What Do You Find Most Interesting or Surprising About the S&R Discussion Today? Rabbi Geoff Mitelman Answers

Over the last several centuries, as science helped us gain more knowledge and a better understanding of the world, it has also made inroads in fields that were traditionally viewed as “religious.” So as science developed, religion changed, as well.

First, religion stopped being the source of ultimate truth for most people. If you asked, “Where did we come from?”, for most people living in most of Western history, the stories in Genesis would have provided the basis for that truth—the world was created in six days, with humans being the apex of creation. But eventually, Galileo, Copernicus, and Darwin provided more accurate answers, meaning that the Bible could no longer be relied upon for factual, scientific information.

Next, religion stopped being the source of morality for most people. If you asked, “How should we act?”, for most people living in most of Western history, the Bible would have been the basis of their ethics. But eventually, Enlightenment thinking, universalistic ethics, and a historical analysis of religiously fueled atrocities like the Crusades and the Inquisition showed that religion and morality were not necessarily always linked.

So today, since a large percentage of the population feels that religion is not a source of ultimate truth or morality, those of us in the religious world need to ask what the purpose of religion should be. For me, as someone who values pluralism, autonomy, and critical thinking, I believe that religion needs to become primarily a source for personal spiritual fulfillment, a place to find community, and a way to make a positive impact on societal and global issues.

And what’s most inspiring and most surprising about this outlook is that while conversations about truth and morality often pit science and religion in opposition to each other, when we talk about meaning and values, science and religion can come together in productive ways.

From gratitude to compassion to morality to decision-making to memory, science has been providing us with new ways to think about these issues—and so now, religious leaders can integrate the latest findings when they teach and preach.

For example, if we want to talk about war and peace, we can use the data in Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to explore what would lead to Isaiah’s vision of people “beating their swords into plowshares.” If we want to talk about what it means to be “sacred,” we can look at Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind. David DeSteno has done research on compassion, Martin Seligman has written about human flourishing, and Dan Ariely has examined how we make decisions—and all of the scientific knowledge gleaned from their research can be brought together with religious teachings to strengthen ourselves and our world.

If the purpose of religion is to advance a narrow vision of truth, or to dictate how we should act, then religion will close itself off from science and reason, since they are clearly threats to that worldview. But if the purpose of religion is to elevate ourselves, to strengthen our social bonds, and to improve our world, then I believe that science can be an enormously valuable partner in that endeavor.

Geoff Mitelman is the associate rabbi at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, and he blogs at Sinai and Synapses.

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