Friday, October 22, 2010

Getting Over the Joy of Believing?

A reader writes:
For about three years I was in the baal teshuva world, spending about two of those years in yeshiva. I came to be religious because of "spiritual" experiences, which may have been prompted by unmet emotional needs. When I was in yeshiva, I was told that you could rationally demonstrate (not "prove", sort of) that Judaism is true (and so, I reasoned, that there is a God). After working hard on these pseudoproofs for a while, I became convinced of one. I then believed very strongly that God exists, that He loves me, and that the religion was true.

For some time (days, a week?) after arriving at this conclusion, I felt incredible. More in love than I ever felt about a girl. When they say you should have a passionate love for HaShem, that's what I had. I couldn't sleep - I woke up ecstatic - overjoyed that there's a good, caring God who is looking out for me, helping, etc. One thing I always wanted from a woman was flowers. I've given lots of people flowers, but no one has ever given me flowers. I guess that's just how it is in society. But when I felt this way, I walked the streets and viscerally saw all the flowers as being from HaShem. Not in an intellectual way - it was as emotionally real and believed as if it was from another person. Trees upon trees full of beautiful flowers. I also really love singing. And in this state, I could sing more deeply and passionately, moving the people around me to tears, than I ever have.

About a year after this experience, I left yeshiva and the religious world. I'm still not exactly sure how it happened. I think I realized that I'd come to the religion for emotional reasons, but it really wasn't going to help me with them (in many ways it made my problems worse). That peak experience seemed to be the extent of the love, safety, and acceptance that I was going to get. My doubts about the truth of the religion - scientific issues, immoral behavior of the rabbis, and the whole thing just looking as fake as any other religion, came together. Intellectually it's pretty clear to me now that Judaism is made up and that there is no God.

But I find it hard to let go... at least partly because of the experience that I had of feeling so in love and loved. Even if it was fake, I can't see how I could ever feel that way again. A woman would have to fill a football stadium full of flowers to top that experience. "Maybe one flower from someone real who loves you would be better than a million fake ones," you might say. But I believed that it was real when it happened, so the enormous love felt completely real then. How can I go on in life knowing that I'll never feel that way again? Has anyone else experienced this? How have you moved on?

I never really felt that way to begin with, perhaps because I was born and raised frum. I know that I admired and was drawn to various BTs I knew because I sensed that joy in them, but I never really felt it myself.

I'm not sure what advice I can offer except that I suspect such feelings are always temporary, like the infatuation period early in a human relationship. You don't need to be infatuated with (the idea of) God any more than you have to be infatuated with a human being to be happy. Maybe you can love the universe like you can love a human being after the honeymoon period wears off.

I think most people need to go through some kind of grieving process after they leave religion. Some miss the perceived connection with God, some miss the community, some miss the rituals, and some miss the sense of purpose, but we all have something to grieve.

I suggest psychotherapy for anybody leaving Orthodoxy. It's a traumatic experience even if it's the right decision for you. This is doubly true if you have other emotional/psychological issues.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Atheists, Agnostics Most Knowledgeable About Religion

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn't identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

Atheists and agnostics -- those who believe there is no God or who aren't sure -- were more likely to answer the survey's questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey's measurement of religious knowledge -- so close as to be statistically tied.

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

Nothing really new here, but it's always fun to see.

(Hat tip: Half Sigma)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Stephen Hawking Enters the Fray

I read A Brief History of Time some time after my year in Israel and it made me question God's existence for the first time in my life. It never came out and said God didn't exist, and in fact he threw in bits about "understanding the mind of God" (c.f. Einstein's "God does not play dice") but I was pretty sure he was an atheist.

In his new book The Grand Design, he's apparently more explicit:
Physics was the reason for the Big Bang, not God, according to scientist Stephen Hawking.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," the professor said in his new book, in a challenge to traditional religious beliefs.

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going," he wrote in his book "The Grand Design," extracts of which are printed in London newspaper The Times.

The book, co-written by American physicist Leonard Mlodinow and published next week, sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton's belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have created out of chaos.

Newton, genius that he was, was crazy for religion.

I wonder if A Brief History was more effective for me as an invitation towards atheism than it would have been if it were more explicit. I wasn't looking to challenge my religious beliefs, just to learn something about cosmology. And maybe my religious defense mechanisms weren't activated in the same way they would have been if I'd picked up, say, a Dawkins book first. A Brief History opened my mind to atheism and Dawkins sealed the deal a year or two later. But would I have even read Dawkins if Hawking hadn't opened my mind first?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Short Thoughts: Prop 8, The Orthodox Statement on Gays, and Cordoba House

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like, so I thought I'd throw out some quick thoughts on various current events:

Prop 8 Ruled Unconstitutional

Congratulations to California gays and lesbians, their children, and all who care about them! Congratulations to America for taking another step in the right direction. I wish this issue were over and done so millions of people could move on with their lives, but it's great to watch America continue to overcome the small-mindedness of social conservatives.

Statement of Principles

Some of the Jblogs and various news outlets are praising the Orthodox rabbis who signed a Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in Our Community for preaching a message of tolerance and inclusion and patting themselves on the back for being tolerant Orthodox Jews. While I agree it would be far better if Orthodox people followed these principles rather than continuing to shun, mock, and abuse gay people, I don't think you can be genuinely tolerant as long as you support Orthodox Judaism.

What good is it to preach tolerance when you maintain that God himself wrote that men who have sex with men should be killed? When you stand against not only gay sex, but gay marriage and even commitment ceremonies?

It's not enough to send mixed signals. You can't convince your gay son that you fully love and accept him if you also tell him he can never marry or even have sex. You can't convince the bullies that they should stop bullying gay teens into mental illness and suicide when you also teach that God thinks gay sex is an abomination worthy of death. You can't teach your children that gays and lesbians are people to be loved and accepted and also that halakha is a good thing. It just doesn't compute, not at a gut level, no matter how clever your apologetics are.

Looking down the list of signatories, I recognize some of the most liberal Orthodox rabbis in America, people whose natural inclination would be -- if they were not Orthodox -- to recognize and accept gays and lesbians as equals and embrace gay marriage as wholeheartedly as they do straight marriage. But they are Orthodox. And so we get half-measures and mixed signals.

If you're genuinely for tolerance, you cannot continue to support the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. The two are mutually exclusive. Still, something is better than nothing, and I commend the rabbis for going as far as they have to reduce harm. I hope it helps.

Cordoba House

Various Republicans including most famously Sarah Palin but also lesser luminaries like Rudoph Giuliani and demi-Republican Joe Lieberman have been ranting and raving about plans for a Muslim cultural center to be built several blocks from Ground Zero on the grounds that Muslims perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and therefore it's insensitive to allow the center to be built nearby. Or something.

They disgust me. They do not get what makes America great. They're small-minded and hateful and eager to exploit the average American's fear for political gain. They think the difference between America and (e.g.) Afghanistan is that we are (Judeo-) Christian and they are Muslim. It's not. There were Christian countries for centuries that engaged in slaughters much larger than 9/11. What makes America great is not that so many citizens are Christian or Jewish but that in spite of that religiosity, we are a pluralistic and tolerant country.

I have no illusions about Islam. Traditional Islam is without a doubt worse than Orthodox Judaism or any of today's mainstream Christian denominations. Worse for women, worse for gays, worse for nonbelievers, worse for intellectuals, worse even for the pious -- pretty much worse in every way. But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Ancient Judaism was much like modern Islam -- just open the Torah and you'll find exhortations to execute gay people and those who don't keep the Sabbath, condoning of child marriage and slavery and treating women as property -- pretty much everything we rightly revile Islam for today. And yet Judaism changed. The largest denomination of Judaism today allows for and encourages total equality between the sexes, full rights and tolerance for homosexuality, and total engagement with secular scholarship. Even the Orthodox holdouts have long since jettisoned the implementation of most of the Torah's horrible rules and mostly restrict their bigotry to words and social ostracization.

Christianity for centuries engaged in the kind of mass slaughter and forced conversion that the pathetic al-Qaeda could only dream of, and even they reformed. (I'm not speaking of Luther's Reformation -- Luther was probably as bigoted a man as ever existed -- but rather the reformation that occurred as Christians absorbed the secular ideas of modern humanism and modern science. The Catholic Church today can't even convince a majority of American Catholics to oppose legal abortion.)

The Cordoba House, rather than helping the likes of al-Qaeda, is instead part of the solution to al-Qaeda. We can't beat radical Islam by killing people. Every radical we kill has children and siblings and cousins and friends who now hate us more than they did before, if they did hate us before. Every civilian we kill or maim has loved ones who hate us perhaps even more passionately.

But every Muslim we welcome and influence for the better just by our example (not by Palin's or Lieberman's but by everyday Americans') takes a piece of Islam away from the fanatics and turns Islam into a less dangerous ideology. It demonstrates that modernity and Islam can coexist and that you don't have to hate America to be a good Muslim.

But that's not even the point. The point is, this is America. We're supposed to stand for freedom, regardless of religion or ideology. Palin, Giuliani, and Lieberman are a disgrace to the country they so ostentatiously claim to love.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How Often Are You Wrong?

Many people have said kids should learn how to program. They usually bring up how this helps them think logically. They don't point out that it also helps them fail over and over and over. The failure is unambiguous, and you can't argue with it. Your program doesn't compile. And that's clearly because you were wrong about something. No matter how sure you were that you were right, you were wrong. Day after day after day.

But the thing is, the goals are usually simple and achievable, so you get it right in the end. So it's not soul-crushing failure.

And when I fail, it's not like, "Ho-hum. I failed again. Whatever." Often, my whole world turns upside-down, at least briefly. "I KNOW I did that right! There MUST be something wrong with the compiler!" But, no, I'm wrong again, today. Just like I was yesterday. Just like I will be tomorrow, even though I will think I'm right. --grumblebee, on MetaFilter

One of the reasons I haven't been posting much lately is that I finally started to realize how futile it is to try to convince non-skeptical people they are wrong.

The above quote resonates with me because I am a computer programmer, although my skepticism predates my ability to write code. I've been skeptical as long as I can remember. Maybe it's innate or maybe I picked it up early on.

Either way, I forget that most people aren't skeptical when I'm arguing and it can be frustrating. My opponent will make an argument that's so bad the conclusion isn't even relevant to the argument. The conclusion might be right or it might be wrong, but the argument is so bad it doesn't matter. I think he must be arguing in bad faith and I get angry.

But the truth is most people don't take seriously the possibility that they are wrong, so they don't bother to examine the arguments they make. Whenever I write a post or even just a comment, I pause before submitting it to look at it from my opponent's point of view. Sometimes I see immediately that it's a weak argument that wouldn't have convinced me if I didn't already agree with the conclusion and I don't post it. Most people don't seem to do that.

It's obvious if you think about it that there is a substantial possibility we're wrong any time we disagree with anybody. Even if you're very smart, there are almost always very smart people on the other side of the debate, whatever it is. Popular subjects of debate like religion and politics usually have books and books written by people smarter than all of us arguing all sides.

And yet most people assume they're right most of the time even when there are millions of reasons they should be skeptical. For example, everybody agrees that the overwhelming majority of people born into exclusive religions must be seriously wrong about their religious beliefs, since in general only one (at the most!) of the religions can be true. And yet how many Orthodox Jews have given serious thought to the idea that if they were raised Muslim, they would believe in Islam with the same strength that they currently believe in Orthodox Judaism? That their beliefs are more likely due to an accident of birth than they are true?

They wouldn't be stupider or less educated or less honest, but they would believe something completely incompatible with what they now believe. So, knowing that, how can they have so much confidence in their beliefs? It's crazy!

If you care about being right, then it means you have to think differently than most people. So what do you do to minimize the odds of being wrong?

Many people turn to reason, because when you reason well you feel like you are moving productively towards the truth. And yet it's easy to see that reason alone is insufficient because very smart people on all sides of almost all debates are able to reason in a way that is utterly convincing to themselves and to their allies. Search the web and you'll find very long, reasoned arguments for a 6,000 year-old universe, for 9/11 being an inside job, and for every religion under the sun.

Now you'll just come back and say that those are examples of bad reasoning and that your reasoning is good. But I'll come back and ask, how do you know? Everybody thinks that their reasoning is good. Psychological denial is insidious: by definition you don't know when you're doing it.

Computer programming is one of a few disciplines that force you to test your reasoning against reality constantly. And even in that field, many, many mistakes sneak through because not every line of code can be tested against every possible configuration of variables. It's actually amazingly hard to write code that can stand up against even casual use without turning up bugs. Just imagine how many bugs must be in your reasoning that is never tested even a little bit against reality!

This is why I'll trust a scientist over a theologian any day. Both scientists and theologians make errors in their reasoning, but scientists run experiments. No experiment is perfect, just as no amount of testing can find all the bugs in a significant computer program, but the theologian is like a computer programmer who just writes his code on the blackboard and never even tries to run it. Or worse -- he's like a programmer who writes code on the blackboard that references other code written by older programmers going back generations and generations for thousands of years even though no compiler even exists for the language they're using. There's just no chance that program could be even close to accurate.

Even worse, we know for a fact that theologians in the past were wrong about the issues they touched on that turned out to be testable. Before science, theologians made all sorts of claims about the material world that turned out to be false. The rabbis of the Talmud made all sorts of ridiculous claims about spontaneous generation of maggots in meat. (The proto-scientists of the day made some of the same mistakes, of course, but compare the way today's scientists treat those proto-scientists' ideas to the way today's Orthodox rabbis treat those rabbis' ideas.) Even undisputed geniuses like Plato and Aristotle who relied on reason rather than experimentation made some whoppers about reality. If even Aristotle can be laughably wrong, how stupid for us to think we can reason in a vacuum!

Always remember that you are wrong about a lot of things. In matters like religion that lie far outside of the world of experimentation and empiricism, you're almost certainly wrong about pretty much everything. Not a little wrong, but a LOT wrong. Like Aristotle and his five elements wrong.

In more mundane matters, at least spend some time trying to prove yourself wrong. Never argue one side of an issue only. Read every argument you write before you submit it and try to think about what a smart opponent would make of it. Think of what YOU would make of it, if you happened to have been born in a different country or to a different family or religion. Be especially skeptical of beliefs that are convenient, beliefs that support your lifestyle or your people or your country or your side of anything.

For practice, find a popular argument that is irrelevant to you. For example, some land dispute in a country far away between people who don't share your ethnicity or your religion. Note how fervently each side is sure they are right and the other side is not just wrong, but OBVIOUSLY wrong. Then go back to an argument that is very much relevant to you and try to look at it from the other side, and ask yourself how you can really, really know that you're the one who's not in denial.

The truth of the matter is, unless you're very unusually skeptical and very unusually open to empirical reality, you're almost certainly one of the people in deep denial.

What differentiates you from the great mass of deluded wishful thinkers? What steps are you taking to make sure you aren't deceiving yourself?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Biblical Conception of the Universe

This is pretty cool. I remember it blew my mind in high school when I started thinking about how the Torah describes rain as coming from above the firmament, where the stars are.

(This one's for you, Tigerboy!)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Books Which Have Influenced Me the Most

(This meme which nobody is calling a meme was started by Tyler Cowen.)

These are the books, off the top of my head, that influenced me the most. No particular order.

Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card.

Ender's Game is the story of a nerdy kid who uses his strategic and tactical genius to defeat the schoolyard bullies and then save the human race. In space. The perfect escapist fantasy for a nerdy kid, in other words. It also introduced me to the idea of blogging. In the 1980s.

Speaker for the Dead is a much different book, less action and more philosophy. The title refers to a priest-like figure, who is invited to learn about and tell the whole truth of someone who has died, as a memorial. I was blown away by the idea of telling the whole truth about someone, the good parts and the bad parts, the parts parents would be proud of and the ones that they would be ashamed of. The idea was that it's impossible to really know somebody, even a horrible somebody, without loving them. That made a big impression on me.

When I grew up, having read all of Card's books, I found out that he is a Mormon and a homophobic bigot. That was an important lesson, too, in that it conflicted so much with the spirit of empathy (and, as an interesting side note, the homoeroticism) that pervades his fiction. I also grew to become horrified by the ruthless and simplistic ideas about fighting and war that are featured in Ender's Game and that I heard Card himself relate to American foreign policy when I attended a book signing as a young adult.

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design, Richard Dawkins.

I'm pretty sure I was headed in that direction already, but I believe that I picked up The Blind Watchmaker a believer and put it down an atheist. It takes on the famed watchmaker argument for God's existence (a.k.a. the argument from design) and not only defeats it but demonstrates the elegant beauty of Darwinian evolution.

Contact, Carl Sagan.

I found Sagan's secular sense of awe exhilarating. Contact introduced me to the idea that science could provide the same sense of transcendence that religion can at its very best without requiring you to believe in the obviously untrue. It also has a great part about what a message from a real Intelligent Designer might look like.

Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins.

A friend turned me on to Still Life with Woodpecker while I was at yeshiva in Israel. When I returned home, I quickly found all of Robbins's other books and read them, too. Collectively, they blew up everything I thought I knew about writing and fiction. Another Roadside Attraction introduced this still-sheltered young man to a host of characters and ideas about society and religion that just about blew my mind. From mocking the Catholic Church's vast stores of obscene wealth at the Vatican to introducing radical hippie ideas like just enjoying the rain to basically advocating psychedelics, it provided a lot of thought-fodder for an Orthodox Jew raised by squares.

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking.

I read this a couple of years before The Blind Watchmaker and I think it laid the groundwork for my future atheism. Hawking doesn't come out and say that there's no God, but he does argue that there doesn't need to be a God to explain the universe. The cosmology he lays out in the book is so much vaster and more awe inspiring than the one laid out in the Torah that it makes Genesis look like a fairy tale for children.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig.

This book introduced me to Eastern philosophy. It suffers from not being as good as the author thinks it is, but it introduced me to mindfulness and inspired me to learn about the Eastern religions. I don't think I got anything worthwhile from Pirsig's philosophy itself, though.

Feeling Good, David D. Burns.

Having suffered from a chronic, low-grade depression for a few years, I read scores of self-help books. Most make you feel motivated and optimistic for a day or two but don't change your life. Feeling Good is a miracle. Dr. Burns explains the theory behind cognitive-behavioral therapy in a very accessible way and it made me aware for the first time of all the automatic thoughts I had which had until that moment gone completely unexamined. The self-help exercises in this book had immediate, dramatic effects for me in an extremely positive way. It also changed the way I thought about the human mind and the human brain.

My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok.

All of Potok's novels are fantastic, but I think this one had the most effect on me. The story of a young hasid torn between his religion and family on the one hand and his artistic integrity and expression -- one might say his soul -- on the other, it brings the reader into the Asher Lev's turmoil. Although I am not an artist, I too felt the conflict between family and religion on the one side and my own integrity and perhaps my soul on the other. This book made me feel less alone while I was going through that.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Why We Need Health Care Reform

Just a reminder.

(Image from Schuhle Lewis. Some other cool ones there as well, on various topics.)