Wayward Religious Reconcilers

Original Article

In the Jewish community, a curious feature of the controversy about Darwin and intelligent design is the funny way it has of making strange bedfellows. You might expect to find all religious conservatives lining up against Darwinism. Not so.

Darwinian theory asserts that an unguided and purely material process alone (natural selection) was sufficient to produce the whole history of life on earth.

Biblical religion, if it means anything at all, has to stand for the belief that life’s history was guided in some way by a transcendent intelligence. You can’t have an unguided guided process.

Yet more than a few people on the traditional side of the religious divide are vocal critics of intelligent design (ID), the scientific framework in which doubts about Darwinism are currently being expressed and worked out.

Much of the intellectual energy behind ID has been supplied by the Discovery Institute, where I work, here in Seattle.

So I was intrigued by the current issue of the Orthodox Union’s magazine, Jewish Action, which includes a package of three articles on intelligent design. The first in the lineup is by Bar-Ilan University physicist Nathan Aviezer. It claims to discover “a striking similarity between ID and the ideas that underlie idolatry.”

What ideas?

Well, the ancient pagans “observed phenomena of nature that seemed completely inexplicable, and the postulated supernatural beings (analogous to today’s ‘intelligent designers’) to explain phenomena.”

Actually, design theorists argue not from what is “inexplicable” in nature but rather from what’s known today about, for example, the software in the cell (DNA), which presents positive indications of design just like the software that runs in your computer. ID, an increasingly confident minority view among scientists, thrives because modern science understands more than Darwin did when he published The Origin of Species in 1859.

ANOTHER SCIENTIFIC writer in the Jewish Action ID symposium, Arnold Slyper, is a pediatric endocrinologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Illinois. Dr. Slyper grasps what Dr. Aviezer doesn’t, that ID “is Jewish to the core and one of our fundamental beliefs.”

But he presumably would be classed as a heretic by Orthodox rabbi Natan Slifkin, who gave a lecture in August titled “The Heresy of Intelligent Design.”

“I find it theologically offensive,” said Slifkin, who oddly is the same famous fellow who protested when his own his books were banned for supposed heresy by some haredi rabbis.

But the situation with the Reform and Conservative movements is also surprising. Two prominent non-Orthodox rabbis of the previous generation were actually premature ID-advocates.

That’s one of the fascinating points made clear in a new book from the University of Chicago Press, Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism. It is a collection of essays, one of which describes the thought of Roland Gittelsohn and Robert Gordis, representing respectively the Reform and Conservative rabbinates, who challenged natural selection as a sufficient explanation of how life got to be the way it is.

IF IT’S not apparent by now that Darwinism does not split Jews down the expected religious divide, I could also cite the work of mathematician and Darwin doubter David Berlinski (who says his only religious principle is “to have a good time all the time”), or Jewish Buddhist Jeffrey Schwartz, a UCLA research professor in psychiatry and another prominent friend of ID.

Then there’s essayist Joseph Epstein, Jewish but of no publicly declared religious persuasion, who commented last month on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page: “Not only have the past 50 or so years been largely bereft of grand ideas, but much of the best intellectual work of the period has been devoted to eliminating the major ideas, or idea systems, of the previous 100 or so years: notably, Marxism and Freudianism, with Darwinism perhaps next to tumble.”

Is there any way to make sense of who falls into which camp and why?

Maybe it comes down to this. Slifkin and those who think like him, people like Christian genome scientist Francis Collins, believe you can coherently affirm God and Darwinism.

Their strategies for reconciling the two ideas are diverse and Protean, some clever, some not. But all insist that whatever role God played in life’s development, it is undetectable, thus unfalsifiable. So the real difference between the reconcilers and the intelligent design advocates is that the latter at least take the risk that their arguments for a designer may be shot down by scientific counterevidence.

What’s wrong with shying away from that risk? Only that Judaism sees God as asking us to be His witnesses in the world. Which is why we stand for Kiddush on Friday night, to simulate giving court testimony about God as Creator.

However, in a legal context, one of the features of an acceptable witness is that his testimony must be potentially falsifiable.

As the Talmud and common sense agree, if a witness’s testimony cannot even in principle be knocked down, then that testimony has to be dismissed.

The religious reconcilers, despite their noble intentions, make fundamentally flawed witnesses for their faith. I wouldn’t call them heretics.

But as Jewish spokesmen, I would call them disappointing.

The writer ( is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author most recently of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.