Monday, June 26, 2006

Quote of the Day: Intellectual Energy Wasted on Theology

I think a lot of intellectual energy over the centuries has gone into religious matters. Think of all the monks devoting themselves to fine points of theological doctrine -- monks and rabbis and bonzes and Moabs, imams, down through the years devoting so much talent and energy to questions of theology. In a way science provides an alternative way of using your mind. This is something else where you can use human intelligence. It has several advantages. It has the advantage that we have ways of finding out we're wrong about things. I've had that experience in my life -- most scientists have -- of having a theory that I thought was bound to right shown to be wrong by experiments -- its a very cleansing experience. (Nobel-prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg, Interview, via The Secular Outpost.)

Not the Godol Hador finally gets around to asking, "Is Orthodox Judaism Bad for You?" He lists several possible reasons it is, mostly about moral or ethical questions regarding Orthodox Jewish beliefs and halakha. In the comments, I added the following comment before passing along Weinberg's quote:

What about the wasting of some of the world's best minds? If a Talmudic genius were raised by atheists instead of hasidim, perhaps he would have cured cancer. Perhaps a cohen not going to medical school because of gross anatomy would have saved a thousand lives. What about all the Hasidic or RWO [right-wing Orthodox] women raising 12 kids despite having minds as keen as any man's?

Obviously, I'm not saying there's no place for Talmudic scholars or women who want twelve kids -- it should of course be their choice -- but raising another generation of Orthodox youth might have negative effects beyond the ones you listed.


jewish philosopher said...

"Intellectual Energy Wasted on Theology"

I'm sure much less than the intellectual energy wasted on television, sports, music, movies and a million other varieties of idle entertainments which benefit no one.

Flippy said...

Your life isn't very fun, is it?

asher said...

How about the real time wasters - Buddisk Monks who sit around and meditate all day. What a waste! They are meditating on what? In all these years of internal speculation have they cured a single disease, invented a single apparatus, or even written anything resembling creativity?


David said...

>>What about the wasting of some of the world's best minds?

I'll take 'assuming your conclusion' for 500. Hey look, it's a Daily Double.

Jewish Atheist said...


And learning in kollel all day is less wasteful?


The post in question was assuming Orthodox Judaism isn't true. If it is true, obviously learning Torah is a very valuable use of your time.

Ezzie said...

And, even if it was all not true, consider that many (most?) inventions were made by people who were simply trying to make life easier/more efficient - often for religious purposes. If not for religion, would literacy have ever become a large cause? Would we have ever gotten to the technology level we're at? Considering that Jews are often credited with higher IQs largely because of the intense critical thinking they've put in over centuries, it seems that we wouldn't be. (Sorry for the tone, I really didn't like this post for some reason.)

Jewish Atheist said...


You do raise a good point. Certainly a lot of good has come out of religion in the past, which raises the possibility that good will come out of today's religion as well. Would secular Jews have been able to make such astounding contributions to Western culture and understanding of the world if their ancestors hadn't been religious? How literate would we be if not for the mass-production of the Bible? How long would it have taken to discover genetics without a monk named Mendel? How many of today's modern Orthodox or formerly Orthodox people sharpened their minds studying Talmud before moving on to more "practical" fields? Very good point, Ezzie.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I have some sympathy with your post, because I'm aware that theologians sometimes do waste their time on utterly worthless matters. The classic Christian example is speculation about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I don't want to put other people's religion down, but Jewish casuistry sometimes seems to me to be just as much a waste of time and intellectual energy.

But not all theology is of that ilk. For example, how about theologians who wrestle with questions about medical ethics? I strongly believe that society benefits when multiple voices and multiple perspectives are brought to bear on important issues.

In my view, questions of values and ethics are important, right up there with physical objectives like curing cancer. By grappling with such issues from a theistic perspective, theologians can make a meaningful contribution to the public weal.

But I admit, sometimes I wonder whether I wouldn't have made a better decision if I had focussed on something other than theology when I first charted my course into adulthood.

Jewish Atheist said...


Sure, where theology coincides with ethics/morality/meaning/psychology, it can be very useful, no doubt. But perhaps such things would be more useful when not diluted/tempered by theology. (Example: stem-cell research.)

Also, I would like to say again how much I value your contributions here... even if just for the vocabulary lessons. :-) "Casuistry." Interesting.

dbs said...


I have this feeling that talmud (with all the intellectual acrobatics, etc.) is sort of a anesthesia for independant thinking. It sure feels like you're thinking, but really it's just sudoku. I don't know where all of that brainpower would go without it. The interesting thing to think about is that there may not BE that much brainpower concentrated in the OJ world if it weren't for the focus on study. We selectively breed for brains (certainly not for a good outside jump shot), and the learned were revered and got more than their fair share of the morsels.

But, hey, I'm just talmudizing on about this...

lightseeker said...

I really enjoyed this post. Of course I grew up in an atheist environment that scorned religion as a complete waste of time and intellect, much as the religious world scorns hedonism and almost any other pursuit not associated with learning as a total waste of time. I am so often amused by the similarity in the views of each side.

I am also biased enough to believe that thousands of years of breeding for intellect has worked. Unfortunately when only one intellectual outlet (Torah study) is privileged above all the rest, people that are naturally adept in other areas such as science and math will often not achieve their potential. The history books are littered with Jews that have made contributions to mankind, but most of them have left their religious roots to do so.

When Buddhist’s practice, they often dedicate their meditation by sharing merit with all beings everywhere, so they may come to the end of suffering. They believe there is an energetic consequence to what we think about and do, and that this can be perceived. “When we have insight into the true nature of things, when we offer something out of care, when we develop a loving heart, we are engaged in meritorious actions.” (Sharon Salzburg, Loving Kindness). They believe they are creating energy which improves the world.

They are certainly improving their own lives and benefiting the people around them. It may not be the Nobel Prize, but hardly a waste of time. And at least in Buddhism – they are encouraged to follow their own heart, so if they are the next Einstein, they probably won’t get stuck debating Talmud all their life.

Ezzie said...

JA - Thanks for understanding it the right way.

asher said...


And how is that attempt by buddists any different for praying for someone, or praying for the betterment of the whole world?
Can you imagine all the positive energy created by all the Jews on shabbat when they pray for the welfare of the Jewish people, the betterment of society and the health of the world?

Call yourself an atheist!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I should clarify, I don't mean the sort of theological reasoning that begins with predetermined conclusions.

But theologians are much concerned with what it means to be human, what marks the beginning of human life, what is consistent with the dignity of a human being, etc. Insofar as theology offers a distinctive perspective on the issues, it can complement the insights of other ethicists.

And thanks for the kind words. I didn't realize "casuistry" was such a technical term; but now I've consulted a couple of English dictionaries and I see that they are no help at all.

Jewish Atheist said...

BTW folks, Pseudo-Polymath has responded with a post of his own.

David said...

>>The post in question was assuming Orthodox Judaism isn't true. If it is true, obviously learning Torah is a very valuable use of your time.

Can't you replace "Orthodox Judaism" with almost anything there? If physics turns out not to be true, then a whole lot of scientists are wasting their time too, aren't they?

Jewish Atheist said...

If physics turns out not to be true, then a whole lot of scientists are wasting their time too, aren't they?

No. Physics is falsifiable, so it something turns out to be false, we'll usually find out. I guess you could make the argument about string theory, though.

Shlomo said...

When our assumptions about the Natural world are challenged, we change our position to match the knowledge. It's called honesty.

"Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?"

Carl Sagan

Nubian Nerd said...

Not only could the intellectual energies and efforts devoted to religion be more profitably used, but religious faith encourages very harmful patterns of thought. I’m not here referring simply to terrorist and religious extremist. Rather, I’m underscoring that religion encourages a type of intellectual irresponsibility which often spills over into other areas of life, such as education, research and politics. I suspect that religious acculturation significantly contributes to the intellectual laziness that dominates American society. Just look at how many of us go around spouting the ‘talking points’ of our nation’s leaders (on both the right and left) with little or no critical engagement. For lay church members, religion encourages habits of mental carlessness