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On Rosh Hashanah, a Note on Origins and Evidence

David Klinghoffer

Rosh Hashanah

Today is Rosh Hashanah and so I am not writing this today. I wrote it on Sunday and set it to publish automatically early Monday morning. Today and tomorrow I am joining with other Jews around the globe to solemnly coronate God as King and Creator of his world, marked by the ancient tradition of blowing a ram’s horn, the shofar.

The reality of creation, for religious believers, is inescapably tied up with the subject of evolution. The origin and nature of man should be important to any thoughtful human being, of any religion or none, since knowing what a human is must tell you something about what a man or a women should be and should do. Does the universe give objective evidence of design, of a guiding, intelligent agent behind the emergence of life, of human life, or not? Such evidence does not lead inevitably to a traditional religious conclusion. It did not, for example, with the godfather of intelligent design, Alfred Russel Wallace. But certainly any coherent, rational understanding of Judaism and Christianity would expect it.

A Christian Friend Asks

Yesterday a Christian friend asked me plainly, “Have Orthodox Jews made their peace with evolution?” I had to be honest and admit, to my chagrin, that the job our community has done in tackling and understanding the evidence for design in nature has been shallow, and not in keeping with the best intellectual traditions of Jewish history. I can understand why a Christian too would be frustrated with efforts by his own community in this regard, but frankly, Christians have tried harder. They have put more serious effort into critically assessing materialist theories of origins.

Yet neither Christians, nor Jews, have done enough. That’s one conclusion of a provocative piece over at Fox News by the writer J. Warner Wallace, “Young Christians are leaving the church — Here’s why.” His answer to an important and painful question is that faith leaders have failed to adequately explicate the evidential case for belief. He cites a pair of Pew Research Center reports, reflecting interviews with “religious nones.” These are Americans who “describe themselves as ‘nothing in particular’ when asked if they identify with a specific religious group. The vast majority are ex-Christians, and most are under the age of 35.” Warner goes on:

[M]ost “nones” said they no longer identified with a religious group because they no longer believed it was true. When asked why they didn’t believe, many said their views about God had “evolved” and some reported having a “crisis of faith.” Their specific explanations included the following statements:

  • Learning about evolution when I went away to college
  • “Religion is the opiate of the people”
  • “Rational thought makes religion go out the window”
  • Lack of any sort of scientific or specific evidence of a creator
  • “I just realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t really believe it”
  • “I’m doing a lot more learning, studying and kind of making decisions myself rather than listening to someone else.”

The data from this 2016 study may explain why ex-Christians “question a lot of religious teaching,” as reported in the 2018 study. The teaching they question seems to be about the existence of God, and this is consistent with the explanations offered by ex-Christians in a variety of other recent studies. When Christians walk away from the faith, more often than not, it’s due to some form of intellectual skepticism. Ex-Christians often describe religious beliefs as innately blind or unreasonable.

We Can Do Better

The two answers of special interest, indicated in bold above, give you a sense of the number of religious “nones” who exited their faith because their community could not offer evidence of purpose or design in the origin of life or of the cosmos. Warner concludes, “Rather than embracing a blind or unreasonable faith, Christians must develop an informed, forensic faith that can stand up in the marketplace of ideas.”

From my own reflecting over the years, I’m not sure that the evidence for any specific religion is as clear-cut as Warner’s phrase, “forensic faith,” suggests. Certainly, though, our communities are failing young people in particular who, when they get out into the world, will be confronted by the edifice of scientific materialism, with all its power and prestige, and the corrosive culture it sustains.

Challenged by doubt, many will feel very poorly equipped to respond. “Blind or unreasonable faith” will not be enough for them. Jews and Christian alike, who care about these younger adults, could do a lot better.

Photo credit: qimono, via Flickr.