Thursday, April 21, 2011

Excerpts from the Orthoprax Haggadah

"Now we are slaves, next year free."
The seder is both a celebration of our freedom and a recognition of the ways in which we still hope for freedom. On the one hand, we are relatively free from dogma and free from indoctrination. We have clarity of mind about religion and the natural world, which is a significant achievement.

At the same time, as orthopraxers, we often don't have freedoms we want. We may not have the freedom to speak our minds openly. We may not have the freedom to act as we want. More importantly, we may not be free from emotional confusion or cognitive dissonance about our lifestyles, and we may not have clarity about how best to live orthoprax lives. And so at the seder, we consider how we may be more free at this time next year--what we can change internally or externally to find emotional freedom and happiness.

"In the beginning, our forefathers were idolaters."
Here we recognize the chain that has led us to our present state. Our forefathers long ago were polytheists, who believed they had to appease many gods with religious rituals. Later generations recognized that the world could be more simply and better explained by one personal God. In our day, we recognize that there are even simpler and better explanations for the world and for the origin of religious ritual.

"Of four sons spoke the Torah..."
"The wise son:"
This is the orthopraxer who is "smart" about his orthopraxy, managing to fit in despite it. As you will notice, he does not speak of beliefs, or Torah and science. He simply discusses Jewish law and practice, and he is answered in kind--he lives in this world of practice and avoids conflicts with beliefs, happy to make meaning of the rituals to which he is accustomed. He is probably Zionistic, feels a sense of Jewish identity, and reads Kugel.

"The wicked son."
This is the "naughty" orthopraxer, who cannot help but point out what appears odd to him: why are people still following a Bronze age myth? He is considered wicked by the haggadah because he does not care to fit in; he would roll his eyes at this. This orthopraxer probably reads Dawkins and Pharyngula. It is notable, though, that he chooses to be at the seder to begin with. He may not know why and he may struggle with it, but for whatever reason, he is there.

"The simple son."
This refers to the simple believers or ba'alei tshuva who accept whatever they are told.

"The one who does not know how to ask."
Here are any frum people, particularly intellifundies, who simply don't understand the weight of the questions and conflicts in the minds of skeptics. They have faith that all questions can be answered, or else they read responses to biblical criticism or evolutionary theory without understanding the questions themselves. This is because they do not really know how to ask.

You will notice that there are not any orthoprax daughters listed. This is a shame.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On Responses to the Ami Orthopraxy Article

"He just started asking questions and looking for answers in books. And like others before him, he could not find any that had any basis in his religious beliefs...Even though these people are not ‘missionaries’ about their atheism, when asked they are very effective at arguing their case – pointing to various internet sites that support their views...

If we are intellectually honest and have ever thought about some of the issues raised by science and other disciplines those questions have at least entered our minds. Most of us reject them immediately as our faith is stronger than our doubts..but there are a large number of people who cannot so easily dismiss those questions."

"The intellectual challenges to Judaism are very real. Fortunate are those of us whose sense of Divine providence in Jewish history, and whose appreciation of the nature and role of the Torah, as well as other factors, enables us to maintain belief in revelation; but if we are honest, we will acknowledge that there are nevertheless intellectual challenges to which Judaism presently does not have a good response. Can we really be hostile towards those who consider the challenges overpowering?"

"They simply left their emunah behind, following instead a nonsensical thought process [editorial: I think that's Yeshivish for "logic"] into the thicket of apikorsus."
-The Ami Article

Goodness. No wonder Ami feels so intimidated by the orthoprax. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that if you actually follow logic and scientific knowledge where they lead you, they lead away from orthodox dogma.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wired for Religion...At the Expense of Science?

In this excellent article, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom discusses some psychological origins of religious and supernatural beliefs. It nicely summarizes and expands on a number of ideas I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

While I highly recommend the full article, I found one idea particularly noteworthy. To give some background--Bloom describes how we seem to have two separate innate systems for reasoning about inanimate or animate objects. This makes sense: inanimate objects are acted upon by causal forces, whereas animate beings can move on their own, so it is useful to divide the world into these categories. However, we naturally essentialize this difference, treating them as two distinct categories of things--matter and mind--and we thus become natural dualists. In Bloom's words:

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.

Our animacy detection is so hypersensitive to finding agents that we see intention and goals where there are none. This gets to the striking point in the last sentence above: it means that we are not just intuitive dualists--we are intuitive creationists as well. Bloom quotes Richard Dawkins as saying that it often seems "as if the human brain is specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism." (Spend five minutes in a blog thread with creationists and you will know what he means.) In a way, Bloom suggests, this is actually true--natural selection runs counter to innate intuitions about agency:

When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer—a fact that is understandably exploited by those who argue against Darwin.

It's not surprising, then, that nascent creationist views are found in young children. Four-year-olds insist that everything has a purpose, including lions ("to go in the zoo") and clouds ("for raining")... And when asked about the origin of animals and people, children tend to prefer explanations that involve an intentional creator, even if the adults raising them do not. Creationism—and belief in God—is bred in the bone.

I have previously blogged about psychological roots for supernatural beliefs. Bloom points out, though, that these may actually come at the expense of scientific understanding. At least, I would add, in those who do not work past those gut reactions and understand the ideas involved. Finally, we can see yet another reason why gut intuitions about the universe are of very limited weight when discussing its origins and workings.