Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Orthodox Jews and Science: An Empirical Study of Their Attitudes toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Orthodox Jews and Science: An Empirical Study of Their Attitudes toward Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Modern Geology

Article excerpt


Denial of evolution is a defining characteristic of education in Orthodox Judaism. But what does the most modern segment of Orthodox Judaism--the small number of students permitted to go to a public university and be exposed to non-censored scientific knowledge--believe about evolution and other scientific issues? The sample of 176 Orthodox Jewish students surveyed showed almost complete denial of evolution and other central tenets of modern science (such as the age of the universe); the survey also revealed that these students received their scientific beliefs not from their college science courses, but from rabbinical authorities, or from Orthodox Jewish scientists, who in turn propagate the anti-science views of rabbinical authorities. Perhaps the most surprising result of the survey was that the Orthodox Jewish students who were science majors were even less accepting of mainstream science than those who were not science majors.


Ultra-orthodox Jews have always forbidden members to get a secular education. Modern and Centrist Orthodox Jews are allowed a secular education only for reasons of parnasa, to make a living. In the last couple of decades two phenomena have interacted to shape Centrist Orthodoxy's relationship with secular education. First the entire Orthodox spectrum has moved radically to the right. Modern Orthodoxy is in tremendous decline, the name itself becoming a term of disdain for those not "really religious," i.e. "modern." Centrist Orthodoxy is rapidly adapting Ultra-orthodox outlooks as the distinctions between them are fading. The entire community is being polarized over the issue of who is the most religious. The second development influencing the relationship between Orthodox groups is an increase in the need for college and advanced degrees in order to get a prestigious or high paying job. This has led to the creation of colleges and other educational institutions where courses are taught by Orthodox professors who shield the Bnei Torah (the sons or followers of Torah) in order for them to obtain degrees while avoiding forbidden practices and knowledge, such as sitting in the same room with members of the opposite sex, or taking courses in which sex or "heretical" philosophies are discussed. As we shall see, however, even those Orthodox Jewish students who attend public universities are insulated from evolution and other "heresies."

There is little available information on what Orthodox Jews think about evolution and other issues related to science and religion, and what little is available is of limited accuracy. There are a number of reasons for this. Scientists tend to view the rejection of evolution as a fundamentalist Protestant phenomenon, and those interested in the issue have often talked to Conservative or Reform Rabbis who accept evolution. But the Conservative and Reform movements are not even considered Judaism by Orthodox Jews. (1) (It should be noted that while the Reform and Conservative movements tend to accept evolution, "intelligent design" is making inroads here, and there is a strain in left-liberal Judaism that looks askance at evolution as incompatible with its Marxist sympathies.)

Orthodox children go only to Orthodox yeshivas for elementary through high school education, so the community tends not to pay attention to or raise issues about what is taught in public schools. Also, Orthodox rabbis and scientists tend to insist that Orthodox Judaism is not fundamentalist. In part this is done to get outsiders to assume that Orthodox Jews are theistic evolutionists along the lines of contemporary Catholics. But strictly speaking they are telling the truth when they insist Orthodox Judaism is not "Fundamentalist" because, indeed, Orthodox Judaism believes that the Bible must be interpreted. But this interpretation is not done in the light of modern science, nor are individuals permitted to have their own opinions. …

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