Agreeing With Someone Who Is Wrong

The hope is that we don't become so wedded to a given belief that we insulate ourselves from introspection and a willingness to say "I was wrong" when warranted by the facts.
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Perhaps you know the feeling: someone who makes an eloquent and insightful point in one context advocates nonsense in another. I find myself in this situation regarding my Huffington Post colleague Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Some months ago in his blog, Rabbi Boteach made a remarkably astute point about how fundamentalism amounts to worship of "religion" rather than the deity behind it. Specifically, his essay was directed toward evangelical Protestants who ask if Mitt Romney's Mormon belief is too "weird" for the White House. "This is an interesting question," says Boteach, coming from someone who thinks that "a man, born of a virgin, was the son of G-d, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected." Nor should orthodox Jews be eager to criticize the Mormon Church, he says, believing as they do "that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam and the sun stood [still] for Joshua."

Rabbi Boteach implies that believers are mistaken when they insist on literal interpretations of their Scriptures -- whether it's Christian animated cadavers, Jewish talking donkeys or a Mormon Jesus in America -- but neglect the genuine principles underpinning most of today's major religions. Consider the famous story in Genesis in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Boteach says this is not about an insecure god who asks a righteous man to kill his son, but is a metaphor about idolatry:

"[The] key to the story is to see Isaac not as an individual but as a religion. Who was Isaac? He was Judaism. ... Would Abraham follow G-d's commandment to kill off his religion or would he put his religion before G-d's will? ... The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve G-d and has begun worshipping their religion, making their faith into yet another false idol."

In other words, idolatry is when humans worship their own traditions and religious identity, rather than the "G-d" underpinning that identity. This is an insightful perspective that deserves to be widely read and appreciated among the faithful of every culture.

I'd love to keep this essay positive and full of kudos for Rabbi Boteach, but I can't, because in the same piece he makes an egregious error about equating evolutionary biology with irrationality. In terms of probability, he claims that accepting evidence for biological evolution is analogous to belief in a talking donkey. "Evolutionists," he writes,

"have a belief system of their own, namely, that intelligent life somehow evolved capriciously and accidentally from inorganic matter, even though the possibility of complex organisms evolving without guidance is mathematically nearly impossible. ... [Even] men of science can believe things that can be construed as highly irrational."

To make his case, Boteach selectively quotes a passage from Julian Huxley's book "Evolution in Action," in which the evolution of the horse is presented as an impossibly improbable event, equivalent to one combination of genetic mutations randomly achieved out of "a thousand to the millionth power" of other possibilities. Rabbi Boteach seems to think that evolution proceeds via this completely random process, and his (mis)quotation implies that Julian Huxley would have agreed.

He did not agree. In fact, Boteach is actually citing text in which Huxley says the opposite; Huxley is contrasting selection with a random process. On p. 47 of "Evolution in Action," just one sentence before that cited by Boteach, Huxley writes:

"[We] can ask what would have been the odds against a higher animal, such as a horse, being produced by chance alone: that is to say by the accidental accumulation of the necessary favourable mutations, without the intervention of selection." [italics original]

Boteach ignores this context, along with another passage on the next page of Huxley's book, where he writes that a completely random evolution of a horse

"could not really happen, but it is a useful way of visualizing the fantastic odds against getting a number of favourable mutations in one strain through pure chance alone. ... It has happened, thanks to the workings of natural selection and the properties of living substance which make natural selection inevitable."

Thus, Julian Huxley is rebutting, not supporting, Boteach's implication that evolution by natural selection is random. It is not, and the tenets of evolutionary biology are really quite different than the "faith" by which some believers assert various miraculous events.

The fact that Boteach is wrong about evolution does not diminish his commendable distinction between "G-d" and literalist religious dogma, but it does obscure the common ground that he (as a creationist cleric) and I (as a religious paleontologist) actually share. For those of you interested in understanding this common ground, I hope you'll agree that anyone can make a mistake about one topic without invalidating an astute interpretation of another. That's true for Rabbi Boteach, you and me. The hope is that we don't become so wedded to a given belief that we insulate ourselves from introspection and a willingness to say "I was wrong" when warranted by the facts. It is true that many, perhaps even most, religious traditions demand from their adherents a kind of loyalty toward a particular interpretation of Scripture, what one might call fundamentalism, that excludes such a capacity for introspection. It is equally true that there are groups within major religions that embrace change and constantly re-evaluate their Scriptures. They are the ones who have taken Rabbi Boteach's insightful interpretation of Abraham and Isaac to heart, and perhaps those whom the writer of Genesis 22:18 meant when he wrote "through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed."

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