Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hearts and Minds

It is a well traveled saying that people do not give up orthodoxy because of religious doubts, rather, they develop doubts to rationalize their desire to give up orthodoxy. I have a strong instinctive urge to refute this idea. It seems inherently dismissive and not respectful of the legitimacy of the ideas and motivations of those of us who ‘leave’. For someone like myself, who is inherently cognitively driven, and who has spent so much time reinforcing this intellectualism in the bais medrash, it is particularly annoying.

After all, there are more than enough difficult points of belief within Judaism to have rational reasons to disbelieve. If anything, believing – which requires the acceptance of almost endless supernatural events and divine prophesies - is far less rational.

But as much as I would like to get on my soapbox and argue that this is fundamentally untrue – that we stay or leave because of our theological reasons, the fact is that I believe that it touches on one of the most basic facets of humanity and faith. I’ve seen much discussion on what ‘belief’ – a principle requirement of orthodoxy – really means. But what is often overlooked is that belief is inherently an emotional process. It is the adherence to an idea which, by definition, has no rational verification. In modern psychological literature it is “an emotion which gains long term purpose”. Beliefs are ideas which have become deep seated sentiments.

As anyone who has engaged in theological debate knows, you can’t talk someone out of their beliefs. This concept is very well understood by those who are in the business of changing the ideology of others – missionaries, kiruv workers, cult recruiters. They know that in order to change a belief, the emotional groundwork must be established.

Of course, we are rational beings as well, and we struggle to maintain a coherent intellectual ‘story’ which works with our beliefs. Perhaps the more far fetched and irrational our beliefs are, the stronger our emotional attachment must be to maintain it. The emotional attachment which we develop with orthodoxy – from our earliest childhood experiences - are incredibly strong. Those who change a fundamental belief require a strong emotional incentive to do so. Perhaps that incentive is unhappiness in their life, perhaps it is something about the way that frum society works which doesn’t work for them, perhaps it is an emotional pull from outside of the frum world. It’s possible that some of us are so strongly intellectual that the very irrationality of the frum system adds to their unhappiness. But for all of us, you must understand the emotional context in order to understand why we remained orthodox or did not.

Frankly, this mechanism is one of the things that I wish were different about our species. If our rationality is fundamentally at the mercy our emotions, how do we go forward with our intellectual exploration. How do we trust our own reasoning. How do we be believe our own thoughts. For someone who grew up with the ideals of intellectual honesty and being true to ideals and beliefs, it is unnerving to think that our cognitive process is so polluted by our emotions. I was raised with the belief that, while our intellect represents our higher calling, and should guide our actions, emotions are the voice of the baser part of our beings. Emotions are there only as a test of our ability to use our intellects to overcome them.

I think that it is only by embracing the interplay between feelings and ideas can we regain our intellectual honesty. Navigating through our reasoning with honesty and moral clarity requires an heightened respect for and awareness of our emotions. If you’ve been raised in a religious environment, it becomes almost second nature to dismiss feelings. Many of the things which we feel are not helpful to our lives – the easiest thing to do is to shut those emotions out. Some feelings don’t jibe with our moral outlook. We automatically label these emotions as being ‘wrong’, and often don’t even let our conscious mind acknowledge that they exist.

But it is only in being highly aware of our emotions – be they comfortable or uncomfortable – that we can be fully aware of our intellectual process. Doing this is what gives us choice. We don’t have to act on our emotions – life is about making those choices. But if we do not listen to what our hearts are saying to us, we will never really understand our own minds.


Blogger The Jewish Freak said...

What you say about developing religious doubts to rationalize a desire to give up orthodoxy can not be taken lightly. Perhaps metaphysical ideas of G-d and religion are so abstract, that we are easily fooled by our emotions. Maybe those who give up orthodoxy are just fooling themselves. This idea takes up much of my brain much of the time. After all, it is not really orthodoxy that anyone is really after, it is truth that we pursue - no one claims to believe an orthodoxy that isn't true. So the question becomes: How can we ever trust our own thoughts?

I try to answer that question by assuming the orthodox point of view. Why am I any less biased in favor of orthodoxy which is my comfort zone, my social network, and maybe even my livlihood, not to mention my main source of ego and self-esteem, than I would be toward skepticism? A religious figure can accuse a scientist (and maybe even rightly so) of being biased against religion, but he can not escape his own criticism because he is no less biased toward religion. And if truth is the goal, which one is closer?
Human reason has been the only method that I am aware of that has produced anything that remotely resembles truth. The religious person would have to explain how his human reason informs him to have faith. In other words, how it makes "sense" to have faith, put simply, "it is rational to suspend rationality". This is clearly a difficult position, and not one that I would want to defend.

January 26, 2006 3:24 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

I agree that it is a difficult proposition. Of course, it is symetrical - the same emotional forces are at play to keep you orthodox.

January 28, 2006 10:13 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

Very interesting post, and the notion that emotion is at the root of faith is of course true.

However, I don't think that being in a religious environment trains one to ignore emotions. I think that is likely a function of personality or individual family background.

January 31, 2006 12:08 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Certainly there are other factors besides religion which influence how in tune we are with our emotions. On the other hand, I think that the view of feelings being spiritually good or bad – rather than thoughts which inform us about ourselves – encourages us to dismiss our emotions as evil messages from within, rather than important information from our subconscious minds.

February 01, 2006 8:01 PM  

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