A comment on Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin”

A comment on Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin”

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Metanexus: Views 2001.11.28 3806 words

According to Nathaniel S. Lehrman, M.D.: “Humanity’s theological conceptionshave changed over the thousands of years just as biological species haveevolved over the millions. And these ascertainable theological conceptionshave had immense, scientifically-definable effects on human behavior.”

This is an interesting statement, and not for its theological implicationsalone, for it would seem to imply not merely that our notions of God changeand evolve but that our behaviors change and evolve concomitantly. Thiswould seem to mean that our behaviors are, perhaps, not quite sobiologically hard-wired as they are often reported to be. Lehrman continues:

“[Our] ideals [of behavior] have also changed with the passage of centuries.Examining the different faiths’ ideals allows us to compare their social andpsychological impacts. In no area are those ideals more important, or moreuseful for rational, scientific comparisons of the different faiths, thanthe sexual.These have also changed markedly over the years.”

Yes, they have. So we might even subtitle today’s column, which is actuallytitled “History’s role in resolving the conflict between science andreligion: A comment on Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin, part II”(from the New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001), “let’s talk aboutsex”. But we are also going to talk about history, religion, evolution,ethics, and their relations to science. As Dr. Lehrman’s column is aresponse to a previous Clippings posting, I include below the Clippings’postings’ dates as well as the webpages where the articles may be found. Dr.Lehrman is responding in particular to the second part of Crews’ reviewessay.

See Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin, part I”Clippings Monday Sept.19, 2001, or at<https://www.metanexus.net/archives/message_fs.asp?ARCHIVEID=4549>

See Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin, part II”Clippings Monday Oct. 8, 2001, or at<https://www.metanexus.net/archives/message_fs.asp?ARCHIVEID=4636>

Today’s author, Nathaniel S. Lehrman, M.D., has been a psychiatrist since1947, and has over time become increasingly interested in recent years inthe societal rules governing people’s thoughts and behavior. Most of theserules come from religion. After being trained and certified inpsychoanalysis, Dr. Lehrman became increasingly dissatisfied with it –
especially with Freud’s profoundly anti-Jewish, erroneous belief thatindividual sexual needs and societal rules are in permanent, inevitableconflict. The traditional Jewish position is that sexual drives and societalrules can be mutually reinforcing in faithful marriage. Dr. Lehrman,Clinical Director for 5 1/2 years at Kingsboro Psychiatric Center (formerlyBrooklyn State Hospital), has published over a hundred papers inprofessional, religious and lay journals. Among the most noteworthy are”Creativity, Consciousness and Revelation” (Diseases of the Nervous System,1961), “Pleasure Heals: The Role of Love – Social Pleasure – in MedicalPractice” (Archives of Internal Medicine, 1993) and “God, Science and SexualIdeals” (Midstream, 1997). Dr. Lehrman was also Chairman of the Task Forceon Religion and Mental Health, Commission on Synagogue Relations, New YorkFederation of Jewish Philanthropies.

–Stacey E. Ake


Subject: A comment on Frederick Crews’ “Saving us from Darwin, part II”From: Nathaniel S. Lehrman, M.D.Email: <nslehrmanmd@earthlink.net>


Today’s much-discussed conflict between science and religion, and theefforts to resolve it by “Saving Us from Darwin” (which Frederick C. Crewscriticizes so skillfully), can perhaps be usefully addressed by use of theDarwinian method itself: examining theological concepts over time byscrutinizing historically human conceptions/perceptions of God and His Laws- as Karen Armstrong has done in her “A History of God: The 4,000 Year Questof Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Humanity’s theological conceptions havechanged over the thousands of years just as biological species have evolvedover the millions. And these ascertainable theological conceptions have hadimmense, scientifically-definable effects on human behavior.

Whether or not God is seen merely as the First Cause who started theuniverse, or as still an Active Power within it (“intelligent design”),today’s science-religion discussions seem to present Him aa fixed within a21st century western Christian mode. That Christian mode is itself,however, the product of historical evolution: an essentially Protestantview of God which differs somewhat from the Roman Catholic and Greek/RussianOrthodox, and much more from both the Muslim and the Hebrew. All of theseviews are, of course, derived historically from the Hebrew.

But the Hebrews’ own concepts of God changed significantly over time, ascareful reading of the Bible reveals. These varying concepts all contrastedradically with the Canaanite paganism out of which Judaism was born.

Paganism involved a multiplicity of arbitrary and willful gods dwellingwithin idols. Homer’s explanation of the Trojan War – as caused by Paris’insulting Athena and Hera by awarding Aphrodite the golden apple –
exemplifies these selfish, lawless gods’ effects on people. Theirunscrupulous immorality was shown even more clearly by the Olympian battleover Ganymede, the beautiful boy kidnapped by the gods to serve as Zeus’scup-bearer and pederastic partner.

Influencing the pagan gods, and winning their favor to assist human efforts,were based on sacrificial ceremonials – controlled by the priests. We caneasily see today how these gods, rather than possessing any real independentexistence, were actually invented by their worshippers, most probably by thepriests.

The Hebrews contradicted paganism by declaring that there was only One God,that He was lawful rather than willful, that His One Law existed for allpeople, and that he did not reside in idols. He was at first, however, onlya local God; a quotation from Exodus still found in the Sabbath liturgy –
“Mi Chomocha” [“who is like you, eternal God, among the gods that areworshipped?”] – shows Jewish awareness of other gods. The Jews thenfashioned their legends about their God and their history into a writtendocument, the Bible – still the origin of western concepts of morality.

Was the Hebrews’ new formulation of the concept of the One Lawful, EthicalGod an invention like the pagan gods, or a discovery, as assumed by most oftoday’s science/religion discussants (and as pointed out by Crews)? Wasthis new lawful Ideal of Holiness created de novo by the Hebrews or merelyuncovered by them? The principle of parsimony, widely ignored, requiresthat invention be chosen over discovery.

The God of Abraham and Moses was a good, very human Father. He could loseHis temper, and both patriarchs argued personally with Him. Sometimes theyeven persuaded Him to change His mind. The Pentateuch (the five books ofMoses), which defined the laws God’s people were commanded every day toobey, covered ritual sacrificial worship, daily behavior (including dietaryrestrictions) and morality.

After the Davidic kingdom, the Hebrew view of God changed. While He alwaysrepresented the behavioral ideal His people were commanded to imitate –
“Thou shalt be holy because I, thy Lord, am holy”- the prophets saw Him asmore distant and less human than earlier: less personal and paternal, andconcerned more with justice than with sacrificial ritual (even though thelatter remained).

Attainability has always been a central aspect of the Hebrew ideal.Deuteronomy (30: 11-14) states clearly, “this commandment which I commandthee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It isnot in heaven… neither is it beyond the sea…. But the word is very nighunto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

Christianity began with Paul’s replacement of what he considered Judaism’sexcessive behavioral and ritualistic legalisms (including its animalsacrifice) with the simple belief in Jesus. The concept of Jesus as theall-forgiving Son contrasts with the Hebrew Father focused on justice.

Rabbinic Judaism, which also originated after the destruction of the SecondTemple in 70 C.E., also replaced sacrifice with prayer as the heart ofworship, but retained what Paul considered sterile behavioral legalism.That difference is still reflected in the divergent emphases of Jewish andChristian worship: while both extoll the Lord and pray for His love andsupport, Jewish worship focuses primarily on asking God’s help to follow HisLaws and avoid sinning, while the Christian concentrates more on forgivenessfor past sins. That emphasis on forgiveness was, however, accompanied forcenturies by an unforgiving anti-Semitism.

The difference in worship content reflects a major ideological distinctionbetween Christianity and Judaism concerning the attainability of morality.Jewish philosopher Hyam Maccoby maintains that belief “in the possibility ofmorality is what’s resented in Judaism. The Bible says it’s not in theheavens, it is there before you. Morality is easy: the only thing thatmakes it difficult are all the excuses people make. One of those excuses isto say that morality is so difficult that the only virtue is total humility- that we cannot possibly be good people, so therefore we need a savior tocome from heaven in order to suffer death on our behalf. So what’s resentedis not the difficulty of Jewish morality but more a notion that morality isa possibility.” Christian theological attitudes, especially toward sex,help explain Christian doubts about the possibility of morality, and theconsequent belief that we are all sinners.

Religious ideals

Religions define both the forbidden and the commanded. God-commandedactivities include the ideals, those behaviors considered best or holiest.Most people see themselves, and are seen by others, in terms of thoseideals: “good” to the extent they attain them, and “bad” to the extent theydon’t.

Those ideals have also changed with the passage of centuries. Examining thedifferent faiths’ ideals allows us to compare their social and psychologicalimpacts. In no area are those ideals more important, or more useful forrational, scientific comparisons of the different faiths, than the sexual.These have also changed markedly over the years.

Sexual ideals: a brief historical survey

Promiscuity characterized many Middle Eastern pagan societies. While inMesopotamia, Hammurabi, author of the famous legal code bearing his name,had male lovers, sexuality at that time was not divided betweenheterosexuality and homosexuality. As Jewish philosopher-talk-show-hostDennis Prager points out, “the central distinction was between active andpassive roles. Boys and women were very often treated interchangeably asobjects of [male] desire. What was socially important was to penetraterather than to be penetrated. Sex was understood not as interaction but asa doing of something to someone.” The Jews were the only ancientcivilization which prohibited homosexuality per se.

Many of those societies saw sex as sacred because of its mysteriousprocreative and intensely pleasurable aspects; sexual activities weretherefore part of religious ritual. Orgiastic ceremonies were important inCanaanite worship. These saturnalias, based on unrestrained promiscuity,adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality and even child sacrifice, erasedeveryday sexual restrictions. Their purpose was sexually to stimulate thegods observing them (via what we call “sympathetic magic”) so they wouldincrease the fertility of crops, herds and women. Saturnalia participationwas therefore the ideal pagan sexual activity.

The Hebrews changed this ideal totally. They placed strict lawfulrestrictions on sexual activity, and while retaining sexuality’s sacrednature, they sanctified it – which, as Prager points out, in Hebrew means”separated” from the world – by placing it in the home, within the maritalbed. “Judaism’s restricting of sexual behavior was an essential elementenabling society to progress,” Prager continues. Sex became a lovinginteraction within legally sanctioned marriage, rather than merely somethingmen did to women.

“The revolution begun by the Torah when it declared war on the sexualpractices of the world wrought the most far-reaching changes in history,”Prager continues. “When Judaism demanded that all sexual activity bechanneled into marriage, it changed the world.” Judaism defines faithful,conjugal love-making as a mitzvah – a commandment – mandating Jewish couplesto engage in it regularly; thus increasing both mutual devotion andbirth-rates. Jewish sexual rules were also an early, and most important,example of a central characteristic of Jewish ideology: the subordinationand channeling of feelings by law. To Judaism, the sexual ideal wastherefore marital lovemaking.

Christianity downplayed the importance of the Law. It also changed theHebrew sexual ideal in two significant ways: by its ambivalence towardsexuality and marriage, and by forbidding polygamy.

The view that celibacy was a higher sexual ideal than marriage, at least forthe morality-defining clergy, grew gradually within Christendom. Thatconcept was based on (1) St. Paul’s supposedly placing celibacy on the same,or an even higher, moral plane as marriage, (2) the concept of virgin birth,(3) St. Augustine’s definition of “concupiscence” as original sin, and (4)the growth of monasteries within Christendom. In 1075 C.E. ,when GregoryVII imposed celibacy upon the entire Roman priesthood and forcibly removedthe wives of married priests, the celibate ideal finally totally triumphedwithin the western Church.

The celibate ideal divided humans into two classes – a powerful clergyforbidden to marry or to have children legally, and a powerless laityencouraged to marry and have children, but whose conjugal behavior ismorally determined by priestly bachelors. Although forbidden sexualfeelings are an inextricable part of our animal legacy, the Roman Catholiccelibate ideal sees their mere appearance as sinful. This tends to makeeveryone a sinner. The celibate ideal – being sexually moral throughcelibacy – is in fact essentially unattainable, as is demonstrated by thepederasty scandals affecting every one of the 188 dioceses of the RomanCatholic Church in the U.S.A. demonstrate its unattainability.

Preoccupation with sexual sin, often to the exclusion of more serious ones,has been an inevitable consequence within the Roman Church. And here too wesee the difference concerning sinfulness between Judaism and Christianity:should the emphasis be on preventing it or on forgiveness afterward? The”modern virgin’s prayer” of the 1940’s ran, “O blessed Virgin, who conceivedwithout sinning, let me sin without conceiving.” We have already seenMaccoby’s assertion that “saying morality is possible is what’s resented inJudaism.”

The unattainable celibate ideal led to the moral nadir of westernChristendom: the Dark Ages, which were characterized by bloody Crusades,brutal anti-Semitism and wide-spread churchly corruption, such as sellingheavenly places for earthly cash. Martin Luther’s marrying a nun in 1527,as part of the Reformation, re-established the marital ideal withinChristendom – but alongside the celibate ideal rather than above it. Theincompleteness of Luther’s return to the Hebrew marital ideal is shown bythe Protestant retention of negative attitudes toward sex, such as belief inthe virgin birth, considering sex as original sin, regarding permanentsexual abstinence as holy, and intense belief in Satan, the sexual tempter.Former nun Karen Armstrong points out how “the idea that sex could be holy[as it is to the Jews] would be alien to Christianity, which would sometimessee sex and God as mutually incompatible.” Taken together, these negativesexual attitudes helped make early Protestants as enthusiastic as Catholicsin hunting witches – alleged sex al covenanters with Satan.

“Science” entered the realm of sexual ideology with Karl Marx, Sigmund Freudand Havelock Ellis. Each in his own way saw current society as necessarilyantagonistic to the sexual freedom he considered desirable (a view consonantwith the celibate ideal) rather than recognizing how society can happilychannel sexual passion within marriage, as prescribed by the Hebrew (andProtestant) conjugal ideals. Engels, Marx’s associate, recognizing thathusbands were more promiscuous than wives, advocated equal “sexual freedom”for wives in the name of equality for women. He apparently recognizedneither how destructive such “freedom” would be for family life, nor thathusbandly fidelity comparable to that of wives was a far better form ofsexual equality. Freud, seeing society and sexuality as in inevitableconflict, and generalizing from his own personal life (he stopped having sexat 40), concluded that the Jewish tradition was wrong (although he neversaid so), that marriage was incapable of fulfilling the sexual needs ofeither wives or husbands, and believed therefore that both faced theunpleasant choice between neurosis and infidelity. He also maintained thatall the then-available contraceptive methods were not only unaesthetic butcould themselves produce neurosis.

These and similar viewpoints have been used to justify sexual “freedom” andto denigrate the marital ideal. The “freedom” ideal – which exists in oursociety alongside the celibate and marital – opposes restrictions on sex,such as bans on adultery, homosexuality and bestiality, and sometimes evenon pederasty and incest. The psychologically-oriented who may see sex solelyin biological terms, and those many scientists who claim morality is outsidetheir scientific purview, are major advocates of this ideal. Othersignificant supporters are the homosexual rights activists – now a verysignificant political group – and some Marxists, all of whom seemdisproportionately visible in our mass media. In the realm of sexual ideals,therefore, two of today’s existing ideals – the celibate and the marital –
are seen as supported by religions, and the third – freedom/promiscuity – by”science”! Sexual ideals and behavior are consequently an area whichrefutes Stephen Jay Gould’s plea that science and religion be viewed as”two independent ‘magisteria’ or domains of authority which will enjoymutual respect if their adherents refrain from any attempted synthesis.”

Where Crews Errs

Many religionists insist that human morality requires the existence of Godby citing the dangers of science without morality: the allegedly “scientificbases” for the godless real-life Hitlerian and Stalinist experiences, andthe fictional “Brave New World” and “1984.” While the point has somevalidity, it ignores past and present terrorism in the names of bothChristianity and Islam, so much of it overtly anti-Semitic.

Although Voltaire maintained that if God did not exist, man would have toinvent him, belief in Moral Law above us, and in ideals, requires no beliefin supernaturals. As we have just seen concerning sexuality, Moral Law isthe product of history, specifically including religion, rather than ofGod’s will, as some religionists claim. Neither God nor “evolutionarybiology” is necessary, for example, for acceptance of the faithful maritalsexual ideal over its two current competitors, the celibate and thepromiscuous “free.”

Crews fails to recognize the valid and important moral and ethical questionsbeing raised today by religionists about many aspects of science. Everyoneis, for example, aware of the controversies over human cloning, which thiswriter sees as an ethical question, and stem cell research, which theVatican and some other Christians also consider one. Ethically questionableaspects of medical practice and research are also the subject ofreligion-based criticism, even though those bases may not always beexplicitly defined.

Columbia University biologist Robert Pollack’s book, The Faith of Biologyand the Biology of Faith, despite Crews’ justified criticisms of some of it,specifically demonstrates the value of such religion-based questioning ofscience. Crews questions Pollack’s claim that a Darwinian understanding ofthe natural world “is simply too terrifying and depressing to me to be bornewithout the emotional buffer of my own religion,” and Pollack’s belief that”by cleaving to the Torah, he can lend ‘an irrational certainty of meaningand purpose to a set of data that otherwise show no sign of supporting anymeaning to our lives on earth beyond that of being numbers in a comiclottery with no paymaster’…. Pollack is determined to place ‘feelings ona par with facts,'” Crews continues, “and his book is therefore studdedwith clumsy attempts to make religion and science coincide…. The rabbi andthe molecular biologist, he extravagantly proposes, ‘share two beliefsfounded entirely on faith…: that one day the text of their choice will becompletely understood and that on that day death will have no power overus.”

Nevertheless, Pollack’s book demonstrates in many ways the value ofreligion-based questions of science. He finds fault with current methods ofhandling the dying when they are measured against the humanistic yardstickprovided by the Hebrew Talmud. The latter maintains, for example, thatsomeone beyond medical help, and expected to die within three days,nevertheless retains his basic human rights and social needs; it alsosuggests that the quality of his last days may be more important than theirmere number. Pollack therefore criticizes our current practice of “leavingthe dying person alone in a cold room with tubes and monitors blocking allhuman interaction,” a practice which neither respects the dying person’sdignity nor improves the quality of his final days.

Pollack also urges that scientists and physicians accept the inevitabilityof death rather than seeking endlessly and painfully to prolong life, thatthey shift from doing everything it takes to keep an old person alive to acommitment acknowledging the finiteness of life, and that they researchimproving the quality of the final years. Rather than being merely”half-formed ideas and bumbling prose,” his book includes a brilliantdescription of how the brain and immune systems work, a keen analysis ofmedicine’s moral and practical errors in addressing infectious and cancerousdiseases, a courageous, highly successful effort to use humanistic Jewishwisdom to examine and correct the dehumanization existing in importantsegments of medical practice and research, and an attack on the currentworship of “science” as infallible. Indeed, on the basis of the randomnessof DNA changes over time, Pollack even joins Crews in denying the”intelligent design” hypothesis.


Denunciation of Darwin is the basis of many of today’s attacks by religionon science, as Crews points out. But he does not deal satisfactorily withscience’s refusal to deal with ethics and morality. This paper suggests thatthe answers to scientific understanding of morality lie in history,particularly in the history of religion.

Ethics and morality, created for the most part by religion and creditedentirely to God, can be better understood by applying the historicalDarwinian method to human views of God over the years – and, moreverifiably, to views of His moral and ethical Laws and ideals. Applying thismethod to the sexual ideals existing over history helps us understand notmerely the Laws and ideals themselves, but their associated moralexpectations – which can become self-fulfilling prophecies – of whetherpeople can live by them. Indeed, one of the greatest differences betweenChristianity and Judaism, and, it has been suggested, a significant reasonfor Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries, lies in their very differentexpectations of morality’s attainability.

Discussions of the relationship of science and religion focusing on thenature of God, and on speculative, unanswerable questions such as the BigBang theory’s supposed support for the biblical creation story, evokememories of disputes over angels dancing on the heads of pins. Butcriticisms like Robert Pollack’s of science on the basis of religiousmorality can be of great value. Only when the Laws, ideals and expectationsof the different faiths are defined and compared, and used to address theethical aspects of scientific activities, will science-religion discussionsattain maximum usefulness.

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