The Polarity Isn’t Between Science And Religion

Recently, as I was working on my blog post about the hugeness of the universe and our role in it, I ran into a quote.  The quote was by Carl Sagan, a famous astronomer, well known for making science accessible to the masses.

Here it is:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

I’ve been thinking more and more about that quote.

It started, predictably, with his little mention of religion.  I don’t have anything against criticism of religion, since most of ’em are pretty dumb, but something about this critique struck me as way off.

And today it hit me: historically, it has been the monotheists that have actually been comfortable with the idea of infinity.

To believe in a single G-d that controls and runs everything, and that, further, is invested in everything, that is everything, and beyond everything, implies a G-d that has such an ultimate power that it must be so great we can’t even imagine it.  So great that it is infinite.

Believing in one G-d inevitably leads a feeling of absolute smallness, in other words.

It was the polytheists whose worldview of inherent multiplicity to reality that, ironically, had a limited vision of the world.  To them, the world (physical and spiritual) was separated into component parts, each designated for its specific purpose.  This separation allowed for an understandable world, where thunder, the sun, death, love, all had their limited rule over our lives, but were ultimately controllable because of their limitations.

And I guess that’s where I think the great Carl Sagan seems to have been confused.  Because, for quite a long time, us monotheists were at the forefront of feeling small and humble in the face of infinity.

To someone who believes in one G-d, nature is just a metaphor to help us understand the way He functions.  It’s an access point to a deeper truth.

To a polytheist, the metaphor is the reality.

And I guess, as this realization hit me, I had to come to an even more surprising conclusion: Carl Sagan might even have been a polytheist.

Because his whole discussion, his whole argument, was that somehow, the largess of the universe, in some way, has a bearing on the reality of religion and spirituality.  In other words, he believes the multiplicity of the universe should have a bearing in our belief in G-d.

And all this helped me realize one more thing: that I think I finally understand why there is this false polarity created between science and religion.

See, Judaism has never had a problem with science.  Science has been integrated into Judaism’s laws, mysticism, and everything else, since day one.  The science may have not been up to par with today’s science, but we’ve always tried to stick to its guiding principles.

In other words, within Judaism science is just another tool to help us deal in this universe created, run, and invested in by G-d.  There is no polarity.

Instead, within Judaism, as is clearly enumerated in our first two commandments, there has been one very clear, distinct polarity: between monotheism and polytheism.  Between the belief in inherent unity and the belief in inherent mulitplicity.  Between the point of it all and the metaphors we use to explain it.

And that’s why it’s become so easy for us to believe in this polarity between science and religion.

Because most “believers”  in science today are just modern-day polytheists.  They believe that the metaphor is the main point.  They believe that the story is the moral to the story.

Hear any argument brought against religion, and you will inevitably hear a line similar to the quote argued by our friend Sagan.  An argument that, in some way, some aspect of physicality, whether it be the hugeness of the universe, the theory of evolution, the Big Bang, etc etc, is an argument against belief in the non-physical unity of reality.

Which is, of course, ridiculous, since all those theories, true or not, do not negate a belief in G-d, or even in a specific religion.  Science always has a place within belief.

When you look at the world from this angle, not from a polarity between science and religion, but a polarity between inherent unity and inherent multiplicity, then things get flipped a bit.

Suddenly, the “scientific” folks are the primitive ones.  The ones trying harder and harder still to argue for the beliefs of their polytheistic ancestors.  Of course, they don’t believe the exact same thing, but that’s only because their understanding of multiplicity has evolved over time.  They’ve adjusted.

And the next step of this equation is that the stubborn monotheists become the real “cutting-edge” visionaries.  Because cutting-edge shouldn’t mean new, necessarily, but right.  Correct in the face of mass confusion.

This is why monotheism seems so antiquated to so many.  Because multiplicity demands change.  It can never be the same, and must always be evolving and growing as the definition of what exists evolves and grows.  Monotheism doesn’t do that.  It stays constant, absorbing the multiplicity of the universe into its worldview.

And it’s why the biggest argument brought against monotheism, Abrahamic religions especially, that we believe in a silly document written thousands of years ago, actually becomes our biggest asset.

Because the truth of polytheism is that each god they designate becomes its own bible.  Whether that god is a statue or each scientific fact and theory does not make a difference.  The point is that they’ve allowed the physical, the multiple, the metaphor, to become individual truths that become their guiding lights of reality.

To a Jew especially, the power of the Torah is that it is our single guiding light.  A light that, unlike even other monotheistic religions, inherently allows (and demands) that we include all the other lights of science, nature, and multiplicity, within it.

It is our seeming illogical marriage to this document that has allowed us to stay on the cutting edge.  It is the reminder that G-d is one.  It is what we need to ignore the distractions of the story and focus on its moral.

It is with this worldview we can look at the folks like Carl Sagan and tell them that, yes, we are confident.  We are confident because we have no problem with the largess of the universe, or the existence of scientific facts, or the multiplicity of existence.  We are confident because we do not allow those things to define us or our reality.  We are confident because we know we are not the antiquated ones, but the ones on the cutting edge, refusing to allow the ancient desire to break the reality of the world into manageable chunks, to cause us to forget that, in the end, it is all one.

We are confident because we believe in G-d.





56 responses to “The Polarity Isn’t Between Science And Religion”

  1. Basya Feldman Avatar
    Basya Feldman

    Amazing article- thank you. I also wish to add that the progressions of true science have continuously been confirming what our Torah has been telling us all along!

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Thanks, Basya! I’m glad to see we agree on something 🙂

  2. Rivki Silver Avatar
    Rivki Silver

    Fascinating quote. It seems to me that most criticisms of religious antagonism to science isn’t as relevant to Judaism, as you pointed out, we’re into that whole infinite G-d thing. But it’s likely that most scientists who are critical of religion, as they understand it, are unaware of Jewish views of things. They may only be aware of a teensy snippet of religion, likely the Judeo-Christian concepts that permeate our society. Which, now that I think about, is kind of unscientific of them.

    1. Rebecca K. Avatar
      Rebecca K.

      Obviously, he hasn’t read Psalm 104, or Nishmat Kol Chai, Keil Adon, or the Rambam, or frankly the medieval Jewish AND Islamic scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians. Or Newton!

      The incredible size and grandiosity of the universe only amplifies G-d’s magnificence. And atheism fails the test of science. It’s an utterly untestable hypothesis, lacking any proof that stands against argument. Agnosticism I can understand, but atheism…? Atheism isn’t pro-science. It’s anti-science.

      1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

        After writing an article about atheism and being slammed by thousands of them for not understanding their philosophy, one thing that I’ve learned is that most atheists don’t TOTALLY not believe in G-d, but are more like extreme agnostics, if there is such a thing. In the sense that they believe that while there is a chance there is a god, there is such a low chance that it’s not worth it to believe. Something like that, anyway.

        Total disbelief in G-d is usually termed by them as anti-theism, as far as I can tell.

        But I think your point still stands.

        1. eifrank Avatar

          Correct…standard scientific reasoning, if there is no credible (objective) evidence, then hypothesis does not meet threshold of minimal probability. So we do not accept hypothesis, until new evidence provokes reconsideration, something that we hardly expect to happen at this late date. Hence, effectively atheism, but probabilistically “extreme agnosticism.” Also does not meet test of Occam’s razor, multiplying causes without need or evidence. Medieval Jewish and Islamic thinkers mostly Aristotelian, like modern Catholic Church, making them interesting historically and intellectually, but almost certainly wrong about the nature of the universe. Deists like Washington and Jefferson freed by Darwin and modern physics from imagining a supernatural first cause. “In the beginning was the Big Bang”.

    2. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Hahaha, well said, and I totally agree. It’s a shame, really, because the dialogue could be so much deeper than it is.

  3. Chani Avatar

    VERY interesting! And the science/religion debate now makes sense in the context of Christianity. I’ve always considered Christianity a kind of “faux-monotheistic” religion. The holy trinity in its essence places limitations on God. And considering that Christianity has been the dominant religion in the Western Hemisphere, it is no surprise that the science/religion debate is pervasive. However, just to play devil’s advocate, I think some of the debate also arises from the fact that God is inherently not able to be proved through scientific means. To a scientist for whom measurable proof is everything, God cannot exist without it.

  4. matt Avatar

    Hey Elad,

    “Because most ‘believers’ in science today are just modern-day polytheists.”

    I totally understand your frustration with the Sagan quote. Sagan is indeed making an unfair generalization. However, I would caution against generalizations about “most ‘believers’ in science”, lest one fall into the same trap. One should not fight a straw man with another straw man.

    Also, I would argue that one of the major hypotheses of modern science is the notion of “Grand Unification”. So even in the absence of a personal G-d, I don’t think it is necessarily correct to say that Sagan or “scientificy folks” believe in a “multiplicity” of forces.

    In general, by using words like “believers” and “polytheism”, you are incorrectly projecting theological terms onto science, which is is not a dogma- or belief- driven system of thought.

    See, for example:

    1. Elad Nehorai Avatar

      Re: the “most believers in science” line.

      I think you make a fair point. I think the words “believers in science” are confusing, and not so straightforward. My goal was to make a distinction between the “followers” and the scientists. ie the general public as opposed to the actual doers of science. Or something. Does that make sense? And I do think that is a more prevalent attitude among those folks, whether they realize it or not.

      And you’re totally right about the idea of “Grand Unification”, and I think that’s a fair point. But while this is their goal, I think that you can definitely still see a worldview of multiplicity coming from many of even these “believers”.

      And you’re absolutely right that I am projecting theological concepts onto this world. I think it’s essential, and actually HELPS us have an understanding of the underlying tension between the secular world and religious world. Science itself might be separated from this discussion (which was exactly my point), but the people surrounding the discussion are still human, with their own prejudices and beliefs implanted in them. Science becomes the justification for those beliefs.

      1. eifrank Avatar

        “Believers” of all sorts often have confused and inconsistent points of view about their belief system. As a science educator, I can certainly verify that it is very difficult for young people to understand in depth how to think scientifically. Often, I must note, the problem is that they cling to superstition, pseudoscience, or unscientific religious ideas from their particular tradition, which may account for your perception that they have multiple points of view simultaneously.

      2. matt Avatar

        I still think you are making a tenuous distinction. The “general public” are not often literate in science, let alone “followers” of it. Among the people I know who are scientifically passionate non-scientists, I feel strongly that your characterizing them as “polytheists” is unfair and inaccurate.

        “I do think that is a more prevalent attitude among those folks, whether they realize it or not.”

        Do you really feel that you have a deep sense of the pulse of scientifically-oriented people? A few posts ago you were complaining about people casting all religious Jews as the-guy-in-the-plastic-bag. One should be careful not to do so towards those who care about science. It is fine for you to respond to the Sagan quote. I think that you are spot on when you talk about what we as Jews and monotheists believe. But, I strongly caution against your making generalizations about what you think that others believe.

        “But while [grand unification] is their goal, I think that you can definitely still see a worldview of multiplicity coming from many of even these ‘believers’.”

        This statement seems a bit of a stretch for me. But, more to the point: this represents speculation about the kavana of others, and that’s dangerous.

        “you’re absolutely right that I am projecting theological concepts onto this world. I think it’s essential, and actually HELPS us have an understanding of the underlying tension between the secular world and religious world… the people surrounding the discussion are still human, with their own prejudices and beliefs implanted in them.”

        If you think that guys like Sagan are thinking theologically, then you are not understanding them or what they are saying. True, they are human beings with prejudices. But, having prejudices is not the same as thinking theologically. It is a common trope in religious circles to try to frame science as “just another belief system”. I think this is an unfortunate attitude and I would strongly caution against it.

        “And BTW, why am I not surprised you commented on this piece? :)”

        Of course. How could I not? 😉

  5. Peter Pottorff Avatar
    Peter Pottorff

    I like this… =)

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