Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

A Spiritual Approach to Evolution

by Michael Lerner

Don't worry, we are not about to join the creationists with their rejection of evolution and insistence that God planted all those dinosaur bones to test your faith. The set of articles you are about to read are written by people who accept the notion that the earth evolved in the past five billion years in roughly the ways that current evolutionary biologists describe it, but some of them argue that the force driving evolution is not adequately described within the terms of contemporary scientism.

We don't expect that reading these essays is going to be easy on you. The fact is that most liberals and progressives, in fact, most people who have completed high school, have been heavily indoctrinated into the dominant religion of this historical period, the religion of scientism, and as can be expected, will feel deeply uneasy -- if not feeling that they are outright disloyal -- if they consider the possibility that another worldview is not only possible but plausible. 

Why We Strongly Support Science

But please keep in mind that we are strongly supportive of the enterprise of science itself. Science is one of the great advances in human history, and the information it has produced through careful empirical observation and measurement has allowed us to cure many diseases, improve the material conditions of our lives, and gain insight into the complexity of the universe. Science offers us a degree of control over the natural world and hence a heightened sense of security in the face of real dangers.

We are strong believers in the need for increased funding for science and for freeing science from its current subservience to military ends (to which our government deflects scientific research by offering funding from the bloated defense department budget) and from the capitalist marketplace (which often deflects scientific research toward the needs of corporations to make short-term profits without regard to the well-being of the earth or most of its inhabitants). We advocate for more monies dedicated to environmental science, which has already helped us understand the irrationality of the current ways we treat the earth, and toward health promotion and illness prevention (including prevention of the environmental impacts by corporations that increase susceptibility to a wide variety of illnesses, including cancer and Alzheimer's disease).

Taught correctly, science can also be a stimulus to a heightened sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur and beauty of the universe. Read The Faith of Scientists by Nancy H. Frankenberry (Princeton University Press, 2008) to get a sense of the range of scientists who have developed an inner spiritual life. As Einstein famously quipped, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." One can be a passionate advocate of science, as I am, and yet be a strong opponent of scientism, just as I am a strong advocate for the right of Jews to a state in the Middle East and yet a strong opponent of creating a religion of Zionism. It is similar to how one can be a strong advocate for egalitarianism and democratic control of the economy without being a communist in the sense that existed in various totalitarian societies of the twentieth century, or a strong lover of the United States without being a believer that our current economic and political system is just or desirable.

Scientism: When Science Becomes a Religion

Scientism is the belief that nothing is real and nothing can be known in the world except that which can be observed and measured. A person who adopts a scientistic perspective believes that science can in principle answer every question that can be answered. Any claim about the world that cannot be validated, at least in principle, or at least falsified on the basis of empirical data or measurement is dismissed as meaningless.

So, take a claim that we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, our education arm, frequently make: "Caring for other people is an ethical imperative." From a scientistic perspective, this claim cannot be verified or falsified through any set of observations, so it really isn't a claim about the world at all but merely a statement of our personal tastes, choices, or proclivities. Similarly, claims about God, ethics, beauty, love, and any other facet of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification -- all these spiritual dimensions of life -- are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence nothing by which we can ever agree to run our civilization, or they are reduced to some set of observable behaviors (sexual love gets measured by erections, vaginal secretions, orgasms, or changes in brain states; and all ethical and aesthetic claims are treated in a similarly reductive way).

Scientism thus extends science beyond its valuable role as a way to understand those parts of our world that are subject to empirical verification: it makes claims that are either dismissive or reductive of those aspects of our lives that are not subject to empirical verification or measurement. Scientism makes a power jump, appropriating the honorable associations of the word "know" to a narrowly constructed definition and thereby excluding all kinds of knowledge labeled as "merely subjective," which it deems inappropriate for public discourse. Over the course of several centuries of modernity, scientism not only redefined knowledge, it also built economic, educational, and political institutions that accepted this understanding of knowledge. These institutions proceeded to impose the religion of scientism on most thinking people, leaving resistance to it in the hands of those who had little respect for intellectual life and who could thereby be ridiculed as fundamentalist know-nothings.

Thus scientism became the dominant religion of the contemporary Western world, and increasingly of the entire world. Yet it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other religious system. Consider its central religious belief: "That which is real and can be known is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation." The claim sounds tough-minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false? The fact is that there is no such test. By its own criterion, scientism is as meaningless as any other metaphysical claim.

Secular people frequently respond by saying that scientism is simply what it is to be rational in the modern world. But spiritual people respond by saying: Why should we adopt that particular standard of rationality? Is there some scientific test that can prove that this is indeed the rational way to think? Absolutely not. Even the view that "one should not multiply entities beyond necessity" -- a view that early scientists took from William of Occam, whose famous "razor" makes the correct point that, when doing science, one should seek the simplest possible explanation of a phenomenon -- has no empirical foundation beyond the enterprise of science. It is not a guide to how to live or to define rationality.

If scientism appears intuitive to many, it is largely because we live in a society where this is the dominant religious belief. In fact, we even describe ideas that are of no intellectual value as "non-sense" (that is, without foundation in sense data) and ideas that are obvious to everyone as "common sense" (as though all that can be shared knowledge comes from our sensations). We don't notice these peculiar usages, because that's what it means to be part of a religious system -- its peculiar ideas suddenly seem so obvious that we can only shake our heads in disbelief that anyone would think something else.

I actually don't believe most scientists are believers in scientism. But like the rest of us, they live in a society in which scientism predominates, so only the most reflective of them tend to make a point of distinguishing themselves from the dominant religion, and then usually only when they've achieved tenure or financial success and don't worry about being dismissed as a kook. For many of them, as well as for other intellectuals and members of liberal and progressive circles, the fear of the know-nothings taking over and imposing their fundamentalist perspective drives them into a vigorous piety about scientism.

Scientism and the Left

The vigorous adherence of many on the left to this religion is explained in detail in my book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. What is important to say here is that this dominant religion leads to a marginalization of ethical and spiritual values in the public sphere. Since those values are not verifiable through scientistic criteria, we get a bizarre distortion in our society in which professionals who bring radically caring values into their work are seen as subjective, moralizing, unprofessional, and inappropriate "ideologues" who may rightly be subject to dismissal from their work. In contrast, we spiritual progressives want a change in the public sphere so that the values we articulate as part of a New Bottom Line do in fact shape our public life together. That New Bottom Line seeks to define rationality, progress, and productivity not only in terms of things that are easy to measure or observe (money and power) but also in terms of those that cannot be measured through empirical science: love, kindness, generosity, ethically and ecologically sensitive behavior, awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe, and caring for all people.

In The Left Hand of God I try to explain why so many men in liberal and progressive circles, and the women who are trying to become like them, eschew anything "soft" like values or spirituality because it makes them feel too vulnerable to the assault of right-wingers. Having grown up in a culture that validates "real men" as being tough and dominating others, these liberal and progressive men retain in their unconscious the traumatic experience of being put down as kids and called "sissies" when they showed caring for the powerless or eschewed fights and aggressive behavior. So as adults, they feel the need to show that if they are championing something "soft" like caring for others around the planet or eliminating poverty or war they will again be subject to humiliating put-downs unless they can show that they are "tough-minded" -- and that translates into rejecting anything spiritual or the language of love, caring, generosity, or awe and wonder. They reject anything that can be dismissed as soft because it is not verifiable through the "hard data" of empirical science. Ironically, right-wing men have no such problem, since the policies of war and supporting the interests of the rich are already seen as tough-minded, so they have the psychic space to embrace spiritual or religious language without fear of being dismissed as "girly men" (the ultimate put-down in a male chauvinist culture).

It's an easy step from this pathological fear of softness to the head-oriented and heart-aversive and religiophobic language of the Democratic Party liberals and much of the independent Left. That's why they need spiritual progressives so badly.

Once we open the door to other approaches to the world than the one based on scientism, it becomes possible to understand the relationship between mind and body in a different way. Scientism led to two opposing views: first, the idea that the mind is nothing more than a particular arrangement of material reality; and second, a kind of dualism that radically separates mind from body and sees consciousness or mind as some kind of separately existing reality -- perhaps a very ghostly reality that has nothing to do with the "hard" category of matter.

What the World Really Looks Like

I, on the other hand, view matter as a materialist construct that has no application in the real world, though it may be useful for certain approaches to science. In the real world, matter, spirit, consciousness, awarenesss, nous, and mind are all one integrated whole. Matter never exists without some level of awareness, consciousness, or yearning. All matter yearns for greater levels of interconnectedness, freedom, awareness, consciousness, love, generosity, cooperation, and beauty, and what moves evolution is this yearning of all being to be more fully actualized. Matter seeks this actualization by playfully exploring every possibility and intentionally seeking to enjoy itself through this play. And it is through this intentional play that matter ultimately discovers how to fulfill this deepest yearning. God is the totality of this process: the yearning, and the growing awareness, and the self-awareness of the universe as a whole. This view does not posit God as separate from the universe with a preexisting plan, but rather as the entirety of all that is, because there is nothing else but God -- "and you shall know in your heart, that the transformative power is the ruling force of all this creation, there is nothing else" (Deuteronomy 4:39).

This view is derived from the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, and the subsequent development of consciousness in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century versions of Hasidism. It is no longer mainstream in contemporary Judaism, because so many Jews have abandoned God to worship the State of Israel. But it is the direction emerging from many of us in the Jewish Renewal movement, which originally played a central role in the development of Tikkun magazine. Jewish Renewal is also the movement in which I received my rabbinical ordination. I articulated a version of this view in my book Jewish Renewal (Putnam, 1994), when I described my relationship to God as analogous to a liver cell's relationship to the totality of a person's consciousness. The liver cell is not separate from the person (i.e., God), who can at times become aware of it, and the cell can receive communications from the person (within the limits of what a liver cell can receive), but the person is more than its liver cells, or any other part of its body: it is the consciousness of the totality, and yet is not constrained by the totality. I'll get back to this in the next issue of Tikkun.

So I strongly agree with Arthur Green that evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. But what I am adding to Green's argument is this: that what drives evolution is the spiritual yearning of all being that is manifest in every particular and that comes together as the consciousness of the entire universe. It is a yearning for greater consciousness, love, generosity, complexity, cooperation, playfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. Of course this is a faith statement in the same way that scientism is a faith statement -- because no amount of data is ever going to conclusively prove either this view or a more materialist and mechanistic view of what drives the evolutionary process forward.

Most of the authors in this section on evolution are not rooted in that particular tradition, but some do share with Jewish mysticism this commitment to a fundamental unity of all being and a rejection of the radical disjunction between matter and spirit. As Christian de Quincey insists, consciousness (or mind or awareness) is part of every aspect of being "all the way down" to the tiniest component of being, despite the fact that such a claim is so counter to the "common sense" of post-Enlightenment thought (though not to what Dave Belden imaginatively describes from the future as the second Enlightenment in which scientism has been abandoned). It is Peter Gabel, my close friend for the past thirty-five years, and Tikkun's indispensible associate editor, who takes this position and most forcefully defends the notion that evolution can best be understood as powered and directed by this spiritual aspect of all being.

I hope you'll carefully read these essays and allow yourself to imagine what the world would look like if the perspective being developed here were in fact as true as I believe it to be. And imagine how much more powerful a progressive movement would be if it considered challenging global capitalism on the grounds that it stands in conflict with the developing evolutionary consciousness of the universe and God.

Source Citation: Lerner, Michael. 2010. A Spiritual Approach to Evolution. Tikkun 25(6): 33

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from and in hard copy from He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at
tags: Eco-Spirituality, Evolution, Science, Spirituality   
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