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Belief is like an orange, and other fables February 9, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Democracy, Religion.

According to a recent study by the Guttman Center, 85 percent of haredim and 49 percent of religious Jews in Israel say they would follow halacha rather than the law or democratic values in case of a clash between the two. And yet, writing in Haaretz, Yair Sheleg of the Israel Democracy Institute insists that believing in God — as 84 percent of Jewish Israelis said they do — is not a problem:

It seems that many people consider this finding to be despairing testimony regarding the inability of Israelis to maintain a rational policy and/or democratic worldview.

Yet it is precisely this reaction that endangers the future of democratic and even rational discourse in Israel, much more than the actual belief in God. This is because anyone who relies on a rational outlook that is not just philosophical, but also considers the human reality with open eyes, immediately understands that those 84 percent are not expressing devotion to any orderly theological doctrine. Rather, they are expressing a psychological need for belief.

This is a need that began at the dawn of humanity, when man first began to recognize the power of forces over which he has no control and the chaotic potential they harness. From that moment on, man began to believe in a supreme power, and he developed the desire to believe there is order behind the chaos. What’s more, he developed a special desire to believe that it is within man’s ability to influence supreme powers through his deeds.

… belief is nearly a part of man’s nature — not his biological nature, but definitely his psychological nature.

It is Sheleg whose eyes are closed to reality. First of all, the claim that those Israelis who believe in God are generally not devoted to any “orderly theological doctrine” is ludicrous, and is contradicted by the Guttman Center’s findings: for example, 65 percent of Israeli Jews think Torah and mitzvot are a divine order, 67 percent think the Jews are the chosen people, and 51 percent believe in the coming of the Messiah.

Furthermore, the claim that belief in God is inescapably built into humans seems dubious when you consider countries like Norway and Sweden, where a majority of the population are nonbelievers. In any case, just because something is in our “psychological nature” doesn’t mean it is desirable. We know of many cognitive biases that reliably cause us to believe things that are wrong and to behave in ways that are counterproductive. That is why we must use the tools of science and reason to figure out what is actually true about our world. Sheleg just doesn’t get it:

Therefore, the key question is not whether to believe in God, but rather what the nature of God is: Is He an inclusive God, a merciful and compassionate God who takes all of mankind created “in his image” under his wing? Or is He an exclusive God, a jealous and vengeful God who demands of his believers that they fight anyone who is different from them and who is perceived as not fulfilling His commands?

Sheleg seems to think that we can just choose to believe in whatever we please. But shouldn’t we want to believe in whatever actually exists? The rational way to decide what gods to believe in, if any, is by examining the state of the evidence. And there is no good evidence for the existence of a creator God at all — much less a merciful and compassionate one.

That doesn’t stop Sheleg from concluding that there need be no conflict between believers and nonbelievers:

It’s like the famous fable about the coveted orange. Two antagonists engage in a bloody struggle over the orange, until finally it becomes clear that one needs the peel while the other needs the flesh. To that end, it is better for the secular person not to define themselves in terms of their decision to disavow religion, but rather in terms of their positive values.

Nice try, but Sheleg’s profound fable is not at all relevant to our situation — apples and oranges, you might say. The conflict between religion and democracy is not just a big misunderstanding: religious people are disproportionally resistant to democratic values, because of the things they believe about God. Their belief in magic books and invisible super-beings is what motivates many of our neighbors to oppose civil liberties and the rule of law. The solution is to replace superstitious, dogmatic thinking with rational, evidence-based thinking. It is dangerous to confuse fables with reality.


1. Reason Being - February 10, 2012

I just found your blog for the first time. Great post. I think Sheleg is correct when says it is in our nature to try to figure out the chaos of the universe. However, he makes a huge leap in assuming that belief in a deity is natural conclusion to solving our knowledge gaps. To further imply that this belief does not hinder the democratic process is just silly. There are so many examples they are not worth pointing out. Lastly, I am not familiar with his orange fable, but for what reason would someone want the skin? Perhaps that is meant to be the “believer” having faith that it is useful. I will take the role of the atheist and eat the flesh.

I do agree with him, that it is useful for me at least to focus more on my values and less on my atheism. Atheism does not define who I am. It is just a word that explains I do not believe in god. I view myself as a secular humanist, which to me at least, has a positive value.

Ezra Resnick - February 10, 2012

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

Reason Being - February 11, 2012

No prob! Good post.

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