©2017 by Shaul Behr

Cognitive dissonance and belief

December 9, 2018

 

I recently received an email from someone who tracked me down via Mi Yodeya. I thought I would share it with you, along with my response, since it touches on some issues that many people find relevant.

 

Dear Rabbi,

 

I am a new user at Mi Yodeya and saw your "cognitive dissonance" remark. I hope you don't mind my asking you a question directly, out of public scrutiny. 

 

I am Jewish and an atheist. Isn't all religious belief cognitive dissonance? 

 

"If God is good, he isn't God;

If God is God , he isn't good."

 

Hope this is not inappropriate. I look forward to hearing from you should you choose to do so.

 

With kind regards,

[Name withheld]

 

My response:

 

Dear [Name withheld],

 

Firstly, I'm very touched and flattered that you decided to contact me! 

 

As a preamble, I'll confess, I'm not sure I understand the quotation "If God is good...". Who said that? And why should it be true? I'll just say that the god that person doesn't believe in, I don't believe in, either. So I'm not going to relate to that, and rather I'll focus on the aspect of cognitive dissonance.

 

Cognitive dissonance and other cognitive biases are phenomena that affect every single human being on the planet, religious or not. When we make decisions, it is very difficult not to be affected by confirmation bias. Thus, contrary to the cliche "Great minds think alike", you have the phenomenon of very smart people disagreeing diametrically about just about every issue in the world, be it who are the good guys in Israel/Palestine, should abortion on demand be legal, free market vs managed economy, or what is the One True Religion (if any). Even geniuses are subject to confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Stephen Hawking was a genius, and an avowed atheist. Gerald Schroeder is a genius, and a devout, God-fearing Jew. At least one of them is wrong about the objective truth. Which one? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

I grew up secular and made a decision to become religious when I was 20. I thought I was doing that based on some very solid evidence supporting the truth of Torah...but maybe it was just what I subconsciously wanted to believe, anyway, and my confirmation bias tricked me into thinking it was a rational decision. I don't know, and I have no way of knowing. And it doesn't bother me that much, for a couple of reasons. 

 

One is the Jewish flavor of Pascal's wager: if I'm wrong, and there is no God, and when I die there's no afterlife, then I've traded away some fleeting pleasures in this world for nothing. But if my consciousness ceases when I die, then I won't be around to regret it, so no big loss. On the other hand, if there really is a God and an eternal reward in the World to Come, then I wouldn't want to take a chance on losing that. I concede that's a rather clinical approach to the question, and it was more my entry point to why I started asking theological questions, than where I ended up.

 

More significantly, when I live my life as if there is a God, and the Torah is true, it makes a huge difference to my personal energy. I feel happy and fulfilled in the belief that what I do is meaningful on a cosmic scale. When I was an atheist, I was frustrated at the fact that I was constantly pursuing pleasure of one kind or another, yet knowing that the moment the pleasure had passed, it existed no longer, other than as a memory in the neural network of my brain's chemistry. Life was a fleeting shadow...full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing, as Shakespeare put it. Today I am happily married with five children, B"H. I enjoy singing at the shabbos table with my family. I am proud of the fact that my teenage children have never so much as touched a person of the opposite sex (except their own family), which statistically makes it much more likely that they will have committed and successful marriages. I enjoy living in a community that has a culture of trust and caring for each other. So maybe I've deluded myself into believing that God exists, and that the Torah is true, but as delusions go, it's a pretty benign one, and has a lot of concomitant benefits, with very little downside. 

 

So I hope that rather long-winded essay answers your question, albeit in a roundabout way.

 

I would love to hear more about you and your journey.

 

Blessings from Israel,

Shaul Behr

 

His response (edited):

 

Dear Rabbi,

 

Thank you for your most kind, warm and extensive email.

 

In the interim I did buy your book. I rarely, if ever, read books. What I've read so far is excellent. It's hardly a book exclusively for young people. If fact I would say just the opposite; maybe young people can appreciate some of it.

 

Best personal regards,

[Name withheld]

 

What are your thoughts on this issue? I'd be interested to hear from you in the comments, or privately at info@shaulbehr.com

 

 

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