Mayim Bialik on Religion and Science

Mayim Bialik on Religion and Science September 4, 2016

HT Jerry Coyne, who obviously doesn’t appreciate her perspective.

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  • David Evans

    I enjoyed listening to her – she’s very engaging. But I can’t help feeling that if she doesn’t believe God has provided a code of behavior, she shouldn’t be saying “I believe in the tenets of Judaism”. I thought the Law was pretty central to Judaism. Then she started sounding like a pantheist. Then she started appealing to God as the explanation for her feelings of awe at the natural world – as if an atheist couldn’t possibly have those feelings. In the end I felt she was just confused.

    • Judaism isn’t about believing tenets. And pantheism has been an unpopular option in Judaism at least since Spinoza, but a more popular one subsequently.

      • David Evans

        If Judaism isn’t about belief, nor about obeying God’s law, what is it about?
        (edited) I have just seen your replies to Cooper. I think rather than asking you to defend Reform Judaism I’ll do some research of my own.

        I think “God” is used very inconsistently by physicists. When Hawking says of a possible final theory “we would know the mind of God” I don’t think he means a personal God or a creator, since he is on record as being an atheist and as saying “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers a more convincing explanation”. Einstein also has denied belief in a personal God, despite his habit of claiming to know what God would or wouldn’t do.

      • David Evans

        I have to add, she thinks it’s at least partly about believing in tenets, otherwise why does she mention them?

        • Sorry, I had understood you to mean by “believing tenets” the kinds of doctrines that are a focus in so much of Christianity. In Judaism, there certainly are practices and traditions which can be called “tenets,” even among Jews who do not believe in a personal God, but understand God to be a symbol of the most important and transcendent human values. Whether that is Bialik’s view, I do not know, but it is the default meaning of “God” in the writings of the key formulators and representatives of Reform Judaism.

        • David, I am a Jew who has been affiliated most of my life with Reform Judaism. I am also involved with Jewish-Christian dialogue, and I’ve experienced first hand the confusion some Christians have in trying to understand what we are about. Here are some basics. First, as compared to Christianity, we are largely a nondoctrinal and non-creedal religion. We enjoy great freedom to believe what we want to believe. I am personally acquainted with Charedi Jewish atheists. I admit, there aren’t many Orthodox atheists, but I’d bet that at least 1/3 of my Reform Jewish congregation are either atheist or agnostic.

          Judaism is priobably more a question of belonging than believing. And according to the traditional view, we belong as a matter of birth, regardless of what we believe. This is also true for those who convert to Judaism: once you’re in, you’re in.

          In Reform Judaism, we don’t consider the law to be binding. Most Reform Jews take a historical-critical view of the Bible, and consider its text to be a human creation under somewhat inconsistent Divine inspiration! We believe that it is the work of a particular time and cultural context. We believe in the ongoing ability of our Rabbis and teachers to offer guidance and interpretation, in an ongoing quest for meaning and connection with the sacred and eternal. And we don’t insist on our fellow Jews following Biblical precepts that don’t speak to them. We find meaning in an unfolding Jewish story, and in being present within sacred spaces and times defined by our tradition. All this being said, the reasons for Jews doing Jewish things are many and varied. And I’m sure many of my fellow non-Orthodox Jews may read this and respond, “That’s not it at all!”

          Hope this helps.

  • Al

    I can’t see how what you describe isn’t humanism+atheism+science+awe+tradition+culture. The connection to a thing called “God” seems to be unnecessary baggage that all the rest could jetison and not lose anything.

    • If you don’t understand why someone finds it worthwhile to use the term “God” in articulating their worldview, then isn’t the obvious next step to put the effort in to try to understand? Harold Kushner is an excellent popular resource, but Mordecai Kaplan and other foundational authors in the tradition of Reform Judaism will get you closer to the heart of it.

      • I think we all know why some people find it worthwhile to use the term “God” in articulating their worldview. Some people are uncomfortable with not knowing where feelings and other complicated things come from, so they feel the need for some magical force to explain these things. But if I used the term “The Easter Bunny” to explain away the parts of the universe I didn’t have an explanation for, you would be as frustrated as atheists are when people of faith use “God” in the same way. You would be frustrated because it’s ridiculous and intellectually lazy to just insert a meaningless phrase or a deity for which there’s no evidence in an attempt to camouflage one’s ignorance.

        • I think a lot of people on the internet think they all know why other people do things. I don’t find that the evidence confirms that they actually know, and I don’t see any indication in your comment that you have even the slightest sense either of how “God” is used in Reform Judaism, or how it is used by physicists, whether Albert Einstein, Paul Davies, or anyone else.

          If you are only interested in debating conservative Christian concepts, then why comment on a post like this one – or a blog like this one, for that matter?

          • Al

            James, my comment was not about “someone”, nor Reformed Judaism, my comment was about Mayim Bialik’s description of God. Every religious person on earth has their own version of what they think God is, and what the official version is neither more interesting, nor more authorative, when you don’t grant authority to those who claim it for themselves.

          • Reform Judaism. You might want to look into it. Doing so might help you to notice what Bialik actually says, and what it is likely to mean as an expression of that tradition.

          • Al

            No, I don’t want to look it up. I don’t care about it other than that I gather it is liberal and progressive enough to not cause anyone roo many problems. Tradition and culture are good reasons to maintain a lot of nice things the religion gives people, but it needs to keep reforming until it admits that no gods exist so that people can stop trying to make up excuses as to why keep believing in them. Meanwhile looking up the evil that Islam and Christianity are doing around the world is certainly worthwhile. Judaism is definitely my favourite of the big three, because it doesn’t want to convert anyone.

          • You adopt a non-progressive attitude towards other people and their traditions, misrepresenting their statements because you are not interested in learning enough about them even to get the name of their viewpoint correct, and yet you claim to have more appreciation for more progressive traditions. This seems very odd to me.

          • Al

            Also, I don’t believe being open minded to nonsense is progressive. It’s guillible.

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Which is why you’ve rejected socialism and equalitarianism, right?

          • Al

            Sure. /eye roll/

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Ah, so you do believe utter nonsense. Good to know.

          • Al

            /eye roll/

          • Al

            James is clearly a very intelligent person with whom I disagree, Zaklog is adding nothing intelligent, but I’d invite him/her to.

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Yes, let’s pretend that secular, socialist countries are all doing fantastic!

          • Al

            I didn’t pretend that. I can’t stop you from pretending it though. (The United States is a secular country.)

          • Al

            I think a fundament disconnect between your and my viewpoints is that you believe religious beliefs inherently deserve respect. I do not. No beliefs inherently deserve respect, and silly beliefs don’t deserve much consideration. Importantly though, disrespecting someone’s beliefs shouldn’t be immediately construed as disrespecting the person. Religionists however take great personal offense if their beliefs aren’t afforded the respect they claim they deserve. (I don’t live in America – the default “religion deserves respect” doesn’t wash where I come from.)

          • I don’t think religion inherently deserves respect. I think people inherently deserve respect, and part of that means at least taking the time to understand their viewpoint before criticizing it. Not being from the United States, I guess it is forgivable that you have misunderstood our approach. The right to practice a religion is safeguarded provided it does not infringe upon the rights of others, and so to is the right to criticize the religion of others, and indeed one’s own if one has one.

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Hey, look, shitty moral equivalencies, leftists favorite form of “argument”.

          • Al

            Please expand on that thought.

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Meanwhile looking up the evil that Islam and Christianity are doing around the world

            Pretending that the wrongs committed in the name of Islam and in the name of Christianity are even vague comparable is a disgusting, wicked lie by either a vicious liar, or a lazy, sloppy thinker.

          • Al

            Do you know how many children have been raped by the clergy and how much the Catholic church has paid out for it?

            Islam is much worse than Christianity, but don’t pretend Christianity is innocent. They are two different versions of BS.

          • Zaklog the Deplorable

            Okay, and even on that particular charge, do you know how many children are raped in Muslim lands? Do you know how routine such acts are in Afghanistan? Have you ever heard of Samira Bellil?

            And I’m just curious, can you comprehend the difference between doing a horrible act condemned by your ideology and doing a horrible act with the explicit approval of your ideology? No. No, you’ve never thought about these questions because you enjoy being a bigot.

          • Al

            How is that an argument against, “Islam is much worse than Christianity, but don’t pretend Christianity is innocent.”?

            It sounds more like an agreement.

            I’m guessing you enjoy being a bigot against anyone who insults Christianity.

        • Lanny Buettner

          I think this is bad logic which assumes the only reason people invented religions was to explain the natural world. As I posted above, religions are collections of stories that help us understand our place in the cosmos and how to be good people. Understanding the proper function of the physical world doesn’t eliminate the need to understand our place in the cosmos and to grow into people who can make good moral choices when life throws us curves. Pure science doesn’t provide answers to many of our questions as living beings in the amazing cosmos. Stories help us find some answers to those questions. If some prefer to include a deity in their stories, that shouldn’t stick in your craw just because you don’t share that preference.

          • Al

            Socrates did a much better job of these answers hundreds of years before Christ. Many other philosophers over the centures also did a better job than the Bible. The old testiment does an especially poor job of it – it should be considered as important literature on the subject, but more because it describes how not to think and behave.

          • I think this comment is telling. Scholars of literature find much that is worth reading and studying in the literature of both ancient Greece and ancient Israel. Yet I have quite astonishingly encountered atheists who not only embrace the former while rejecting the latter, but talk about ancient Greek writers as though they were “secular”! I cannot make sense of this except in terms of hostility towards Judaism and Christianity.

          • Al

            I said Socrates, I didn’t say ancient Greek writers. And I wasn’t comparing writings Socrates and ancient Israel, I was comparing Socrates and the barbaric nonsense in the Bible specifically, though I rather implied new testament, the old testament is the more barbaric, of course.

          • So you appreciate the view of the gods attributed to Socrates, more than the view of gods found in ancient Israel? I would be very interested to know why!

          • Al

            No, the view of ethics. Yahweh is a monster who couldn’t even get the answer to the question of slavery right, and who thought that the correct response from Abraham when he told him to kill his son was “Yes, of course, sure, no problem.”

          • But you think that Socrates’ view of slavery was right? How so?

          • Al

            Actually you’re right, that wasn’t the best example of a comparison to use in the context of Socrates, he was just a man who in many matters of ethics was ahead of his time – how about you defend your God’s record on old testiment slavery. Your God who is supposed to be all good for all time. I’ll put the imperfect, and never claimed to be perfect, Socrates’ ethics up against the imperfect, claimed to be perfect, Yahweh’s any day.

          • So you are judging one ancient literature differently than another because you have encountered people who bizarrely claim that literature to be perfect? Why would you do that?! And why, in having a conversation with someone who does not hold that viewpoint, about another person who doesn’t hold that viewpoint either, would you nonetheless ask them to treat ancient Israelite literature as though it were “God’s record,” and to defend its ancient viewpoints which they reject?!

          • Al

            You’ve taken us off on a massive, completely irrelevant to the video, tangent from my original comment. Time to stop.

          • It only seems irrelevant to the video because, as you explicitly stated, you couldn’t possibly be bothered to find out what the outlook of a specific religious tradition such as Reform Judaism is, and so it was inevitable that you would misunderstand someone coming from that background.

          • Al

            Yes. I admit it. I cannot be bothered to investigate Reform Judaism. There are better things to spend time on. My apologies for commenting. I hope you can get over it.

      • davidt

        That requires listening skills not something we have as a culture. Great talking bad listening.

  • She is confusing her ego with an invisible impossible being. There are countless refutations to her absurd arguments. Chief being that her god defies physics. God is as plausible as the tooth fairy. Her beliefs don’t make her a better scientist. Religious people are scraping the bottom of the barrel when they use this idiot as an example of a religious scientist. I won’t hold my breath to see her win a Nobel prize. She should stick to acting.

    • I am always inclined to view self-defeating comments like this one as the work of trolls, pretending to be arrogant, hate-filled, and confused adherents of a viewpoint in order to make it look bad. Referring to someone as an idiot as though not winning a Nobel prize makes one stupid or not a good scientist is simply laughable – especially when coming from someone who has not offered evidence that they are a Nobel-prize-winning scientist.

      Showing that you have not understood the difference between the concept of God under discussion and the idea of a tooth fairy obviously doesn’t bolster confidence that you have understood what is being discussed, much less know how to respond to it.

      • In what way is God different from the Tooth Fairy? Both are magical beings whose existence cannot be shown and is merely asserted in various books. The only differences I see are that the books about God were written a long time ago, while the books on the Tooth Fairy were written more recently and have more competent editors, better plots and fewer genocides.

        • Why are you fixated on the view of God as “a being,” magical or othewise, when commenting on the blog of a liberal Protestant about a video featuring a Reform Jew?!

          • Al

            Why are you so keen to argue with all the commenters about what Judaism thinks instead of what she says in the video?

          • I was providing the broader context for what she says, which, if commenters pay attention to it and understand it, will help them not to misunderstand what she is saying.

      • Science is based on facts and religion is based on fantasy. Anyone claiming supernatural magic in the form of religion has any value is a fuckwit.

        • Who here was advocating or professing “supernatural magic” of any sort?

          Are you just trolling, coming in and ignoring the discussion and swearing in an irrelevant manner? Are you perhaps a religious believer pretending to be a rude and obnoxious atheist in an attempt to make atheists look bad? Or did you misunderstand something?

  • So Mayim Bialik shows what we’ve known for some time: that people are able to compartmentalize their intellect so well that they can be brilliant in an area in which emotion plays little or no role, while remaining ignorant in areas in which emotion plays a great role. Ms. Bialik obviously has a great emotional attachment to Judaism, and it is so strong that it suppresses her intellectual capacity. I’m guessing she had her two sons sexually mutilated too, because hey, the Torah tells Jews to do it, so why not.

    I think it’s interesting that she says her religion goes back thousands of years. Yes, it goes back about 4,000 years. Humans have been on the planet for at least 250,000 years. So I wonder, does she really think that God left us in the dark for at least 246,000 years? If she thinks it’s “rational” to believe that a god would just ignore his “chosen people” for at least 98% of their time on Earth, I have a bridge to sell her.

    And as for all the good things she says she gets from religion, well, I get those too, and I don’t have a religion and I don’t believe in a god. So if I can get all those things without religion and without god, surely, at the very least, that’s evidence that belief in gods is unnecessary, while at most it’s evidence that gods don’t exist.

    Finally, the strength of her belief that faith makes her a better scientist does not mean she’s right. If she is a good scientist, it’s almost certainly despite her faith, not because of it. The scientific method does not rely on faith, and when faith gets involved, the results are often flawed. That’s probably one reason why the studies done by Jewish circumcision advocates in Africa that found a correlation between circumcision and lower rates of HIV have been roundly condemned as having been poorly conducted and the studies’ findings biased. Many doctors, including Dr. Dean Edell, have said that these studies have the potential to make an AIDS epidemic in Africa far worse.

    • I think you are applying to her a view of God that you have acquired from certain forms of Christianity and which don’t apply to Reform and other strands of liberal Judaism.

      • I find it interesting that you choose to label my entire argument ignorant as well as making a veiled ad hominem attack, without actually addressing a single point I’ve made. You’ve managed to evade the issues I’ve raised, but not very convincingly, at least to anyone who comes here with an open mind.

        • You did not seem to be addressing the sort of view of God that I have encountered in contemporary Judaism, especially among those whose upbringing is Reform, as Bialik’s is. As I asked above, if what you want is to debate a conservative Christian anthropomorphic theism, why comment here?

          • RbtRgus

            Everybody has their own version and definition of god. That is a big part of the problem — absent any evidence of an actual god, people just make stuff up.

          • I think you will find that there is a lot of diversity, but also a fair amount of agreement in the use of the term.

            I am unimpressed when students insist in their early essays that “Everyone’s view is different” – especially when so many of them agree in making this same assertion.

          • Lanny Buettner

            You mistake a concept that is used in a story-telling mode for a concept used in a scientific study. Anyone who argues for God as if it is a fact that can be studied scientifically does not understand the value of using the idea of god in stories. Humans relate to other humans. It’s a big part of our evolution. So relating to the cosmos as an impersonal agent can be daunting. A story is meant to convey a non-literal truth in a kind of metaphoric way. Not all stories, of course, are helpful in this regard, but to judge a story as bad just because it is not literally true is to miss the point of story telling. Captain Kirk doesn’t exist either, but does that mean we shouldn’t watch Star Trek and learn something about what it means to be a good person from the story?

    • Ian, I bet you don’t have a bridge to sell anyone.

      You say that you get all the good things that Dr. Bialik gets from religion. Well, one goal of religion is a due sense of humility. How is that going for you, so far?

      “Jewish circumcision advocates”? You see something particularly Jewish in the Translational Geonomics Research Institute? Or, the World Health Organization? I’m not here to make the pro-circumcision argument … but if you mean seriously to tout the relative expertise of Dr. Edell against the WHO, and if you see the Jewish people as the driving force behind these studies, then I think you should be buying bridges and not selling them.

      • Lanny Buettner

        I am not Jewish but I appreciate a quote from a rabbi that says, “I keep two pieces of paper in my pockets. One says ‘You are dust and ashes.’ The other says, ‘For you the universe was created.'” That is wisdom and it is linked to a religious system. Maybe we can get the same wisdom other ways, but it is a good reason to be open-minded about the value of religion for those who choose to embrace it.

    • Lanny Buettner

      You say you can get the good things Mayim gets from religion from other sources. So why do you have to be so critical of how she gets her inspiration on how to be a good person? I get inspiration from watching episodes of Doctor Who. Does the fact that he is a fictional character mean I shouldn’t be watching the show and getting inspiration from it? If not, then why be so harsh about judging people who find inspiration in the stories of Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism? Many people understand, as Mayim seems to, that personifying God is a story-telling tool that helps us talk and learn about things that might otherwise be difficult to express. It is not the same as believing God is like Santa Claus and literally responds to requests for help.

      I don’t know the source of your antagonism toward religion, but my reading of other scientists, such as Richard Dawkins, suggests they mistakenly assume that all religions are at root the same as the most objectionable versions of western religions, the fundamentalists. I don’t like fundamentalists because they distort the value of religion by trying to impose on the stories some kind of absolute literal truth and they fail to recognize value in any other perspective but their own. They are certainly obnoxious, but I’ve studied many different religions and even practiced a few and I can assure you not all religions are like fundamentalist Christianity or Judaism or Islam.

      Dawkins, as just one example, makes the unscientific mistake of studying a small segment of a diverse phenomenon and judging all the other things he has not studied as if they are the same. It would be the same as assuming all plants are like tomatoes without going around and actually studying other plants.

  • RbtRgus

    Hello. Want to see my Mohammed drawing?

  • Lanny Buettner

    As a physicist who is also religious, I appreciate hearing about others who combine being a scientist with being religious. There are a lot of such people in the world of professional science. The vocal atheists get most of the press, so it’s important to recognize they are not the authority on religion they usually pretend to be.

    What Mayim said at the end is important. She derives from her religion important moral and social behaviors. Science cannot provide such guidance. Religions can provide that guidance, although they are not the only source nor do I consider any one religion to have essential wisdom without which one cannot be moral or good.

    I find the biggest misunderstanding about religion, sometimes shared by religious and areligious people, is the belief that religions are systems of belief which one must accept on faith or on someone else’s say-so. Religions, more than anything, are collections of stories designed to help people understand their place in the cosmos, their nature as biological organisms with self-consciousness in a strange and sometimes frightening sometimes enchanting physical universe. Stories are an entertaining way to help people learn and they don’t have to be believed to be true in the sense that they literally happened. Most of religious mythology is just stories about the gods and various heroes, not so very different from our modern mythological heroes such as superman or Doctor Who.

    Fundamentalists turn a lot of people off to religion because they mistakenly assert that _their_ stores are not myths but absolutely true stories. They, of course, know nothing about who wrote those stories and they are without evidence that they actually happened as written. More liberal members of the same religions recognize that the stories are important to the extent that they help us learn how to be good people, to cooperate with others, to promote justice and fight evil. That is their function, not to provide factual information.

    Religions are not the only source of such stories, of course. Modern day examples can be just as inspiring and helpful, such as Star Trek or MASH or Harry Potter. So before you jump all over someone for being religious, ask if you would be as forceful in your criticism over someone who was a fan of Harry Potter or Star Trek. It could be the person just finds the stories of her own religion are helpful in navigating life. Is that so bad? Can a purely scientific perspective provide anything that can instruct and inspire virtuous behavior? Let people have their stories. Not everyone has to embrace Star Trek. Neither does everyone have to embrace religious stories or reject them.

  • Lanny Buettner

    We all know there are Internet trolls who like to post, not so much to add to an open-minded discussion but to taunt and ridicule people who are in some way different from themselves. We can all agree that such trolls are obnoxious and should grow up.

    I have observed that regularly when someone posts an opinion such as Mayim’s, explaining in very reasonable terms why she or he is religious, there are often people who post to condemn her or him for being religious. In my opinion, these kind of trolls are every bit as obnoxious and immature as those who post anti-evolutionary jabs on every post that mentions evolution or racists who post insults on every post that involves blacks.

    Why not let people be religious and let those who don’t want to be religious be that way? This is America, after all, one of the first places to guarantee religious freedom as well as the freedom to be areligious.

    There are also science trolls who condemn any belief in anything that science can’t decide. A good scientist keeps an open mind and recognizes that there are many things recognized by science today that two hundred years ago would have been laughed at as absurd.

  • Who is funding this crap? Follow the money to the Templeton Foundation.