Tag Archives: Certainty

Teaching Our Tongue to Say “I Don’t Know”

These were the words I shared on Yom Kippur morning at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. G’mar chatimah tovah!

In the spring of 2006, Stuart Firestein, who is now the chair of the Columbia University biology department, had an idea for a new course he wanted to teach, and he wanted to invite a few guest lecturers to come and speak. But he was a little worried about how his colleagues might respond. Why? Because this course was going to be called “Ignorance,” and as he said, it was going to be a little dicey trying to recruit a colleague by saying, “Hello, Albert, I’m running a course on ignorance, and I think you’d be perfect.” (Firestein, Ignorance, 5)

What Firestein discovered, though, was that his colleagues actually found it very exciting to talk about everything they didn’t know and all the open questions in their fields, such as: do animals have self-awareness? Where does consciousness from? Why is there something instead of nothing? Firestein was reminded that “[while k]nowledge is a big subject, [i]gnorance is bigger [a]nd it is [also] more interesting…” (Firestein, 10-11) Indeed, we often don’t realize the full value of not knowing.

Instead, we tend to crave knowledge and certainty, and it’s easy to see why. It is a complicated world and we lead complicated lives, and as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield teaches: “We long to be certain of how to live, to know that we have found the right thing to which to commit ourselves…” But, as Hirschfield continues, we also see how certainty blinds us to other perspectives, and why we then see “fundamentalists…die-hard Democrats or Republicans, liberals and conservatives shouting back and forth at each other, ranting secularists, [and] raving holy rollers…” (Hirschfield, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, 39-40) Ask any teacher who deals with students turning to the back of the book in order to pass a test, and they’ll tell you that “knowing” can be a big problem, because “knowing” prevents “learning.” And so perhaps that’s why the Rabbis urged us to do something very challenging – to “teach [our] tongue to say ‘I don’t know.’” (Berakhot 4a)

Why did the Rabbis urge us to embrace our ignorance? Because those three words can open up our souls, open up our hearts, and open up our minds. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our souls, we soon discover new ways to talk about and experience God, are reminded to have humility when we speak about the Infinite. When we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our hearts, we soon discover new ways to interact with others, meeting another person with a level of sincerity and depth that we hadn’t experienced before. And when we say “I don’t know” when it comes to our minds, we soon discover new insights and new wisdom, and we find the joy in expanding our horizons.

Let’s begin by seeing how the words “I don’t know” can nourish our souls, because the words “I don’t know” can help us find language to talk about God. One of my passions is examining the interaction of religion and science, and so I end up talking to a lot of atheists. They share with me how they see religious people ignoring science, and thus halting progress on issues such as climate change, gay rights, and reproductive freedom. Or they note that the Bible was a Bronze-Age text, and so we need to move beyond its creation myths and often-barbaric morality. Or they explain that while scientific knowledge can always potentially be overturned by new data, religion forces us to perform mental gymnastics in order to hold onto dogmatic beliefs.

These arguments in favor of science are absolutely valid, but their arguments against religion are less so, because they rail against a particular vision of religion. Religion is a human endeavor – it is a tool, and like any tool, it can be used or misused, depending on how it is applied. So the question becomes how use religion, and it arises from how talk about God. There is a difference between what I refer to as a “top-down theology” and a “bottom-up theology.” A “top-down” theology is an inherently arrogant one, because it begins with the premise, “I know with certainty what God is and what God wants.” This is the vision of religion that atheists – and probably most of us – resist, because it is the form of religion that holds back civil and human rights, ignores scientific fact, and tries desperately to maintain its own power.

But there is another way we can talk about God – one that has a recognition that we will never fully know what God may or may not be. It’s what I would call a “bottom-up” theology, because it begins with our own personal life experiences. The premise here is, “I can’t prove anything about God one way or another. But I do know that I am here on this earth, and that I have a responsibility to myself and to others. I have fears and I have hopes. And so maybe it’s not about ‘proving’ or ‘disproving’ God, but about experiencing God, which happens when I search for meaning and purpose, and make a positive impact on others.” We all hold beliefs – about the world, about how we should behave, about who we are. These beliefs may or may not be provable, but that is less important than exploring how they influence our actions. As Rabbi David Wolpe taught: “Faith is not an idea but a way to live, not a logical proposition but an outcome of encountering a noble soul….I [am] less concerned with what God might be than with what faith in God might make of me.” (Wolpe, Why Faith Matters, 18-20, italics mine)

Without a doubt, religion continues to cause problems in our world. But it causes problems when its certainty leads arrogance, when it claims to “know” for sure who or what God is and what God wants from us. But if, instead, we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know” when we talk about God, we can focus on how we respond to the simple awe and mystery of living. We can talk about our search for connection and meaning, and how we will ensure that our lives will have value. We can realize that the process of grappling with these questions will strengthen our souls. And it will remind us, in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, that “all theology is [really] autobiography,” and that we are all on our own personal journey.

And that leads to the way that teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know” can open our hearts, because it teaches us how to truly listen to one another’s life story. Too often, we make assumptions about other people. We hear that someone is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative, an evangelical Christian or an atheist, and we think that those labels tell us all we need to know about them. But one of the tenets of Judaism is that each individual person is created in the image of God, and each individual person is unique. “A human king stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike,” the Mishnah says, “but God stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) Yes, we all experience hopes and fears, but what gives us hope and what frightens us will be different from person to person. And the only way to truly connect with others is to seek to understand what we don’t yet know about them.

One of my friends and colleagues, Joshua Stanton, is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and he has had the opportunity to work closely with one of the giants in the interfaith world, a man named Eboo Patel. Patel is an Indian Muslim who believes that religion can do great things, but in order for that to happen, we all need to learn how to be both grounded in our own religious tradition and open to other perspectives. So Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core, in the hopes of inspiring young people to strengthen their knowledge, attitudes and relationships among different faiths. Patel was on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and has spoken about the need for stronger interfaith work at a TED conference, the Clinton Global Initiative, and even the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.

I asked my friend Josh what he has learned from Patel, and he shared with me this story:

About a year ago, Eboo decided to take a group of [us]…out to dinner. He chose a casual (but delicious!) pizza place on the Upper West Side… Just that month he had gone to meet with the President [and] shared the podium with countless national and international leaders…In all of these areas, he had been…speaking, sharing his ideas, and persuading others with words to engage in important deeds.

But that night, he was quiet. Very quiet, in fact. Sitting with [us], he asked “What are you doing that means most to you?”… Then, he went around listening to all of our responses…
It felt strange being in the presence of a world-class leader, who was more interested in hearing about our lives than in teaching us about his own…

So I ask[ed] him why it was that he was being so taciturn. He responded: “Every day, people ask me to talk. Every day, I have to express my ideas. But I learn most when listening…If we are to have real engagement of young people in the interfaith movement, then I first need to stop and listen.”

In essence, Eboo was saying that he needed to learn before he could teach; that we were the focus of his work, not merely another target audience for his words; that we were the experts of our own lives, and that he needed to stop and listen, because he didn’t know about our lives and the world in which we lived quite like we did. In order to foster the next generation of religious leaders, he first had to respond to his understanding that he didn’t know – at least not as well as he might, after listening to each of our stories. (personal correspondence with Joshua Stanton)

There is far too much talking and far too little listening in our world today. Whether that’s on 24-hour news shows, Facebook feeds, or even in our relationships with each other, we tend to be much more interested in sharing our own perspective than in hearing another’s. But real people are not caricatures – real people are complex, challenging, and multi-faceted. So if we can step back and say, “I don’t know you as well as I perhaps should,” then we open our hearts, and create deeper and more meaningful relationships.

There is a third and final way we can find value in teaching our tongue to say “I don’t know,” and that is how it opens our minds. When we do a Google search or peruse on Wikipedia and see just how much we don’t know, then our natural curiosity can drive us to learn something new. While we often think of education and learning as occurring when we’re young, the truth is, we are constantly learning – and we can never stop. Our world is changing so rapidly, and as Alvin Toffler, a man whose expertise is on what the future will bring, argues, “In the future, illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read and write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” (quoted in Thomas Friedman, “New Rules,” 9/9/12)

That outlook is actually a very Jewish one, because more than Judaism has celebrated knowledge, it has truly honored learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches:

Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life. Mistakenly viewing learning as a form of conquest leads to the gradual loss of competence in a given field – that is why so many professions require continuing education to be able to remain active…Knowledge and wisdom do not merely grow stale; they dissipate if not freshened every day. (The Bedside Torah, 238)

Judaism is not a religion that proclaims it has the answers. Instead, Judaism is a religion that strives to help us ask good questions, because it is questions and not answers that truly expand our learning.

And so this year, under the guidance of our adult education committee, chaired by Maxine Olson, we have sought to expand the learning here at Temple Beth El. Downstairs in the Great Hall, you will find our program book for our new Campus of Living Judaism, which has the details on all the ways we can learn together. If you want, you can learn with clergy over breakfast on Sunday mornings with our “Food for Thought” classes. In the fall, we will be asking, “Should Religion Influence Politics?”, in the winter we will be exploring, “Can You Be Jewish Without God?” and in the spring, we will be examining what it would mean to have “An Ethical Economy.” Or, if you’d like, you can have private dinners with several well-known and up-and-coming authors. Or, if you prefer, you can hear about the state of the world from experts like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren through our 92nd St. Y simulcasts.

Additionally, on the right-hand panel of your service insert, you will see these and other adult learning opportunities. As we do on Rosh Hashanah, I’d ask you to notch off any topics that might spark your interest. Maybe it’s a subject that excites you, or maybe it’s an issue that you’d like to learn a new perspective on, or maybe it’s a refresher on something that didn’t totally stick from Hebrew school. You’ll be doing it anonymously, and so at the end of the service, I’d ask you to place your notched service inserts into the boxes at the back of the sanctuary. We hope you’ll find these opportunities inspiring and thought-provoking – and if there’s something we’re missing that you want to see, be sure to let us know!

Because ultimately, we are all simply struggling with the questions of life: how do we act? How do we strengthen our relationships? How do we find joy and fulfillment in our lives? How do we repair our world? We have to remember that we can’t be looking to “know the answer” to those questions, because those questions aren’t ones where we can simply look in the back of the textbook. Instead, if we can teach our tongue to say “I don’t know,” then we can find humility, and openness, and curiosity. We can remember that it’s not about “knowing the answers,” but about “creating our responses” – to God, to others, and to ourselves.

Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors – we live in a world with many unanswered questions. And while we may desire the ease of simple answers, of certainty, of knowing, remind us of the value of teaching our tongue to say those three crucial words: “I don’t know.” Because those words can open up our minds, leading us to strive to continue learning. Those words can up open our hearts, leading us to deeply connect with others. And most of all, those words can open up our souls, leading us to grow in goodness, in holiness and in wholeness and peace.

Amen and g’mar chatimah tovah.

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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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