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Good neighbors?

“Truth cannot contradict truth.”

This terse statement of Averroes, the twelfth-century Muslim commentator on Aristotle, captures the central idea of medieval religious philosophy: Revealed religion and philosophy – including what we now call science – cannot be in conflict. That which is observed or derived by reason, and the prophetic teachings of Scripture, are both true. If so, they must always agree.

While this conclusion may seem obvious, the harmonization of Scripture and Greek philosophy was a heroic intellectual achievement. For centuries, the greatest minds – best represented in our tradition by Maimonides – were preoccupied with resolving inconsistencies between divine truth and rational truth. Eventually, however, the attempt to reconcile the Bible with philosophy was moot. Dethroned by the scientific revolution, Aristotle became irrelevant to both religion and science.

But religion was to face an even greater existential threat. When modern science replaced medieval philosophy as the source of objective truth, the challenge to traditional religion deepened. By the 19th century, evidence from geology and the fossil record, and especially Darwinism, brought science and religion into full-blown conflict. Everyone had to choose sides: Genesis and Darwin could not both be true.

In the last century, a variety of creative approaches have arisen that allow for peaceful coexistence between science and religion. At one extreme are biblical literalists – members of an originally Protestant movement, who recently have been joined by adherents in the Jewish community – who advocate “scientific creationism” and a Young Earth theory. In their view, religion and science are indeed both true, but only because their version of science supports a literal reading of Genesis. Creationism, rather than Darwinism, is true science.

A related but less literal-minded approach, and one found increasingly in popular Jewish literature, insists that the Bible and rabbinic tradition are not only sources of religious truth, they are also scientifically accurate. Genesis, read carefully if not literally, actually is an outline of modern cosmology; the sages mastered scientific concepts unknown for centuries in the West. Science and religion are one, in this view, because religious tradition is omniscient and all-encompassing.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are advocates of scientism, such as evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who would like to see religion surrender unconditionally to science. Not content with rejecting religion as so much superstition, racism, and violence, Pinker recently has argued that science should be extended beyond the boundary of objective knowledge into the domain of morality, where religion has always dominated. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker tries to prove that the gradual slide away from traditional religion since the Enlightenment has made humanity more moral, not less. Science is the most reliable source of truth, including moral truth.

A more conciliatory approach was advanced by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He described science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisteria”; that is, two separate realms or sets of teachings that address distinct aspects of human experience. While science is the master of the empirical, religion and scripture deal with meaning and value. (Four centuries earlier, Galileo made a similar appeal for separation of powers.) Separated by a tall barrier, science and religion never should meet in battle.

Gould admitted that despite his ideal of separation, the two magisteria tend to “bump right up against each other.” But being a self-described “agnostic Jew,” he had little at stake personally in the resolution of cross-border disputes. For traditional Jews, on the other hand, some conflicts that arise – in medical ethics, for example – may have mortal consequences. It is unrealistic and undesirable for a modern religious person to live with a split personality, one half scientific and the other moral. Ultimately, we must learn how to integrate the two.

Still, I believe Gould’s magisteria represent a useful model for keeping science and religion at a safe distance from each other. The Torah is neither a literal nor an esoteric work of science, and science by itself cannot determine what is good.

But science and religion should communicate frequently across their respective boundaries. Each magisterium has something critical to offer the other.

Science can protect religion from the intellectual blindness and radicalism that may occasionally afflict the devout, even when their intentions are pure. At a time when segments of our own religious community have become increasingly insular and extreme, secular learning – I include the humanities as well as the sciences – can provide perspective and balance, and remind us of our connections and obligations to the wider community.

Religious tradition must keep science and technology in moral check. We have seen the consequences of societies substituting God with a “scientific” ethic based on some utopian vision of state, race, or enlightened freedom. The image of a coterie of scientists governing society by a code of atheistic morals is, quite frankly, horrifying. I much sooner would put my faith in the moral judgment of God-fearing nonscientists, guided by traditional values and practical wisdom.

Religion and science should occupy separate territories, but at times each inevitably will find itself inside the other’s domain. It is important, though sometimes difficult, to decide when each one should be invited to climb over the fence and when it is trespassing.

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