Tag Archives: Belief

What Believers and Atheists Can Learn From Each Other (co-written with Sam McNerney)

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman: It’s inherently challenging for believers and atheists to have productive conversations. Discussing topics such as belief and nonbelief, the potential irrationality of religion, or the limits of scientific knowledge is difficult since each side often ends up more firmly entrenched in their own worldview.

But one bright person interested in broadening the conversation is Sam McNerney, a science writer who focuses on cognitive science and an atheist interested in religion from a psychological point of view.

I found Sam through his writing on ScientificAmerican.com, and started reading his blog Why We Reason and his posts on BigThink.com. We discovered that even though we approached religion from different perspectives, we had great respect for each other.

So as two people with different religious outlooks we wondered: what can we learn from each other?

Sam McNerney: There are many things we can learn. Let’s take one: the role of authority.

A recent New York Times article points out that secular liberal atheists tend to conflate authority, loyalty and sanctity with racism, sexism and homophobia. It’s not difficult to see why. Societies suffer when authority figures, being motivated by sacred values and religious beliefs, forbid their citizens from challenging the status quo. But a respect for authority and the principles they uphold to some degree is necessary if societies seek to maintain order and justice and function properly. The primatologist Frans de Waal explains it this way: “Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules, as anyone who has tried to teach simple house rules to a cat will agree.” (Haidt, 106)

Ironically, atheists’ steadfast allegiance to rationality, secular thinking and the importance of open-mindedness blinds them to important religious values including respect for authority. As a result, atheists tend to confuse authority with exploitation and evil and undervalue the vital role authority plays in a healthy society.

Geoff: You accurately bring up one aspect of why organized religion can be so complicated: it is intertwined with power. And I’m glad you note that authority and power are not inherently bad when it comes to religion. In fact, as you also say, a certain degree of authority is necessary.

To me, the real problem arises when religion adds another element into the mix: certainty. It’s a toxic combination to have religious authorities with the power to influence others claiming to “know” with 100% certainty that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

One thing I learned from several atheists is the importance of skepticism and doubt. Indeed, while certainty leads to arrogance, uncertainty leads to humility. We open up the conversation and value diverse experiences when we approach the world with a perspective of “I’m not sure” or “I could be wrong.”

Recently, astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote a beautiful piece on NPR’s blog 13.7 about how valuable uncertainty can be:

Dig around in most of the world’s great religious traditions and you find people finding their sense of grace by embracing uncertainty rather than trying to bury it in codified dogmas…

Though I am an atheist, some of the wisest people I have met are those whose spiritual lives (some explicitly religious, some not) have forced them to continually confront uncertainty. This daily act has made them patient and forgiving, generous and inclusive. Likewise, the atheists I have met who most embody the ideals of free inquiry seem to best understand the limitations of every perspective, including their own. They encounter the ever shifting ground of their lives with humor, good will and compassion.

Certainty can be seductive, but it hurts our ability to engage with others in constructive ways. Thus when religious people talk about God, belief or faith, we have to approach the conversation with a little humility and recognize that we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. In the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, we need to realize that another person doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

This doesn’t mean believers and atheists will agree on the role of religion in society, the validity of a particular belief system, or even the very existence of God. In fact, believers and atheists will almost certainly continue to vehemently disagree about these questions. But we have to remember that not all disagreements are bad. Some arguments are quite beneficial because they help us gain a deeper understanding of reality, encourage clearer thinking, and broaden people’s perspectives.

The Rabbis even draw a distinction between two different kinds of arguments. Arguments they call “for the sake of Heaven” will always be valuable, while arguments that are only for self-aggrandizement will never be productive (Avot 5:20). So I’m not interested in arguments that devolve into mocking, ridicule, name-calling or one-upmanship. But I’d gladly participate in any discussion if we are arguing about how we make ourselves and this world better, and would actively strive to involve whoever wants to be part of that endeavor, regardless of what they may or may not believe.

Sam: You are right to point out that both atheists and believers under the illusion of certainty smother potentially productive dialogue with disrespectful rhetoric. What’s alarming is that atheism in the United States is now more than non-belief. It’s an intense and widely shared sentiment where a belief in God is not only false, but also ridiculous. Pointing out how irrational religion can be is entertaining for too many.

There’s no doubt that religious beliefs influence negative behavioral consequences, so atheists are right to criticize religion on many epistemological claims. But I’ve learned from believers and my background in cognitive psychology that faith-based beliefs are not necessarily irrational.

Consider a clever study recently conducted by Kevin Rounding of Queen’s University in Ontario that demonstrates how religion helps increase self-control. In two experiments participants (many of whom identified as atheists) were primed with a religious mindset – they unscrambled short sentences containing words such as “God,” “divine” and “Bible.” Compared to a control group, they were able to drink more sour juice and were more willing to accept $6 in a week instead of $5 immediately. Similar lines of research show that religious people are less likely to develop unhealthy habits like drinking, taking drugs, smoking and engaging in risky sex.

Studies also suggest that religious and spiritual people, especially those living in the developing world, are happier and live longer, on average, than non-believers. Religious people also tend to feel more connected to something beyond themselves; a sentiment that contributes to well-being significantly.

It’s unclear if these findings are correlative or causal – it’s likely that many of the benefits that come from believing in God arise not from beliefs per se but from strong social ties that religious communities do such a good job of fostering. Whatever the case, this research should make atheists pause before they dismiss all religious beliefs as irrational or ridiculous.

Geoff: It’s interesting — that actually leads to another area where atheists have pushed believers in important ways, namely, to focus less on the beliefs themselves, and more on how those beliefs manifest themselves in actions. And to paraphrase Steven Pinker, the actions that religious people need to focus on are less about “saving souls,” and more about “improving lives.”

For much of human history the goal of religion was to get people to believe a certain ideology or join a certain community. “Being religious” was a value in and of itself, and was often simply a given, but today, we live in a world where people are free to choose what they believe in. So now, the goal of religion should be to help people find more fulfillment in their own lives and to help people make a positive impact on others’ lives.

It’s important to note that people certainly do not need religion to act morally or find fulfillment. But as Jonathan Haidt writes in his new book The Righteous Mind, religion can certainly make it easier.

Haidt argues that our mind is like a rider who sits atop an elephant to suggest that our moral deliberations (the rider) are post-hoc rationalizations of our moral intuitions (the elephant). The key to his metaphor is that intuitions comes first (and are much more powerful) and strategic reason comes afterwards.

We need our rider because it allows us to think critically. But our elephant is also important because it motivates us to connect with others who share a moral vision. Ultimately, if we are striving to build communities and strengthen our morals, we cannot rely exclusively on either the rider or the elephant; we need both. As Haidt explains:

If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, institutions and relationships that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. But if you are an atheist living in a looser community with a less binding moral matrix, you might have to rely somewhat more on an internal moral compass, read by the rider. That might sound appealing to rationalists, but it is also a recipe for…a society that no longer has a shared moral order. [And w]e evolved to live, trade and trust within shared moral matrices. (Haidt, 269)

Since religion is a human construct, with its “norms, institutions and relationships,” it can be used in a variety of different ways. It can obviously be used to shut down critical thinking and oppress others. But as you mention, religion has positive effects on well-being, and religious beliefs correlate with a sense of fulfillment. Perhaps the job of religion, then, should be giving us a common language, rituals, and communities that reinforce and strengthen our ability to become better human beings and find joy and meaning in our lives.

Ultimately, we don’t have to agree with someone in order to learn from them. As Ben Zoma, a 2nd century Jewish sage, reminds us: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.” (Avot 4:1) When we are willing to open ourselves up to others, we open ourselves up to new ideas and different perspectives.

Indeed, I have come to believe that our purpose as human beings – whether we identify as a believer, an atheist, or anything in between – is to better ourselves and our world. And any source of knowledge that leads us to that goal is worth pursuing.


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The Problems, the Potential and the Power of Religious Belief

I once heard a lecture given by Professor Steven Goldman at Lehigh University, and he defined “belief” as something that influences our actions — whether or not it is objectively true. For example, he says, let’s say you believe it is going to rain tomorrow. What will that mean? Well, most likely, it will mean that you are going to bring an umbrella. If you believe it’s going to be a downpour, you may even bring galoshes.

Now, it will either rain or it won’t — the important thing is that your belief about the rain directly affected how you acted here and now.

Our beliefs are truly what guide us. As Dr. Andrew Newberg writes in his book Why We Believe What We Believe, “[b]eliefs govern nearly every aspect of our lives. They tell us how to pray and how to vote, whom to trust and whom to avoid; and they shape our personal behaviors and spiritual ethics throughout life.” (Newberg, 5)

So because our beliefs are so powerful, and so strongly influence our actions, a major question is how religious belief affects us.

There are some who think that religious belief is inherently a force for evil because they see all the harm done to this world in its name. They see people who believe that blowing yourself up will allow you to enter into paradise with 70 virgins, or that if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior you will rot in hell, or that the entire biblical land of Israel is a God-given right, and so they understandably and naturally reject religion entirely.

But in fact, beliefs (even religious beliefs) themselves are neither good nor bad — it’s how those beliefs manifest themselves in our actions that we need to examine.

After all, there are many who believe that the Koran teaches us that we should “know and honor each other,” (Chapter 49, Verse 13), or that Christ’s love impels us take care of the weakest members of our society, or that we are partners with God in repairing the world. And those beliefs have power, as well.

One of the most incredible experiences I have had recently was being part of the launch for “Westchester United,” a new community organization bringing together churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions to explore the question, “What kind of good do we want to create in this world?”

We are aiming to have over 50 congregations from across Westchester, and at the launch a few weeks ago, African-American Baptists sat next to Hispanic Catholics, who sat next to Reform Jews, who sat next to Muslims. And there, we heard three stories of the ways religious communities made an impact:

  • East Brooklyn Congregations has built almost 3000 Nehemiah homes for low-income families — and according to Kathryn S. Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, “We continue to see an almost nonexistent default rate.”
  • South Bronx Churches has helped build the Mott Haven Campus, a $160 million school campus for 2300 students in the Bronx which, as the The New York City Department of Education says, “includes multiple gymnasiums and science labs, an outdoor football field, and auditorium and cafeteria space that all schools will share. “
  • New Jersey Together has spearheaded a $1 billion dollar environmental cleanup, forcing several of the worst polluters in northern New Jersey to take responsibility and clean up the messes they had created.

Combating homelessness. Improving education. Cleaning up the environment. All these victories were a direct result of people believing that their work mattered, and that they had a sacred responsibility to act.

Now, were there religious communities that felt that “social justice” was a dirty word, and so elected not to be a part of these initiatives? Almost certainly, and that was their choice. But that fact doesn’t negate the fact that hundreds of faith communities strove to improve this world because they believed they were commanded to do so.

So today, progressive religious communities have both an opportunity and a responsibility to advocate for a belief system that inspires people to improve themselves, their society and their world. Because in my experience, the strongest congregations are the ones that create a strong sense of community, and lead people to rally around a shared sense of mission together.

Religious belief has undeniable power — so the question is how we can use it most effectively to make the greatest positive impact on this world. Religious communities can and need to ask, “What do we believe about what God demands of us? What do we believe about human nature and the way the world works? And what do we believe about our potential to make a difference in people’s lives?”

Because ultimately, religion is a tool, like fire. And while some people are using it to destroy this world, there are so, so many who are using it to take a world that is far too often cold and dark, and bring just a little more light and warmth into it.


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Why Asking “Do You Believe in God?” is the Wrong Question to Ask

Recently, blogger Andrew Sullivan put up post called “The Scientific View of Man.” He ended it with an aside, saying, “If I could disbelieve in God, I would,” and two days later, one of his readers wrote back: “Funny, I’m the exact opposite; if I could believe in God, I would.”

But what does that phrase mean, “believe in God”? I’ve most often heard it framed in terms of existence — people will often say to me, “I don’t believe God exists,” or “I have seen no evidence for God,” or “I often question whether there is a God.”

But here’s the thing: either God exists, or God doesn’t. And we have absolutely no control over that fact. And so because there’s nothing we can do about whether there is a God or not, I’ve never found that question to be a particularly interesting one to ask. After all, when the question is framed in that way, there are really only three answers people can give — “Yes, I do,” “No, I don’t,” or “I’m not sure.”

But there’s an even deeper reason why that question is the wrong one to ask. In my experience working in the religious world, the people who tend to ask the question, “Do you believe in God?” are the ones who hope the answer is “yes,” while the people who tend to be asked are the ones who are more inclined to say “no” or “I’m not sure.” When you’re asking a question with an expected answer — and that answer is the opposite of what you hope it will be — there’s no constructive dialogue. Instead, when someone asks “Do you believe in God?”, it simply comes off as a judgmental attack.

In fact, Rabbi David Wolpe recently wrote a piece on Huffington Post asking “Why Are Atheists So Angry?“, and while he made some accurate statements, I think he missed the main reason why atheists have problems with religion — they feel like they are being viewed as “less than,” and are being judged in a harsh and negative light.

So because asking “Do you believe in God?” prompts primarily closed-ended questions, and is often experienced as a condemnation, I instead prefer to ask two other questions that I have found to be more valuable to explore:

1. “How can we bring more justice and kindness into this world?”

Regardless of whatever particular worldview we hold, we have a responsibility to find ways to improve ourselves, our society and our world. Now, reasonable people can certainly disagree about the specifics of how we do that, and our personal outlook will obviously affect our ultimate decisions, but most people I have met are striving to create a more just and more kind world.

So by focusing the discussion around how people act more than on what they believe, we can now have a more productive dialogue. Yes, we may all be coming at this question from different ways, but now, the arguments stop being attacks and counter-attacks about who is right, and instead, become an exploration about the ways we need to work together to create the kind of world we hope for.

In many ways, author (and atheist) Sam Harris got it right in his book The Moral Landscape when he argued that human and societal well-being are directly related to the state of the world and our own mental state, and that “morality” is about how we improve those two states. And so by emphasizing the myriad ways we can explore how to bring more justice and more kindness into this world, we can also recognize and accept the different belief systems that can all ultimately lead to the same end.

2. “When have we felt moments of deep connection?”

Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were two of the most influential Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, and both of them pushed us to recognize that our greatest source of joy and wonder are our relationships — Buber focusing on our interpersonal relationships, with Heschel emphasizing our relationship with all of creation.

Buber taught that the most spiritual moments occur when we are truly in relationship with others. His great book describing his theology is usually translated as “I-Thou,” but a better description would be “you and me.” As he claimed, our most powerful and most memorable moments occur when we truly feel “there” with and for another person. As Rabbi Dennis Ross explains in his book God in Our Relationships, “I-Thou is doing, speaking, listening and touching. Not in the I or the Thou, I-Thou is essentially the ‘-,’ the dash that connects two people.” (Ross, 53)

Heschel’s theology is often called “radical amazement” — a deep sense of incomprehensibility at the wonder of sheer existence. As he argues, “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being. Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe…Standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight.” (Heschel, Man is Not Alone, 25)

What both Buber and Heschel have in common is that we cannot put into words our most important and most life-changing encounters. Indeed, the more we try to analyze and explain them, the less power they have. Not only that, we cannot ever expect or plan to experience these moments that elevate our soul — we can only be open to them, and hope we are aware enough to feel them and appreciate them when they arise.

These two questions, I have found, resonate with people much more deeply, and create much more interesting, much more respectful and much more valuable conversations than asking “Do you believe in God?” These questions prompt people to ask together, “How should I be treating myself and those around me?” “How can we be more open to the varied experiences of life?” Rather than thinking that those who believe in God are “better” than those who don’t, each of us can examine how we can be more just and kind, and how we can create a deeper connection with ourselves, with others and with our world.

And what do I believe? For me, I find God when I am grappling with those questions — and especially when I am learning new ways to try to answer them. And while I certainly can’t prove this, I believe that when we are seeking to bring more justice, kindness and connection into this world, we are also bringing just a little more of God into this world, as well.


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