Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Being Led To Believe

Shtreimel has raised the question of "What type of rebel are you?" I think there are a few more categories that can be drawn besides his three, but the general ones he proposes are definitely a good start. I find myself asking that question so often lately. It's usually phrased somewhat differently, more along the lines of: What do I believe? Do I think it's all a load of bull? Do I even believe in God? Do I believe but not care? Different choice of words, but essentially the same query.

I'm gradually coming to some sort of clarity on this issue, but one thing that I keep coming back to is that every time an issue arises and I ask myself "What do I believe about it?" I always hear myself replying, "Well, I was led to believe..."

What's the difference between believing something and being led to believe something?

Someone much smarter than myself can go into the exact definition of what belief is. I'm not absolutely certain. A hasty definition that comes to mind would be the conviction that something is true, particularly of an idea that that one can't be certain of. But at heart, belief is about something that a person truly believes in themselves. (Yes, I know that is so circular, but my point will be clearer when contrasting it with the next idea.)

Yet most often when an issue arises that stimulates me to take a look at my convictions in a particular area, I usually discover that I don't have any real beliefs of my own on the matter. True, there are some ideas on it floating around in my head, but in 99% of the cases those aren't my own ideas. They are ideas that someone else told me to subscribe to, and which I kept as my own all my life. I was led to believe, and I willingly followed where I was led. But did I believe it myself? In most cases, the answer is no.

I really don't have a problem with this idea in general. It's understandable and acceptable to me that not all of my beliefs are my own. I think that we all do this in so many areas of our lives, not just matters of religious thought. There's no way that we can subject to analysis every idea that we are expected to believe or take for granted. We all have ideas in our heads which have shaped our personalities that haven't been thoroughly scrutinized and filtered.

Yet it's very disturbing how often this has been happening to me. How frequently I realize that on so many issues that my life revolves around (or in some cases revolved), I don't really have my own convictions. Some people might say that absence of belief is like saying "I don't believe", but to my mind, that's already a belief in itself, and while applicable in certain cases, most often a better way of expressing it is simply "I don't know".

It affects me on many levels. The most obvious one is in the myriad areas of Jewish practice. (This actually doesn't really bother me as much as it used to, as I've come to an overall conclusion that I don't care about most of it, so asking me what my beliefs are about halacha is like asking me what my beliefs are about head lice.) But it's about much more than halacha. I've realized that many of my values are also not my own. The way that I approach relationships is not my own. The qualities I admire in another person are not my own. My goals in life are not my own. The way I want to raise my family is not my own. My overall understanding of life, of Judaism, of practically everything of any consequence - it's all viewed from the frum perspective I was indoctrinated with that I no longer believe in.

Do you realize how utterly frightening this is? When I remove all these ideas that I've only subscribed to, and then look at what's remaining on the board, I'm left with a terribly short list of views that I've truly acquired on my own. It's practically a blank slate.

Ok, I'm probably overstating it a bit. Admittedly, throughout the past few years, most of my views on many issues have been modified somewhat in parallel to the changes I've made in my lifestyle. But despite that, on almost all important and central issues, there is still a very large and substantial part which is not my own, and when that is removed, there is a gaping hole in it's absence.

But there is more. Not knowing right or wrong might be the most obvious dilemma I face, but more important than that is that I simply don't have a fucking clue how to figure out the right answers to all these questions! I wasn't taught how to figure things out, to investigate, to come to my own conclusions. I was taught to listen, to accept, to ask someone else what to believe, how to live my life, what's right and what's wrong, and accept that he knows best.

And now I find myself with nobody to trust, but also no tools to figure things out on my own.

Where do I start?


elf said...

Familiar thoughts. Your basic problem would exist even if you didn't have a frum upbringing. We're all by and large products of our environment. It's distressing, but there's no way around it. We can try to think independently, but in the end, there's no way to wipe the slate entirely clean.

You've pinpointed another, equally universal problem: "There's no way that we can subject to analysis every idea that we are expected to believe or take for granted." The fact that you confront this issue frequently simply means that you're more conscious of your limitations than most people are. There's simply too much information in the world. No one can grasp it all. No one can work his or her way through all the controversies. We have to make assumptions.

Most of the time we lie to ourselves. We pretend that we've thought things through when we've really only grazed the tip of the iceberg. I see it all the time when I talk to people about biblical criticism. They hear a ten-minute lecture and come out convinced that the Documentary Hypothesis has been debunked, but when I ask them to explain how I discover that they don't remember the details of the refutation. I often discover that my own acceptance of critical theories is equally ill-founded. I've read an article or heard a lecture, been convinced, and filed the theory under "true." Later, I can't even remember why.

You claim that you haven't been taught the necessary skills for "figuring it all out." That is bullshit. You're obviousy a critical thinker, and you write very well, so I assume that you can read. There aren't any other secret skills. The rest of us are stumbling around in the dark just like you.

SH said...

I think you came to an important realization. It is not as important WHAT you believe as WHY you believe what you believe.

“What makes a free thinker is not his beliefs, but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought, he finds a balance in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem.”


“The essence of the liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment. This is the way opinions are held in science, as opposed to the way in which they are held in theology.”

--- Bertrand Russell

Yes, there is overwhelming amount of information being thrown at us every waking hour of our lives and we cannot possibly process and analyze all of it. We cannot verify every claim. However, not all the claims are equal.

If someone tells me that the cheese I buy is made in Denmark I am willing to accept this information with very little supporting evidence. The only evidence I have is that I have no evidence of store where I buy cheese lying about stuff like that. The reason I don’t bother to investigate it is because it really does not matter to me whether it was really made in Denmark or elsewhere as long as I like it and it does not make me sick I am fine with it.

If, on the other hand, someone tells me that I must pray 10 times a day to an invisible entity and follow many different rules, limit things I can and cannot do in my every day life and so on, that is significant enough claim to prompt me to launch a thorough investigation into it. If I am required to change the way I live I better have some very good reasons for it.

So we prioritize claims based on their significance (relevance to our lives) and spend our time investigating those with most weight attached to them.

Absolutes and certainties are fiction. We only work with degrees of probability. Some times we “feel” strongly enough about claims being true that we say we KNOW them to be true. In fact, we neither know nor believe them to be true – we simply think that with all the information that is available to us at the moment it seems that the claim is _likely_ to be true. This is all we have to work with.

I don’t know for sure if the Sun is going to come up tomorrow, I think it will. What important is that I do not believe that because I am told it is so, but because my experiences, experiences of everyone else that I know and respect, science and common sense tell me that the chances are such that it will come up tomorrow.

You might find following article on beliefs to be interesting: The problems with beliefsThank you.