Monday, March 13, 2006

Did you ever wonder....

Why do very, very smart people believe very, very silly things?

Now don’t get all defensive, I’m not necessarily talking about Orthodox Judaism, though to most people, the beliefs upon which orthodoxy is based are quite far fetched. Maybe I was talking about Mormon, or Scientology. Or maybe I was talking about some of the fundamentalist beliefs in some of the Christian sects. Or perhaps I was talking about Native American Religions, which holds that man was formed from mud (hmm, actually that sounds familiar). Regardless of what your own perspective is, you must admit that there are other belief systems which have many adherents, and which are based on some pretty far out notions.

Each of these faiths have the normal spectrum of intelligent people. All have brilliant, gifted thinkers who are educated, inquisitive and truth-seeking. There is a tendency to deny that people who believe these things are intelligent and open. But, regardless of the religion, those people are there. And, certainly, OJ has many frighteningly brilliant minds.

So how do all of these people live their lives holding on to beliefs which seem starkly irrational. Part of the answer has to do with the reasoning tools which we use to deal with these beliefs. All believers have a system of thought which helps them reconcile their ideas with science, history, etc.. The smarter a person is, the more sophisticated their reasoning processes. This may reduce the level of incongruity of the beliefs to a more manageable level, and may even provide some logical arguments to substantiate religious claims.

But, obviously, there is more going on here than cognitive reasoning. To understand what is happening, we must look past the sphere of conscious reason and look at what is going on in our subconscious minds.

Our subconscious brain is, among other things, a full time self-defense system. It is the invisible fence which gives us visceral jolts each time we come close to a danger zone, or each time a threat is perceived. The subconscious is not the absolute ruler of our selves, but to not be controlled by it, we must be aware of what is going on. If you have a fear of heights, your psyche has identified high places as containing immediate danger, and will let your emotions know loud and clear that you are in peril. You can still climb the ladder, (and it will become easier if you can be aware that you’re subconscious reaction is not always in line with the objective level of danger), but it won’t be easy.

Changing our long held religious beliefs is enormously dangerous to our emotional wellbeing. Consider this; all you need to do is conclude that the Torah does not reflect the word of God, and, instantly, you are in a very bad place. You’ve just lost your road map for what is and is not a priority in life, for how you evaluate moral and life choices. You don’t know what God or the universe wants from you, or what your life will ultimately mean. You are disappointing and betraying your role models, your parents, your teachers, your friends, and your children. This can add up to complete self-annihilation, ‘Psychic suicide’, the very thing which you subconscious is working overtime to avoid.

Regardless of how clear and objective a thinker you are, your mind will go to whatever extremes it must to prevent you from putting all of this together. You can circle around the perimeter of disbelief all you want, but something in your subconscious mind will simply NOT let you really go all the way there. You will always get caught somewhere in the process and side tracked to an alternate route. Your mind may shift to contemplation of all of the reasons why you do believe what you do. It may wander to your emotional and spiritual feelings. It may re-route you to thinking about what you find flawed in non-belief. But you will have a very hard time keeping yourself focused on the basic, objective evaluation of your beliefs.

If you are an OJ, try the following little experiment: Say to yourself, (and try to imagine believing) “There is no covenant between God and the Jews. The Torah is a work of fictional mythology. God, if he exists at all, could not care less about any of our religious practices.” Notice that as you say it, your brain is coming up with reasons why these statements are wrong – even absurd, or why they don’t work for you. Notice how uncomfortable this feels.

Your subconscious is interfering with your conscious thought process. And it will not let you give up these ideas without a fight.

Unless….

Unless you’re life has taken a turn in which these self-annihilation elements no longer apply as much or, unless there are very strong emotional incentives to change. This can be caused by many, many things, both internal and external. Perhaps the beliefs that you have are causing more psychic anguish than not believing. Perhaps you have created a strong enough foundation of alternate moral and ethical principles, so that you will not be without a compass. Perhaps you have established a new support system of friends, role models, communities who will help you deal with the losses and alienation from your old world, or perhaps you have developed enough confidence in key people in your old support group that they will not abandon you if you change your beliefs.

Whatever the cause, when these offsetting forces come into play and gain enough strength to counter your self defense system, then, and only then, will your subconscious mind allow your conscious mind to begin to fully explore those beliefs upon which your life choices are based. Only then will you be able to change the ideas which you have held for your life. The process can be slow or fast, it can lead you away from faith or towards faith. Perhaps religious ideas always seemed untenable to you, but as you gain an emotional attachment to those ideas and to the people who practice them, they gradually seem less outlandish.

Understanding all of this doesn’t lessen the legitimacy of belief. On the contrary, knowing this is the crux of truly respecting the belief system of another, even if these beliefs are beyond what you consider rationally possible. The process of believing is a very personal thing, and has criteria which differ from one person to another. In this respect, believing and not believing are pure equals.

Only you can know which way is best for your path in life, and only you have the right to choose.

18 Comments:

Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

EXCELLENT post.

March 13, 2006 10:02 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

doesn't work as well if you dropped religion and came back to it. A surprising number take this route.

March 14, 2006 3:26 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I will have to come back to comment in depth when I have more time, but one thing that strikes me about this post, is that you seem to reason from general to specific, which is the opposite of what most people do in persuasive writing...

Happy Purim, btw! (No mention of God in this holiday :) )

March 14, 2006 10:36 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

Hey anonymous,
I'm not sure that you're the same person who equated skeptical blogs with racial cartoons - if you are, all this is just a wast of cyberbits. So what's your theory? People are suddenly hit by the absolute truth of the Torah? Sorry, but no. They come back because they find that they are more comfortable believing and it works better for their lives, and their minds accomodate them.

March 14, 2006 11:52 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

ek,

Purim! Bah! Humbug!

Okay, okay, Happy Purim to all.

l'chaim,
dbs

March 14, 2006 11:56 PM  
Blogger rebelmo said...

Great post, but how do i explain this to my devoutly frum kid?

This reminds me of the Buddha-
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” (The Buddha)

March 15, 2006 4:56 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

Rebelmo,

You don’t. (Well, you’re the parent, and you can tell them anything that you feel is appropriate. But I don’t think that I would get into this, even with an adult child, unless they asked me a specific question which was germaine.)

However, your own choice will affect your children’s scope of choices. If you are not religious, they will have at least some support system in place if they were to ultimately decide not to believe. This does not mean that they will become non-religious, that will depend on many factors, including cognitive ones. But they will be much more free to fully examine their own beliefs.

March 15, 2006 9:37 PM  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

A very thought provoking and excellent post.

As for Judiasm, I do not think that the beliefs were so farfetched or irrational at the time of their inception. For example, concluding that a child was a Jew by tracing h/her through the maternal line has a very logical basis, when you think about it. Today, we have paternity tests, so it would make more sense, at least to me, to also look towards the paternal side to define someone as a Jew.

Then we have the entire issue regarding whether a Jew should do work on Shabbos and what constitutes work? At the time these laws were created, turning on a light truly involved an act of work. There was cutting, labor and putting together a plan for a light to shine. Today, of course, there is a flip of the switch and that is not really considered to be defined as work per say.

Then the laws regarding women and cleanliness were of course before the time of sanitation that exists now.

What is my point: that the interpretation of these commandments and prohibitions should be adjusted with the passage of time, just as they were created to have this particular meaning for their times.

Thank you for the Talmudic gem on my blog: I loved it!

March 16, 2006 2:45 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

barbara,

Thanks very much for the comment. I agree with the points that you're making – that these laws made more sense at the time that they were adopted.

It is a fundamental part Orthodox dogma that these laws are God given and eternal. To believe that they were crafted by humans, for whatever reason, is heretical. It is difficult for those who are not raised within orthodoxy to fully appreciate how central this concept is. Hence, the laws can not be altered arbitrarily, regardless of what social or technical changes have taken place. Jewish law has a certain amount of flexibility built into the system, however, there is a pretty clear boundary of what is and is not within the limits of interpretation.

According to Orthodox dogma, God gave the Torah, which included the Bible, along with a multitude of oral instructions, to Moses, who then taught these laws to the Jews. All of the many detailed practices within Orthodoxy stem from rigid interpretation of these laws. Orthodox Jews (generally) do not give any serious consideration to alternate theories of the origins of the Bible or Jewish tradition.

(If you think that I am exaggerating the point, ask any Orthodox Jew.)

March 16, 2006 7:03 PM  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

First of all, Good Shabbos to you.

Both sides of grandparents were Orthodox, and I am familiar with the rigidity of these rules. That being said, you have explained the reasons for them in the best way that I have heard to understand them. Your explanation was clear, detailed, and focused. Now, I understand why these laws cannot be changed arbitraily, since to do so would be an offense to the Almighty.

I am happy to have found your blog. Rather than label you (Orthodox, reformed, conservative, or something in between), I will enjoy and learn from your vast knowledge, and send my gratitude to you for such clear explanations.
It has always been difficult for me to understand (maybe because I am analytical by nature) those who say, it is written in the Torah, and therefore, it is 100 percent true. Period. Thank you for explaining why this is the case.

March 17, 2006 10:10 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

"They come back because they find that they are more comfortable believing and it works better for their lives, and their minds accomodate them."

or they realize that the reasons they left were not as compelling or worked out as all that. This is your description of why people find themselves capable of evaluating religion from a neutral perspective and leaving it behind:

"Perhaps the beliefs that you have are causing more psychic anguish than not believing. Perhaps you have created a strong enough foundation of alternate moral and ethical principles, so that you will not be without a compass. Perhaps you have established a new support system of friends, role models, communities who will help you deal with the losses and alienation from your old world, or perhaps you have developed enough confidence in key people in your old support group that they will not abandon you if you change your beliefs."

Here's the other route for abandoning religion: People discover that their religious beliefs do not provide sufficient compass; they are unhappy because religious friends, relatives, and/or role models disappointed them; they have no religious support group. You focus on the idea that people abandon religion when they have developed enough strength to drop their defense system. The alternate route, one taken by many a late teenager and early young adult, is to abandon religion because the religious environment is for whatever reason causing emotional pain, and they are sufficiently *unhappy* to consider alternate belief schemes. When these people are older and more secure, they frequently turn back because the initial reasons for leaving where never all that compelling, and they are emotionally strong enough to return on their own terms.

March 26, 2006 7:47 PM  
Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 26, 2006 7:50 PM  
Blogger hypnosis said...

You have a great blog. i love coming across good sites! I created this one recently subliminal messages and would love it if you have a look.

July 07, 2006 3:28 PM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

>Unless you’re life has taken a turn in which these self-annihilation elements no longer apply as much or, unless there are very strong emotional incentives to change. This can be caused by many, many things, both internal and external.


DBS, nice theory, but it doesn't apply to me The proof is that I was really not phsycologically prepared for the onslaught that hit me when I turned skeptic. I really was annihilated for a very long time. And I sense the same reaction in others that I've encountered in this Blogworld.

I have my own model, but it too, does not address the whole story.

See

http://baalhabos.blogspot.com/2007/02/common-denominator.html

and the post preceeding it, which is hyperlined in it.

I'm looking for a grand unified theory.

April 14, 2008 9:42 AM  
Blogger dbs said...

bh,

I'm sure you're right that this isn't nearly the entire picture. One thing that is certain is that whether it is 'trust' or finding an emotional saftey zone, there is a key component to change which is emotional, not cognative.

I guess that, to argue for my theory a bit, I would say that it isn't necesarily achieving a level of comfort with the new idea which allows you to realize it, it can also be a level of discomfort with the old idea.

An example (and I don't want to overdo the analogy) is divorce. Many people do their best to be in denial about how bad their relationships are. They sometimes never see it at all. Sometimes they begin to see it when they have the personal tools to deal with the difficulty of divorce, but sometimes they just bottom out. The situation becomes so bad that denial, while shielding them from one agony, exposes them to another.

Of course, this is all armchair psychology, but in one way or another, everything that we do serves us in some way (or serves a neurosis in some way).

April 14, 2008 11:44 AM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

>I guess that, to argue for my theory a bit, I would say that it isn't necesarily achieving a level of comfort with the new idea which allows you to realize it, it can also be a level of discomfort with the old idea.

That is certainly true in my case, I lost trust in the system, due to scientific and historical issues.


>Of course, this is all armchair psychology, but in one way or another, everything that we do serves us in some way (or serves a neurosis in some way).

That's a scary thought. Isn't a cigar sometimes just a cigar? If you dropped someone from a different environment who was never exposed to religion or philosophic thoughts. Exposing them to fair debate, don't you think they would all land on the secular side? Isn't there an absolute?

April 14, 2008 5:08 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

bh,
>Isn't a cigar sometimes just a cigar?

Sure, (in my opinion, anyway), sometimes the reason is straight forward - it doesn't always have to be some twisted sublineal explination. But it sometimes is good to try to dig down - especially with the things we do which don't really seem to serve us well.

>Exposing them to fair debate, don't you think they would all land on the secular side?

This is a really interesting question (if you don't mind I think I'll use it for a post). Yes, I think that they would if they were making the decision based on logic. Or, at the very least, they would reject all of the classic orginized religions.

April 14, 2008 6:11 PM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

Sure, no problem.

April 14, 2008 8:25 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home