Google “just another religion” and you’ll get hits like these: “Science is just another religion.” “Evolution is just another religion.” “Atheism is just another religion.” The novelist Michael Crichton once griped that “environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”
Used in this way, “just another religion” is an attempt to humble its target. Although frequently flung by traditionalists and conservatives, it’s weirdly postmodern, in that it suggests that human knowledge rests on a platform of uncertainty and subjectivity. It’s almost always dismissive, a way to disparage your ideological enemy as close-minded or dogmatic.
And at some level, the device is anti-religion. As Crichton went on to say in the same speech decrying the zealotry of environmentalists, “One of the defining features of religion is that your beliefs are not troubled by facts, because they have nothing to do with facts.” Science, he wrote, needs to be humble, flexible, and open-minded. “Religions,” he concluded, “are good at none of these things.”
What’s strange, then, is when religious people use the “just another religion” gambit to cut their opponents down to size. Exhibit A is a recent essay by Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. Dismissive of last month’s massive People’s Climate March, Shafran asserts that “enviro-zealots” are alarmist and sinister — and purveyors of a “new religion.” Writes Shafran: “[W]hile zeal is a good thing when sourced in commitment to the true religion, its emergence from a misguided one is cause for alarm.”
He goes on to discount the idea that humans are responsible for climate change, or that they have the power to head it off.
To counter the scientific evidence for human-caused climate change — the overwhelming consensus of researchers, the dire predictions of global panels, the erratic weather, melting ice caps, unprecedented droughts, and raging wildfires that have begun to frighten not just “enviro-zealots” but insurers and manufacturers — Shafran offers a passage from Torah: “Tremble before Him, all the earth; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter” (Chronicles 1, 16:30).
In other words, God’s on it. Shafran sounds like the Rev. Lovejoy from the The Simpsons, who says in one episode, “Science has faltered once again in the face of overwhelming religious evidence.”
Since Shafran concedes that we might benefit from alternate energy sources and less pollution, I’ll concede that he has every right to put his faith in Hashem. Judaism is a powerful check on the arrogance of materialists, just like religions answer questions about meaning and purpose that science cannot begin to touch.
But we do religion no favors when we pretend that it contains all the answers, or when we mock science as just another “belief system” that relies on the faith of its devotees. Thanks to science, we know how to reduce infant mortality, battle infectious diseases, feed a hungry planet, and tap the gifts of the natural world — its resources, its phenomena, its physics — to enjoy lives of dignity and security. Thanks to religion, we are reminded to be grateful for these gifts and are called on to distribute them widely and fairly. Blurring the lines between science and religion, however, dooms us to ignorance on the one hand, and arrogance on the other.
I know of two writers who understand the distinction between religion and science. One is an atheist and scientist, the other was an Orthodox rabbi and mystic. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes, “There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.” Although Dawkins’s attitude toward religion is often “one of bullying and contempt,” according to a recent critique by the philosopher John Gray, he need not apologize for defending the scientific method, which seeks to explain nature in a reproducible way through observation and experimentation.
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, argued against seeking God through “evidence and logic.” Wrote Kook: “We do not base our faith in God on an inference from the existence of the world, or the character of the world, but on inner sensibility, on our disposition for the divine.”
My friend Larry Yudelson, who republished an anthology of Kook’s writings, concludes that Kook did not regard Darwinism, or science in general, as the enemy of religion. According to Kook, writes Larry, “[O]ur belief in God does not preclude our working to examine and understand the workings of His world as fully as is possible. In fact, for Rav Kook the developing conception of science is important because it fosters a developing conception of God.”
Such a conception doesn’t mock science but seeks to use the tools scientists develop and truths they reveal to penetrate the inner meanings of Torah and outward purposes of the faithful Jew. It doesn’t regard deep, proven, and pressing concerns about our put-upon planet as misguided zealotry, but as a way of partnering with God l’takein olam b’malhut Shaddai — to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.