bible are incorporated into Jewish or Christian doctrine does not render those histories rationally untenable. The point is merely that their religious status does not confer any authority on them either: whether they are true or false can and must be settled by the same standards as any other historical claims.

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion

According to Stephen Jay Gould, science and religion have separate domains of teaching authority, or “non-overlapping magisteria.” If so, then it is not evident that any major revealed religion has ever confined itself to its proper magisterium. But that does not mean that Gould is wrong.

  Jesus and Mo (image linked to site) 

Not long before his untimely death in 2002, Stephen Jay Gould advanced what he described as “a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution” to “the supposed conflict between science and religion.”1 “Supposed,” because the said conflict “exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects.” By nature, according to Gould, science and religion do not and cannot conflict, because their respective concerns are entirely distinct:
Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve (4).
Gould adopted the Catholic ecclesiastical term “magisterium” (from the Latin magister, “teacher”) to describe these spheres of concern. “A magisterium . . . is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution” (5). Science and religion, on Gould’s view, are “non-overlapping magisteria”—a phrase that, perhaps for reasons of euphony, he abbreviated to “NOMA” (surely “NOM” would have been more accurate). The magisterium of science comprises “the empirical realm: what the universe is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory),” while that of religion “extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value” (6). No question belongs within both domains: hence their “non-overlapping” character.

Gould’s thesis has not been well received, as far as I know, among defenders of science. Members of this audience have argued that the thesis rests on a highly questionable dichotomy of fact and value; that it grants religion a dubious and undeserved authority in questions of meaning and value; and that it does not describe any state of affairs that has ever actually existed between science and religion.2 In what follows, I will mostly be concerned with the last of these three criticisms, though I will have a bit to say about the second one toward the end.

Gould is well aware that many people have invoked and continue to invoke religious sources to make claims about the character of the natural world, as well as scientific sources for claims about meaning and value in human life. He notes that “NOMA does challenge certain particular (and popular) versions of religious belief . . . For example, if your particular form of religion demands a belief that the earth can only be about ten thousand years old (because you choose to read Genesis as a literal text, whatever such a claim might mean), then you stand in violation of NOMA” (93). The thesis of non-overlapping magisteria concerns the domains within which religion and science have their respective authorities, not the scope of actual claims that human beings make in the name of the one or the other.

What are commonly adduced as examples of the conflict between religion and science, such as the persistent conflict over the teaching of evolution in American public schools, are, according to Gould, typically political clashes between one group representing the interests of a specific religious group and an opposing group representing not merely scientific but very often opposing religious interests as well. In fact, Gould takes the battle over creationism in American public schools to illustrate rather than to counter his thesis:
Modern creationism, alas, has provoked a real battle, thus supporting NOMA with a positive example of the principle that all apparent struggles between science and religion really arise from violations of NOMA, when a small group allied to one magisterium tries to impose its irrelevant and illegitimate will upon the other’s domain. Such genuine historical battles, therefore, do not pit science against religion, and can only represent a power play by zealots formally allied to one side, and trying to impose their idiosyncratic and decidedly minority views upon the magisterium of the other side (125–6).
Similarly, social Darwinism—the real object of William Jennings Bryan’s opposition to the teaching of evolution in public schools—was an ethical and political view based on an illegitimate inference from how nature works to how human beings should conduct themselves (162–3, 165–6).

As I said before, Gould’s thesis has not been well received among defenders of science. Thus Massimo Pigliucci offers the following as one of “several intrinsic reason why NOMA does not hold water”:
It is not true that (most) religions do not make claims about the natural world. Besides the tens of millions of people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old, the Bible was never meant as a book of metaphors. It is read that way by enlightened Christians today precisely because of the long battle between science and religion, with the latter constantly on the losing side. (“Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria, A Review”)
Richard Dawkins, in a review of Gould’s book, writes in a similar vein with reference to certain doctrines of the Catholic Church:
The Virgin Birth, the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the survival of our own souls after death: these are all claims of a clearly scientific nature. Either Jesus had a corporeal father or he didn’t. This is not a question of “values” or “morals”; it is a question of sober fact. We may not have the evidence to answer it, but it is a scientific question, nevertheless. You may be sure that, if any evidence supporting the claim were discovered, the Vatican would not be reticent in promoting it. (“When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf”)
And Daniel Dennett, responding to Gould’s thesis, says in an interview:
There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—“beyond a reasonable doubt”—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions. (“Daniel Dennett’s Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a ‘Dangerous’ Man”)
The common argument here seems to be, in briefest form, that because the actual beliefs of most religions include matters of natural fact, most religions intrude upon the magisterium of science; therefore science and religion do not have non-overlapping magisteria.

It is not difficult to see how Gould could parry this objection. His thesis, as he says in a passage already quoted, does not concern the actual practices of the world’s religions but rather “the logic or proper utility of these . . . subjects” (3). It concerns the respective domains in which religion and science hold the means of legitimately answering questions, not the domains in which people do in fact invoke religion or science to answer questions.

Such a reply, however, merely displaces the force of the criticism to another point in Gould’s conception. How plausible can a conception of the “logic and proper utility” of religion be if it implies that the greater part of the world’s religions overstep the proper bounds of religion itself? As Pigliucci suggests in the passage quoted earlier, it is only because religion, as represented by its more enlightened adherents, has been beating a retreat in the face of scientific advance for the past 400 years or so that Gould’s conception of its proper sphere has even an appearance of being workable.

Now there is one part of Gould’s thesis on which none of these arguments cast any doubt, namely that religion has no teaching authority with regard to questions of natural fact. Pigliucci, Dawkins, Dennett, and Gould are of one mind on this point. The trouble for the thesis of NOMA is that, at least historically, most of the adherents and most of the authorities of the world’s religions have received and propounded teachings about such questions, and proponents of science have continually encountered resistance from religious quarters whenever their findings came into conflict with those teachings. One may miss this point if one confines one’s attention to questions of natural-scientific theory. In such matters, one may take it for granted that, apart from the views of those whom Gould rightly disparages as a minority of zealots, religion, for the most part, got out of that line of work long ago. But, as noted by Dawkins and Dennett, the questions on which religion has had to retreat include highly specific questions of human history, such as questions about the life of Jesus or, to return to the topic of one of my previous posts (“Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs”), the supposed exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the supposed reception of the Torah by Moses at Mount Sinai.

To be sure, Gould is able to cite pronouncements by Popes Pius XII (Humani Generis, 1950) and John Paul (“Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” 1996) as illustrations of NOMA (76–82). There are plenty of Protestant denominations (I think the majority, though I don’t know) that have officially accepted the findings of modern science, evolutionary biology in particular. The liberal denominations of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist—have certainly been receptive to the findings of modern science, even, indeed perhaps especially, in questions of ancient history and the origins of Judaism’s sacred texts (see my post “What Beliefs Are Jewish Beliefs?”). On the other hand, Modern Orthodox Judaism, as I understand it, professes to accept the findings of science, but whether its rabbinate actually does so in practice is another matter (see my post “Dishonesty in Hertz’s Torah Commentary”).

In his interview, Dennett cites an unnamed or unknown “wag” who said that Gould’s thesis “amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have.” In other words, NOMA leaves science in charge of questions of how the world works, and leaves religion some subset of the leftover questions that science cannot answer. This subset, over time, has been getting smaller and smaller. As noted earlier, Gould’s critics have attacked his attempt to identify it with the set of questions concerning meaning and value in human life. “Philosophy,” says Pigliucci, “using the tools of logic and informed by the discoveries of science, seems to me a much better candidate for that magisterium.” I am inclined to agree; but I suspect that this is merely a point on which Gould’s thesis was underdeveloped, not a point on which it was flatly wrong.

Jesus and “Mo,” in the cartoon shown above, may be closer to the mark, or at least less susceptible of refutation, when they identify the proper sphere of religious claims as “the supernatural.” In an earlier post (“The Natural versus the Supernatural”), I identified the supernatural as a putative order superior to that of nature. Setting aside for the present the questions of what beliefs a human being might hold regarding such an order, how and why he or she might do so, and by what observances he or she might enter into relation with such an order, I am, at any rate, content to say that religion has its magisterium, which is the supernatural. The natural is the magisterium of science: a religion may contain beliefs regarding natural matters, but it has no authority with regard to them.

The sum of my consideration of Gould’s arguments and those of his critics is that the thesis of NOMA remains defensible, but implies, at least in historical terms, a radically revisionary and restrictive conception of religious authority. The “proper” sphere of religious claims is much, much smaller than what any of the Abarahamic faiths has historically claimed for itself, as it excludes most of what is narrated in scripture. Every religion is entitled to its own version of history, of course, but it cannot claim specific authority for versions of events that are unsupported by the available evidence, much less ones that are contrary to such evidence. On such a view, revelation can extend no further than a supposed supernatural realm. I can live with that, but I don’t know what proportion of the world’s religious believers can do so.


1Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 3. Gould presents his thesis more briefly in his essay “Non-Overlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (1997).

2Such criticisms may be found in Richard Dawkins, “When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf,” Free Inquiry 18.2 (1998); Massimo Pigliucci, “Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria: A Review” (source unknown); and Chris Floyd, “Daniel Dennett’s Darwinian Mind: An Interview with a ‘Dangerous’ Man,” Search Magazine, May/June 2000.

Previous entry: Tom Tomorrow on the BP Oil Disaster

Next entry: More on Gould on Science and Religion

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tom Tomorrow on the BP Oil Disaster

How political conservatism distorts thinking about dangers to the public and the environment.

An addendum to my previous entry, on the absence of prophetic responses to the great oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: Tom Tomorrow’s satirical reflection on the news (which you can read about in The Wall Street Journal here) that the spill might have been prevented if the Deepwater Horizon had used an emergency shutoff device called an acoustic trigger. “U.S. regulators don't mandate use of the remote-control device on offshore rigs, and the Deepwater Horizon, hired by oil giant BP PLC, didn't have one. . . . An acoustic trigger costs about $500,000, industry officials said.”

Of course, it rather spoils the satirical fun if you also read in the article that “the efficacy of the devices is unclear. Major offshore oil-well blowouts are rare, and it remained unclear Wednesday evening whether acoustic switches have ever been put to the test in a real-world accident.”

Previous entry: The Prophets Are Silent

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Prophets Are Silent

Self-fancied prophets, such as the Reverend Pat Robertson, have told us why God brought us the earthquake in Haiti, the volcanic eruption in Iceland, and other disasters; why have none been giving us the theological skinny on the big oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

The Deepwater Horizon; photo by US Coast Guard

In previous entries, I have recounted—scornfully, I admit—the claims of certain religious persons to recognize the hand of God in natural disasters: Pat Robertson on the earthquake in Haiti (“Pat Robertson, Propagandist for Atheism?” and “Second Thoughts about What Pat Robertson Said”), Rabbi Lazer Brody and Rush Limbaugh on the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and a Muslim cleric on earthquakes in Iran (“More Insights into the Ways of God”). I take it to be obvious that these buffoons are dressing up their benighted prejudices as insights into the ways of God, and thus in effect pretending to prophecy. I also take it that, whether there is such a thing as prophecy or not, these guys haven’t got it.

Only this evening, as I watched a television news report on the attempted “top kill” on the leaking oil well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, did it strike me that I have not heard of any similar prophetic pronouncements about a mishap that promises to be one of the worst ecological disasters of all time. Perhaps this is merely because no self-fancied prophet has made any pronouncements sufficiently outrageous to be widely reported in the news, not because none has spoken of it. But I suspect that human-made disasters simply are not as strong a stimulus to such pronouncements as natural ones.

But why should that be? Do we—non-experts—really have a better understanding of why the Deepwater Horizon exploded than we have of why the earth shook in Haiti or the volcano erupted in Iceland? Surely not, though we may expect that an inquiry into the event will eventually bring to light the causes. Is the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico less significant a disaster than the Haitian earthquake or the Icelandic volcano? Well, it has certainly been less destructive of human life than the earthquake; but the effects on commerce and on animal life look to be pretty dire.

Another possible explanation is that the prophetically inclined have no trouble with the idea of God pushing around tectonic plates or lava veins, but they balk at attributing the actions of human beings, even their errors and collective lapses of judgment, to divine intervention. But this is not true of ultra-Orthodox Jews, for instance, many of whom attribute the Holocaust to divine wrath at the abandonment of strict religious observance among Jews.

Well, I don’t know the answer. It is an interesting psychological question.

Previous entry: The Natural versus the Supernatural

Next entry: Tom Tomorrow on the BP Oil Disaster

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Natural versus the Supernatural

Once you look into the meaning of “supernatural,” it becomes harder to sustain a distinction between “pure” and “mixed” supernatural beliefs. So I give up that distinction. Still, it is the natural rather than the supernatural beliefs that do most to bring religion into conflict with scientific knowledge.

Francisco Zurbarán, The Apotheosis of Thomas Aquinas

In a previous entry (“Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs,” May 20, 2010), I proposed a distinction among three kinds of religious beliefs, which I termed “natural,” “supernatural,” and “mixed,” i.e., beliefs concerning purely natural matters (e.g., that Moses wrote down the words of the Torah in the Sinai desert), beliefs concerning purely supernatural matters (e.g., that God exists), and beliefs concerning matters with both natural and supernatural elements (e.g., that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God). I did not, however, offer any explanation of the terms “natural” and “supernatural,” a deficiency which I would now like to make good.

As a matter of structure and derivation, “supernatural” signifies what is above nature, or what exceeds it. “Above” or “exceeding,” though, in what sense? I will answer this question by a brief excursion into the history of words and concepts. Anyone without the patience for such topics may skip the next section.

* * *

According to the  Oxford English Dictionary, the medieval Latin antecedent of “supernatural,” supernātūrālis, comes from the work of Thomas Aquinas. In a scholarly paper (reference below), Father Andrew Murray analyzes the several contexts in which Thomas uses the term “supernatural”: e.g., the supernatural change of consecrated bread into the body of Christ, the supernatural gift of divine grace, the supernatural good of eternal life, the supernatural knowledge that is prophecy, the supernatural effects that are miracles, and so on. He sums up his findings thus:
What then, does Thomas mean by “supernatural”? The term is used only as an adjective or infrequently as an adverb and then by way of distinction. It means that some power or effect or agent or gift or end or some such is not natural and that it is outside the order of nature on account of direct divine intervention. Thomas is clear, however, that God does not normally intervene in the workings of nature[,] so that the supernatural is not a kind of explanation for things we do not understand. Supernatural events such as prophecy and miracles occur only for the sake of salvation and matters such as the nature of Christ and the sacraments are part of the order of salvation, the free gift of a personal God, who is distinct from the created universe. (5)
So certain things are termed “supernatural” to indicate that they exceed what is possible in nature or by nature alone. Supernatural powers, acts, or occurrences may be deviations from the normal course of nature, as in the case of miracles; or they may be indistinguishable from natural occurrences, as in the case of the Eucharist, in which the body of Christ is indistinguishable from an ordinary wafer. What makes such occurrences supernatural is not that they appear to be contrary to the order of nature, for they may not so appear, i.e., the divine element may be indiscernible to our observation. What matters is that they come from a source superior to nature, namely God.

* * *

The supernatural, then, at least in the original sense of the term, is not necessarily something contrary to nature (though it may be) but rather something belonging to an order superior to nature. It does not merely indicate something that is unexplained or inexplicable in natural terms. Rather, the term implies an order superior to nature, such as a divine order: it does not take its meaning merely from the negation of the word “natural.”

This may be a narrower understanding of the term than is common today. The Wikipedia article “Supernatural” says, at least at the moment of my consulting it, that “the term ‘supernatural’ is often used interchangeably with ‘paranormal’ or ‘preternatural’.” Whatever the sense of the term in popular usage today, Saint Thomas’s sense is more pertinent to the application of the term to religious belief. Religious beliefs are supernatural in the sense with which I am concerned when they pertain to something belonging to an order superior to that of nature, specifically a divine one.

So understood, supernatural religious beliefs are not necessarily in conflict with what we know of nature. In fact, one might argue that purely supernatural beliefs cannot be in conflict with what we know of nature, because they simply do not concern anything in nature. But such a position faces difficulties. Consider, for example, the belief that the natural world is the creation of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving supreme being—in a word, God. This seems to be a fine example of a purely supernatural belief. But, as philosophers and theologians have recognized for centuries, it is not obvious how this belief is to be squared with the fact that all sorts of evils befall all sentient things, not least of all human beings, including ones of whom it seems inconceivable that they can have done anything to deserve their ill fortune (small children afflicted with terrible and fatal diseases, for instance). Whether or not there is a way to reconcile the existence of God, so conceived, with the existence of evil in the world, there is plainly at least prima facie a conflict between the belief in the former and the recognition of the latter, which suggests that purely supernatural beliefs can in fact conflict with natural facts.

There seem to me to be two possible ways to respond to this difficulty. One would be to restrict the term “purely supernatural belief” to beliefs which have no possible bearing on natural facts. This would preserve the thesis of non-conflict between supernatural beliefs and natural facts, but at the risk of restricting the application of the term “purely supernatural belief” so narrowly as to make it virtually if not actually useless. The other option would be to abandon or modify the threefold scheme that I originally proposed. I am inclined to take the latter way. I will give up the term “purely supernatural belief” and instead simply use the term “supernatural belief” for any belief that has a supernatural element, regardless of whether it also has bearing on natural facts. Instead of a threefold division, then, I offer a merely twofold one comprising natural and supernatural religious beliefs.

I think, though, that I can hold on to my main former contention, namely that natural religious beliefs do more than supernatural ones to bring religious beliefs into conflict with scientific knowledge. What troubles me now is that the thesis seems in danger of collapsing into the virtually trivial assertion that religious belief conflicts with knowledge of nature only when it bears on nature. But I don’t think that it reduces to that. The non-trivial point remains that a large part of religious belief, and specifically a large part of traditional Jewish belief, consists of beliefs about natural fact (by which term I mean to include, as I said before, facts of human history), and that it is these beliefs that bring it into conflict with scientific (including historical) knowledge.


Andrew Murray, “The Spiritual and the Supernatural according to Thomas Aquinas,” paper delivered at the Biennial Conference in Philosophy, Religion and Culture, “The Supernatural,” Catholic Institute of Sydney, 3–4 October 1998 (PDF file).

Previous entry: Martin Gardner, 1914–2010

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Martin Gardner, 1914–2010

Author Martin Gardner died today, May 22, 2010, at the age of 95. [Corrected date]

 Martin Gardner with his The Annotated Alice
Portrait in background by Ken Knowlton (photo source)

A great expositor of science and mathematics and scourge of pseudo-science has passed: Martin Gardner died today at the age of 95. According to the article on him in Wikipedia, he published more than 70 books. I confess that the only one that I have read all the way through is his classic Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, originally published in 1952 and still in print. Here is a passage from chapter 1, “In the Name of Science”:
In the last analysis, the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and the self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult.
Delightful book. I do not know what his last days were like, but the man certainly had a good run.

(Credit to an entry by James Randi in the JREF Swift Blog for my learning of this event. And credit to the anonymous commenter who corrected my error about Gardner’s date of birth, which I originally took to be 1920, following—to my disgrace—the Wikipedia article cited above. The date of 1914 is given in this article by Phil Plait.)

Addendum, May 24, 2010: I notice that this entry has received some visits from a Google search for the text “Martin Gardner Jewish”—presumably from people curious to know whether Gardner was Jewish. I have seen no indication that he was so, even as a matter of descent, and the following passage from his book The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999) seems to me positively to indicate that he was not:
Let me speak personally. By the grace of God I managed the leap [of faith] when I was in my teens. For me it was then bound up with an ugly Protestant fundamentalism. I outgrew this slowly, and eventually decided that I could not call myself a Christian without using language deceptively, but faith in God and immortality remained. (221)
The passage implies that in his early life, the option of religious belief presented itself to Gardner in the form of Protestant fundamentalism. (Gardner grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.) In view of this, it seems very unlikely that he had any Jewish connections.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

What Beliefs Are Jewish Beliefs?

Certainly some beliefs are Jewish beliefs; only it is difficult to say which ones. If the question is whether a belief is an Orthodox Jewish belief, the question can be easier to settle; but not always.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920–2006)

Shilton HaSechel posted a comment on my previous entry, “Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs,” which has given me occasion to rethink some of what I wrote and to add a few further thoughts. Shilton writes:
After all the denial of Mosaic authorship although dear to many actually is not necessary to Judaism.
I concede the point. I probably ought to have specified “Orthodox Judaism” at certain points in my article, though even then I am not sure if that would have been an adequate qualification, as there may be a diversity of views on the pertinent points even among Orthodox rabbis, let alone Orthodox Jews (not a term capable of sharp definition) in general.

While I continue to hold that there is such a thing as “Jewish beliefs,” or beliefs characteristic of Judaism, it is no easy matter to say what those beliefs are and in exactly what sense they are “Jewish” or “characteristic of Judaism,” without making arbitrary or parochial assumptions. So, for instance, the belief that the Torah was given litteratim to Moses at Mount Sinai is certainly a Jewish belief in some sense: it is propounded in the Talmud; it has been maintained by rabbis for hundreds of years; it is still maintained by (most? many? some?) Orthodox rabbis. But, also obviously, that belief is not held by all, or even by most, Jews, and probably not even by most rabbis.

Continuing with Shilton’s comment:
Even Orthodox Judaism could do away with belief in Biblical history and still continue functioning pretty much the same. All you really need to believe is someway somehow God inspired/directed the holy writings of Judaism so therefore these writing are then themselves holy and contain God’s message.
In theory, perhaps; in practice, I very much doubt it. The “could” that Shilton suggests here is presumably what Rabbi Louis Jacobs assumed when he first published We Have Reason to Believe: Some Aspects of Jewish Theology Examined in the Light of Modern Thought in 1957. In that bracing book, he argued that imputing divine origins to the written and oral Torah is entirely compatible with a scientifically informed understanding of the historical process by which the pertinent texts were formed. And he did this without any fudging of the science à la J. H. Hertz.

The Orthodox establishment of Great Britain had quite different ideas, as Jacobs learned to his discomfiture a few years later when his promised appointment to the principality of Jews’ College (the London Orthodox rabbinical seminary) was thwarted by the intervention of the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Israel Brodie; and again a few years after that, when Brodie vetoed the appointment of Jacobs to a pulpit position at the New West End Synagogue of London. The vindictiveness of the Orthodox establishment toward Jacobs only worsened after he left the Orthodox rabbinate to found the Masorti movement, the British equivalent of Conservative Judaism in the US. In 1995, the present Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, published an article in the Jewish Tribune accusing Jacobs of “intellectual thievery” and, according to an article by Matt Plen, “alleging that Masorti’s claim to represent authentic Judaism was a subterfuge aimed at the destruction of the tradition.” In 2003, Jacobs was denied an aliyah at his granddaughter’s wedding because, as Rabbi Sacks and the head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, wrote together in a publication, “had Jacobs uttered the words ‘Our God [. . .] who gave us the Torah of truth [. . .]’, he would have made a false statement” (source).

Of course, one could argue that this disgraceful history says more about the parochial rigidity (not to say meanness, mulishness, and sheer stupidity) of the British Orthodox establishment than it says about Orthodox Judaism per se. But when certain positions are maintained by such a prominent Orthodox authority, it is difficult to regard them as deviant or unrepresentative.

Finally, to answer Shilton’s closing question:
Are there any other natural beliefs you have in mind besides Mosaic authorship?
Well, pretty much all of the history in the Bible. I have been reading The Bible Unearthed (bibliographical information in note 2 of my previous entry), and I am continually impressed, first, by how much knowledge has been accumulated by scholars concerning the actual history of the ancient Near East, and second, how little truth it leaves in the accounts of events in the Bible. As Finkelstein and Silberman say at some point, even the histories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, which have a far closer relation to historical fact than anything in the Pentateuch, simply are not attempts at history as we understand it, but exercises in ideology in historical form.

Of course, those parts of the Bible have a less intimate relation to Jewish religious practice than have the contents of the Pentateuch. But they do support the important theme of how the Israelites earn divine retribution by repeatedly straying from the worship of the one true God. That is, they attribute the misfortunes of the Israelites to their collective failure to keep their part of their covenant with God. Finkelstein and Silberman’s findings show that even where the “natural” part of this history is concerned—the mere recounting of events, regardless of the theological interpretation that is put upon them—the Bible is untruthful.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Three Kinds of Religious Beliefs

Religious beliefs contain both natural and supernatural elements. The natural elements do more than the supernatural ones to make systems of religious belief rationally untenable in light of science.

Moses at Sinai: lithograph by F. W. McCleave, 1877

There is a common tendency—at least, it seems to me very widespread—to equate religion with religious belief. Whatever convenience such an equation may have for thinking about Christianity, it makes nonsense of Judaism. To say that someone “practices Judaism” is perfectly intelligible; to say that someone “believes Judaism” is a bizarre combination of words.

Nonetheless, it is plain that there are Jewish beliefs, that is, beliefs characteristic of Judaism, or at least of this or that variety or denomination of Judaism. Some of these beliefs may even be considered to be foundational, in the sense that they provide a rationale for religious observances. The nineteenth-century movement to preserve traditional Jewish observances called itself “Orthodoxy”—“correct belief”—for a reason: it also meant to preserve, or rather to establish, a body of specifically Jewish doctrine or dogma. [1]

But what sorts of beliefs may be counted as religious ones? Consider the following three propositions as examples:
  1. The Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch) was written down in the Sinai desert by Moses more than three thousand years ago.
  2. The Torah was dictated to Moses by God.
  3. God exists.
All three of these are, I take it, Jewish religious beliefs. But they are plainly different in their relation to natural fact.

The first proposition does not imply, or at least need not be interpreted as implying, any supernatural element. It concerns a matter of historical, or more broadly natural fact.

The second proposition has both a natural and a supernatural element. The natural element is just what is stated in (1), that the Torah was written down by Moses more than three thousand years ago. The supernatural element is the idea that this writing-down was a taking of divine dictation. (I use the phrase “written down” rather than simply “written” so as not to exclude that idea a priori: to say that the Torah was written by Moses might be understood to imply that he was its author rather than merely, as per (2), its original scribe.)

The third proposition I take to be of purely supernatural significance. Of course, I have not tried to define the terms “natural” and “supernatural,” but rather than take on that difficult task, I will simply take the two terms to be sufficiently well understood for my purposes. My three examples are meant to illustrate the distinction that I propose among three kinds of religious belief: (1) natural beliefs, (2) mixed natural–supernatural beliefs, and (3) purely supernatural beliefs.

The points that I want to make about these three kinds of belief are the following. First, while people tend to identify religious belief with beliefs of the third type, such as the belief that God exists or beliefs about the divine nature, a very large part of religious belief consists of natural elements. In consequence, many religious beliefs are not essentially religious, in the sense that they are such that it is possible for someone to believe them without accepting any religious doctrine that contains it. Someone might, for instance, believe that Moses wrote the Torah in the Sinai desert without believing that God had anything to do with the matter.

Second, natural and supernatural elements are often tightly connected. For instance, though someone might believe that Moses wrote down the Torah but not believe that he did so under divine dictation, no one can believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses without believing that Moses wrote it down. That is a matter of logic. Other connections are a matter of psychology. Thus, while it is possible to believe, say, that a worldwide flood killed all land animals but those on Noah’s ark without believing that God had any hand in it, it is not likely that anyone—any adult of much education at any rate—would ever do so. That is, many natural religious beliefs are held only because of some accompanying supernatural religious belief.

Third, to the extent that a body of religious belief contains natural elements, it is subject to critical examination in the light of science. If it were established that the Torah was written down by Moses in the desert more than three thousand years ago, scientific investigation would be powerless to settle the question whether he was taking divine dictation. But the fact is that no such hypothesis is established, or, in view of the evidence, capable of being established. On the contrary, the findings of archaeological investigation as well as textual analysis render the belief that the Torah was written all at once, hundreds of years before the rise of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, completely untenable. [2]

Fourth, even if the supernatural as such is beyond the reach of scientific criticism, mixed natural–supernatural beliefs are not. If it can be proved that the Torah was written hundreds of years after the time in which even the latest events recounted in it are purported to take place—which it can, unless one understands “prove” to signify a standard of certainty that is never attained in any empirical science—then the idea that Moses wrote it under divine dictation is also thereby refuted.

Fifth and finally—though this is not a point for which I shall be supplying the necessary argument in this entry—Judaism, like Christianity, is thoroughly dependent on natural beliefs and mixed natural–supernatural beliefs that are rationally untenable in the light of known evidence and scientific arguments. Even if purely supernatural beliefs, such as the belief in an almighty and supremely wise and benign creator and ruler of the universe, are given a free pass, specific natural and mixed beliefs are required for supporting a body of specific religious observances; and some of the most important of those beliefs are not rationally tenable.


[1] On the question of preserving versus establishing, see Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006).

[2] On archaeology, see Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: Free Press, 2001). On textual analysis of the Bible, see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).

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