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October 11, 2005


If you look at the surveys, some huge percentage of American Protestants and a smaller, but still significant percentage of Catholics, don’t believe in Evolution. I’ve always found the hold of anti-Evolution sentiment, in religious circles, rather puzzling. Aligning your Theology against Science is, surely, a long-run losing strategy — a lesson you’d think the Catholic Church learned after they condemned Galileo.

By contrast, surveys of Jewish opinion strongly favour Evolution1. Even among the Orthodox, Evolution is broadly accepted2. Of course, it helps that biblical literalism was never accorded much respect in Rabbinic circles:

He described those profound truths, which His Divine Wisdom found it necessary to communicate to us, in allegorical, figurative, and metaphorical language. Our Sages have said (Yemen Midrash on Gen. i. 1), “It is impossible to give a full account of the Creation to man. Therefore Scripture simply tells us, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. i. 1). Thus they have suggested that this subject is a deep mystery, and in the words of Solomon, “Far off and exceedingly deep, who can find it out?” (Eccles. vii. 24). It has been treated in metaphors in order that the uneducated may comprehend it according to the measure of their faculties and the feebleness of their apprehension, while educated persons may take it in a different sense.

Rather than viewing Science as some foreign sphere, at best irrelevant, at worst opposed, to theological discussions, Rabbinic tradition has generally taken scientific knowledge as simply another source of insight into theological questions. From the Talmud to the writings of Maimonides (from which the above passage is drawn), they are filled with discussions of what passed for the best scientific knowledge of the day.

These laws, however, presuppose an advanced state of intellectual culture. We must first form a conception of the Existence of the Creator according to our capabilities; that is, we must have a knowledge of Metaphysics. But this discipline can only be approached after the study of Physics; for the science of Physics borders on Metaphysics, and must even precede it in the course of our studies.

Which brings us to the strange case of Nossom Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbinical scholar and self-taught zoologist. A year ago, on the eve of Yom Kippur, three of his books were declared heretical by a group of 23 prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis, for their citation of modern Biology, Evolution, and Cosmology.

A bitter controversy erupted with the Orthodox community

But if the ban was intended to draw interest away from Slifkin’s ideas, it had the opposite effect. Within a few days, his out-of-print book was selling at used book stores for four times its original price of $24.95. Unprompted by the author, an international group calling itself Jews For A Re-Evaluation Of The Rabbi Nosson Slifkin Ban wrote a counter-petition, urging the 23 signatories to change their minds. Hundreds of outraged students protested the ban in long Internet postings, and numerous ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Aryeh Carmell of the Jerusalem Academy, penned scholarly essays in Slifkin’s defense. Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, threw his support behind Slifkin, telling The Forward that Slifkin had used “impeccable traditional Jewish sources to back up his views.”

One New York rabbi who has inside knowledge of the Slifkin ban tells me that it represents a major “breaking point” within ultra-Orthodox society. “Over the past 15 years, the rabbis of Bnai Brak and the more open American ultra-Orthodox rabbis have been split on a number of important policy decisions,” says the rabbi, who asks to remain unnamed. “The Slifkin ban is a huge break. It’s a kind of power struggle, and those who didn’t sign the ban are outraged right now. I’m talking about rabbis with long white beards who are furious about it.” Slifkin’s views, according to this rabbi, are shared by countless figures within the ultra-Orthodox community. “He’s saying out loud what a lot of people have been talking about quietly all along. To those people, he’s a kind of figurehead.”

Googling around, you’ll find zillions of blog posts and forum discussions of the ban and its aftermath. There’s much hand-wringing about how this has undermined the religious authority of the Rabbis who promulgated the ban (though opinion is divided as to whether to blame the proponents for having acted foolishly, or the opponents for openly challenging their decision).

Arguably, though, this short term loss-of-face pales as a threat to rabbinical authority beside the folly of insisting that the world is 6000 years old, and modern Physics be damned!

There is, after all, not likely to be much of a market for a Haredi Dino Theme Park.

1 The HCDI survey is of MDs. You might hope for something better, but, in fact, their opinions end up closely mirroring those of the population at large.

2 The Haredi may hold other objectionable views; they’re just not reflexively anti-Science, in the manner of your average Evangelical.

Posted by distler at October 11, 2005 9:46 AM

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Re: Banned

> a lesson you’d think the Catholic Church learned after they condemned Galileo.

In fact they did. The Vatican does not oppose evolution theory.

Posted by: Wolfgang on October 11, 2005 11:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Banned

I don’t care enough about dogs barking at each other to follow this in detail, but I remember that when Ratzinger became the new pope there was a flurry of articles along the lines that he was lukewarm on evolution. This would seem to be a fairly easy issue to fudge, something along the lines of “yeah, it looks like everything was driven by randomness and mutation since the very beginning but in fact, in subtle and mysterious ways, god occasionally intervened to ensure that a certain random event occured”, but the impression I got from the articles was that this sort of fudge was not good enough for Ratzinger, that what he had in mind was rather more god intervention and rather less stochasticity.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on October 15, 2005 2:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Banned

At a practical level, it may be good for humanity that both rabbis and the Vatican have chosen not to challenge science. But in my own mind, they are running away from a fight that they deserve to have and lose. Why shouldn’t I read the Bible literally and conclude that it’s wrong?

Posted by: Greg Kuperberg on October 11, 2005 2:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Literal or not


You are, of course, free to read the bible literally and conclude that it is wrong. You could also read Aesop’s fables literally and discard them. However, the fables do carry important truths, as do many other works of fiction.

The Bible can function just fine alongside science if it is treated as a book to be judged on its merits. Take from it what is good and discard the bad. It contains stories that glorify appalling violence and hatred. It also contains profound ideas about compassion and forgiveness.

Having been raised Christian, I continue to find valuable guidance in the Bible. It isn’t scientific truth, but my QFT text doesn’t help me become more compassionate. Neither book is right or wrong, they just have different uses.


Posted by: Gavin Polhemus on October 11, 2005 6:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Literal or not

It seems to me there’s a problem between evolution and the bible for most of the major branches of christianity. I regard one of the most important aspects of science is that, in the ideal case, what you would like to be true doesn’t come in to what you do believe to true. So whilst I’d like to avoid a conflict with religious people, I can’t in conscience support the “there’s no problem here” argument; there is a problem.

To my understanding, a key problem for Christians is whether you can pick which bits of the bible to believe as literal or if it’s “all or nothing”.

This applies basically to christianity but may have parallels in other religions:
(In what follows, I’ll use *expression* for some expression which it would be difficult to state so that a theologian couldn’t say “that’s technically incorrect” but where the vague idea is all that’s needed for the argument.)

My understanding is that it’s crucially important for virtually all Christians that Jesus was *some aspect of divinity* who became *in some sense* a human being and, to provide a route for humans to have their sins forgiven by God, was crucified in great agony in his mortal form and was physically resurrected. To my understanding, for *a Christian* it’s not an option that this is a metaphor, parable or whatever; the *depth of sacrifice, and hence love of God for humanity* depends on this being literally true. Now, modern science isn’t likely to be able to establish with any real certainty the real events of around 2000 years ago, so if this is all there was you can imagine this and science peacefully coexisting.

But there’s the various bits of genesis in the bible as well, which science both contradicts and is better placed to support its theories observationally. So, can a christian not believe genesis is literal but believe Jesus is literal?

If not, then there is a problem and if I’m going to be true to one of my scientific principles, I have to point this out, even though I’d prefer not to.

That’s my take anyway

Posted by: dave on October 13, 2005 4:39 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Literal or not

Yes, Christians can believe in the existence of Jesus but not the literal truth of Genesis. There are, after all, both old-earth and young-earth creationists, and even creationists who accept evolution so long as it is not applied to humans.

The sticking point is not primarily an insistence on literal interpretation, but the core belief in special creation. Christianity holds that individuals possess a personal relationship with god, a result of god’s singular, special act of creating mankind. In the minds of most Christians, human evolution precludes this special creation, and thus precludes a personal relationship with god. This is what is unacceptable.

Posted by: Bryan on October 13, 2005 7:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Banned

I am the wrong person to defend the catholic church, but for a long time the Vatican has made it clear that literal and naive interpretations of the bible are misleading and dangerous. The last major statement was 1993 by then cardinal Ratzinger.
Literal interpretations of the bible are typically favored by some protestant churches, e.g. in the US.

Posted by: Wolfgang on October 11, 2005 4:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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