There is an Orthodox Jewish polemicist out there named Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. He often writes articles for the Huffington Post’s “Religion” section, including a recent response article to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. In this article, the Rabbi bashes President Obama for the emphasis placed on the reinvigoration of both science and math in our educational system in order to further cultivate the intellects of a new generation and improve our economic stability. Apparently, for Rabbi Shmuley, these are fighting words.
Shmuley attributes our decline (of what particularly, I am not sure) not on a lack of science and math, but a degradation of American values. He claims that “we are becoming a pack of ignoramuses watching inane TV” and shows sadness that G_d was not mentioned at the Golden Globe awards in favor of actual human help. The article, entitled “Obama’s Soulless Obsession with Science and Math”, effectively blames our nation’s president for not actively preaching G_d and the values associated with religion to us.
The claims Shmuley make, especially about our nation’s founding, are particularly flabbergasting. He boldly proclaims that our founding fathers centered their lives on G_d and eludes that they had some hand in the motto “In G_d We Trust” being put on money. Ironically, two of the founding fathers mentioned where deists and Thomas Jefferson took it upon himself to edit out all the parts of the bible he did not like. The use of the aforementioned motto on coinage did not come until 1865, and was not required until 1938. Only in the last half century or so has it appeared on our paper money and become our official model. He also berates the President for his lack of science and math knowledge, which is apparently something Shmuley has in abundance. It is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.
Among these obvious errors, Rabbi Shmuley’s message is simple: Science and math are soulless, and we need the good old values of American exceptionalism and religious fervor. The Rabbi seemingly attributes our economic decline to a loss of religious value and our growing world-focused view instead of American-centered view. What really confused me most was why Shmuley wanted this from Obama and failed to place any of this blame on the growing tide of secularism or a lack of strong indoctrination by the parents of the next generation. In truth, maybe he does blame in on secularism, in the sense that it is soulless and utterly boils down to materialism in his view. But I fail to see why he wanted our education system to become the core teacher of religious values and American exceptionalism.
I cannot endorse Rabbi Shmuley’s point because, simply, it makes little to no sense. He fails to draw a connection between the degradation of value and the economic decline, other than the coincidental that they happened, according to him, around the same time. He seems to think we are struggling in teaching religious values and appreciation of G_d. I take it he does not understand that the religiosity of America is far-and-away above most other developed countries. Apparently we are so far corrupted that once we do start making scientific and technological advances, we will not know what to morally do with them, and our economy will suffer from it. He expected from our current President an “American is better than everyone else” attitude when clearly Obama understands the importance of a global perspective. Most of all, what I do not get is why he feels he needs to put down science and math in the name of value. Judging by the Rabbi’s popularity, I am sure he is aware of Sam Harris’ attempts to understand morality through neuroscience. I am sure he understands that it does not matter how much we love Jersey Shore as to whether our economic stability wavers and falls or finds firm ground and grows. And more importantly, why can we not have science, math, and values taught by both our educational system (secular values, I would hope) and by parents and role-models?
So all of that is why Rabbi Shmuley perturbs me (not mentioning his well-known debate with Christopher Hitchens in which he pulls a Bill O’Reilly and gets louder to make his point instead of making it more logically tangible). Now why he WORRIES me:
I happen to agree with the mantra that science and those things related to it (in this case, math) are incredibly corrosive to religious thinking. Atheists know this. It is the reason why we are still battling to keep pseudoscience in the form of Creationism and Intelligent Design out of the science classroom. It is why physicist Steven Weinberg has to convince National Panels to fund projects that explain things without G_d. Obama’s emphasis on science and math worries Shmuley because it is indeed soulless and secular. Despite what my Catholic high school years attempted to teach me, science and religion are not incredible buddies. What worries me is that more people, especially those with religious zeal, refuse to take pseudoscience out of the classroom, refuse to support cosmology and physics projects that attempt to explain the world, and think everything not marked by religion is, in some way, evil.
My worry is that people agree with Rabbi Shmuley. He makes one valid point. We do spend way too much time as a society watching inane TV. In light of religious values, maybe the general core values of most Americans have fallen off the mark. But, please Rabbi Shmuley, do not pretend like your infallible religious values are going to save us from economic decline and other real-world problems. In fact, more often than not, they help create them. You, Rabbi, are fueling the fire against math and science, things that can help us immensely in the here and now. I hope President Obama respectfully chooses to ignore your words and pushes ahead with improving our science and mathematics curricula. Our nation will be better off for it.
Ben Conover is the Chief-of-Staff at the Atheist Youth Movement.
*Note: I thought I should explain why I typed the name of the deity shared amongst the three major monotheistic religions as G_d. Out of respect to the Jewish faith, I did not explicitly write his/its name. It is akin the the more commonly known YHWH.