In his recent book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, the neuroscientist Sam Harris makes the argument that morality is not a subject that arises from or is based upon religious teachings but rather a natural outgrowth of the need for well-being in a society of conscious and thoughtful beings. He believes and uses scientific research to attempt to prove that belief systems, especially moral or religious ones, prove that beliefs can be understood via the use of theory, logic and evidence and not based on a metaphysical and interpretive extrapolation. For him religion is of limited value in understanding how beliefs develop and are sustained and as a result religious beliefs are often heavily tinged with a bias that perpetuates the beliefs that individuals have. One important point that he makes is that as societies become more “prosperous, stable and democratic they tend to become more secular” (p. 147). The need for a religious belief system among people is negated, according to Harris, as the society in which they live becomes more financially successful and more highly educated.
There is much to be said for Harris’s thesis and his meticulous approach to scientifically presenting his perspectives. From a neuroscientific standpoint his work is both creative and compelling. In some ways Harris is completely accurate in his presentation. But, a very wise professor once taught me that the truest definition of scholarship is the “creative misinterpretation of another’s work.” And that is precisely the flaw in his work. Harris’s opus is little more than a well crafted scientific presentation of recent philosophical anti-religious books attempting to convince a readership that god is not great. While it is true that beliefs can be confounded with bias, beliefs and values are also significantly more. Unfortunately, very few individuals are taught to think about these issues in a constructive fashion and when exposed to simple black or white thinking are left to choose between religious beliefs on the one hand and empirical scientific based morals on the other.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlow alluded to this issue when he was quoted in the New York Times on the 28th of December, 2011. Discussing the issue of tekhelt Rabbi Sherlow stated “Tradition is not so interested in science. There is a type of denial of science and new information.” From this perspective someone who is not educated in both basic scientific methods and a religious belief system often feels lost and thereby compelled to choose one over the other. It is just this issue that Harris plays into. He clearly chooses the science option. The conflict can be easily confronted and grasped with some simple principles of understanding of the two approaches.
Scientific methodology is based upon explanation and is meant to be rigorously systematic. Religious methodology is based upon insight and interpretation and accepted belief. Both religion and science are knowledge and wisdom based. To be a true practitioner of either or both requires a lifetime of patient study. My personal understanding of these two approaches is that they do not quite intersect but do follow very close parallel paths in individuals who are trained in or exposed to both approaches. The fallacy in Harris’s method is the same one that most writers and scientists of his ilk suffer – that only science can offer explanations for our existence and our moral approach to life. The human mind however is built for both religion and science and has the ability to thrive with both systems of belief.
I often wonder just how much we are intellectually shortchanging our children and ourselves by avoiding taking an open and honest look at secular studies. Several small research studies indicate a trend which suggests that the more religiously Orthodox Jews are the more likely they are to leave the fold of religiosity, more so than other religions. I am reasonably convinced that we are, without question, shortchanging our students’ religious beliefs by limiting their exposure to a more comprehensive view of science and letters. And, not optimally teaching both religious and secular subjects encourages a form of hostility between the two that is at best confusing to people and at worst emotionally and religiously destructive. NPR’s All Things Considered a radio station in New York recently aired an interview of a young man who left his “insular world.” This particular young man was looking for “an escape” and ended up leaving his religion completely in exchange for the larger society having been taken in by the breadth of information that was available to him at his local public library. Many argue that it is wiser to protect our children by controlling what they are exposed to. In some important cases that is undoubtedly true. But by limiting scientific awareness and understanding basic realities of human existence we might actually be making secular education a form of forbidden fruit – especially powerful in attracting people who do not have the balance of beliefs and scientific reasoning.