Science and Religion: Best Friends?

As an Orthodox Jew who also teaches biology and chemistry to high school students, I’ve never understood the conflict between science and religion.  If one were to believe the likes of Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, people who believe in G-d or religious doctrines such as the Torah or the Bible are antiquated and illogical at best and ignorant and dogmatic at worst.  So how is it that some of the most brilliant and innovative minds of history were religious people, or at the very least, recognized that there had to be a G-d?  Maimonides, himself a physician, acknowledged that before one could become truly adept at learning Torah and Talmud, one had to become well-versed in the secular sciences and history.  He believed that Aristotle was almost entirely accurate in his philosophical ideas, with the exception of Aristotle’s idea that the universe had always been in existence.  Aristotle, himself, believed in a “Prime Mover,” which was responsible for events in the world, similar to our concept of G-d.  Plato had his “forms” and recognized that there was some divine realm in which these forms existed, while everything in our universe was merely a copy or replica of the true heavenly “form.”  Socrates referred to G-d rather than gods in his discourses.  He believed in introspection and the application of logic to elicit truth. Nachmanides, or Ramban as we Jews call him, was a physicist as well as a brilliant Torah scholar.  Descartes, who famously stated, “I think, therefore, I am,” was a very religious Catholic.  Even Albert Einstein, who was not a religious man, acknowledged the existence of G-d.

When I look at the world around me from a scientific perspective and I contemplate the incredible organization and logic that exists in each and every creation, I cannot help but wonder how science could ever be in conflict with religious belief.  If anything, my knowledge of science has greatly increased my appreciation for G-d and His infinite wisdom.  One only has to learn about the cellular processes and the perfection with which even one-celled beings perform their functions to exclaim, “How great are your creations, oh G-d!”  If one believes in a Creator, it is not possible for His creations to somehow disprove His existence.

Atheists who seek to use science as an excuse to discredit the idea of a Creator/G-d, tend to use sophistry rather than true logic to prove their points.  For example, they will point to the amazing similarities between human and ape DNA–only differing by 4-5%, depending on the species of ape–and claim that this similarity PROVES that the two species come from the same original ancestor in keeping with the theory of evolution.  Some more dogmatic atheists will even claim that one species evolved into the other, a notion that scientific fact has never supported.  They will point to the similarities between earlier and later humanoids and create a specious line of evolution that artificially connects the earlier to the later beings.  Evolution within a species certainly is not irreconcilable with religious doctrine.  But the similarity of DNA or physical traits between two species does not logically indicate that both species come from the same ancestor or that one begat the other.  Moreover, atheists will sometimes try to toss off the notion that life, as it exists today, could have come about through repeated random chemical reactions without any driving force other than survival of the fittest.  Perhaps a word with a serious mathematician would be enough to debunk that absurd claim.  Any scientist who truly understands how complex proteins are formed and how many variables are involved in creating one functional protein can attest to the fact that even in the billions of years attributed to the existence of this world, it would be impossible to create a living, functional being (even a one-celled organism) through random, repeated chemical reactions.  Such a success is simply not mathematically possible according to the laws of probability.

When I teach my high school students biology or chemistry, my goal is that they come to a greater appreciation of the world we live in, and consequently, a greater appreciation for G-d.  I always begin my chemistry classes with a short lesson invoking the Shema prayer.  Why?  Because in chemistry, we learn that there is nothing in this world without an opposite entity, whether it be a positively or negatively charged particles or matter vs. antimatter or matter vs energy.  In Shema, we mention both G-d’s merciful name (YKVK) and His strict judgment name (ELKM), but we end off “G-d is One.”  After learning chemistry for the duration of the year, students truly understand what an anomaly G-d is compared to the natural world that is based on dichotomies.  They, perhaps, better understand why it is that opposites attract in the natural world, from the most basic subatomic particles to the larger, more complex macromolecules.  Because all life comes from one source (maybe this part of evolutionary theory is correct?), it makes sense to say that two opposing forces with entirely different characteristics can create a unified, stable entity.  But only G-d is truly One.  Everything else is a piece in the puzzle of G-d’s plan.

Further along in the year, I teach my students Ramban’s commentary on the first verse of the Bible and on tohu v’vohu (Genesis I:1-2), in which his explanation of the creation of the world is remarkably similar to the Big Bang Theory, which postulates that everything in the world today came from one tiny, almost insubstantial, but incredibly high density/high energy particle that included within it the potential to create all other particles.  I also like to wow the students with the following facts: The molecular weight for water is 18, which in gematria is equal to chai, or life.  Now the Torah has been comparing life to water and vice versa for millenia, but how interesting is it that science substantiates this relationship in that ALL living things must have water to survive?  Of course, the presence of water on a planet or moon is the prerequisite for a search for life in that location.  Interestingly, many one-celled organisms do not require oxygen, but multi-cellular organisms require it to live.  The molecular weight of oxygen, which is found in nature as a diatomic molecule, is 32, which is equal in gematria to the Hebrew word for heart, lev, the organ that pumps oxygen to the rest of an animal’s body.  Incredibly, the molecular weight of carbon dioxide, which is carried by the blood to the lungs for removal, is 44, equal in gematria to the Hebrew word dam, or blood.  There are more astounding relationships between science and religion, but I’ll save them for another time.

Suffice to say, learning science should provide enough proof of a Creator with infinite potential energy and infinite wisdom that merely looking at the flowers or the trees or the grass or the animals or the unicellular organisms under a microscope would evoke a sense of humility and awe in all of us who are blessed to behold the world around us in all its divine splendor. Human beings, who have been doubly-blessed with the power of reason, should not abuse that gift by making irrational claims that there is no G-d or that the world just came about through chance.  Such claims derive from both hubris, as represented by the humanist philosophy, and denial, as represented by the atheist philosophy.  A wiser pursuit would be to study science religiously (double entrendre intended), and to extrapolate from our vast yet limited scientific knowledge how incomprehensible and great is G-d.

About the Author
Jessica Savitt is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Elizabeth, NJ. She is a secular studies teacher in a Jewish high school and has been so for the last 18 years. She teaches English, biology, or chemistry, depending on the needs of the school and the year. She is also a cancer survivor who has learned what is truly important in life, as well as the value of time. She has wanted to make aliyah since she was a teenager, and is still in the process of making plans to finally come, but I also know how many difficulties there are that prevent an American Jew from taking that step to come to Israel. Her brother and many other family members already live in Israel, and she has hosted shlichim many times here. We make it a point to host as many Israelis as possible. She has many friends in Israel, and her son is currently completing his high school studies in the Naaleh program at Sha'alvim. She tries to travel to Israel at least once a year, as finances permit. While she is an American Jew by birth, Jessica's home has always been Israel.
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