Solomon Schimmel – The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs.

December 08, 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 (Oxford University Press).

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Schimmel discusses how and why, even as a complete skeptic of theological claims, he still practices Orthodox Judaism. He talks about the benefits that religion, including fundamentalism, may bring a believer, such as caring and supportive communities, ethical codes, means of coping with stress and loss, celebrations of rites of passage, and a hope for life after death. He explores ways that people can experience these benefits while rejecting the unreasonable claims of religion, which he argues are especially pronounced in fundamentalism. He challenges Sam Harris’s view regarding moderate religionists making room for fundamentalism. He examines many of the ways that Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism harms society, and argues that it should be challenged in public and in private, for the sake of democracy, scientific progress and the welfare of society. And he details some strategies to encourage people to give up their harmful and false beliefs and fundamentalist commitments.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 5th, 2008. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries. The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Before we get to this week’s guest, I wanted to talk with you about supporting the work of the Center for Inquiry. If you listen to the show week after week, as we know many of you do from the emails we get, you know, that CFI, with its many programs of public education and outreach, is the only organization in the world that applies science, skepticism, reason to so many different domains of human interest. Advancing this secular ethic. This humanist worldview. We talk about a lot on the show, whether on Capitol Hill or with our university courses or in the local community through our growing network of centers for inquiry or on the college campuses or on the international stage. We are working to make an impact for science and secularism. And I want to ask our listeners for support for you to become a friend of the center. You’ll get some benefits when you do so, but I doubt that’s why you’ll be motivated to join up. Instead, I want you to become a friend of the center to day, because by doing so, you’ll know that you’re supporting an organization that advances your values. You can become a friend of the center to day through the Web site Center for Inquiry Dot Net. I’m happy to have Solomon Schimel back on point of inquiry. He’s professor of education and psychology at Hebrew College. He’s author of 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. He joins me on the show to talk about his new book, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs, Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth. Professor Solomon Schimel, welcome back to a point of inquiry. 

Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here again. 

Professor, before we get to talking about your new book, it’s an absolutely excellent and thought provoking book. I’m interested in giving into your background, if you don’t mind. You were raised an Orthodox Jew, but you came to reject the fundamentalist tenants of that faith or let’s say the doctrines. Right. What what led to that Deek conversion? 

Well, I think, first of all, I was as a teenager, I was reading a little bit on the fly. Some biblical a modern biblical scholarship, which challenged the notion about the entire PENITENTE being revealed by God for Moses in the 13th century at Mount Sinai. I also had problems with notions of Liverpool that I was beating David Hume and other philosophers and medical stories and sound very convincing to me. I had problems with some of the narrative and laws in the Bible, which seemed to be borrowed from modern perspectives such as accepting slavery and various other laws like that. So I felt the need to believe that God would be should be a paragon for ethics and morality would be commanding these kinds of laws. So that led me to question the whole dogmatic structure of orthodoxy. 

But what I find interesting, Saul, is that Jim Underdown that didn’t lead you to reject Judaism or to consider yourself an ex Jew Ronald Lindsay you’re still kind of within the Orthodox tradition, even though you reject the basic doctrines of that tradition. 

Well, I call myself what some people refer to as awful prexy, which mean somebody who is pretty traditional in their lifestyle. I observe the Sabbath. I try to eat only kosher food. But it’s not coming from a belief that these laws, these traditions are divinely revealed. It’s simply because I’m part of a community which I like very much. I have many shared values that come from a religious upbringing, which I still consider to be core values of mine. And I value the intellectual traditions of orthodoxy, which is a focus of a strong emphasis on study. So I’m quite comfortable with Orthodox lifestyle, although I am definitely not less than scrupulous in my observance of Orthodox ritual the way I was when I was younger. 

Because there’s no kind of religious imperative. There’s no right. 

It’s more of a emotional, social, communal, historical connectedness to Jewish people and to Judaism as a civilization. 

That’s gonna confuse a lot of our listeners a bet, because, you know, most people consider the devout the person who lives by a set of practices, religious practices, as doing it because of faith. And you’re saying you reject the faith claims you’re doing it for these for these other reasons? 

I don’t think that’s unusual among Jews because Judaism is more than just a or creedal faith based way of life. It’s very much of a culture. It’s very much of a sense of historical continuity with an ethnic dimension to it. And now that there are many forms of Judaism that are not orthodox reform, conservative instruction, it all of which include some or many of the traditional rituals, some of them are changed or adapted to modern conditions. But I would say that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews who will not define themselves as Orthodox, who are still relatively observant in their lifestyle. They’ll observe Hanukkah even though it starts out as a religious holiday. But there’s nothing to think that they believe there was a miracle of the candles. But there was a way of being grateful for a victory over an enemy and for the freedom to lead one’s life that we once felt was their choice. So there are many non credal dimensions to living Jewishly. Mm hmm. 

So I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but you’re saying you still get a lot out of religion, even though you are a skeptic of the things that most people imagine. You know, religions getting at, which is this belief in the supernatural and all these faith claims. 

Right. I find the. Well, I have written books about this. The two books have to do with some of the moral and ethical values that not only Judaism but all religious traditions teach. And these are still quite meaningful to me. And I draw a lot of inspiration from both the studying those works, teaching those works and living my life in accordance with those works. 

Even though you rejected the unreasonable beliefs, you never gave up your kind of sense of belonging to that religious tradition. That raises a point. You were interested in religion and you’re studying this even as a skeptic because of your involvement in the faith. That’s like one category of people who care about religion. Right. On the other hand, there are fundamentalists who, you know, are into religion because they buy into the faith claims. And then there’s a category of people who are really interested in religion. There are the atheists or the critics, you know, who talk just as much about religion as the religious do. But a lot of people, most people don’t really care about religion. They’re just living their lives. They give religion lip service when it’s socially appropriate, but they don’t really actually care about religion and its questions. I want to talk with you about the category of people that we’d call fundamentalists, otherwise thoughtful people, the kind of people maybe you were at one time, that you are no longer there otherwise thoughtful people, but they are deeply fundamentalists, the religious in a kind of an extreme way, despite the scientific or other arguments against the claims of religion. So let’s start out by talking about some of the reasons people are specifically fundamentalist. You are getting into them when you’re talking about these social benefits of religion. Is that why a fundamentalist is a fundamentalist? 

I think that in a way, yes, somebody who was raised in a fundamentalist version of religion, also a non fundamentalist version of religion as well, provides some of the reasons why somebody is committed to this. Religion is usually provided a caring and supportive community. They provide a purpose and meaning in life. They provide a clear cut moral and ethical system for certain fundamental faith that ultimately justice and righteousness will prevail. They provide coping mechanisms in times of illness or bereavement. They provide a set of rituals and prayers that structure people’s lives and provide a sense of stability and security. There’s a lot of wisdom about human nature, and it is tradition that there’s hope for life after death. Religions also provide for some people, more so in the past and present an explanation of, you know, how the world came into existence. They provide a hierarchy of authority which provides guidance when you’re facing significant life choices. So there are many, many functions that can often be very positive. Leaving aside the question of truthfulness of the doctrines or dogmas of the religion. But these can be very positive. And I think that a major reason why certain fundamentalists do, as I say, are otherwise very intelligent, very educated people, very rational in their professional lives. They love their religion so much and they also therefore have a fear of ideas or facts or arguments that would threaten their belief system and discredit it because they sense that this would lead them to do something that’s very valuable to them. And that applies not only to fundamentalists, but clearly that’s the case in fundamentalists who in my book cover. As you know, the subtext was fundamentalism, the fear of truth. And the cover picture is an ostrich sticking his head in the sand. The idea being that there is this fear of facing logical and empirical challenges to one’s belief system. 

And the fear is because of the awareness that that might lead to the collapse of one’s religious commitments and the fear that that would then mean giving up all these positive functions that religion could serve. I don’t think that has to be the case necessarily, because you can keep made his positive function if you’re not a fundamental right. 

But before we get into the fear of truth, that’s exactly what I want to talk about, how you keep all these positive functions of religion or even benefit from these kinds of things without being religious at all. You mentioned caring in support of communities. You know, where there’s the social net or this understanding of where we came from. You gave a litany of all these benefits of religion. Many of them seem just great to me. You can’t argue with those benefits, right? I know them firsthand. I was in a fundamentalist sect of Christianity as a teenager. What some sociologists of religion argued was a cult at the time. And I got firsthand all these benefits when I went to church services, man, I was loved on. I had community. I you know, it appealed to all my grandiosity because I was told God chose me and I was special and. And so I get how that stuff works for people on a psychological level. Isn’t it important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater? There are critics of religion who say, you know, the truth is more important than all of these benefits that come from believing in something that just means so. 

Well, I would say that if you can keep the baby or parts of the baby and throw out only those parts of the bathwater that have negative consequences. 

I’m sorry. You’re just reminding me of the original Solomon right there. Parts of the baby living. 

That’s right. So if you can keep the positive parts of religion and do away with the negative ones, and that’s a lot about what the book is about is making those distinctions, then I don’t see it as such a terrible thing for somebody to maintain religious commitments and be part of a religious community. The question is, if there’s some notion that the abstract objective truth is the most important value that people should have for some of the people like that, they Dawkins, May or Hitchens and maybe say Harris might make that argument. All that counts is whether something is true or not. 

Right. The truth at all costs, no matter how painful. Right. 

But I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case. I would say that there are other values. For example, William James and the other pragmatist’s. Their notion of truth is that which bears positive fruit for life. So if I had a religious system in which it only had positive consequences, even though it been based on fourth belief, but it hurt no one. And help people in many ways, then I felt that I must pursue truth as the absolute ultimate value, which I don’t think that’s really the case. Then five people want to live that kind of a life. It’s fine. And it can be very meaningful to them. 

Well, I guess the rejoinder to that is that there are all kinds of unintended consequences. You look at it and you can say, oh, it’s not harming anyone, but that person might lead a diminished life. You know that. You know, not not take opportunities. Yeah, I was just reading about the Shakers recently. What a beautiful and amazing religion. Right. But but members of that sect, while they had strong community in and lived in some sense, are really fleshed out emotional life. Right. They also chose to kind of remove themselves from so many aspects of society at large. 

So have a good you very much on that. And that would be part of the negative effect of religion. If it stifles creativity, if it takes away from the opportunity to have a more emotionally rich life or a fulfilling life. See, I grew up in a modern orthodox environment. So even though we had certain fundamental deductions and orthodoxy still has those marginal effects. For the most part, we were encouraged to study general culture or participate in general culture. We all went to university. So it wasn’t as stifling as more extreme forms of fundamentalism. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of the tenacity of unreasonable beliefs, fundamentalism and the fear of truth through our website. Point of inquiry, dawg. So would you say that the fundamentalisms of each monotheism in Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Did they have more in common with each other than any of them do with the more moderate elements of any of their traditions? 

Well, I don’t make that much of a generalization of comparing, you know, between intra and inter. That’s kind of what you’re asking. There’s no doubt that the members of versions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam have a lot in common. 

I guess we should define the word. Just real quick fundamentalism right now. 

You have made from way the way I’m using it in the book primarily. Is a pretty narrow definition. I’m using it to refer it to people who believe that they have privy to they have access to a secret scripture that was revealed to their ancestors by God, which is infallible and inherent and which should be the authority for all of mankind. That’s Blanda finding it right. 

All of the monotheistic fundamentalisms you’re talking about make that claim. They’re all kind of literalistic about a book, the Bible or the Koran. The Old Testament. The New Testament. 

Right. Literalistic. They believe that it’s divinely revealed and it’s authoritative for everybody. So if I’m of Muslim believes that the Koran. 

Authoritative for Solomon Schimel, DJ Grothe. Even though they’re not Muslim and a fundamentalist Christian believes the New Testament is authoritative for a Muslim and for everybody. And a fundamentalist Jew believes that certain teachings of the Torah are also authoritative for every person. And that’s certain about these claims. That’s what I have an issue with them, simply because these claims are very weak on the evidence and on logic. 

What I liked about your book is its breath in terms of these monotheisms. You’re not just talking about Christianity. Christian fundamentalism. You’re not just talking about the jihadis or the Muslim fundamentalists. You actually treat Jewish fundamentalism pretty extensively, given your background. You know, someone could be just geared up to charge you with bias, you know, treating Judaism with kid gloves. But you didn’t in this book. 

Right. I’ve gotten blacklisted for that. 

Some people in my own community really were kind people like, you know, some people that, hey, so, you know, that’s they thought, well, you’ve got to think about issues that maybe we haven’t been paying attention to either than some people are, you know, unhappy with my Vanel, particularly because I’m still a member of the community in many ways. I mean, I’m a I’m a member, an Orthodox synagogue Jim Underdown. 

Well, but I a pretty open one. 

Well, in and within Judaism, at least many strains of Judaism. There’s a lot more room for self-criticism than some of the other monotheisms. 

There is a lot of room for them and very much part of the whole dialectic of the Jewish. We’re thinking of, you know, just accept things, the face value of community mode of analyzing things. I guess that’s what I’m doing in a way here in my book. 

The big question I always get when yammering about these kind of topics with friends, Saul, is what’s the harm? And you kind of touched on this earlier that sometimes, you know, if fundamentalism isn’t harming someone, just leave it be, you know, to each his own. The religious belief brings these benefits to a person that you were talking about. Why should a listener care about fundamentalism as long as the fundamentalist isn’t blowing up buildings or engaging in terrorism or something like that? 

Well, because here’s the thing. That’s exactly why is because in each of these religious traditions, in addition to the positive dimensions of them, they will also lead to certain very negative things. Obviously, we see this in most recently, most recently as last week in what happened in Mumbai in India. 

And I was floored how there was really no reporting that that resulted from an Islamic ideology. Basically, in general terms, it referred to the people who perpetrated that violence as gunmen. It didn’t say Muslim extremists at all. 

Well, no, but I think in a more recent analysis and lose support, they definitely are linking yet, though, Islamic fundamentalist groups that are not just in Pakistan, but in several other countries. So it definitely is linked to an Islamist radical Islamist ideology. 

So that’s the harm. So if there were no terrorism, there’d be no harm to fundamentalism? 

No, I wouldn’t say that. First of all, there’s other kinds of harm. But the attitude that some of these religions, fundamentalist versions of that have towards women, toward of gays. So across the spectrum of the monotheistic fundamentalist versions of religion, you have homophobia, you have discrimination against women. So, for example, the fundamentalists, the religious beliefs were a strong factor in South African apartheid. It was the Dutch Reformed Church which was supporting these policies in Judaism. It’s mostly in the state of Israel where some of the Jewish fundamentalists have the most negative effect. Talking about some of these settlers who are absolutely convinced that the Torah was revealed by God and he gave every inch of land in Israel. But in other parts of Jordan or the West Bank to the Jewish people, and you can’t give up even an inch of land that if anybody tries to do that, you can even attack them with violence. The person who assassinated the Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, when he was involved in the peace process was a fundamentalist, was kind of using this argument. 

Right. And Maya Kahani is old arguments and will be an example of that kind. 

And Christian fundamentalists have those who bomb abortion clinics or kill doctors who perform abortions. So most Christian fundamentalists are not violent, but they also advocate various social policies that I consider to being very negative and therefore have to be resisted. So, for example, the Mormon Church, as far as I understand, was given a lot of money in support of Proposition eight in California now about not allowing gay marriage, how people could. So I take issue with gay marriage even on religious grounds. But from my point of view, many of these social and political agendas and the educational agendas of the creationists of the intelligent design people are those who are opposed to stem cell research, are those who don’t want to allow the teaching of science in public schools to be independent of religious approaches to try to explain creation. These are all, in my opinion, extremely negative manifestations and consequences of fundamentalisms of all three different faiths. And that’s why I think it’s extremely important to try to combat that or undermine that. 

So you’re really saying it’s a welfare of society issue for society’s own good? Fundamentalism should be challenged in public, also in private. Yes. You know, as we’ve been discussing, your focus is on fundamentalism. It’s not on religion in general. You’re part of a religious community. Sal, do you buy the argument from folks like Sam Harris that the moderates have a religious tradition? People like yourself, by still believing in some of the aspects of that religion, maybe the benefits of religion or the social aspects or, you know, some moderates believe some things I’d consider unreasonable epistemologically or, you know, just about the universe, and they don’t challenge the fundamentalists of their respective faiths. His argument is that they actually make room for the fundamentalists. They make the problem worse. 

Well, I don’t think he’s made a convincing argument. I mean, I think it’s important for the moderates to criticize those aspects of fundamentalism that they feel are inappropriate, just as I’m doing. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t continue to be moderates in their own religious commitments. Just I’m not convinced at all by Harris’s argument, I think beams any solid proof to demonstrate the case that he’s making. And in fact, many people would argue that one of the best ways to deal with the problem of fundamentalism is actually to encourage moderate forms of religion and explain or give Mathis an opportunity to realize that many of the benefits that they get from their religious commitments, they can also get in a moderate, nonviolent, non anti-social, a much more rational version of their religion. 

Mm hmm. So I appreciate our conversation so far. And I realize that, you know, we’ve really only scratched the surface about your book, The Tenacity of Unreasonable Belief. So would you join me next week so we could get into maybe some of the psychology of fundamentalism and the process of moving from fundamentalist to, let’s say, more moderate or skeptic? 

I’d be pleased to do so. Well, thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry again, Solomon Schimel. It’s been my pleasure. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. 

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.