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

Next entry: Stephen Jay Gould on Science and Religion

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

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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.

Previous entry: What Beliefs Are Jewish Beliefs?

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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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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Funny Word, Funnier Concept

The word “Jew” is odd enough considered merely as a phonetic phenomenon; it gets even funnier when you try to figure out exactly what it means.

Jerry Seinfeld

Is not the word “Jew” somewhat—well, funny? That a religious identity with three thousand years of often tragic history behind it, the source of some of the founding texts of Western and Near Eastern civilization, should be signified in our language by a paltry monosyllable is, to say the least, incongruous. More than that, the word has at least a potentially humorous ring to it. Thus an elective class at the religious school that I attended as a boy was whimsically titled “Jews in the News.” (That is the kind of measure to which a Reform Jewish Sunday school—and yes, it was held on Sundays, not Saturdays—resorted in its efforts to avoid boring us: elevating the hallowed pastime of Jew-spotting to an academic subject.) My classmates and I were inspired by this title to add “Jews in Trees” to the list of classes on a bulletin board. But the impulse to play around with the word started with the grown-ups, not with us.

Of course, it may well be that I can say such things only because I had the good fortune to grow up without hearing the word “Jew” used in hatred and contempt, something that I imagine most Jews of earlier generations in English-speaking countries cannot say (to say nothing of Jews in countries of other languages). Even today, many people, especially non-Jews, shy away from using the word and substitute the dainty phrase “Jewish person” for fear of giving offense. I suspect that I am not the only one who finds something jarring in the designation of a rabbinical college in London as “Jews’ College.” (I suspect that that is one reason why in 1999 it changed its name to “London School of Jewish Studies.”)

As far as its origins are concerned, the curtness of the word “Jew” says more about the eliding tendencies of the French language than about the sentiments of those who have used it. It was in French that the word for one belonging to the tribe or the kingdom of Judah, transmitted in trisyllabic form from Hebrew (y’hūdī) by way of Aramaic (y'hūdāi), Greek (ioudaios), and Latin (iūdæus), was reduced to a monosyllable, variously written giu, gyu, or giue, before ending up in English as “Jew.” (Source: Oxford English Dictionary.)

And yet, the very word that is innocent in one language can become a slur in another. In English, “Yid” is an ethnic slur; in Yiddish, it is just the word for “Jew.” “Zhid” (жид) in Russian is an offensive term, while a word of identical sound and origin in Czech (žid), Slovak (the same), and Polish (Żyd) carries no derisive connotation. 

Whatever the oddities of the word “Jew” and its monosyllabic equivalents in some other languages, they are superficial compared to the oddities of the concept expressed by the word. In my first entry in this blog (“Three Ways of Looking at Being Jewish,” December 27, 2009), I considered three possible ways of understanding what a Jew is: (1) one who belongs to the Jewish people, (2) one who practices Judaism, and (3) one who adheres to the Jewish faith. That last phrase, “the Jewish faith,” makes me cringe somewhat, as it so strongly suggests attempts to assimilate Judaism to a Christian, and more specifically a Protestant, model of religion as “faith.” Of course, Judaism is a religion and does involve faith, both in the sense of a body of theistic and eschatological beliefs and in the sense of trust in a divinity (at least in most of its varieties). But it would be an error to presume that the beliefs define the religion or that they are more fundamental than the observances.

The relation between belief and observance in Judaism is subject to endless disputation. Yet it is merely one “funny” element of the concept of being a Jew. Let us simplify the matter by distinguishing between only two rather than three aspects of Jewishness: belonging to the Jewish people on the one hand, and accepting—whether that means practicing, professing, or both—Judaism on the other. Now it seems plain that the first of these has priority; for one who is born into the Jewish people is a Jew, regardless of whether he or she accepts Judaism, while someone not born into the Jewish people and not converted by a rabbi is not a Jew no matter what practices or professions he or she may make.

Is the term then an ethnic designation, or a term of descent? Not at all. In the first place, one can become a Jew by conversion. There is no such thing as converting to an ethnic membership, and while one may be adopted into a family, one does not thereby acquire a new descent. In the second place, it is religious practice that determines membership in the Jewish people (a.k.a. Israel), not in the sense that you have to practice Judaism to count as a Jew, but in the sense that it is Jewish practice that determines the criteria for so counting. Traditionally, the primary criterion is that one is born of a Jewish woman. Reform Judaism also accepts patrilineal descent under certain conditions as sufficient for membership. Whatever the specifics, the important point is that the criteria of belonging are themselves a matter of religious practice. The Jewish religion determines both a religious condition (conversion) and a non-religious condition (descent) for belonging to the Jewish people; and the non-religious condition is the normal or default condition. A Jew is, by and large, such by dint of being the child of Jewish parents.

So the term “Jew” compresses into one syllable at least two pairs of divergent but mutually inseparable aspects of Jewish identity: religious belief and religious observance on the one hand, religious practice and descent on the other. Anyone who tries to impose an either–or on these matters and make the term unidimensionally a matter of, say, religious profession or observance or descent—just one and not any other—does not even understand what the word means.

Is this logically incoherent? Of course not. It merely refuses to conform to certain a priori expectations. Face it: it’s a funny word.

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