Much of our scientific knowledge is known to be true with high probability. When archaeologists speak about ancient discoveries, they analyze and compare them with other findings and common knowledge. When biologists research the influence of a chemical on our body, it is again tested for actual results and compared with other contradicting findings. These are all subject to later changes, if and when new evidence surfaces. The ability to raise doubts and the mandate to keep on researching is the cornerstone of science. This is what has caused technology to advance enough, so that the text of this chapter could be brought in front of your eyes.
Religion, in contrast, is not very tolerant of raising doubts. How can religious knowledge advance when it is forbidden to claim that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and it is considered a crime to even teach evolution? In a way, religion lets the text do the thinking for the people.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Moses Maimonides) who lived in the 12th century is considered as one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and the most famous codifier of Jewish law in history. Though possessing certain scientific knowledge of his time, he ordered, “Those who say the Bible is not from Heaven … he who kills one of them, follows his duties greatly”. This duty was reinforced later by other famous Rabbis and codifiers – so much for modern Bible research. Quoting the Bible, “and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes” (Numbers, chapter 15, verse 39), he forbade dealing with any thoughts that may contradict the essence of Judaism. According to this idea, religious people are indeed not allowed to read this book! And if you think this is some kind of a joke, you are cordially invited to spread copies of this book in fundamentalist neighborhoods, let them be Jewish or Christian or whatever.
The above is even more disturbing, as one of the most common tactics used by religious preachers is to politely invite you to examine their religious claims. The preacher will try to persuade you that you shouldn’t be “narrow minded”, and will perhaps mention phrases like “what do you have to lose?” Just try returning this invitation, equipped with appropriate so-called heretical material, and see what happens.
Rationalism and logic play a major role in science. They link evidence with conclusions. In the opening chapter of his book, “Journey to the Depths of Existence”, Rabbi Mordechai Neugershel talks about rationalism: “We shall not start our discussion … before we declare that … our belief is strong and unshakeable. Following this declaration, we can peacefully access the rational discussion.” – these words speak for themselves. Religious rationalism goes like this: First we decide on the outcome of the discussion, and only then can we argue rationally. No wonder Galileo was put on trial.
This seems to give the religious preacher an advantage when arguing with the scientist: The latter is inherently more open to changing his or her mind. If tomorrow some hard evidence is found for the existence of a man named Methuselah, who lived for 969 years (Genesis, Chapter 5) – the scientist will have no problem believing this story to be true. In fact, this is a big advantage of the scientific way of thinking.
Perhaps even more than demonstrating who’s got the advantage, this demonstrates that a common language is a basic requirement for a fruitful discussion. There’s not much use for a conversation between two sides, when the very notion of a conversation is perceived differently: When one side shall not start the discussion before declaring the result.
On a slightly different note, the Admonitions of Ipuwer, known also as the Ipuwer Papyrus, is a famous archaeological discovery from Ancient Egypt. It is comprised of phrases like “the river is blood” which prompted some historians to call attention to the obvious link to the Biblical story of the Exodus. In actuality, it is safe to assume that the old Biblical story was greatly influenced by an even more ancient Egyptian culture. As in other similar cases, both texts probably evolved from older stories of an ancient environmental disaster.
The selective reliance on scientific evidence is yet another remarkable feature of religious preaching. Whenever there is a tiny piece of evidence lending credence to a Bible story, or some scientific opinion against an aspect of evolution, we find large parts of the religious community celebrating. Suddenly they all become experts and scientists, but somehow seem to forget what the majority of the scientific world has to say, and how the scientific community draws conclusions.
This religious community of “newly born” experts also enjoys quoting famous scientists. By way of speaking, many people, including true scientists, often use phrases that contain ‘God’. This alone may serve those who like to assign their own beliefs to the quoted person. For example, Albert Einstein is a popularly cited character, especially since he is no longer alive and cannot speak for himself. Back when he could still defend his own opinions, this is what Mr. Einstein had to say about people quoting him:
“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings … … it was, of-course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”