Rosh Hashanah: Science vs Religion


Religion and science are frequently set up as polar opposites; incompatible ways of thinking. The Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks begs to differ. For him, science and religion can, and should, work together. To mark Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he puts his position to the test. He meets three non-believing scientists, each at the top of their field: neurologist Baroness Susan Greenfield, theoretical physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili, and the person best known for leading the scientific attack on religion, Professor Richard Dawkins. Will the Chief Rabbi succeed in convincing the militant defender of atheism that science and religion need not be at war?

(There are video clips on the BBC one site but there is an error playing them right now from both within and outside of the UK)

Written By: BBC one
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  1. Why would I give any credence to someone who believes religion and science can or shoud coexist? By believing in the magical, they destroy their own credibility in all they choose to believe in.

  2.  “science and religion can, and should, work together”

    Of course it can, as long as religion doesnot meddle with public policy, freedom of expression, human dignity, morality & ethics. And stop claiming to know the truth about the universe.

    It is normal and even healthy to have fantasies. As long as you keep it yourself Mr Sacks, we have no issues. If you dont want to eat bacon or work on the sabbath, go ahead. But please dont lecture us on morality. If you think you are entitled to lecture us on your morality, then we do have a problem, a big problem. Kapeesh!

  3. What’s the evidence for hope? Oh Dear, Rabbi: not a very sensible question. Tell you what, have a free, permanent seat at the UK legislature for that.

  4. Dalai Lama : If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.
    is this what he means?

  5. I can’t help but shake my head in utter disappointment that here we have a leader of a religious community who implies that Atheists are incapable of experiencing hope and optimism because these feelings are derived from a religious experience.  Does this guy know even one Atheist at all?  If he was in the States then I might think that maybe he doesn’t know any Atheists but on the other side of the pond it seems like he must know at least one or two.  Does he think that all the depression medication in this world is being gobbled up by all those Atheists?

  6. Another one who ties himself in knots to make sense of his doctrines. I feel sorry for him. He just can’t shake it off. Boring.

  7. religion relies on dogma and unreliable personal experiences, science is flexible and will change with newly aqcuired evidence and is proven by 100% accurate predictions, thus religion is the polar opposite of science and they cannot coexist.

  8. It’s one thing to say religious beliefs satisfy science’s empiricist criteria; it’s another to say religion-science teamwork can serve the interests of either. Religious claims have never been scientifically bolstered, and religious doctrines have never led to greater scientific successes; come to think of it, such event types would be one and the same. What’s in it for religion or science?

  9. The only people who say that science and religion are compatible are those who don’t really understand how science works, and those who say it only to avoid “offending” religious sentiments.

  10. “Is there a scientific explanation for hope?”

    Why on earth would you ask anyone but a Neurologist this question?

    Is it because a non Neurologist wouldn’t have an explanation to satisfy you just so you could smugly say “Belief in a god (silly magic) gives you hope, not science, you small minded person!”.

    OR- I could play along-

        No, not yet, oh old wise religious teacher of wisdom.
     Is there a religious explanation for hope?- No, not some gooey, elastic post modern dribble of an explanation.
    No again? I didn’t think so.

    We’ll get back to you when science discovers the answer, but for now, all we could do is hope for the answer.

    OR, we could ask more important questions.

    Take care, Chief.

  11.  Yes, but don’t forget people who just want there to be a compatibility because, because…well because they want it to be like that.

    That’s how a religious person comes to accept answers- because they want something to be true. 🙂

  12.  Let’s try this experiment:
    Take away ALL special HATS and religious apparel, make them wear regular hats and apparel and see how much their stature and respect level diminishes!

    C’mon- it’ll be fun!

    Then we can call them (at least male clergy) Men with out Hats! 


    Jos Gibbons
    What’s in it for religion or science?

    For science nothing!

    For religion; a false equivalence and the papering over of scientific refutations with pseudo-science fudge. ( As in “theistic evolution”)

  14. I imagine that the debate will be very similar to this one between Colin Blakemore and Rabbi Sacks:

    Colin Blakemore makes the simple, powerful point that the Rabbi like other religious people just set up artificial and entirely arbitrary “no go areas ” for science and empirical inquiry in general by making baseless, unsupported and easily refused assertions that “science can’t explain this or such and such”

    This is a point that needs to made repeatedly as it goes straight to the very heart of the self-serving delusions, wishful fantasing and double-think that intelligent people indulge in to sustain an infantile belief that they know is irrational.

    Even intelligent writers like Alan Moore makes similar declarations of certainty about the nature of consciousness and other areas of existence without even the vaguest hint of irony that what they are asserting is highly contentious.

    It only takes a brief look at the mountains of literature written on the subject to know what science has plenty to say about consciousness and actually know about the nature of consciousness (from Descarte to Gilbert Ryle to Francis Crick to Daniel Dennett not counting the vast amounts of evidence accumalated by Neuroscience, Psychology and so on).

    Exactly the same is true with religion and various attempts to ascribe a “purpose” or assert a Telelogical framework to explain existence. If science and scientific method can’t explain it then it is merely speculation and that is all it can be.

    If you explain the how then very often to can explain the why.

  15. I should, shouldn’t I. I’m at work, though. Maybe I’ll scribble on the side, say it’s an ad. 

  16. Stephen J. Gould attempted this with his notion of magesteria.  Basically he said, “We can stop fighting if you religious folk would stop making assertions about the real world, and stick to pontificating on the imaginary.”  Of course they would never do such a think. Their holy books make thousands of erroneous assertions about science and the world they can’t give up, on pain of eternal torture.

    I could imagine a religious person saying “We can stop fighting if you stop talking about things you cannot know are true, e.g. what happened millions of years ago, what characters in the bible were doing”.
    The problem is these people are ignorant of the tools for exploration, such as ice cores, radioactive dating, archaeological analysis, DNA analysis…  They presume science is unchanged since the time of Copernicus.

    With spacecraft going up and taking pictures, I think the geocentric flat earth notion has died.  So of course Christians to find a way to deny bible ever claimed it did.

    It may be necessary to create preposterous face-saving excuses for the bible to let it be reinterpreted to be correct.

  17. I get “media selection failed” when I try to play the clips.  Did anyone have success? If so, which browser?

  18. Are science and religion compatible?  It depends on the religion.  If your religion makes claims about the universe which are in opposition to scientific understanding then your religion is not compatible with science.  It’s as simple as that.

  19. This is how I saw it … The Rabbi seemed unprepared, persuaded, pushed, in to the confrontation to stand up for religion….perhaps he even seemed a little in fear of being unmasked.

    Everything he is, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, is invested in his faith. Without his faith he loses his social position, his power and influence, his spiritual income from adoring admirers, the props for his self confidence and ego, etc..

    I got the sense of a man pleading to be kept on the public stage in his current position, as the humiliation of letting go of  God, and the admission that he is perpetuating a faith for his own gain, would be too much to bare.

    He seemed not to be above trying to hoodwink his less questioning followers that he deserved his high position in the modern world along side compassionate clear thinkers. He manipulated and salvaged what he could from his interviews, all the while a little jealous of their freedom from superstition, methought!

    His countenance was of a man trying to pretend that he was unaware of the quicksand he was standing in, and of a man prepared to encourage others to join or remain with him. Perhaps if he truly believed that there was no quicksand it would go away.

    I happen to believe that there is a spirituality. I say ‘believe’ as it is intangible, there is no good evidence but my feelings. I feel connected to others just as a rock star bathes in attention and a mother feels that her baby is a part of her. Maybe it’s a quantum thing?

    Why was there no argument in this vein from the Chief Rabbi. Does he imagine that scientists are without feelings/sense of others/empathy… so that there was no point in persuing that path?   Or, is he in fact disconnected from his own humanity, disconnected by the trappings of his office, by the constant elevation from faithful subordinates in the power pyramid of his belief system, and his separation from need? … perhaps, I’m guessing. If he does not even feel what I think I feel how the hell could he sleep at night? His hand raising/waving tried to conjure the otherness that impresses easier to befuddle interviewees.

    This is getting muddled and I’m getting tired but I had to get something in writing to express what is really contempt, I guess, toward the Rabbi. In his defence though, when he were a lad, he was probably fed dogma three times a day….despite what he said about being taught to question.

    What he was doing was trying to convince us that he was still valid, and he didn’t mind trying to fool us and he was keen to claim science for himself.

    He, like the Pope, at the top of his game, is probably more sure than most that there is no god :  )

  20. I’m saddened by these polarised comments. C’m on people, there’s a bigger picture here. We don’t want to be ‘right’.
    Why are you not hearing and seeing what both people are bringing to the party?
    Why ‘sides’
    Why retreat to the corner of comfort? That’s what annoys scientists about simplistic religion. BUT simplistic science ( and there are some who qualify) equally frustrates those who hold faith and true science in tension.
    Egotistical posturing, whether scientific or religious, gets us nowhere, so like it or not, the sooner we accept that we are all in it together, and like minded people from so- called ‘opposite sides’ are really much closer than those who have an oppositional mindset would like to think.
    I LOVE science.
    (I also love God)

  21. God to Abraham: “Don’t think you own this one. You cannot cut his throat.”

     …just his foreskin.

  22. Like the boy who owns the football, Sachs had control of the editing and final version of this programme.  I would have loved to have seen the footage that never made it to the programme.

    As with many others, I found his plaudits and sophistry unconvincing and deceitful.  Trying to say that religion and science can coexist is like trying to mix oil and water.  Religion has never provided a shred of evidence to support it and to say that it answers the questions that science cannot is arrogant and intellectually bankrupt.

    A poor programme.

  23. I loved Richard Dawkins’ book, ‘The God Delusion’. He pulled no punches in his criticism of religion. He made many points that had needed to be expressed and were well overdue. I applaud his singleminded approach to breaking down the fallacies and exposing the inconsistencies that are rife among religious people. I am also heartened to see him here have the humility to acknowledge the value of those same people and give respect to them. Science and religion may well be polar opposites but the human being (and let’s understand this is the entity that matters) is a complex thing. At the present time our understanding of science is far from perfect and our religion is full of holes. Nevertheless human beings the world over derive great and real benefit from both. Long may it continue

  24.  Quote ” (and let’s understand this is the entity that matters)”.

    What matters is the truth, our pursuit of it, and our appreciation of the value of it. Everything else follows.

    Religions can provide social cohesion but will finally fall apart if not firmly grounded in truth…and they are more prone to abuse if hard evidence is not required.

    So they can only be a stopgap.

    Science/truth is the best glue for humans…one science :  )

    To infinity and beyond…..

  25.   graemed
    I’m saddened by these polarised comments. C’m on people, there’s a bigger picture here. We don’t want to be ‘right’. 

    Science is about “being right”.  There is no theistic fudge in scientific laws.

    Why are you not hearing and seeing what both people are bringing to the party?

    I have no problem with theists bringing properly researched scientific evidence to the discussion.  The problem arises when they compromise the science to accommodate dogma and magic.

     BUT simplistic science ( and there are some who qualify) equally frustrates those who hold faith and true science in tension.

    I LOVE science.
    (I also love God)

    So the scientist has to ask, ” Which one gives way in your mind, when the two are in conflict?”

    .. .. .. . . and “to what extent do you follow the scientific method of basing your views on scientific evidence?”  
    “Faith” and “objective evidence” are diametrically opposed methods of obtaining information, with proven differences in their reliability.

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