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Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman

Are Rational Religious People All That Rare?

Posted: 02/14/11 10:17 PM ET

There's a fascinating book out called Caveman Logic, by Hank Davis. The main thrust is that our Stone-Age minds still cling to superstitious thinking, and that in order to act more appropriately, we have a responsibility to move past those primitive impulses and cognitive mistakes that make religion feel so "natural" and appealing to the average person.

Obviously, religion can easily quash critical thinking, and instead, encourage blind faith. Our minds very easily cling to a "Santa Claus" view of God, believing that if we do good things, we will be rewarded, but if we do bad things, we will be punished. That may be comforting when we are children (or even as adults!), but when are able to become more rational, we see that it's a hard belief to justify. Not only that, uncritical religious thinking can easily lead to narrow-mindedness and arrogance, and has justified wars, genocides, oppression and great injustice. So Davis argues that because of all of these reasons, it's important for human beings to move beyond religion.

As a rabbi, I obviously disagree. The issue in my mind isn't what religion is, but how it is used. If it is approached and presented compassionately, if it pushes people to act more justly, if it brings more meaning into their lives, and if it elevates us to become stronger and kinder human beings, it can be a great good. To me, our goal shouldn't be getting rid of religion -- it should be about moving beyond the "Santa Claus" view of God to create a more sophisticated theology, and using religion to improve our world, rather than harm it.
A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed Hank Davis, to share these points, and he was kind enough to respond. So with his permission, I am excerpting a few of our e-mails, to pose two questions: 1) can religion truly allow for critical thinking? and 2) are rational religious people all that rare?

My Initial E-mail

... Rather than rejecting God, I think it is much more valuable to create a hypothesis about how God acts in the world, and then check our experience against it. And if that means we need to change our theology, so be it. Indeed, my personal theology is very close to what you articulated ...

I believe it is essential to develop a sense of gratitude. I believe that there are many things outside of my control and that I will never understand. Since I have absolutely no idea what happens after we die, I believe my greatest responsibility is to do the best I can to improve myself and our world here and now. And most crucially, I believe that what we say about God has much more to do with who we are than what God is. In fact, I often teach that "all theology is autobiography" (in the words of Rabbi Laura Geller). And since people are looking for meaning, relevance and purpose in their life, I have come to believe that a rational, scientifically-grounded view of spirituality can have enormous benefit ...

Real spirituality, in my mind, is not about angels or talking to the dead. Instead, real "spirituality" involves looking within ourselves to see who we are, and striving to make ourselves and world more just. And while religion is certainly not necessary for this process, if presented well, it can easily help support that journey through communal support and through language to articulate it.

Hank Davis' Response:

... If you were even remotely typical of the clergy, I would change my view and probably would never have written Caveman Logic. But you're not ... you're probably way to the left of center in your own denomination. In short, I'd like and admire you as a friend, but I can't imagine you as a spokesperson for either religion or the clergy. You speak for what it might have been had it gone right. But it didn't ...

[Your point of view is] sadly, about three standard deviations to the enlightened side of average.

In truth, I don't think my theology is all that unique -- and certainly not three standard deviations away. So let me ask: can religion truly allow for critical thinking? And are rational religious people as rare as Hank Davis thinks they are?

Follow Rabbi Mitelman on twitter, @RabbiMitelman.

 

Follow Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiMitelman