Data from a study of the Religious Understandings of Science survey, fielded in December 2013 and January 2014, of a total of 10,241 US adults who completed a survey asking them the extent to which religious belief and experience can be explained by science, specifically brain wiring, revealed that only about 15 percent of US adults think brain wiring can explain differences in religiosity, with 3.5 percent of these individuals strongly agreeing with this claim.
Evangelical Protestants (about 32 percent) and Jews (about 36 percent) were the most likely of any religious group to strongly disagree that the way the brain is configured can explain religious faith because both of these religious communities strongly believe in God given free will.
The Torah states: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live— by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands and holding fast to Him.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
The first century Jewish historian Josephus, states that the Pharisees (predecessors of the rabbis) maintained their belief in free will against both the Sadducees, who attributed everything to chance, and the Essenes, who ascribed everything to predestination and divine providence.
The rabbis claimed that: “All is in the hands of God except the awe of God” (Talmud Berachot 33b and Niddah 16b) meaning humans have free will because God wills it.” As Rabbi Akiba says:” Everything is foreseen, and free will is given.” (Avot 3:15)
The Quran does not take a middle path between the two extremes; it upholds both Allah’s total providence and the responsibility of humankind for their actions. Divine providence, or predestination, exists; but if human beings do not have moral free choice it would be wrong of God to punish or reward human beings for their actions; and clearly the Qur’an and the Torah frequently speak in terms of great rewards and awful punishments. Thus the Qur’an states: “There is a time decreed for everything. God erases or confirms whatever He wills, and the source of Scripture is with Him.” (13:39)
It is like the game of chess or go. There is no luck, only the skill of the players. But in a game like Monopoly luck enters in every time the dice are rolled, and this interacts with the skill and personalities of the players. In the same way, Allah could have made the world totally predetermined but didn’t, because Allah wanted to test the morality of each human being:
“We have revealed to you the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not [chose to] follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth.
To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [with one religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so [chose to] compete to [do all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.” (Qur’an 5:48)
A well designed survey of a few thousand people can predict an election involving millions of of people because while everyone is a unique individual, people do not differ at random. They differ by gender, income, education, religion, and other variable factors. Thus, 62 percent of the most religious people in the Religious Understandings of Science survey (by their own self-assessment) said brain wiring does not explain religious beliefs, compared to 44 percent of the least religious people thinking it does.
People who believe in human free will are less likely to passively accept their situation in life; and more likely to actively try to improve things. Sometimes small changes in our behavior can have a large impact on our future; and sometimes not. For example, a recent study from Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests that for children, being around a dog (but not a cat) from an early age may lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult. There are 90 million pet dogs in the United States.
The findings suggest that people who are exposed to a pet dog before their 13th birthday are as much as 24% less likely to be among the 3.5 million people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the United States.
No one knew this in the past, but if subsequent research reaffirms this finding, some people will use their free will knowledge to revise ancient traditions, and introduce a pet dog into their homes for health reasons when their first born child is only 2-3 years old. But even then, some children with pet dogs will still develop schizophrenia as an adult.
All we can do is pray: “God grant me the serenity [patience] to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Allen S Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. Rabbi Maller blogs in the Times of Israel. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon.