The Reverend and the Rabbi: Martin Luther King, Jr., on science and religion

i-d1cd576d2a7db20d108532ecdd37a96e-MLK Jr public domain 250 wide.jpg

From "Lesser Known Wise and Prophetic Words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr." by liberal writer and California Democratic Party delegate, Deborah White:

"Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.

The two are not rivals. They are complementary.

Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism."

When I posted this quote two years ago, Right Wing Professor Gerald Gerard Harbison commented that some of the passage was taken from the writings of Rabbi Hillel Silver as noted at John Lerwell's Spiritual Unity blog.

Writer and documentary filmmaker Tom Levenson then wrote a superb post, as is his style. Levenson analyzed the two passages, noting that Harbison had cherry-picked 66 or the 724 words for comparison, and dissected how the rabbi and the reverend approached the topic very differently:

More to the point, King actually makes a quite different claim than Silver. Silver's argument, as represented in the Lerwill excerpt is an early version of the "non-overlapping magisteria" kind -- Silver writes, for example, "There was never any real conflict between religion and science as such. There cannot be. Their respective worlds are different, though not in opposition. Their methods are dissimilar and their immediate objectives are not the same."

King skipped all that part (and this kind of stuff is scattered through the Lerwill version). Instead, he focused on what he presumably felt was the nub of the issue: that science and religion have important points of connection.

That's arguable too -- and certainly, plenty of folks in the science blogging community find the notion anathema. But King did not follow Silver down the road of intellectual apartheid, an agreement to reserve certain matters for the exclusive authority of one side or other.

In music there is an old notion (now legally enshrined, I believe) that a repetition of more than a few notes of a passage is an actual act of imitation. Less than that, and it is presumed that there is a kind of musical language that everyone gets to speak. Maybe the four word phrase "Science investigates; religion interprets" crosses the line. But King had his own mind, and said something quite different than did the source of at least some of his expression.

I've looked long and hard to find cases where Dr. King held forth on science. But his values can clearly be applied to the scientific realm, particularly as it relates to recruitment and engagement of underrepresented minority groups in the STEMM disciplines.

Our ScienceOnline2010 session held yesterday sought to bring Dr. King's spirit of inclusion and education equality into the realm of social media. An issue I raised there but did not develop was that a great many of my science students, particularly of Hispanic/Latino or southern US African-American backgrounds, cite their religious beliefs as a primary motivator in pursuing a health sciences or pharmaceutical research career. Rather than religion being at odds with the scientific method, they feel that their faith fuels their desire to apply the scientific method in the name of relieving human suffering. The duality of religious beliefs and hypothesis-driven inquiry is certainly an intellectual challenge but one that I respect.

I welcome any King scholars in pointing me to any other discussions where the civil rights leader discussed issues of science.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, believed to be in the public domain

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Look... MLK is one of my heroes; right up there with Gandhi and Tolstoy. But it's widely known that his "scholarship" was a bit shaky -- particularly as regards proper crediting of his sources. I find the idea that MLK "borrowed without attribution" more plausible than that 66 words "recur coincidentally".

By bob koepp (not verified) on 18 Jan 2010 #permalink

First of all, my name is Gerard, not Gerald. I hope your science is done with a little more accuracy than this.

Second of all, it's not as if this was an isolated incident. King plagiarized throughout his career. His doctoral thesis, for example, is mostly composed of the unattributed words of others.

And third of all, Levenson is dishonest, in that he says "Harbison then reduced that 724 excerpt to 66 words, without any indication of how radical his surgery had been, nor where the cuts and lacunae fell." This is a lie. In fact, I indicated the points where I had edited the text by ellipses, an accepted way to do so. And, of course, I gave the original source as a link in my comment, so people could see precisely where I got it. Hardly what you'd do if you were intending to mischaracterize something.

The point (which was only a blog comment, and hardly worthy of an entire post; maybe the documentary business isn't thriving) , was that the words of King's that you posted were mostly borrowed. King was a remarkable civil rights leader; he was neither a deep nor an original thinker.

King apparently used this particular passage of Silver's more than once. It's used far more extensively in this student paper he submitted at Crozer Theological seminary some time between 1948 and 1951.…

You'll see King's paper is basically a cut and paste re-writing of Rabbi Silver's piece. I have no idea of the provenance of the words you quoted (beyond the collection released by Coretta Scott King); but I expect they were a later edit of the same piece, either by MLK or CSK.

Mr. Levenson owes me an apology, but I ain't holding my breath.

If Harbison's got nothing better to offer on this day than "wah wah, King was doin it wrongz, Levenson owes me an APOLOGY!!!!", maybe he could do us all a favor and just go do his whining somewhere else. Like, in his own personal echo chamber.

Abel, I'm far more interested in the point you have made that many of your students "feel that their faith fuels their desire to apply the scientific method in the name of relieving human suffering". Recognizing and respecting that aspect of their lives is important for those of us who care about supporting underrepresented groups in science and engineering.

As opposed to those of us who, say, care about whining and upholding white privilege.

Mr Harbison,

You will turn blue before any civilized person -- or at least this one -- apologizes for your ongoing (and, I must say, strangely belated attempt) to disengenously bludgeon an apology for pointing out your dishonesty.

Ellipses are indeed the accepted form of annotating edits. Claiming that a 10-1 redaction of a piece is an edit is, of course, deeply dishonest.

There is someone lying in this conversation. It ain't me.

Not to mention, of course, that the redaction was not from the 700 word or so citation to which you linked, but the much longer original source to which you did not.

I cannot express my contempt for this parody of scholarly hauteur in a family-blog appropriate form. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Tom, I on the other hand, am happy to say it, if Abel permits:

What a disingenuous asshat. Don't even tell me that Harbison is just being ignorant. That is a lame-ass excuse.

Millions of people who had no voice BY LAW we helped toward ("toward" a goal, not "to" a final point) freedom by King. The "plagiarism" is perhaps an interesting historical footnote, but entirely irrelevant. I'm pretty certain that plagiarism is irrelevant. I'm pretty sure that in fostering the goal of liberation, even things worse than plagiarism would be acceptable.

And I think that if someone can't recognize this, they are either an idiot, or a racist fucking wackaloon.

It's 'strangely belated', Mr. Levenson, because I had no idea you'd written a scurrilous attack on me until I found this piece this year. I don't ego-surf. And you certainly don't count as a civilized person in my book.

Nor is it a 10-1 reduction. The passage beginning with 'science investigates' and ending with 'nihilism' is 316 words, according to MS Word. Pointing out the 66 words that are plagiarized either exactly or by periphrasis in that passage is normal practice. And let's not forget -- you said, and I quote without any indication of how radical his surgery had been, nor where the cuts and lacunae fell. That was false. As you now admit, the locations of edits were denoted in an absolutely standard way.

If I cite one paragraph from the beginning of a book, and one paragraph from the end, it's still plagiarism, Mr. Levenson, whether or not there are 200 intervening pages. I notice also you have nothing to say about the far more extensively plagiarized piece on the same subject included in the King papers, plagiarized from the exact same passage.

There is someone lying in this conversation. It ain't me.

"I'm not lying" is one of the most pointless things anyone can write.

I'm pretty sure that in fostering the goal of liberation, even things worse than plagiarism would be acceptable.

Yeah. I've no doubt you do believe that.

Yeah, asshat, I have no doubt that if your family was digging fucking ditches for free and living in god-damned shacks in the winter you'd totes make sure never to lift a sentence from someone.

BTW, wtf with the quick response? You got a fucking google alert out for your own fucknuttery?

The real fallacy of PalMD's post is, of course, that King's plagiarism was in no way aimed at the goal of enfranchising African Americans. Even if you accept that the end justifies the means, the end was in no way furthered by these acts. Most of the plagiarism that has been discovered is in King's student papers. (While I have seen suggestions there are some plagiarized passages in some of his later books, I haven't identified them, and if they exist, they are by no means obvious, at least, not to me.

So how, exactly, did King's swiping passages from the Ph.D. thesis of a fellow graduate student help pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act?

Yeah, asshat, I have no doubt that if your family was digging fucking ditches for free and living in god-damned shacks in the winter you'd totes make sure never to lift a sentence from someone.

BTW, wtf with the quick response? You got a fucking google alert out for your own fucknuttery?

Try to write two sentences without a vulgarism. You sound like a cretin.

You are starting to amuse me. At first I was annoyed at your willful ignorance and inability to understand any event that does not take place within your own head, but now I see that you are simply...funny. Like a clown, here for our amusement.

Mr. Harbison:
When I wish to be scurrilous, you will know it.

Unfortunately for you, my criticism of you was to your intriguing (a careful choice of words) approach to scholarship, as evidenced by your approach to citation.

Remember, everyone, the passage that this defender of intellectual honesty redacted was some thousands of words long. He referred his readers to a few hundred word long excerpt. His "edit" -- a word that applies to his praxis as, say, "fender bender" applies to this -- -- boils down to a multiple of 10 - 1 extraction from the original.

This is, of course, not standard practice in any way. I thought I made that clear above, but perhaps the meanest (another careful choice of language) intelligence is required to read plain English. Mere indication of changes, without an accounting for the scale of alteration is, of course, a time honored technique to conceal the truth. To put it another way, it is a method of cloaking a lie with a veneer of respectability.

You are a sad little man. I hope you enjoy your sense of righteousness. It would be comic to the rest of us, were it not such a portrait of a crabbed life.

And, as feeding trolls is a pointless exercise, this is it for me.

PS: PalMD -- thanks. There is nothing like what our friend GH is too delicate to tolerate to cut to the essence of things.

c.f. "Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!"

To get back to one of the original observations, many students choose to do health careers rather than "pure" science because of religious faith which they feel is more welcome outside of "science."

On FaceBook, I described my religious beliefs as "Be kind and live a good life." I don't care what god(s) my students seek (or don't), as long as they can seek knowledge and not be evil. The world would be a much better place if we could all keep that in mind.

By the way, Abel Pharmboy, since I'm cleaning up here, you shouldn't be unaccountable for dragging this up. You could have gone on the King papers site and searched the ~150 uses of the word 'science' in his papers. Instead you decided to make this an ad hominem.

You're a creep.

TL- the point of engaging those who believe things that seem idiotic or outrageous is to get them in the full light of day. Better to know who is out there than to pretend they don't exist. GH seems to run true to the type so he's a decent representative case of the twisted, hateful "right wing professor" that he styles himself to be.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink

Great point AB, indeed. I'm still all sad for not being able to be there in person. Your point about religious beliefs fueling students interest in science careers that alleviate human suffering hit home.

This point comes up ALOT among the handful of Black/Latino 1st generation college/grad students in science. Almost every single one of us started in a health related science and many of us were 'wooed' away to study bench science. For those of us who go into Ecology instead of let's say a biomedical life science, it is not uncommon to get lots of protests from well-meaning family and friends. The basic arguement that Ecology isn't directly applicable and we should be doing something that they can relate to.

And since I am an Ecologist and I work to increase diversity in my specific field, this bias really keeps some very bright and talented students from participating in Ecology & Evolution. Plus, the perceived conflict of religion and science is harder to ignore in EE.

Your other point - using SM to reach out to students and get them engaged - I see the promise in it. I took a look at Dr. FreeRide's Twitter summary and an important fact is mentioned - Blacks/Latinos over-represented in mobile SM. To engage those demographics we've got to get there. We've also got to find a way to get the science (or the scientist) at the websites that they frequent.
I think that's where the promise of very broad science outreach will need to go, but it's hard. I've been trying for a long time.

Finally, at first I was concerned that your MLK session and the Casting a Wider Net #scio10 sessions would be redundant, but not at all. Thanks for covering this important topic and initiating some very important points related to engaging Diverse audiences.

Speaking of things outside of your field, when I saw the
words "religion and science," the Anthropology News discussion on Debating Intelligent Design leapt immediately to mind. The timeframe is from about from the end of 2005 to the beginning of 2006. As I recall, the issues were: 46(8), 46(9), and 47(1) or (2).

I highly recommend it. AN can be hard to get if you are not an anthropologist, but you mentioned in another post that you knew a few.

By culturegeek (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Is Harbison part of the right-wing movement to tangentially attack the civil rights movement by trying to pretend that Dr. King wasn't a real scholar?

Signs point to yes. Look, for instance, at his being approvingly cited by the late hyperconservative John Bircher Alan Stang (, a guy who was as nutty as they come (did you know that George W. Bush was "queer" and the Republican Party was "Red from the start"?