by Johan (Yoel) Schaper
One of the strangest claims I have heard since my conversion to Judaism is that people who leave religion do so solely for emotional reasons. People attribute others’ attrition to negative experiences in the community or lusts they could not control.
This assumes that those who leave Judaism are always irrational actors. Besides for being condescending, this conflicts with our own personal experiences struggling with our faith. Many of us religious folk have had and continue to have questions about a slew of Jewish truth claims, questions which are not easily brushed away with quick kiruv arguments or slick mystical illustrations.
Knowing this about ourselves, it should be no leap to realize Judaism is not so obviously true that only a disingenuous person can be convinced that it is false, or at least not compelling enough to require life encumbrance. Further, the reasons given by those claiming intellectual justification for leaving Judaism aren’t simplistic at all. These reasons include lack of evidence for the existence of God, the problem of evil, academic objections to historicity of particular Biblical accounts, forced Talmudic legal reasoning, external influences on Rabbinic decision making, contradictory theological claims, and more.
Having said that, I do not deny the role of non-rational influences in human decision making. But even if it were true that some or most people begin questioning religion due to emotional factors, intellectual objections cannot be resolved by pointing at their initial emotional cause. Doing so would commit the genetic fallacy, which attempts to invalidate a person’s view by showing how the person came to hold that view. Arguments are not refuted with fallacious reasoning.
Saying “I also don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in,” recapitulating a grand rabbi’s clever comeback to an atheist, is not relevant to those who reject the existence of God based on a lack of evidence. Cute stories are not arguments. Appeals to Jewish continuity, national heritage or ancestral self-sacrifice also do not provide a solid foundation for religious practice.
This knife, though, cuts both ways. I often hear nonreligious individuals claim that the sole cause for anyone becoming or remaining religious is purely emotional. They contend that others are religious due to sentimental attachment to their upbringing or some fear of death. When religious people give reasons and arguments for their faith, the arguments are brushed away and labelled kiruv or apologetics. Labelling an argument does not negate it. As with intelligent people who reject religion, the reasons intellectual religious people give for their faith aren’t simplistic at all: philosophical arguments for the existence of God, defense of the Tanach, reasonable objections to philosophical naturalism, or the general coherency of theism as a worldview and more. Each of these ideas deserves contemplation beyond a 1,000 word article or YouTube video in favor of or against it.
Good arguments for and against religion are nuanced. Judaism is not so obviously true that we can dismiss anyone who rejects it as an emotional fool. Neither is it so indefensible that no reasonable person can accept it. ‘
Exploring ideas and following the evidence where it leads are essential to my own personal development. I am a religious Jew because my reasoning points me toward it. Yet I find intelligent people, familiar with the same data and arguments, who disagree with me. This does not make me give up my intellectual endeavor, but it does forces me to take a humble approach. Intellectual humility is crucial when joining the conversation at the table of ideas.
In the lasting words of Moses Mendelssohn:
“[…] I cannot judge the truth on the basis of the views of other people. If am to accept, reject, or defer judging a proposition, I must do so on my own. I will not force any rational creature to adopt my judgement as a guiding principle. Who am I, a miserable creature, that I should presume to do so? But I cannot do otherwise than to judge according to my own reason, and the Omnipresent Searcher of Hearts knows that I sincerely seek the truth.”