Solomon Schimmel – Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth

December 12, 2008

Solomon Schimmel is professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College. He is the author of a number of books, including The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology, and numerous articles and book chapters on Jewish thought, psychology of religion and Jewish education. His newest book is The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Solomon Schimmel reveals whether he is an atheist and explains why he lives an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle without theism. He explores differences between his religiosity and that of fundamentalists, especially in terms of truth claims, and the values of honesty and knowledge. He describes the response he has received in the Orthodox Jewish community as a result of his views. He describes the psychology of the fundamentalist, and mechanisms such as confirmation bias, selective interpretation, and ad hominem attacks of critics. He explores various views of truth, including that the value of religion is not necessarily in the truth value of its claims. And he debates the value of reason versus emotion, and the role of authority when evaluating truth claims. He explores ways that rationalists can challenge fundamentalism, both in terms of argumentation and community, and in terms of focusing on the harms of fundamentalism.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 12th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe we point to inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

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I’m pleased to have Saul Schimel back on point of inquiry. We spoke last week about his book, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs. And he joins me again this week to continue the conversation. He is professor of education and psychology at Hebrew College and the author of a number of other books, The Seven Deadly Sins Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology and also Wounds Not Healed by Time the power of repentance and forgiveness. Welcome back to a point of inquiry, Professor Solomon Schimel. 

Pleasure to be here again with you, DJ Grothe. 

So, Professor, last week we were talking about really the benefits of religion. That’s what most of our conversation centered on. People get a lot out of religion. I talked about, you know, my background in this cult and how it worked for me. You talked about your persisting in a religious community, even as a skeptic. 

You know, you don’t buy into any of the claims that are about any of the doctrinal claims, basically. 

Right. But you’re still there. You’re still getting a lot out of it. 

Yep. I get up Saturday morning and I go to synagogue. 

So you’re different than a fundamentalist, even though you live in Orthodox lifestyle? I’m interested in exploring that difference. I mean, you’re an interesting case. How’s that sound? 

Well, you know, I think that a lot of people like the effect in my own congregation. I know for a fact many people, friends of mine, there are many people like me. I don’t think that I’m all that unique in the modern Orthodox Jewish world. 

Do you think there are equal numbers of people who live the lifestyle without buying into the claims in the other monotheisms? 

I would think that it’s probably less so because I said Judaism is not just the religion or Jewish. This is not just a religion. It’s part of a group where, as it’s hard to imagine, somebody calling himself a Christian atheist. But there are many, many prominent, highly respected Jews who are, are or were Jewish atheists. 

Are you an atheist or just a skeptic of the doctrine alone? 

So I think I would call myself a skeptic or agnostic, but not an atheist. I would not have the audacity to make a claim that I know that there is no God or that there’s no transcendent force that might have created the universe. 

Well, and I don’t want to open that can of worms. But to me, atheist is really synonymous with agnostic in that it just means without belief, you know, it doesn’t mean a hard and fast belief that there is no God. 

It means a lacking of belief that there is no then I would say pretty much comfortable with that. 

By that definition, I mean, this is the kind of stuff that you stay up in college, you know, talking about every night, you know, arguing with your religious friends about or at least I did when I was at Bible College. And so it’s a boring conversation to a lot of people. But this, you know, a lot of people get hung up on just the definitions. You say you’re an agnostic. I say I’m an atheist, a freethinker. Winola fitty in a rationalist. Well, you’re there is the point. 

The point is that if this you know, like the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, they claimed that they believed in a god. The God had no impact on their lives, really. So it doesn’t make a difference. 

There are functional atheists that say it’s a functional atheist. So you’re a functional atheist living. Would you be comfortable having characterized a religious lifestyle? 

Right. Yes. A religious lifestyle or a lifestyle based upon traditional rituals and traditions of Judaism. That would be a pretty accurate description of where I am. 

What makes you different than the fundamentalists, the person who goes to temple the same time you do, but actually buys into all the claims? Are they engaging in something psychologically different than you’re engaging in art? It seems that there are deceptions or self deceptions or something going on among fundamentalists that you’re not doing right. 

So that’s my claim. They want to be with me, obviously. But my claim is that I am being more open and honest than dealing with intellectual integrity about modern modes of acquiring knowledge through science, through scholarship. And that where I find those modes of knowledge. The data that come from those modes of seeking knowledge to be highly convincing. I accept them. Mm hmm. And I don’t claim to believe that. I don’t believe and they surely don’t make claims that I think are totally implausible or unreasonable, which I think these people are making those claims. Now, the defense generally might not be all that great, at least in a modern orthodox environment that is often ultra-Orthodox world where people dress differently. Right. Am I getting that right now? But the difference would mostly manifest itself in intellectual discourse. OK. But also in my willingness to take certain aspects of the religious tradition, which I find are related to the doctrinal assumptions that have a negative consequence for either the people themselves or for society at large. 

I find it fascinating, though, how you’re critiquing it from the inside. Yeah, it’s not like you you said to hell with this. The stuff is based on mumbo jumbo. I’m going elsewhere. You stayed there. The social connections worked for you. And you’re criticizing it from the inside. You said you’ve gotten some flack from it, at least from this last book. I don’t imagine at Temple people stand around and discuss whether or not God exists or whether or not the fundamental claims of Orthodox Judaism are true. 

Right. In fact, one of the issues that came up was I suggest that we invite James Kugel, who’s written a very important book, How to Read the Bible, Who Defines Themselves. Orthodox is stricter in his observance, but totally accepts the approach and the findings and in general of modern critical scholarship. And he claims that he has a theology that justifies this Jim Underdown, it should say, the historical critical method. 

That’s the kind of school of biblical criticism that calls into question the origins of the tax that strikes to the heart of the fundamentalist claim that it’s revealed by God. Right. 

And like the documentary hypothesis of a variance of that, I call my book, but the multiple source post Mosaic Origins of the Pentateuch, in contrast to the belief that the Torah was given to Moses. 

Finally, Jim Underdown notions like the Book of J. 

And Right. JP D. Right. The composite work from these various sources. So I suggested to our Adult Education Committee that they invite Professor Cogo because it’s important for us to discuss these things in our own community, because truth is a value for us. And what people say. And some people said, sure, let’s do it. And other people felt that it would cause divisiveness. And the purpose of having a guest speaker at a synagogue, particularly the comfort of a scholar in residence for a weekend and be different. But if that create a situation that might generate tension and divisiveness in the community, Jim Underdown it’s to be a function that adds to the community, kind of furthers the goal of community. 

Right. Gets people arguing about who is wrong and who’s ratch. 

Right. I understand that point of view. I mean, I still take issue with it, but I can understand it as I think most people I announced publication, my book on our synagogue. My email list. Mm hmm. So, you know, people then said to me and said, oh, I’m buying your book. It’s fascinating. And I’m glad you’re raising these topics and these issues. I do get to think about them. But there were a couple of people who were upset. 

Do you think that your book actually, even though it hasn’t led to it in your life, can lead to other people rejecting their religion wholesale, not just picking and choosing the stuff that’s nonsense and keeping the other stuff? I do. And as a person who’s living a religious lifestyle, is that a concern of viewers or you think to each his own? 

I basically think to a large extent to each his own. One criticism that was made of me was the fact that the point you’re raising, someone said to me that in the synagogue necessarily. But one of the people like postpartum within the course of this book. Aren’t you concerned about your book might lead people to possibly give up their faith? And I said, well, you know, if people who arrive at that conclusion, you can’t hide the truth of the fact from them. That’s where their logic and where the evidence leads to. And they don’t find religious. They are meaningful to them. And then they’ll go in that direction. And that’s perfectly okay for them to do so. But I made another point. I said that there are many Jews who went through that process who have made tremendous contributions to Judaism, to the Jewish people. 

Jim Underdown, Spinoza, Einstein, Einstein, I think, went through the process and he was raised right traditionally. But many of the founders of the state of Israel. Right. Example, Golda Meier. 

Or Ben Guri on a lot of these people were raised that way, traditional environments. Ultimately, they came to reject them, but they retain a strong sense of their Jewishness and a concern for the Jewish people and the survival of the Jewish people of Jewish civilization and culture. And they made tremendous contributions. What Kaplan, the founder of Deconstructionism and Compendium examples. So it’s not the case that just because somebody gives up an orthodox lifestyle, that necessarily they are publicly rejecting Judaism and identification with the Jewish people. And it’s up INTUITY and its contributions can continue to make to society. It has made a tremendous amount of contributions to civilization. 

I don’t want to speak in such sweeping terms, but what I love about Judaism is it seems unique in that there’s a lot of room for this kind of religious questioning, this religious doubting to happen within Judaism. There is such a thing as secular Jews. You don’t hear of secular Catholics or, you know, or secular Protestants. Right. I want to talk about some of the mental tricks or the intellectual processes that a fundamentalist goes through that you aren’t going through, even though you’re part of that community that lets them keep their beliefs, despite all of this contrary evidence until the age of 23. 

I was struggling with these beliefs. And when I was 23 years old, I came to the conclusion that I can no longer accept the adoptions of Judaism. That’s my first chapter talks about autobiographical reflection for all of these things. I myself use these kind of defense mechanisms or strategies to defend oneself against threats to one’s religious belief system. 

Jim Underdown. Just to be clear, the threat is perceived because you’re saying that if people admit that a lot of these faith claims are wrong, they think that therefore they’ll have to give up all these social benefits. 

Yes, they think that they’d have to kind of just stop leading a judicial orthodox lifestyle. And that would be a tremendous loss to them because they love it so much. And to provide so much for them. Now, it might not be the case, as they said, because there are people who were fundamentalist and gave up the fundamentalism and they retain many elements just like me. And there are movements and duties, Judaism, which do that. Conservative reform instruction is each in their own way. 

So back to the mental tricks. 

OK, so first of example of one, we’ll call what’s called confirmation bias or in my book, I fatalists selective attention. So you will find people writing these books in defense of fundamentalism. And this is not just Jewish. Everything I thinking about Jewish, these mechanisms apply to Mormons. They apply to Christian fundamentalist Muslim fundamentalist that they are similar in their form. So, OK, well, pay attention to archeological findings that support our view of the historicity of biblical narratives. But we will pay attention to archeological findings that challenge the historicity of certain with clarity. That’s what I call your attention. Well, you have a bias towards picking up on and internalizing the data that confirm your belief and a bias against paying attention to data or arguments that challenge. That’s one selective attention Jim Underdown interpretation. Is let’s say you have a certain set of data and you can interpret it in more than one way. So the fundamentalists will interpret in a way that’s very implausible, but that confirms his belief system, where as the person who is not a fundamentalist will say, no, I’m willing to, you know, take the most plausible interpretation for that data and we have to leave me till I have to follow the evidence. For example, you have fossils. So obviously, the most plausible, most rational explanation for vitals is what the contemporary paleontologists tell us about how they got there. Have all the arts, etc.. There’s a whole field of geology. But fundamentalist believe that the world was created less than 6000 years ago. So how do you explain the fact that you have these fossils of species that no longer exist and chemical tests and various other kind of tests indicate that they’re millions of years old? So they said, well, God planted in the first day of creation, the first six days of creation, if you read that story, literally all these fossils which have the appearance and the characteristics, the chemical characteristics of what seemed to be billions of years old, they’re really only less than 6000 years old. So that’s a highly implausible interpretation. But this is often done. Muslims will view this and the creationists will use this fundamentalist Jews to make that claim. 

Some of these selective interpretations are actually genius. They’re brilliant kind of arguments to address the contrary evidence. So it’s it’s not ignoring the contrary evidence. But you look at cases like the, you know, the Shroud of Turin. Right. There’s one hypothesis that it was a 14th century forgery. A lot of evidence for that. And every line of evidence, there’s an argument, someone’s making an argument against it, a fanciful, impressive, amazingly constructed argument. I mean, it doesn’t hold water, but it’s creative to address all those different lines of evidence that, you know, support the hypothesis that’s a 14th century forgery, because some of these people are very bright, but they’re using their intellect. 

To come up with ingenious, creative, complex explanations. Because they’re not willing to accept what would seem to be the most obvious, the most plausible or the most reasonable, most rational explanation, because that challenge is they believe the same thing with resurrection stories. And they have that discussion in the book. Is it because of a miracle, which is the least plausible interpretation? Because we don’t have any haven’t seen anybody else that be resurrected? Or is that much more plausible? Explain in terms of how myths originate or how somebody who has lost somebody’s belief deeply and firmly that a certain individual could never die. It was messianic and how that person dies and expressing deep grief. So you can have visions even in the non-religious context. We have evidence that somebody has lost a loved one. They can later have actually visions and they believe they little present appear of Jim Underdown. 

Right. A psychological explanation of all the ghost sightings. Right. 

So you can give that kind of explanation for why the followers of Jesus had visions of him that weren’t really making up the visions, but to actually believe that he was resurrected. That’s highly implausible and unreasonable. But yet these fundamentalists will make extremely complex arguments, long arguments to try to prove that the most plausible explanation for why the followers of Jesus claim to have had visions of him was perceived actually was that fact. And they actually saw Jim Underdown. 

What are some of these other mental tricks? Well, I guess what we’re talking about are the psychological mechanisms of belief that allow fundamentalism to persist. 

In fact, logic mechanisms that are used to enable the belief to be retained. Right. 

So, for example, you will find often some fundamentalist discrediting the source of information that challenges their belief system. So you will find them for people writing that somebody who can be a very objective, critical Starkel scholar to the origins of the Koran. And he comes to the conclusion that the Koran was not even composed at the time of Mohammed. So fundamentalists who are very threatened by this because it undermines the entire belief system, will accuse that scholar of being Islamophobic and a Muslim Jim Underdown of having a different agenda, a different agenda than the agenda of being a critical scholar, at least trying to come up with the best interpretation of the data that he has. 

Have you been accused of having a hidden agenda? 

I don’t think so, because I’m pretty open about not trying to hide anything. 

So I don’t think so. But for example, some Orthodox fundamentalist Jews accuse biblical scholars of being and they submit. The fact of the matter is, it’s true that many of the German Protestant biblical political scholars, warrior Jim Underdown the higher criticism of Germany in the 19th century as well, housed. 

Right. Some of them were anti-Semitic. Maybe they didn’t have that as part of their agenda to try to undermine the traditional belief in the you know, that the Torah was edited. It was revealed by God, devoted to a chosen people. Right. 

At which chosen people. Right. And they had really MPLX Jewish wheelhouse and developed the whole theory, which had very strong elements of anti Semitism in it, even though it might not have been expected. But the point is that today some of the leading critical biblical scholars of the Hebrew Bible are Jews who are strongly identifying Jews. In fact, some of them are, like me, quite traditional in their practices. 

They engage in orthopraxy. Yeah, right. 

To one degree or another. So this notion that you’re going to dismiss the findings of modern biblical scholarship by simply saying, oh, those professors are anti a religious or anti Semitic. That’s a mechanism where you can protect yourself from seriously paying attention to the arguments and the evidence that’s being brought, because ad hominem discounting of the person is bringing the evidence. And it’s not justifiable because it’s simply not true. Besides that, even if it were true, you still have to address the evidence. But it’s not true even. Right. And that’s why somebody like this James Kugel defiance of an Orthodox, very observant, is a greater threat to a modern orthodox or ultra orthodox fundamentalists than somebody who’s not observed Jim Underdown because he in inherent of that tradition. 

That’s right. And it values it. And he’s living by it. And he’s the center right. 

And similarly, if you weren’t a Jew, a practicing Jew, your arguments could be rejected out of hand. Oh, he’s just he’s an ex Jew or something. 

Or he doesn’t like Jews. Or what does he know about Judaism? Right. Exactly that. 

Also, there’s a recent case in the newspaper last week about this Germany’s seven professor who converted to Islam. He’s a critical scholar and he came to the conclusion that Mohamed never existed. 

Of course, we’ve been terribly criticized and threatened because he’s an apostate and an apostate. Get the killing, the pathetic waiting for some of the, you know, versions of of more radical Islam. But he says he actually is continuing to live as in many ways as a kind of an ortho practice Muslim, because he finds a lot of, you know, think of the meaning and wisdom and value it, even though it’s founded on this big lie that Muhammad exists. 


He would argue the the value of religion is not necessarily what its origins were or the truth value or the telling value. Let’s put this. I am also a therapist when I see patients in therapy. Truth is not necessarily my primary goal is to help the president deal with the suffering and the pain and the problem. If the truth is going to hurt. And if it will not contribute to the healing that the president. So why is it important to me to tell the truth? 

Yeah. So you’re more modality would be different than something like R.E. Beatty or something where it’s, you know, the truth, nothing else. Yeah, exactly. The truth. You know, kind of shock someone with the truth. I’m on the hot seat or something. So sore. We’ve talked about some of these mental tricks, these mechanisms, the defense mechanisms, really, that a fundamentalist uses to remain a fundamentalist. It really seems like the fundamentalist has a completely different attitude toward the notion of truth than a skeptic or a more moderate believer or someone like you has. 

OK. The one I think a very important attitude is what I mentioned. I think the last week was pragmatism. But the belief that I have lead to. Good effects, but good fruit. That’s the truth that really counts. If not, the prepositional assertions of adoptions or adoption, whether God really exists or not. That’s so important. It’s what does the belief that God exist or that God doesn’t exist? How does that impact on our life? 

Jim Underdown, this is William James point that, you know, the personal logical questions are in many ways moot. You know, the freewill question or the aid question, you got to talk about where it impacts your daily life and that’s what really counts. 

The second approach would be assuming, I’m assuming as a kind of a skeptic, that the basic source of truth or knowledge is empiricism and rationality. Well, religious people will say, oh, that’s not the only form through which we learn about truths. There’s prophecy. This revelation, there is religious intuition. There could be people from religious charisma. It’s not only reason and empiricism. 

It’s not just reason and evidence. It’s these other kind of other worldly or occult explanations. 

Right. And they’re important, too, as sources of truth. So it’s a different way of understanding where truth comes from. 

Well, you’re not saying they’re important is truth. 

You’re saying. I’m saying that’s what fundamentalist. Or even religious people who are not fundamentalists might say. 

So that’s another example of the different attitude toward truth. 

Right. But they have verses. 

Right. And actually, my book, I try to be a devil’s advocate. And it says, I want to present the most empathic formulation of the view that I’m criticizing flecked with Islam. Mm hmm. So I have a section in the book which really who says from the point of view of a. Naturalistic evolutionary biological perspective that the most important human tool for dealing with reality is reason. Reason has its uses. It evolved to serve. That uses but maybe emotions. 

Maybe imagination Jim Underdown right in the history of the Western intellectual tradition. There’s a long argument that the passions are more important than reason. 

Right. So that would be, again, a different attitude to what constitutes the main tool used by which to lead your life. And it’s not necessarily the truth. The reason it could be true or insights that come from good emotions. So, I mean, I go back and forth with that argument. You know, and I try to respond to that argument, though. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of this book. The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs through our website Point of Inquiry, Dawg saw one or two more examples of kind of this different attitude toward truth. 

OK, now another very important point is that the truth of the matter is, for example, the job ask you when you believe certain things, for example, about cosmology or or about, you know, you believe that the earth revolves around the sun. Now, I don’t know if you’re an astronomer or not, but if you’re not an astronomer. 

Very few of us are who believe this. We’re really believing it because we’re taking it an expert opinion. 

Right. The authority of someone in the know authority is somebody who we trust. 

So the religious person says, well, so what? You guys are doing the same thing. You skeptics believe the same things that we’re doing. We also have authorities who we trust, our imams, our rabbis, our priests, our ministers. So they would argue that I have a right to rely on authority. This is you scientists are relying on authority or nonscientists are relying on the authority of scientists or experts. Now, again, if one analyzes this, I think it’s a weak argument that I discussed this in the book, Jim Underdown Rain. 

And it should be said you reject all of these different approaches to truth in favor of your own, this kind of rationalistic scientific approach. 

In terms of what I’m trying to do the book. I’m just saying that these never have a place in human life. But I’m saying in terms of what my goal is to try to explain, I’m to explain why great people. Who are otherwise quite intelligent and educated, are tenaciously clinging to what appear to me and to many others implausible and unreasonable belief. And what the consequences of that are. So these I’m just try to explain how their mind is working. 

So if it’s true that you wrap your head around their processes of belief and how they have a different attitude toward truth than a rationalist does, if it’s true that fundamentalism is bad for democracy, as you’ve said a couple times, it has implications, negative implications for scientific progress, for the welfare of society. That fundamentals should be challenged both publicly and privately. What’s the kind of thing other than, you know, writing a book published by Oxford University Press? What’s the kind of thing that our listeners can do to challenge those false beliefs and get through to a fundamentalists? In other words, the process you went through leaving Orthodox belief in Judaism, even if you, you know, remain in that tradition. Do you think that that’s something that can be duplicated in others? 

I think that it can, because I think it’s unique. I read the literature of Muslims who left their faith, who were raised fundamentalist or devout Christians who have gone through the space of a year in exactly as OPG. Right. You you were raised fundamentalist and then left. 

It’s obviously converted at 14, for the record. But yes, your point remains OK. 

There are many people who read this label lifted. I mean, so so actually the book itself in a very short section, I talk about why do people give up their beliefs? And I come up with a list of 18 factors. And I have now added to them for like now 20 years of fact. 

Give me the one or two kind of most comprehensive or explanatory factors. 

Obviously, one factor which is important factor for me is that you have intellectual doubts about the rationality of belief, but often that’s not the most important factor. 

Jim Underdown just on that factor, though, does that come from education? You got kind of a traditional Jewish education which prizes argument and debate and questioning and all that stuff. Exactly. 

And I also got a good secular education. 

I’m reminded of Dieter Roseline. There’s nothing like a good Jesuit education to make you an atheist. 

That’s out of bounds. Sounds good to me. 

So is it just a matter of education? Teach people more history, philosophy, science, and they won’t be a fundamentalist. 

It’s not only that the fact that could be some cases for some people, a very small piece of it. Remember what we said at the outset? Why are people clinging to their beliefs, status, thinking, emotional and social needs? It’s not a rational thing in the first place. So I believe from a rational perspective, that can be the most effective way of getting people to change their commitments. For example, if the believer comes to realize that there are certain negative consequences, social consequences or moral consequences of the belief system in the community that supported this belief system, and he has moral sensibilities, sensitivities, that might be a more important factor because he’s convinced that God doesn’t exist or that the total wasn’t given or the Koran wasn’t given to Mohammed. He just has looked the teachings of these traditions I find morally insensitive. 

So so the strategy for getting through to the fundamentalists then would be focusing on the harm that fundamentalism brings about not necessarily the intellectual arguments, but the harm and other things, too. 

That’s apples to plenty. But also, for example, like the sexual abuse in the Catholic clergy. 

Right. So if if you become disillusioned with your religious leaders or with the religious community, that will lead you to do, Wolf, in every case that often leads you to give up your faith. So it’s a whole combination of factors. And the next book I plan to write is how does a knowledge of these factors happen to be used to develop tactics and strategies to undermine those religious fundamentalists who are harmful to society? 

Well, I look forward to having you back on to discuss that book. Saul, I really appreciated your conversation. Thanks for joining me again. 

Thank you. Goodbye. I look forward to being on the show again with you. 

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Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.