Friday, May 21, 2010

Science and Faith

Every once in a while, a scientific discovery or advance in technology is used to support the atheist view of a G-dless universe. With the limitless promise of human achievement, some argue, faith is the domain of unwashed barbarians. Indeed, a belief in some magical, white bearded grandfather in the clouds, vain enough to need our adulation, is comical in the context of relentless scientific progress, which promises to transform our world, on our terms.
Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell. The researchers constructed a bacterium's "genetic software" and transplanted it into a host cell. The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species "dictated" by the synthetic DNA.
Such sentiments have simmered in the public discourse of the world since at least the European Enlightenment, and have tested Jewish intellectual and spiritual resilience in each subsequent generation. By and large, I think the verdict is in; Jews have inhaled the natural sciences, advanced and directed academic inquiry and pushed the boundaries of human potential, all while maintaining and reaffirming our Covenant with G-d, as we did once again this past Shavuot. Certainly, there are Jews estranged from our traditions and practices, to various degrees, but I struggle to think of one, no matter their social standing or professional prowess, who does not believe in something of spirit.

This latest celebrated advance of science brings to mind a hassidic joke that well frames the Jewish response, not to scientific progress, but to its hijacking by atheism. It was perhaps first told fifty years ago, perhaps one hundred a fifty years ago, but has never more relevant than in the present, as it always was. It goes something like this:

Scientists decided to create a human being from scratch, to demonstrate how far humanity had come, that we didn't even need G-d to create life itself. So, they gathered the best minds, equipped them with the latest in technological instruments, and set to work. Just as in the Bible, they took dirt, formed it to exact specifications and fashioned all of a human being's inner workings, down to the finest detail. They even found a way to breathe life into this mound of dirt, and believe it or not, it all worked! After years of painstaking efforts, they presented their newly created human being, rightly proud of their incredible achievement.

"That's pretty good," said G-d, looking over their work. "Now go get your own dirt."

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