Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Would They Believe?

Baal Habos asks:

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?

For all of you intellectual purists out there, I will point out that it is impossible to actually run this experiment in a satisfactory way. After all, there is no such thing as a person who has no prior experience with belief. Some people are raised towards a specific faith, some are raised as atheists, and some are raised in homes where belief is not considered at all. However, in each of these cases, by the time that person has reached an age of thinking, they have much invested in the outlook from which they have been raised. Even if their environment is completely areligous, that in itself is the norm to which they are accustomed, and they will have to overcome the inertia of that practice in order to change.

But, understanding that we cannot answer this question scientifically, it is still a fascinating question. I would say that most non-believers would side with Baal Habos and conclude that very few rational people without a strong prior background in religion would end up in the believers’ camp. And, conversely, I would say that the Orthodox community would argue that, given a full and informed education into the richness and sophistication of the Torah, and if they could be ‘objective’ (i.e. rise above their material and physical desires), that most would see the truth of Torah.

In fact, it seems logical that it is a fundamental requirement of any religion to believe that if anyone truly seeks the truth, without any bias or weakness, the path will lead them to that religion. After all, if that is not the case, why should anyone be rewarded for finding that faith, and why should anyone be punished for not having found it?

My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that they may both have it wrong. I do believe, as I wrote to Baal Habos, that, these people would reject all of the incongruous claims by all of the major organized religions. But, on the other hand, I don’t think that the majority of them would end up in the strong atheist camp.

Many people can’t believe in the complex mythology and arcane moralism of organized religion. But, at the same time, they still seek to find satisfying answers to the great questions which those systems address so neatly. Where did we come from, what are we doing here, how should I live my life? Many people are not bothered by these questions, or can find satisfying answers in the secular domain. But many people are willing and motivated to seek answers in the spiritual realm.

So, at least in this country, there has emerged a new type of religion. This is the force behind the massive success of books and dvds such as “The Secret”, or “A New Earth”. There is no sacred text, so people are very individualistic about how they shape these beliefs, and the range of how they interpret spirituality borrows from everyone from The Buddha to Obe Wan Kenobe.

I think that it is a good trend. It may be the best of all worlds – spirituality and humanism rolled into one. And, though I'm biased to my own team, there will also be room for a few of us agnostics thrown into the mix.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Out of the Looking Glass

I’ve been exchanging comments on one of my old posts with Baal Habos, who has a two part post on the same topic (the question being why most people maintain their beliefs while others do not), and he posed the following question/comment.

What really is driving me nuts, is understanding the switch from belief to non-belief. Why do some [who] get exposed to science & history accept the truth [while] others resort to all sorts of apologetica.

And he postulates the following:

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?

(I’ll focus on this second comment in a future post.)

One interesting, if peripheral, aspect of these comments is that they reflect a phase that most of us skeptics seem to go though sooner or later. There is a very tangible change which happens some time after you have left religion and have had a chance to reacclimate to the world. At some point, you look back at the belief system which you left behind and feel a sense of shock at what you see.

This may really be the point of no return. Up until then, there is a sort of built in defensiveness in your thinking. You have all of your reasons – logical and moral, all worked out in your mind - as if you have to justify your choice to leave the Orthodox world. But at that moment, you suddenly grasp that the shoe belongs firmly on the other foot. You have the powerful feeling of seeing, for the first time, your old beliefs on equal footing with the claims of the other religious groups.

And, just as suddenly, your need to justify your ideas evaporates. “Am I really concerned about explaining why I don’t believe in this outrageous mythology?” “Am I really worried about proving that I’m still moral?” You feel, for the first time, that it would be just as absurd to have to justify why you are not a Mormon or Scientologies.

All of us skeptics are keenly aware of the Orthodox notion that we leave religion because of our personal weakness – our lusts, our laziness, our misguided thinking. But once we reach this point, that idea is simply laughable. Whatever the causes are for our lost faith, we haven’t been blinded – on the contrary, we’ve been given sight.

With this turning point comes the frustration that Baal Habos is voicing. Up until then, Orthodox thinking is such a strong part of your own perspective that you have an intuitive grasp of why the everyone believes. But once you cross this line, and the Orthodox haze retreats farther and farther into the past, it becomes more and more difficult to understand.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Proof Delusion

I just finished reading Bondage of the Mind by R.D. Gold. If nothing else, the book is a fantastic example of why books which try to disprove the claims of religion are a waste of good ink and paper (and, in this case, bad cover art).

The fundamental problem with these books, which seek to provide rational formulations to disprove religious claims, is that they are an argument in search of an audience. For those who don’t believe in orthodoxy, the beliefs which Gold challenges are obvious mythology, and they certainly don’t need a book to prove it – any more than Orthodox Jews need a book to ‘prove’ that Mormonism must be false. And for those who do believe, there is no book on earth which will challenge that belief.

I suppose that there may be a tiny group somewhere who really are scouring through mountains of archeological scholarship to figure out whether or not to sleep through the shabbos hagodol drasha (no offense to Baal Habos). And, to be sure, there is an entire industry devoted to churning out kiruv literature, much of which focuses on arguing the other side of the same issues raised by Gold. So perhaps, if nothing else, this book acts to counterbalance those hackneyed polemics.

But it amazes me that the author, who clearly has a strong grasp of the dynamics of Orthodox Judaism can be so completely clueless about the nature of belief. To listen to him argue, it seems that the premise is that the Orthodox are poor, uninformed deluded souls, and, if we just educate them about modern science, anthropology and literary analysis, they’ll all snap out of their haze and rejoin reality.

And what information is he imparting that is so compelling? That most archeologists, zoologists and bible critics don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah? Well that’s going to be quite a news flash to the Orthodox community. Anyway, let’s face it, if you dug up the authentic Ten Commandments and found that there were eleven, it wouldn’t change Orthodoxy the slightest bit.

The book has the chance to provoke some deeper thought in its discussion of Orthodox morality – an aspect of religion which one can certainly take issue with. If I would project myself back to my Orthodox days, I would lose more sleep about building a monument for Baruch Goldstein than about doublets in the Torah. Gold starts out competently enough in his treatment of the problems in the Orthodox system, and does a good job dispelling the often-heard ‘subjective morality’ argument. However, he ends up exhuming and recycling the familiar list of Orthodox scandals and abuses. This device (to me, at least) undermines the entire discussion. There is no weaker an argument against the moral nature of any society than to judge its worst element.

It is still easy for me to read this book from an Orthodox perspective and to gauge how I would have reacted in my religious days. At best, I would gain some insight into how the secular community is able to explain away the extraordinary phenomenon of the Torah – by creating alternative theories which they claim to be ‘scientific’ and which they attempt to support by imposing their own subjective interpretations on archeology and biblical writings. At worst, the insult to my intelligence and trivialization of my beliefs would be too offensive for me to garner anything useful from this book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Back to Blogging

It has now been just short of a full year since my last blog post, and I find myself being drawn back to the lively writing and obscure hypertext of the bloggesphere.

Of the numerous reasons for my absence from posting over the past year, the primary (though not only) problem which has plagued me has been the looming trap of repetition. Unlike some of the other ‘skeptical’ blogs, I have little to contribute to the great and interminable religious debates.

I am far more interested in the internal mechanisms and consequences of belief and non-belief.

Over the 16 months which spanned my (active) blogging career, I have written of the potent differences between the religious and the secular mindset. In many cases, the starkness of the difference in orientation is so powerful that few people within one group can appreciate how reasonable and compassionate people can hold the disparate views of the other group. Often, the two sides see only a vague and distorted caricature of the other, from which they seek to explain each others’ behavior and values.

It is a product, for better or worse, of the uniqueness of my experiences (and quirkiness of my personality) that I have a singular insight into these two very polarized views.

If there is any possible significant contribution of my blog, it is to help each group catch a small, fleeting glimpse of the world through the perspective of the other. If you are secular, perhaps you can gain a momentary insight into the depth, complexity and multi-leveled sophistication of the religious experience. If you are religious, perhaps you can appreciate for a brief moment how people who never worried for an instant how the universe came into being can feel so passionately and certainly about a moral world.

And, with that, I will set out to scribble onward - on this topic and perhaps on areas beyond….