Religion and science need not be at loggerheads

11 03 2013

Today is Commonwealth Day, which celebrates the establishment of the Commonwealth of Nations whose values as expressed by the Commonwealth Charter include the promotion of democracy, human rights, international peace and security, tolerance respect and understanding, freedom of expression, the rule of law, good governance, sustainable development, protecting the environment, access to health eduction food and shelter, gender equality, recognition of the importance of young people, recognition of the needs of small states, recognition of the needs of vulnerable states, and the role of civil society.

Commonwealth Day is marked across the Commonwealth with multifaith services.  In the UK, these take place at Westminster Abbey and are attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In New Zealand these services take place at the Anglican Cathedral in Wellington, and are attended by the Governor General, His Excellency Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae and commonwealth high commissioners, ambassadors as well as other dignitaries.

This year’s theme is Opportunity through Enterprise: unlocking potential with innovation and excellence. I was invited to speak representing New Zealand’s Jewish Community, and was allocated two minutes to do so. Here is what I said:


These days, in our high-tech world, it is unfashionable to be a religious person. The cool kids compare God to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or mockingly proclaim their religion as “Jedi” on the census form. They prefer to worship science.

The scientific method is arguably the most important development in human civilisation in the last 500 years. The cycle of hypothesis – experiment – analysis – conclusion has enabled ever accelerating expansion of the limits of knowledge and capabilities of the human species. But while science is the perfect descriptive tool and has strong application in predictive modelling, it is limited by our ability to perceive, measure, and imagine. Ignoring these limitations, unquestioning adherence to science amounts to worship.

Sam Arbesman in his recent book “The Half Life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date” describes how this ever accelerating knowledge leads us to discard yesterday’s scientific facts as today’s historical curiosity. Knowledge, as such, is inherently uncertain.

Science can tell us within its limits, to great precision, of the way things are, but is silent on the way things should be. Enter religion. The religious values of “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, “love thy neighbour as thyself”, “welcome the stranger” and “we are each created in the likeness of the Divine” provide a moral compass for how we should lead our lives. And as with science, we should continually and progressively question these values and the institutions that gave rise to them to ensure their validity and continued relevance.

Science and religion need not be at loggerheads. In fact, it is at the intersection of increasing knowledge and moral imperative where we find the most interesting opportunities for enterprise, particularly in the world of high-tech startups.

Collaborative consumption, democratisation through increased direct communication, reputation metrics, crowdsourced information repositories, and open education are all important Internet startup trends for this coming year, and all of them are creating value driven by bringing people together to do good together, as well as holding individuals and institutions accountable for their positive and negative contributions to society. And the further development of social enterprise holds promise for us to transcend the profit motive for the greater good of society and the planet.

We can be optimistic about our future. With average intelligence rising by 3.5% per decade, the global death rates due to violence and malnutrition at historical lows and falling, global life expectancy at an all time high and rising, we seem to be increasingly capable as a species of doing the right thing, improving ourselves and those around us.

So let’s work together to encourage, empower, and lend our moral compass to the next wave of entrepreneurs who will continue to make our world a better place.




My Speech at Islam Awareness Week 2010 – From awareness through engagement to partnership

2 08 2010

From Awareness through Engagement to Partnership:
Cultivating Positive Emotions for a Healthy Society

Dave Moskovitz – Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation (Temple Sinai)
Speech to Islam Awareness Week launch at Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, NZ
2 August 2010

Distinguished Guests, members of the FIANZ council, Ladies and Gentlemen – Shalom Aleichem, thank you for inviting me to speak again this year in the Masjid at Islam Awareness Week 2010 on the topic Cultivating Positive Emotions for a Healthy Society.

The theme is apt, and I love the metaphor of cultivating emotions, as if they were a crop being prepared for harvest. Often we go through life forgetting that each interaction we have with others forms part of a programme of cultivating relationships, and that ultimately we reap what we sow in terms of the relationships we build. As it is written in the books of Job (4:8), “As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it”, and Hosea (10:12), “Sow for yourselves righteousness [and] reap the fruit of unfailing love”.

In contemporary society we are often led to believe by popular culture that our emotions are responses to events outside our control, but we also know through many psychological studies that we can have a positive effect on our own emotions. Interestingly, studies have shown that religious people are twice as likely to report being “very happy” than their irreligious counterparts. So you could say that even scientists agree that religion is a good thing if you’re looking for happiness.

But today, I’d like to talk about some specific ways we Muslims, Christians and Jews can cultivate the positive emotions we would so much like to characterise our lives, and public perception of our religions, and more specifically, the interaction between our religions as well as interactions between adherents of our religions.

For me, if we would like people to have positive emotions about our religions, we must seek a greater state of empathy between ourselves and others. Empathy means identifying with and understanding another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. Without empathy, we are necessarily prejudiced in our outlook; without really knowing someone else and their situation, we are stuck resorting to stereotypes and third-party accounts to try to figure out what makes them tick.

I believe there are three specific steps we can take to develop this empathy: awareness, engagement, and partnership.

The first step is “awareness”, understanding the other person’s context; their whakapapa, their history, their belief system, what’s important to them. I applaud Islam Awareness Week for being an important door-opener both for Muslims and Non-Muslims to find out more about each other and take the first step toward developing deeper relationships.

The second step, “engagement”, is to connect directly as people, to build person-to-person relationships. In the engagement step, we can begin to understand the other’s self-image, challenges, struggles, aspirations, and vision for the future for themselves, their whanau, their community, and the world. Once one starts engaging, you learn a lot more about the richness of experience of the other, warts and all, and we do have warts. None of us are perfect, we all have strong points and weak points, and any direct relationship or friendship which cultivates positive emotions needs to take into account both the positive and the negative.

We can only do this on the basis of honesty, transparency, and mutual respect, which must be based on trust. I am not aware of any shortcuts for developing trust between people; trust is something that is earned, rather than something that is given. There are no quick fixes, and it can take years or even decades for people to interact with each other to the point where they can know that they are safe sharing information, and can rely on each other for support. In some cases this involves acknowledging and overcoming the past, both individually and collectively. We learn to respect others, even if we disagree with some of their fundamental assumptions about the world. It can be hard work, emotionally draining, and downright risky. But the reward for being able to punch through the stereotypes and have a glimpse of the true inner soul of another person is very much worth the effort, and even necessary if we want to create a society where we can live together as partners. And the empathy that enables us to view the world through another’s eyes gives us unimaginable insight into our own fundamental beliefs, our views of each other, our communities, society, and even God.

Confidence is a critically important ingredient in this kind of engagement. If we are not confident about our own identity, our own beliefs, and our own security we become worried about our own identity, beliefs, and security being overtaken or even attacked by those with whom we are engaging. It’s up to us and our communities to encourage, develop, and build up our own confidence before we embark on a programme of engagement with others. It’s really hard to cultivate positive emotions without underlying confidence.

The third step to deep empathy – partnership – is to envision and create a shared future, where we work together as partners, helping each other to thrive. Like a well-functioning marriage, we put the needs of others equal to our own, respecting and valuing our differences, and treat each other with generosity, understanding, and even love. We know each others’ limitations, sore points, quirks, drivers, goals, affinities and strengths. Our own objectives for our wider society become entwined, and we work together on them side-by-side for the common good. I mentioned earlier that religious people tend to be happier than irreligious people, but I am also pleased to report that married people tend to be happier than singles. I believe that the common element between these phenomena is that working together for shared goals, and celebrating the achievement of those goals together, is an excellent way to increase happiness.

I’d also like to say that whether or not we cooperate in partnership, our futures are nevertheless entwined. The choice is ours as to whether we explore how we can work together enjoyably and cooperatively, or expend our scarce resources on fighting each other. That choice seems clear to me.

So this is why I believe that empathy is the key to going forward in our relationship, and that developing that empathy can be achieved through three steps: awareness, engagement, and partnership. It would be really cool if Islam Awareness Week were to evolve into Islam Engagement Week, and eventually to Islam Partnership Week. However, at that stage it’s an ongoing process and not something that only happens one week every year.

The road ahead however is likely to be bumpy, and entails a significant amount of risk. There are a number of groups, the haters, to whom partnership is not a desirable outcome, and to whom divisiveness is far more valuable than cohesion.

So how do we deal with the haters? We all know them, they exist within our own communities, as well as externally in wider society. The haters believe that if we get to know each other, cooperate and even partner with each other, our own core values somehow become polluted, and we run the risk of being taken over by “the other”. The haters have no place in a pluralistic society such as 21st Century New Zealand, and indeed if the world is going to survive into the 22nd Century, we need to work together to either bring them into the age of empathy and partnership, or disempower them and make them irrelevant.

To disempower the haters, we can stand together with each other, both in our own communities and together as people who believe in a pluralistic future, and drown out their message of hate with our own message of cooperation. When one group seeks to deligitimise another, or suggests that violence is an appropriate method to bring about specific goals, together we can stand up to those haters in our own communities and say “No”. If enough of us do this within our own groups, and often enough, we will have an impact, one person at a time, one issue at a time. It’s worth noting that this is far more effective when we do this within our own groups, as to tell another group how to behave is generally considered to be interfering and divisive.

We cannot pretend to understand God’s will, but our religions all teach us that life is sacred, and that we should avoid violence, anger and strife. The book of Proverbs tells us, “A man shall eat good by the fruit of his mouth, but the soul of the treacherous shall eat violence” (13:12), “Make no friendship with a man that is given to anger; and with a wrathful man thou shalt not go” (22:24) and “It is an honour for a man to keep aloof from strife; but every fool will be quarreling” (20:3)

The media are often distinctly unhelpful, because their business model is based on selling stories, and people are much more excited by violence, anger and strife than they are by peace, cooperation, and friendliness. Watching news reports, you would think that the world is becoming ever more violent. In his delightful 2007 essay “A History of Violence”, Steven Pinker shows how violence has been in steady decline in society over the last several centuries, and proposes four theories about why this might be so. Whatever the underlying cause, you can bet that good footage of a bombing will always trump a snapshot former enemies shaking hands. The lesson for us is that the personal relationships that we forge – one relationship at a time – will carry much more weight than media reports. One day the haters will wake up to find that people would cooperate with each other to build a better society, rather than blast each other into the stone age. To paraphrase Nietzsche, with no-one to listen to their sensationalism, the traditional media will be dead, replaced by direct relationships between people and the sources they trust.

Using empathy as a tool to work from awareness, through engagement, to partnership, we can begin to emulate those aspects of God which we hold most admire. Just take the first five of the 99 attributes of God: Ar-Rahman – the Compassionate; Ar-Rahim – the Merciful; Al-Malik – the Ruler; Al-Quddus – the Holy; As-Salam – the Peaceful. I’d like to point out that all of these Arabic words are cognates with their Hebrew equivalents; they are essentially the same words, and represent qualities in God that Jews hold equally dear. We all seek to emulate these attributes, which are completely aligned with empathy and partnership.

So now that we are building awareness during Islam Awareness Week, let us resolve to start work toward the next phase – engagement, so that we can ultimately move on to partnership. Muslims, Christians and Jews have much fertile ground with which to cultivate positive relationships. A small number of us have been quietly breaking the soil, and we are now ready to be joined by many others who are ready to work alongside us. Join us in sharing our rich traditions with each other with confident respect, and learning more about each other so that we can work together in partnership for our common good.

Thank you.