Tag Archives: Brad Hirschfeild

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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Religion Can’t Be an End Unto Itself

These were the words I shared on Yom Kippur at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester on Saturday, October 8. Enjoy!

As some of you may know, my wife Heather is a fiber artist. She creates quilts, wall-hangings and even three-dimensional structures based on Jewish texts and social justice themes. And for the last two years, she has been going to homeless shelters through New York City to talk to men, women and children, in order to turn their stories into a piece she is calling “Temporary Shelter.” It’s based on a sukkah, the temporary hut we build each fall on Sukkot, and evokes the Israelites’ wandering in the desert, the time when our ancestors were homeless.

“Temporary Shelter” will be traveling to different churches and synagogues throughout the City in November and December, but there was one church that had a rather unique idea. The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea wanted to host it, but they weren’t sure they’d be able to because of logistical reasons. “At first there was some concern that your piece would be too big with all the Christmas decorations and such,” said Cassandra Agredo, who directs Xavier Mission.  “Then someone suggested that instead of a stable, we could use your piece as the crèche for Jesus.  After all, Jesus was born a homeless baby.”

Heather didn’t  quite know how to respond to that offer. Her piece — which was based on a sukkah — as a creche? Would that be OK? How would she feel about it? So we talked about it. And the more we talked about it, the more we realized that this idea was a pretty cool idea — this Christian church wanted to sanctify the stories of predominantly Christian homeless New Yorkers by linking their stories to Christianity’s most sacred story, the birth of their Savior. But they would be doing it through a Jewish symbol made by a Jewish woman, who was making this piece because of her commitment to her Jewish values. And so we realized that this was a story about religion at its most nuanced and at its most complex in 21st century America.

Because for far too long, and even today, far too frequently, religion is far too simplistic. Often, religion is about trying to convince people that “my way is the only way.” But here, the church wasn’t looking to convert Heather to Christianity, and Heather wasn’t looking to have the church become Jewish. And yet at the same time, no one was moving in the other direction and simply proclaiming that “we all believe the same thing.” No, Heather was using very specifically Jewish language with her sukkah, and the church was using very specifically Christian language with its crèche. So it’s equally important to recognize that the church wasn’t watering down its Christianity, and Heather wasn’t watering down her Judaism. Miraculously, both the church and Heather were able to demonstrate both openness to the other and deep devotion to themselves. How did that happen? I think it’s because everyone realized that in 21st century America, for religion to work, religion cannot be an end unto itself. Instead, religion has to be a means to an end.

We don’t need to look far to see the problems of viewing religion as an end unto itself. At its very worst, religion tells people that if others don’t share our belief system, then they don’t deserve the most basic human rights, including their own lives. Nearly a thousand years ago, that is the ideology that fueled the Crusades. Ten years ago, it led 19 people to hijack four airplanes. And even earlier this week, it caused a group of people to burn down a mosque in Northern Israel. But even when religion doesn’t lead to violence, we still find stories here in the United States about the problems it creates. We hear about how religion leads people to reject the science of evolution and climate change, how it excludes and denigrates gays and lesbians, and how it fosters hubris and arrogance when people say “I know what God wants.” So as we hear so much about the worst of religion, we naturally ask, why would anyone want to become religious?

And the answer is, we wouldn’t. We deeply prize openness and acceptance, so we understandably and legitimately recoil against someone trying to convince us to change our belief system. We fight against the sense of superiority of “my way is the best way,” let alone “my way is the only way.” And we decry the violence that religion so easily fuels. So when we see all the evil that is done in the name of religion, we naturally want no part of it. But the truth is, the problem isn’t with religion per se. The problem is with seeing religion as an end unto itself.

And in fact, that’s what creates such tension for those of us who identify as a “religiously liberal Jew.” On the one hand, we know that the goal of Judaism is to make our world more just and our selves more whole. But at the same time, we want our children to have a strong sense of Jewish identity and strong Jewish values. And so in a world with more choices than ever before and more diversity than ever before, it’s hard to hold both of those ideas at the same time – how do we act as both a universalist and a particularist? That’s why so many people in the under-40 demographic are asking the very hard and yet very important question, “Why should I be Jewish?” They see all the evil that has been done in the name of religion, and so religion – including Judaism – is simply not compelling to them. But it’s because they are seeing Judaism presented as end unto itself.

So what it would look like if we didn’t focus on what it means to “be Jewish” or to “be religious”? After all, how do we even determine what it means to “be Jewish” or to “be religious”? Who decides the answers to those questions? What’s the metric we use to gauge if we’re being successful or not? The question isn’t “how Jewish are we?” or “how religious are we?” The real question is, “How can Judaism help us to become better people and to create a better world?” In short, we need to see Judaism not as an end unto itself, but as a means to an end.

And there are two analogies that I like. First, we can think of Judaism as a language to articulate our values, and second, we can view it as a lens through which we perceive the world.

Let’s start with language. Language is obviously designed to help us communicate, and there are certain similarities across all languages – there are nouns and verbs, certain ways that words can and can’t be put together into sentences, and even a limited number of sounds that the human larynx can produce. But no one speaks “language” – people speak English, or Hebrew, or Chinese, or French, or Swahili. Each of these languages has its own structure, its own grammar, its own way of talking about the world. And so while there are certain universal rules that undergird every human language, how those rules transform themselves into particular languages can vary quite widely.

Similarly, there are certain universal values that undergird human society. Our most basic values – respect, empathy, fairness – aren’t really “religious” values at all. They are human values. That’s why some formulation of the Golden Rule has been expressed in almost every time and every place in human history. So what Judaism gives is us a particular language to talk about those values.

Harvard professor Howard Gardner talks about the difference between “neighborly morality,” which every society is based on, and “the ethics of roles,” which talks about the specific responsibilities we have as family members, as friends, and as citizens. (Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed, 82-87) “Love your neighbor as yourself” is great, but it’s far too broad to apply to the all the complex ethical dilemmas we face. When we need to ask how we respond when someone wrongs us, or are wondering what the financial and legal responsibilities employers have to their employees, we need more than just “be fair” or “think about others.” We need to go in depth on those questions, to explore a variety of sources and responses, and then to create an answer that works for us. Judaism gives us particular ways to try to address those questions. Because in the same way no one speaks “language,” no one can live “morality.” We need specific approaches to talk about these ethical questions in order to try to answer them.

The second analogy for Judaism as a means is to give us is a way to look at the world through a particular lens. After all, what we see, and how we interpret what we see, are what we respond to in this world. There’s a story about a four-year-old boy who was obsessed with cement mixers, fire engines and all kinds of construction equipment. And one day, his uncle took him to a homecoming parade. There were football players, cheerleaders, the school band, even fireworks. But all the boy saw were the floats, led by big 4x4s. Afterwards, his uncle asked him what he thought about the parade. “I loved it!” the boy exclaimed. “That was the best truck parade I’ve been to!” (based on Stone, et al., Difficult Conversations, 31). So yes, there are facts in this world that we cannot change. But we determine what facts we pay attention to, and we determine how we interpret them.

And so Judaism leads us to see the world in particular ways. We are commanded to seek out blessings to celebrate. We are taught that our world is in need of repair and that we can do something about fixing it. We are told that every human being is to be viewed as having been created in the Divine Image, and is therefore worthy of infinite dignity. And we live our Jewish communal experiences the twin lenses of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, which as Rabbi Elliot Dorff notes, “permeate Jewish liturgy and holidays.” (Dorff, To Do the Right and the Good, 4) And as inheritors of not only biblical but rabbinic tradition, we are to challenge, to question, to ask “how do we know this?” So there is a particularly Jewish lens through which we see the world.

But what’s so powerful about viewing Judaism in this way – as a language and as a worldview – is that it doesn’t preclude someone else from having a different language and a different worldview. When religion is a end unto itself, it’s a zero-sum game: “I’m right, you’re wrong.” But when religion is a means and not an end, we can honor the fact that many different methods can lead us to the same end – to a world of justice, compassion and peace. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, none of the above – they can all help us find meaning in our lives and help us build a better world.

And yet as we keep that vision in our mind’s eye, we also need to remember that we need a specific language and a particular worldview in order to help us get there. Writer Cynthia Ozick once taught that “a shofar has a broad end and a narrow end. If you blow in the broad end, you get nothing. If you blow in the narrow end, you get a sound everyone can hear.” (Wolpe, Floating Takes Faith, 17)

Starting on Sunday, October 23, I’m going to be teaching a four-week course called “What’s the Point of All This?” It’s going to look more closely at how Judaism can be the means to lead us to the end we are hoping for – becoming a stronger and kinder human being, opening up our minds and our hearts, striving to build a more just and a more peaceful world. And the curriculum will be the four pillars of our congregation’s mission statement. We’ll look at how Torah can help us clarify our values and give us a language to speak about them. We’ll explore how prayer can raise our awareness of the holy potential of everyday life. We’ll examine what Judaism has to say about the most pressing social and economic issues of our day. And in a world where so much of our communication is in 140 characters or less, we’ll consider how we develop a deeper sense of connection with the people around us. Ultimately, its goal will be to see how we can create religion at its best, in order to enhance ourselves, our society and our world. Because the question isn’t “how Jewish are we?” The question is, “how can Judaism help us to become better people and to create a better world?”

I’ve told the story about Heather’s sukkah potentially becoming a crèche to many people, and one of them was Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the co-president of Clal, a national Jewish think tank that aims to foster religious pluralism. He shared with me that the message he got was that both Heather and the church were focused on the same goal – telling the story’s of New York’s homeless population. But the other piece we need to remember, he told me, was that the church was no less Christian for using a sukkah, and Heather was no less Jewish for making a crèche. And perhaps because he, too, doesn’t believe that religion is an end unto itself, he wrote a book which he entitled You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. And in it, he reminds us that

[r]eligion captures the very best and very worst of who we are, and to see only the best or the worst of religion is a dangerous error. If you see only the good, you become an apologist and take no responsibility for the incredible violence that religion is so capable of unleashing. If you see only the bad in religion, then you miss all the biggest questions, the most profound longings, the deepest fears and the greatest aspirations that define us. When faith is working right it can be profound, inspiring and a great force for positive change in the world, and it can help us lead more giving, productive, and fulfilling lives. (Hirschfield, 9)

The question isn’t “how religious” we are. The question is how we use religion to make ourselves and our world just a little bit better. So if we can see religion as a means, but not an end, then we can realize that someone else doesn’t have to be wrong for us to be right.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – we are all on a journey, all of us hoping to become a little better this year than we were last year, and making a world a little more whole this year than it was last year. So on this Yom Kippur, remind us that the end we are all striving towards are tikkun hanefesh, the repair of our souls, and tikkun ha’olam, the repair of our world. But remind us that there are many paths to that same destination, and that others’ journeys are not our own. And yet also help us remember that we need our own path that we can embrace. So help us find our specific language to articulate our values. Help us see the world through a particular lens. And so most of all, help us to create religion is at its best, when the values of openness and devotion don’t contradict each, but instead, bring out the best in each other.

Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and g’mar chatimah tovah.


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