The Religious Brains exchange, part 3: ‘The shrinking of ‘the God of the gaps’ is not a problem’

December 9, 2015

Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger is the leader of the Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth, Texas, an adjunct faculty member at Brite Divinity School and has served as the Jewish co-chair of the Texas Conference of Churches' Jewish-Christian Forum. Rabbi Mecklenburger was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 1997. Prior to coming to Beth-El, he served congregations in San Francisco, California and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This exchange focuses on Rabbi Mecklenburger’s book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God (Jewish Lights, 2015). Parts one and two can be found here and here.


Dear Rabbi Mecklenburger,

A recurring theme in your book is the notion that religion is something that fills many different human needs. It seems that an important role science plays in your narrative is showing how strongly imbedded in our very constitution some of these needs are (something that appears to reflect the vital force of religious practice). A couple of examples: researches that show how people function best in groups of 150 are cited to show how religious communities supply a deep human need for community; a Chomskian approach to morality that asserts we have innate moral sensibilities shows how religions offer a framework for something we have a deep human need for.

But one could argue that extremist religions or fascist ideologies can address similar deeply ingrained needs. And one could also argue that solutions for these needs can be provided in other ways that do not involve a God or religious texts.

So my question is this: Did you intend the book to serve as a justification of religious practices? In what way, if any, do you think science can help justify such practices?

I’d like to thank you again for participating in this exchange.




Dear Shmuel,

Ancient people, mystified and awed by phenomena they saw but could not understand—the weather, the stars, the fertility—or its lack—of themselves and their fields. We are apt to think what is going on in the world is all about us. Perhaps the great forces behind such things were out to get them! Or perhaps they could be flattered, fed, covenanted with? Out of our ignorance, gods were born.

As religion developed it came to be involved in far more than explaining – or papering over! – what we could not understand. As the question suggests, religion fostered community, cooperation and a sense of meaning. Small though we are, we can relate to the cosmos, revere those who came before us and bequeathed us our stories and thus, to significant degree, our identity as individuals and groups, and appreciate our own creative capacity. We can aspire to holiness, to love, to justice. Especially once Jews replaced multiple gods with one God, people could conceive of a single moral as well as physical order. And anyone who could appreciate the beauty of temples, poetry and music, and the pleasures of foods and rituals, could find an aesthetic uplift in religion as well.

That was a fortunate development for religion’s future, for as time passed humanity began to understand more and more of what mystified us at first. We are still but a small part of the cosmos, properly humbled and awed by it all. Yet to the extent that religion’s function included explaining the gaps in our understanding it was bound to lose relevance in one area after another. Sure, the more we learn the more we realize there is to learn. But we moderns are confident—based on experience!—that we will continue to push back the boundaries of ignorance.

For those who appreciate the multiple functions of religion, including its emotional and aesthetic depth as well as its philosophical and theological comfort (order and morality are not  figments of our imagination, and we are not only creations, but creators), the shrinking of “the God of the gaps” is not a problem. Far from replacing religion, science can help us appreciate how we benefit from it. Science and religion are partners in the search for truth. To use the term in your question, they justify one another.

Of course religion is not the only source of community or other positive values. Certainly both the religiously faithful and the secularists can be good people or bad. Either can turn to what the Tanakh calls idolatry, giving ultimate allegiance to that which is unworthy of it, from pleasure and riches to power and nations. But either or both can be devoted to alleviating suffering and otherwise improving our lives and world. Science, moreover, can deepen our sense of awe, and point towards healthy values. Science is a useful tool for critical thinking, a religious value for Jews. Knowing our perceptual and logical biases–how our minds work–can help inoculate societies against malevolent individuals and ideologies, whether religious or secular.

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