Science and religion: we don’t control the facts

When I last visited my doctor’s surgery I saw a big sign on the wall with the figure 79 in large bright red letters. This, the sign said, was the number of patients who had failed to attend appointments in the past week and not told the doctor. As I explained to readers of The Times later the same week, this sign is a mistake. Announcing that lots of people miss their appointments merely encourages even more people to do so. There are any number of social psychology experiments that confirm this assertion.

But the big question is why? Last week, for instance, a study on clapping was published that showed that applause was contagious. The length of clapping related to other people’s clapping rather than the quality of the performance. Why?

Over the past 30 years we have learned a huge amount about social behaviour. Some of it has been made possible by technology — brain scans and so forth — but much is because of an intellectual leap. We have begun to take Darwin’s theory of evolution seriously. We have, of course, long understood its importance in explaining animal behaviour, but it took us a while to appreciate properly that this meant us too. That we are best viewed as animals.

Thus, for instance, one reason we copy each other is to because we have learned that this is a good survival technique. And it also helps to establish groups that we can trust. By spotting others who behave like us we are able to make a quick judgment about who will reciprocate our favours.

The decision of the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, to insist that evolution forms part of the curriculum is thus sensible and right and nothing to be scared of. Evolution is now central to understanding many subjects way beyond mere biology.

There is a suggestion that some Charedi schools will insist that exam questions on evolution be left blank by pupils and fear they will then lose marks. But I am afraid that any pupil who leaves blank a question on evolution deserves to lose marks, because lack of knowledge of this critical subject suggests a child has not been properly educated. And those who, for doctrinal reasons, do not educate their children correctly on matters of core importance cannot be allowed quietly to do so.

This point is worth making because it represents a profound challenge to Jewish education. We have asserted our right to bring up our children in our own faith, an important right I have availed myself of and gained great satisfaction from. But while we must have the right to determine our own religion, we don’t have a right to determine our own facts.

Defenders of Jewish religious schools must therefore be the most vociferous advocates of proper science teaching and the most insistent that this be made a minimum requirement of a faith education. With no exceptions. Our contention must be that Judaism is able to explain and be explained by science. We argue that it has survived for thousands of years precisely for this reason.

Arguing for evolution to be taught in schools is also a sign of confidence. If Jewish teaching cannot be shown to be consistent with evolution, it would suggest such teaching wasn’t true and surely we have intellects bold and imaginative enough to challenge this.

We have all worked so hard to ensure faith schools are seen as valuable and right. We must now be tough on those who would undermine that work.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of the Times

Last updated: 11:45am, June 28 2013