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Easy answers to difficult questions January 4, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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The Globe and Mail talked to some young, secular-born Canadian Jews who decided to become Orthodox. What about it attracted them?

“One thing that really struck me was the amount of passion these people had,” Mr. Krybus said. “And they were doing all kinds of things that I didn’t know what they were doing, or why they were doing them. But they had such a passion that had such a truth behind it.”

There are also plenty of passionate Muslims, Mormons and Scientologists. (And they have some weird customs, too.) Believe it or not, even infidels like me have things we’re passionate about. But I would never offer my passion as evidence for the truth of my claims. Those who have good justification for their beliefs should be able to present that justification dispassionately, appealing to your reason. Those who have no such justification, on the other hand, will often attempt to distract you from that fact with displays of passion, appealing to your emotion. If you care about the truth, then passion is not enough — you need to demand evidence.

But wait, there’s more:

beyond providing answers to life’s great questions, those who become Orthodox say that an important draw are the answers it provides to more mundane questions, like how to spend a Saturday afternoon…

“It says this is how you have to live, this is how you have to schedule your day and your week, and this is how you have to dress and this is how you have to eat,” [Sarah Bunin Benor, an American sociologist] said. “And for people who feel kind of lost, I think that is a real useful change. And not just people who feel lost but people who like structure.”

Let’s see… Where religion’s answers to “life’s great questions” haven’t turned out to be demonstrably false (e.g., regarding the structure of the cosmos and the origin of species) or flagrantly immoral (e.g., regarding slavery and the status of women), they are simplistic, naive, and utterly unsubstantiated. And of course, the answers provided by different religions are mutually incompatible (though espoused with equal certainty). We live in a complex world, and life is often difficult and uncertain, but relying on wishful thinking and letting some authority dictate your beliefs and decisions is not respectable or praiseworthy — it’s lazy and puerile. Difficult as it may be, we expect adults to be rational and to think for themselves.

Things turn from childish to dangerous, however, when personal preferences become religious doctrine. The Globe and Mail piece focuses entirely on Orthodox practices that some people find useful, without saying one word about the belief system that underlies them. You know, all that stuff about God creating the world, choosing the Jewish people, giving them the Torah, punishing them for disobeying his commandments, etc. Religious people take such beliefs very seriously — even though there is no good reason to think they’re actually true. That is a problem.

Some traditional practices (like family meals) may indeed be beneficial, but in that case we don’t need to believe they were commanded by God in order to adopt them. The utility of other practices is questionable, but if you find that not using electricity on Saturdays and separating meat from milk makes you a better person and helps you achieve inner peace, then by all means keep it up. However, different people may have different goals and find their happiness in different places. The problem is that if you think the rules you follow are mandated by the creator of the universe, it becomes natural to want to force them on others and to treat those with different priorities and beliefs rather badly.

Furthermore, once you stop thinking critically and let religion dictate how you live, you have no way of filtering the bad ideas and customs from the good ones — and there is still plenty of bad stuff in our religious traditions: homophobia, “bastard” children, neonatal circumcision, agunot, and so on.

Finally: if you allow yourself to be satisfied with bad answers to life’s great questions, you’ll never look for better ones. While religious dogmas become more anachronistic and irrelevant every day, human rationality and honest investigation continuously reveal amazing new truths in all areas of knowledge, improving our understanding of our world and of ourselves, and allowing us to change our circumstances for the better. There is no doubt that many incredible facts and explanations are still waiting to be discovered — but to find them, you must admit that you don’t already have all the answers, and face reality with an open mind.

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