Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Religion, Health, and Happiness: What Causes What?

I've posted before about the correlation between religious belief and/or attendance with longevity, fewer depressive symptoms, and low blood pressure. At the time, I assumed that religion caused those benefits, and asked, What's an Atheist to Do?

Turns out, I may have jumped the gun on causation. Via Abandoning Eden, a new experiment shows that
the presence of a receptor that regulates general serotonin activity in the brain correlates with people's capacity for transcendence, the ability to apprehend phenomena that cannot be explained objectively. Scientists have long suspected that serotonin influences spirituality because drugs known to alter serotonin such as LSD also induce mystical experiences. But now they have proof from brain scans linking the capacity for spirituality with a major biological element.

The concentration of serotonin receptors normally varies markedly among individuals. Those whose brain scans showed the most receptor activity proved on personality tests to have the strongest proclivity to spiritual acceptance.

I take from this that there's a good chance that a common underlying factor may cause both increased religiosity and increased health and happiness.

What does this mean for atheists? Well, for one, it means that even if we "found" religion, it might not bring with it the health and happiness benefits.

Second, ironically, it's just more confirmation that we're probably right about the whole God thing. Read the quote again. "The presence of a receptor... correlates with people's capacity for transcendence, the ability to apprehend phenomena that cannot be explained objectively." That's kind of a polite way to say that the presence of that receptor correlates with people's capacity to see things that aren't there.

That confirms previous research, summed up by psychologist Martin Seligman:
[T]here is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately.

Maybe religion is just a side-effect of a "reality distortion gene," which evolved to increase happiness and health, even at the expense of clear seeing.

Friday, July 18, 2008

How Orthodox Will My Wedding Be?

So, I'm engaged. Yay! I've been debating whether to talk about this because it pretty much gives away my identity to anybody who both knows me in real life and reads my blog... but then I thought, how bad can you be if you read my blog? :-) And, what's this blog for if not to discuss this sort of thing? Please respect my privacy if you figure out who I am. (But let me know by email, as I'm interested to see who YOU are!)

So anyway, we're just starting to plan the wedding. My fiancée and her family are Jewish but not Orthodox, my fiancée is a non-religous semi-agnostic, I of course am an atheist, and my parents are Orthodox. (Long-time readers may recall that I decided to only date Jews a couple of years ago so that I wouldn't break my parents' misguided hearts by marrying out. Obviously, that one worked out.)

We have just started negotiations with my parents regarding their needs. Here are the issues that have come up so far:

Shabbos and Kosher

Obviously, the wedding cannot be on a Saturday or my parents and half our guests wouldn't be able to attend and it must be kosher, or they won't be able to eat. Not a big deal, although a Sunday wedding requires us to either have it on a three-day weekend or put a burden on the mostly non-religious guests coming in from out of town who would have to go to work on Monday morning.

The Rabbi

I do not believe in God. I do not believe in Orthodox Judaism. To have an Orthodox rabbi officiate at my wedding, then, would make the ceremony less meaningful to me and make me feel like a hypocrite. If I were going to have a rabbi at all, I would want a Humanistic one, but obviously, he or she wouldn't count. And if he was a gay man or she was a woman, that would make the Orthodox people extra uncomfortable.

Considering it's our wedding, shouldn't we be allowed to create a ceremony that reflects our love and beliefs and nothing else? Why do we need all this religiocultural bullshit?

Yet my father insists it must be an Orthodox rabbi. Why does he get to insist? It's not his wedding. It doesn't directly affect him. I tried to press him on this and he just said that we wouldn't "really" be married if it weren't an Orthodox wedding. I also got some dark, vague muttering about future problems with kids and/or divorce if the wedding isn't halakhic.

But you don't even technically need a Rabbi to have a halakhic wedding! This debate is ongoing, although I'm leaning towards finding the most liberal Orthodox rabbi I can and negotiating with him just to make my parents happy.


My fiancée and I want nothing to do with traditional, single-sex dancing. Admittedly, this is not so much an ideological issue as an aesthetic one, but neither of us would feel at home at our own wedding if we had it. My parents originally expected this and seemed okay with it (they are pretty modern, by Orthodox standards) but then a couple of days ago, my mom called and said that an Orthodox rabbi might not perform the ceremony if we didn't have at least the first dance be separate.

Well, what kind of hypocritical bullshit is that? Either mixed dancing is completely out of bounds, in which case the rabbi should have nothing to do with the wedding, or it's acceptable, in which case, what difference does the first dance make?

I think we're standing firm on this one, and if we're lucky, maybe that will get us out of the Orthodox rabbi question as well.

Blessings at the Reception

We haven't discussed this yet, but we want no part in any benching or sheva brachos. I'd probably be willing to have someone make motzi if necessary.

Wearing a Kippah

I obviously don't wear a kippah (a.k.a yarmulka.) I know my father will be embarrassed if I don't wear one to the reception (I'm willing to do it for the ceremony, I think) but I'd feel like a fraud wearing it. I think my dad's just going to have to deal with that one.

Not Being Counted as One Who Left

One of the things that bothers me the most about the Orthodox community is the way people who go off the derech just disappear. We obviously have to leave the community when we stop being religous, but we're also expected to sort of pretend to be religious when we come home and to not rock the boat. Any discussion about us has the furtive, whispery quality of a bunch of Victorians discussing a sexual deviant. From within the community, you'd barely know that anybody who grew up there ever left (or was gay, etc.) This marginalizes those who leave and it leaves the kids who are thinking about leaving without any positive role models. I emphatically do not want to give the impression to anybody that I'm still Orthodox.

Rituals and Other Concerns

In addition to being uncomfortable with giving the appearance of supporting Orthodox Judaism by having an Orthodox wedding, there are a number of specific things that really get my goat.
  1. The notion of buying/acquiring the woman with a ring. The Orthodox ceremony is based on the idea that the man is buying the woman. Besides being entirely distasteful and out of date, this might make a modern ceremony with a ring exchange difficult AND, due to Talmudic nitpicking, will restrict us from using the actual wedding band we want during the ceremony because it has diamonds in it.
  2. The notion that virgins are worth more money. This is in the standard ketubah. Spin all you want, that's basically what it says.
  3. The idea that we're getting married "according to the traditions of Moses and Israel." Uh, no. We're getting married according to the traditions of America. She's not 12 years old and I'm planning on being monogamous.
  4. The fact that the Orthodox rabbi would not perform an intermarriage or gay marriage. Would I have someone who refused to perform marriages for black people officiate my wedding? How can I support such a person? My father suggested that the rabbi might even investigate my fiancée's background to make sure she's halakhically Jewish. She is, but how intrusive and offensive is that??
  5. The fact that Orthodoxy doesn't consider me (or, of course, my fiancée) a kosher witness. We need two kosher witnesses and yet neither of us is considered good enough to witness at someone else's Orthodox wedding.
  6. The breaking of the glass for the Temple. I know there are other interpretations of this event, but I can't in good faith say that I mourn the destruction of the Temple or hope for it to be rebuilt.
  7. The yichud room. (For those who don't know, this is where the bride and groom go immediately following the ceremony in order to have the opportunity to consummate the marriage. Although they generally don't actually do that in there, the idea is that they could.) This is just plain creepy and it contributes to the idea that premarital sex is wrong, which I do not agree with.
  8. The rabbi's speech. Obviously, I can't have a rabbi up there speaking from our chuppah going on and on about God and how we must raise our children as religious Jews. I'm assuming I'll be able to keep the rabbi on some sort of leash here, but that remains to be seen.
Final Thoughts

We went into this process naively thinking that we would graciously accommodate my family by having kosher food and a Sunday wedding and then everything else would fall into place. It's not going to be that easy.

The problem is that anytime we want one thing and Orthodoxy demands another, it's just what we "want" versus what my parents "need." Orthodoxy is so rigid that compromise is impossible (except, hopefully, regarding the mixed dancing.) So we volunteer to have kosher food and a Sunday wedding, which are substantially different from what we would prefer, and we get nothing in return. We try to be gracious, and they just make more demands. Unless we are extremely careful and willing to get confrontational on things we absolutely do not want to compromise on, Orthodoxy will just take over the whole thing and it will feel like any other Orthodox wedding. Maybe my father will be able to compromise on the rabbi. It's just so hard to tell what's negotiable when everything is supposedly non-negotiable.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Quote of the Day: Do Skeptics Take Religion More Seriously?

And now we reach the group whom I perhaps love best, the skeptics, atheists and those who went off-the-derech. I know this group intimately well, for the simple fact that I understand the thought behind such a process.

There are different types of skeptics, atheists and irreligious Jews, of course, and far be it from me to force them all into one category. However, I believe I understand the two main derivations.

Those of you who left our religion due to the cruelty you had practiced upon you, the stifling nature of its constituency, the negative experiences you had and the fact that you were taught as a rule that you could not fulfill your dreams within its bounds, I have been you, and still am you at times.

And those of you who left after intellectual inquiry, having been persuaded by the science of our times, or the history, or whatever else it was you found which did not seem to stand before the Torah, I respect you. Because to me what this means is that your religion mattered enough for you to struggle, to invest the time and the energy into working through it and trying to prove it right, or more importantly, trying to follow wherever your search took you. And I believe that when you go up to God, you can honestly say that you tried your hardest to discover Him, and that your search was not an apathetic one, but a passionate one, fraught with meaning, and yet you did not. And so perhaps to the skeptic or atheist most of all, religion has meaning, for it was the fact that it had meaning which led him to question it and finally to leave it.

The Curious Jew, How to Love Every Jew.

I've always thought that us skeptics take religion more seriously than most religious people. If God exists, would He want us to search for the truth or to hold onto the religion we were born into for dear life, avoiding tough questions and settling on whatever apologetics we can?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Question of the Day: What if the Documentary Hypothesis Were Proven?

Suppose archeologists discover four separate manuscripts dating to the time of Ezra, perfectly corresponding to the J, P, E, and D sources hypothesized by the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis. The manuscripts are quickly verified as authentic by all the leading experts. What effect, if any, would this have on the Orthodox attrition rate?

This question based on my latest comment at Three Jews, Four Opinions.

How Religion Causes Good Men to Do Evil, Part II

Abandoning Eden's parents have told her that they won't attend her wedding to a non-Jew.
I understand that you would wish for us to attend the ceremony planned for next April. However, asking us to attend puts us in a direct conflict of our values. As you must know, based upon your upbringing, education and communications we have had in the past, we are very committed to an orthodox Jewish lifestyle. I've even completed three parts of a "smicha" program, most recently receiving a rabbinical certificate this past January at the Yerushalayim Kotel concentrating on Jewish marriage laws. Unfortunately, as much as you say you love B, and I believe you do, Jewish law does not recognize a marriage between a Jewish person and a person of another faith.
Our attendance at such an event would be at the least a meaningless gesture and, at worst, might somehow convey the false impression that we recognize or sanction this arrangement.

Our hearts and home will always be open to you. You are always welcome and I hope you continue to maintain your relationship with us. If anything, we continue to hope that, as time passes, we will continue to foster an even closer relationship. We are not rejecting you as a person. However, with all due love and respect, we must decline your invitation to attend the planned April ceremony.

Abandoning Eden's parents are in a difficult position, because, as her father notes, they have a conflict between their love for their daughter and their religious values. However, to choose their religious beliefs over their child's happiness reflects a complete lack of humility about their belief system. If we could only convince them and others like them that their religious values are based on outdated myths and stories which are just not true, this sort of tragedy wouldn't happen.

(Previously: How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to Do Evil, Intermarriage and Interdating Part I, Part II)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Flatfish Update -- Transitional Fossils Found!

A few years ago (!) I wrote a post called The Bat, the Bird, and the Flatfish about how those animals are better explained by evolution than by intelligent design.

To me, it's obvious that this flatfish evolved from an earlier fish with eyes on opposite sides of its head. Many of my readers, of course, were unconvinced, saying that it makes perfect sense for God to have created the flatfish just the way it is.

Well here's some more evidence for evolution:
Fossil evidence had already shown that flatfish ancestors had one eye on each side of the head. But no evidence had existed for a transition between a symmetrical skull and one-sided skull. Matt Friedman, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, looked more closely at 45-million-year-old fossils of primitive flatfish and found the transition species: One eye had moved, but it had not crossed the midline of the fish’s body, as seen in today’s flatfish, Friedman reports.

The fossils, Friedman says, deliver a clear picture of how this flatfish group changed from a standard fish with eyes on both sides to one with eyes on only one side of the head.

The flatfish eyes and skeletal structure underwent small, incremental changes, says Alex Schreiber, a developmental biologist who studies flatfish at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and was not involved in the study. The fishes’ evolution was, in essence, gradual, he says.

I'm sure this will finally convince all the creationists who have been holding out due to the "missing links" in the fossil record and we'll never have to argue about evolution again. ;-)

Tip o' the hat to Frum Heretic.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Yielding to Doubt

Great post by Kevin Parry of Memoirs of an ex-Christian:

I recently received an email from a Christian struggling with uncertainty, and his anguish was something that I could completely relate to. But what struck me most about his email is that his doubt in God was followed by a form of self-abasement. The question “Does God really exist?” was followed by “What is wrong with me?” The feeling of guilt that accompanies doubt is, I believe, a result of two general Christian beliefs: the first, that doubt is undesirable; the second, that God is perfect, and thus cannot be blamed for an undesirable situation. In other words, doubt is a problem; and if we doubt, we are to blame.

As a doubting Christian, I also believed there was something seriously wrong with me when I tried in vain to get some sense of God. But the one thing that I slowly realised is that the problem didn't lie with me at all, but with Christianity (or with God, if he exists). I couldn't for the life of me understand why a loving God would hide himself from me, and cause me so much anguish through the doubt I was experiencing. One day I came to the conclusion that a hidden God is no different to a God who doesn't exist. If there is no difference, I reasoned, then why waste energy and time – and experience so much anguish – believing in him.

When I finally gave up Christianity, doubt no longer remained an issue. No longer did I have to expend so much mental energy trying to believe in invisible demons, virgin births, parting seas, and people rising from the dead – things that seem so contradictory, incredible, and counter to everyday experience and common sense. I felt a strange sense of relief when I finally changed to a worldview that seemed more consistent with what I plainly observed in the world around me.

I now view doubt as an opportunity for change, no longer as a threat. Questioning my own beliefs has lead to growth as it has enabled me to discover problems in my thinking. In the words of Dan Barker in Losing Faith in Faith, I conquered doubt by totally yielding to it, and I think – for me at least – I am better for it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Documentary Hypothesis vs. Orthodox Tradition

New blog Three Jews, Four Opinions is starting what promises to be an interesting project.
I am formally launching the Torah Min Hashamayim / Documentary Hypothesis Project. In a very long-term ongoing series of blog posts, I will comprehensively examine and analyze, in detail, the arguments for and against both Torah Min Hashamayim [Torah from Heaven] and the Documentary Hypothesis. I have been meaning to do this for myself for a long time, and this blog will provide a good opportunity to do so.

As I argued in a comment to a previous post, attacking this problem formally is a little silly, considering the intellectual bankruptcy of the TMH position. It's a little like opening up a serious project to examine evolution vs. young-Earth creationism. If people were going to be convinced by the preponderance of evidence, they wouldn't believe in TMH to begin with.

But it should be fun and informative reading.

Previously: Who Wrote the Bible?

Monday, July 07, 2008

Link Roundup

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Obama to One-Up Bush on Faith-Based Initiatives

Well, that's disappointing. Obama:

Well, I still believe it’s a good idea to have a partnership between the White House and grassroots groups, both faith-based and secular. But it has to be a real partnership – not a photo-op. That’s what it will be when I’m President. I’ll establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The new name will reflect a new commitment. This Council will not just be another name on the White House organization chart – it will be a critical part of my administration.

Now, make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that idea – so long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against them – or against the people you hire – on the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. And we’ll also ensure that taxpayer dollars only go to those programs that actually work.

So you're going to give a bunch of federal tax dollars to churches, temples, and mosques if they promise to use it for secular (i.e. actual) charity? Are you going to stop them from taking the money they previously spent on secular charity and redirecting it towards proselytizing? Are you going to police them carefully so they don't proselytize while spending federal dollars on secular charity? Are you going to have constant audits to make sure that dollars aren't directed at some religions more than others? Do Scientology and Falun Gong get to play, or does a group have to be at least as established as, say, the Mormons?


What am I Allowed to Believe?

That's the question that many Orthodox Jews have to ask themselves. Take this post, titled Should I Argue Against Evolution or for a G-d Directed Evolution?
I have a work associate who seems interested in Torah, but he likes to challenge me about contradictions between Torah and science and other things. He recently asked me about the Torahs views on Evolution.

On the one hand, I could say that that I don’t believe in evolution and there are many holes in evolution theory and that scientists are biased against a belief in G-d. On the other hand, many secular Jews accept the scientific consensus that evolution did take place, and I could make the case that a G-d directed evolution would not necessarily contradict the Torah.

My Rav holds that you don’t have to take a 6,000 year creation literally.

What approach makes more sense when dealing with non observant Jews?

Wikipedia's page on intellectual dishonesty should redirect to that post.

The poster isn't interested in what's true, but in what he is allowed to believe ("My Rav holds that you don’t have to take a 6,000 year creation literally") and what beliefs would be useful ("What approach makes more sense when dealing with non observant Jews?")

Commenter Michoel worries that the poster is not being careful enough:
Jack wrote that his Rav holds that one may believe in a universe which is more than 6,000 years. Somehow you took that to mean that one can believe in Evolution. That is an enormous leap.

Heaven forbid we come to the erroneous conclusion that one "can" believe in evolution. A rabbi must give us explicit permission!

Bob Miller spells out a method for coming to a belief that is consistent with the Torah:
Step 1 is to understand the Torah’s account of creation and subsequent history in light of the entire Mesorah, including the opinions of Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim, etc. With a comprehensive inside view on all levels (”Pardes”) one can begin to see which of today’s physical/biological theories may be consistent with a Torah view and which may not.

To be fair, a few commenters did jump in to point out that there is, in fact, overwhelming evidence of evolution. I just think it's crazy that people care more about what they are allowed to believe than what's true.