Monday, April 04, 2011

The Yetzer Haemes (The Inclination to Truth)

In Orthodox Judaism they talk about the yetzer hatov (good inclination) and the yetzer hara (evil inclination) as components of the human psyche. It's obviously an oversimplified version of reality, but so is Freud's id/ego/superego. It can still be a useful concept.

As regular readers know, I've been thinking for a long time about how and why some people become skeptics and others, even very smart and educated ones, continue to believe in what I see as fairy tales. I've investigated various hows like compartmentalization and good, old-fashioned denial, but I haven't really gotten into the why. Why did I stop believing, while others maintain their faith or even harden it?

Subjectively, it feels to me like I have what I'll call a yetzer haemes, the inclination to truth. When I think or hear something that doesn't ring true, I feel a nagging sensation in my brain, analogous to the one I felt when I was a kid and wanted to break a rule that my parents had set, which would have been the yetzer hatov. I feel it when someone I disagree with says something that rings false, but I also feel it even when someone I agree with makes an argument that rings false. It's even caused me to delete some of my own drafts for this blog instead of posting them.

Maybe it's a function of nerdiness. I am a computer programmer, and I have (but fight) that nerd's compulsive desire to "fix" statements that are even just a little imprecise, let alone false. You know that nerd who will interject into a conversation to correct somebody's off-the-cuff remark about something totally unimportant? ("Well, actually, in ancient Rome, the aqueduct was blah blah blah...") That would be me if I hadn't learned how to shut up so I wouldn't get made fun of in middle school*.

There does seem to be a correlation between nerds and atheism. Scientists are disproportionately atheists, science fiction is full of atheism, etc. On the other hand, engineers and accountants are nerds who tend to be believers more often than programmers and scientists do, in my experience -- maybe their need for an orderly, sensible universe combined with a cautious, conservative nature overrides their desire for correctness at all costs. And anyone who knows Orthodox Jews knows there are plenty of nerds who believe, too.

So do other people just not have that yetzer? Or is it much weaker? Or have they just gotten into the habit of ignoring it or running it over? Has religion taught them to ignore it, perhaps identifying it with the yetzer hara? Is it possible that even fundamentalist religions like Orthodox Judaism really ring true to them on that level?

I guess I don't really have any answers. I just thought the concept might be worth thinking about.

*For those who still suffer from this malady, software developer and blogger Miguel de Icaza gets into it in Why you are not getting laid.


Ksil said...

I would say that for an orthopraxer like me, it doesn't matter. I know it's not true, but I get enjoyment out of many things that it provides - the family, the community, the structure, the scholarship.

So while I too have that nagging in the back of my mind, I come back to - eh, who cares! It's all good.

jewish philosopher said...

This yetzer haemes might also be called testosterone. Proof: it seems to be quite strong in teenage boys, less in girls, absent in old ladies.

Ezzie said...

If I wrote something similar you would find it incredibly offensive.

Baruch Spinoza said...

My guess is that this is the battle between the free-minded individualists and the conformist collectivists.

Humans needed (need) to live in groups to survive. A person cannot live all by himself. So people are driven to conform to their group as much as possible. Any deviation from the group would endanger the individual. Indeed, the Socrates of the past who questioned their groups often found themselves to be killed by their groups.

Thus, the human is a group animal by nature. Conformist in his ways. The human accepts the will of his group before his own ideas. If his ideas conflict with the group he will give them up for the will of the group.

Now you speak of an atheist. But the atheist is only representative of the individual vs the group. The atheist must learn how to put his values before that of the group as he can vindicate himself through reason. But at the same time suffer group rejection.

It is not just atheism, but any idea which is a rejection of what the group holds dear. Taking ideas because you are convinced they are right will very much make you distanced from the group. It is very frightened and lonely being the only (or one of the few) people who think different from the group.

Jewish Atheist said...


Thanks for your honesty. :-) I suspected that's the case for a lot of Orthopraxers/MOLites. I know it is for some of the ones I know in person.


I'm not exactly sure what you're getting at, but it might tie into my "nerd" theory a little.


Huh? Why? I might find it ridiculous, but offensive?


I agree that the desire/need/instinct to conform is powerful and plays a strong role in religious belief, but that doesn't exactly tell us what believers do with the "yezter haemes." Is the yetzer haemes muted by the yetzer hatzibur?

Eli said...

Thumbs up fom one computer-programmer atheist to another

anonit said...

So is there also a yetzer hasheker? I think there's at least a yetzer habubbe-meise...

Abandoning Eden said...

I think Spinoza is right but he's only half right. Humans needed to gather in groups to survive, it's true. So there is a strong instinct to conform. But society also needs to have the deviants, the people who question, the people who innovate, in order to progress and ensure survival as well. So we end up with two different types of people- the conformists and the innovators. The conformists vastly outnumber the innovators, but the innovators are just as vital. That's why in every society there is a mainstream culture and a (smaller) counterculture, the counterculture is pushing for progress and new ideas to shape society to be better while the conformists are upholding the traditional way of doing things, which are more tried and true and safe.

In other words, you're either on the bus, or you're off the bus.

Ezzie said...

Basically, if I assigned a trait to atheists (or any group) that would question their innate morality you would be up in arms.

For instance, if I said that blacks were *naturally* more inclined to steal, you would (rightfully) call me racist. I think that's essentially what you've done here, except with religious people vs. not.

I think B. Spinoza above is more on the right track - people are certainly more inclined to be part of a group, with most going through a period of defiance starting in puberty and continuing for varying periods of time - some grow up and understand the side against which they defied, others choose to continue "rebelling". Without commenting on who would be right, this results in individuals leaving whatever the fold (religious, political, whatever) and then unsurprisingly creating/joining their own group on the flip side.

Jewish Atheist said...


1) I didn't assign traits to any group.

2) "Orthodox Jews" is a different kind of group than "blacks." Orthodox Jews are defined by their voluntary beliefs and practices, while "blacks" are more or less defined by birth.

3) I didn't even say that Orthodox Jews don't have a yetzer haemes or anything, I simply asked what they do with it and offered several hypotheses. I don't even think that all OJs do the same thing.

4) Very cute, implying that atheists and other OTDers are just stuck in adolescence. Just lashing out? How would you like if I argued that OJs are just stuck in infancy, where a parent takes care of everything for them and they don't have to make any hard decisions for themselves?

Chioma said...

Hey JA, I have been lurking your blog for a couple of months now. I am a African Christian woman who is currently dating a Jewish man we have been is a serious relationship for three years now. Just a couple of days ago I had dinner with his family and his grandparents happened be over. I overhead his grandfather say that “shikseh’s are for shtoomping, Jewish girls are for marriage.” His parents apologized as well as my boyfriend. He insists that me being a non jew is not a big deal but I am starting to think it does. My parents have expressed concerns for awhile now but I have ignored them. I am now really beginning to worry about this. Do you think that me being a non jew is a serious issue? I know that in the jewish community both men and women are pressured to marry other jews which is perfectly understandable because its the same within my culture. However, I know several asian women that have married jewish men with no real problems. Do you think that the angst has to do with me being African?
Well any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Jewish Atheist said...

Hi Chioma,

It's really hard to say without knowing his family. Intermarriage (between Jew and non-Jew) is a huge deal for a lot of Jews but not a big deal for a lot of others. Since the disgusting comment was made by his grandfather, I can't say what his parents' feelings are and those are probably very important. I've seen Jews break up with non-Jews (and Catholics break up with non-Catholics) even if the idea of intermarriage didn't bother them just because it bothered their parents so much. On the other hand, some people stand up to their parents.

As for being African, it could be a factor, but I think being non-Jewish is a bigger deal. Most Jews just don't seem to be that racist to me other than the whole Jew/non-Jew thing. (Orthodox Jews might have more racists but I'm assuming the man you're dating isn't Orthodox.)

Really it all depends on what your man thinks. I suggest you talk to him and get the real deal, both about his thoughts and his parents'. If marriage is on the table and you have that kind of relationship with his parents, maybe you could even bring it up with them.

If his parents really are against it, and you want to get married, I would caution you against letting him procrastinate on getting engaged because it could be that when that day finally comes, he'll give in to his parents and break up with you instead. But obviously you know him and I don't, so if you think he's the type who will be able to stand up to them, that's your call.

Best of luck!

David Fryman said...

Atheists are no more skeptical than anyone else. You frame atheism as skepticism of religion, but it's just as easily the other way around. Sometimes, religious people become secular and people from secular backgrounds discover religion.

Try framing your question the other way around - what makes so many secularists embrace religion? - and I suspect you'll get some answers.

Jewish Atheist said...

I strongly disagree. While it's true that you don't have to be a skeptic to be an atheist, in a religious country such as the U.S., most atheists are atheists because they are skeptics.

In my experience, and I think you'll find this is true if you look around the net or in real life, people go from religion to secularism for mostly intellectual reasons (or occasionally apathy) while people go from secularism to religion for emotional or social reasons (they want "meaning", comfort, or community.)

Do this exercise. Compare the intellectual arguments made on atheist blogs to those made on BT/Kiruv blogs. I think even you will have to admit that the latter are laughable compared to the former.

Chioma said...


Thanks so much for your reply and great advice. I think that I am going to have a serious heart to heart about this issue with him before it turns into something else. JA, I really think that race is a very real issue for jewish people along with religion. The reason that I bring this up is because being Jewish includes both ethnicity and religion. Mothers are the ones that pass down the jewish lineage.
I think I am just paranoid after that ordeal. I will have to figure this all out. Thanks again for your advice. I enjoy reading your blog you are so insightful!

Jewish Atheist said...


Yeah it really could be -- it depends on the people. I hope everything works out for you.

David Fryman said...

JA, I think that's just confirmation bias on your part. I became religious for intellectual reasons so I have many friends who took a similar path. Off the top of my head, I can think of people who went from religious to secular and secular to religious for a whole variety of reasons, some intellectual, others less so.

As for your comparison of intellectual arguments among blogs: (1) that's an incredibly small sample size and (2) I suspect most of the serious, intellectual proponents of religion aren't writing on Bt/Kiruv blogs (that's just an empirical observation).

In general, trying to link smart people/nerds/"The Yetzer Haemes" to atheism is so obviously silly that I don't even think you really mean it. I'm sure you remember from your yeshiva days the dozens of rishonim and achronim hang-wringing (and writing treatises) about halakhic minutia. Does the Rav, for example, not strike you as a nerd?

Sadie Lou said...

"So do other people just not have that yetzer? Or is it much weaker? Or have they just gotten into the habit of ignoring it or running it over? Has religion taught them to ignore it..."

LOL. This is funny. I was born into a household where religion was not a part of our lives. We had grandparents on my dad's side but they were Catholics and my dad was very free with his feelings about how he felt forced to conform to his parent's religiosity.
By the time I was in high school, I would say that I was an atheist and pretty antagonistic towards people who seemed religious at my school.
As I grew up and matured, I started having this nagging sensation for truth.
My husband became a Christian a year or so into our marriage and I asked him a lot of questions. He told me to start coming to church with him. The nagging feeling grew and grew until it wasn't a nagging feeling but almost a relentless annoyance. It was like stuffing the truth. I finally relented and "got saved". I have never looked back.
(condensed version) LOL

Jewish Atheist said...


It could be confirmation bias, sure. I'd be interested in hearing the intellectual reasons you became religious.

Fair points about the blogs, I guess, but it's not just the blogs. My whole life I've been hearing "Oh all these questions have answers" but any time you dig into what they answers may be you either reach a dead end or a ridiculous argument like the Kuzari.

In general, trying to link smart people/nerds/"The Yetzer Haemes" to atheism is so obviously silly that I don't even think you really mean it.

It's a matter of statistical fact that atheists are smarter on average, but obviously it's not a 1:1. I wrote in my post that there are plenty of Orthodox nerds as well.


Well that is interesting. It's hard for me to believe that religious people are just following their own Inclinations to Truth because the beliefs (resurrection, etc.) seem so obviously false to me, but interesting.

Sadie Lou said...


Well that is interesting. It's hard for me to believe that religious people are just following their own Inclinations to Truth because the beliefs (resurrection, etc.) seem so obviously false to me, but interesting."

Really? If men were going to make up a god and a religion I sincerely would have expected something other than what you find in Scripture-both the Old and the New Testament. Man made gods look more like the Greek gods and goddesses-they are man-centered creations, indulgent in lust, greed, anger, resentment, jealousy...etc. the God of the Holy Bible is so different and contrary to the way men naturally do things. The disciples of Jesus are good example. These guys were lowly guys by the societal standard. Jesus is supposed to be this lofty Son of God but he's spit on, challenged at every turn, disrespected...and yet everything he taught was worthy of respect and honor by anyone's standard-but we see him, at the end of his life, beaten, humiliated, tortured and ultimately killed by those he came to "save".
Then this fantastic story of his resurrection, the apostles giving up their lives and freedom for the just doesn't make a whole of sense to me. Men don't create gods and kings in this fashion. This isn't a human fairytale by any stretch of the imagination.

David Fryman said...

It's a matter of statistical fact that atheists are smarter on average

There are a dozen problems with this oft-repeated fact but that's a whole 'nother discussion.

It's hard for me to believe that religious people are just following their own Inclinations to Truth because the beliefs (resurrection, etc.) seem so obviously false to me

When you look around and see millions of intelligent people basing their entire lives on "beliefs [that] seem so obviously false to [you]," maybe that's a sign you're doing something wrong.

itchemeyer said...

I agree with the first half of the social argument (baruch spinoza above). But theres no special thing about the individuals group either. Biologically, nobody is mevakesh haemes for some ethereal purpose. That's silly. You're mevakesh survival. If you feel the group has your best interests at heart, you'll eat up whatever they serve you as fact. If you don't trust them, for whatever reason (they abuse you, are self-centered, using you) then you're forced to think on your own because you don't feel safe taking their food without testing it, or, eventually, taking their food at all.