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Over the past few weeks, I have been captivated by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remake of the documentary television series “Cosmos.” Utilizing gorgeous computer-generated images, stunning camerawork and accessible terminology, Tyson expertly makes big scientific topics like the origin of the universe and the evolution of species understandable and relatable.
As someone who is both fascinated and flabbergasted by science, and as someone too young to have seen Carl Sagan’s original series, I deeply appreciate this Cosmos. But it is as a person of faith that I most value the series.
If my last statement surprised you, it’s probably because it’s often said that science and religion are in utter conflict. Religious fundamentalists defend the Bible as literal, factual and infallible, so when science differs, they say the science is mistaken. Science, for its part, has evidence and results on its side, so those who take it to the extreme argue that nothing exists other than the observable and measurable. Therefore, they claim, since religion deals with the unobservable, immeasurable and indescribable, it is pure fantasy; at best, a waste of time, at worst, a dangerous and distracting delusion.
As a person of faith, I appreciate Cosmos because, while it describes the sometimes-tense historical relationship between religion and science, it refuses to argue that this clash is inevitable.
If religion and science are not in tension with one another, what is their relationship? Ian Barbour, a scholar of science and religion, argued that there are four possible ways for science and religion to interact: besides conflict, which I have already explored, those are independence, dialogue and integration.
Sometimes, religion and science discuss different aspects of reality (independence). Sometimes, the two pursuits influence each other without always agreeing (dialogue). However, I believe it is more helpful and more accurate to see science and religion as a combined enterprise. That’s integration.
Integration holds that there is ultimately one truth; both science and religion are necessary for uncovering and understanding it. Since scientific discovery is empirically verifiable, religious texts, traditions and beliefs must be reinterpreted, reformulated or discarded altogether if they contradict science. At the same time, science, being limited to what can be seen and measured, cannot study all of reality. Religion helps us deepen our relationship with those aspects of our reality that are unreachable by science. Moreover, sacred texts and religious traditions help us contextualize the moral and theological implications of scientific discovery and recommend ways to be a human in the world that science attempts to study.
This relationship of integration also allows science and religion to be at their best. For example, Cosmos reminds us that the universe and all it contains originated in the Big Bang. To me, this teaching affirms the Jewish belief that if God is one, there is no other God and thus if God created the cosmos, all existence is ultimately one. Tyson, echoing Sagan, says that the Big Bang makes us all “starstuff,” because we are made from the matter flung into the universe by the Big Bang. But another way of contextualizing the same reality, of seeing it through a different metaphorical lens, is to say that we are all “Godstuff.”
That there are different ways of expressing the same truth is one utility of integration. But religion’s real added value to the equation is its insistence that, whichever metaphor one finds most compelling, the truth has moral implications. If all is one, then each of us must live our lives in such a way that, to whatever extent possible, enhances connectivity and relationship with all that exists; that supports, sustains, and benefits everything else in creation. Our apparent differences obscure the truth that we are all interconnected. Much in the Jewish tradition, as with other religious traditions, strives to reinforce this value: Jewish law demands we fashion communities of love and justice, pursue equality and peace and protect the planet and its living creatures.
The approach of integration makes sense. Scientific progress has, on the whole, improved our lives and our world. Religion that rejects science is foolhardy and possibly dangerous. However, science without religion can be harmful, too. Without religion, science would ignore assumptions and questions about reality that are useful in the formation of the scientific agenda. It can lose a context for organizing and interpreting scientific discoveries. And, most importantly, it loses a powerful voice of conscience. After all, the same science that shows how to split an atom in order to power a city can also be turned into a weapon capable of annihilating an entire city. Religion can help scientists make judgments about the morality of their discoveries and innovations. We need both science and religion to support, sustain and refine each other. Religion must be scientific, and science too must be religious.
As the Cosmos series unfolds, I pray that people of science and people of faith who are watching remember that we have much to learn from each other. We need each other. So does our planet and everything on it.
Rabbi Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and an alumnus of Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. You can follow him on Facebook.