Preparing for the New Year
So what do you think of this latest study?
In last month’s issue of the online journal Evolutionary
Psychology, a paper
by Gregory Paul finds that countries with the lowest rates
of social dysfunction—based on 25 measures, including
rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, unemployment,
and poverty—have become the most secular. Those with
the most dysfunction, such as Portugal and the U.S., are
the most religious, as measured by self-professed belief,
church attendance, habits of prayer, and the like.
What this suggests is one of two options: Either religion
leads to social dysfunction, or that dysfunctional people
turn to religion for relief.
Quite a choice, if you asked me. Who would want to be part
of religion that either causes you to be dysfunctional or
is a desperate attempt to heal you from a dysfunctional
It reminds me of the question someone once posed to me
several years ago on a live cable broadcast of my class:
“What is your response,” the questioner asked
me, “ to the recent debate of the APA (American Psychiatric
Association) whether religion is just a delusion or an actual
form of psychosis?”
No joke. This was the question asked of me. I responded
with a question in return to these brilliant psychiatrists:
“Do you beat your wife with a bat or a chain?”
“What do you mean?” replied the proverbial doctor, “what
nerve do you have to assume that I beat my wife, and you
are only wondering what weapon I use?!”
“And what right do you have to arrogantly assume that religion
is an aberration – with your only remaining question being,
whether it is a disease or only a delusion?!”
“You have the right to not choose religion. But who gave
you the authority to question other people’s beliefs?”
But then what do we do with Paul’s study, pompously
titled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon
Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions? If his results
are indeed accurate, why is it that functional lives reject
As an aside, a fellow recently shared with me his life
experience. This man’s father was a scientific researcher,
exploring the reasons that cause children to rebel against
their parents. “My father,” he tells me, “would
spend days and nights away from my mother and our family
immersed into all his earth shattering research about functional
and dysfunctional families, all the while that he in effect
abandoned us all and left us fatherless, not to mention
betraying my mother and the rest of us countless times…
the few times that my self-absorbed father did interact
with us was when he would arrogantly reprimand us for ‘disturbing’
his ‘vital work for the good of mankind,’ while
destroying his own family… That’s my father
and the ‘legacy’ he left us…”
I was reminded of this episode reading the NY Times Science
section this week, in which John Tierney describes
how guilt shapes virtue in children. He documents different
experiments that psychological researchers performed with
toddlers, some of them with the intentional goal of traumatizing
a child and studying the child’s reactions. I always
wonder about such articles. As brilliant as some of them
are, I wonder what type of children of his own (if any)
did this writer and researcher actually produce? Are they
happy, loving adults? Did his brilliance spill over into
his family life, or did it remain trapped in test tubes
and research papers? All these experts writing about children’s
dysfunctionality – are their children any better than
the rest of societies? Not to take away from their great
contributions, but you have to wonder whether testing children
in laboratories and writing elaborate papers on their findings
actually creates a better society, or is it like an advanced
technology that celebrates and honors the achievements of
the “discoverer” more than the welfare of society.
By no means in this an attempt to disparage science and
scientists. It’s simply meant to place things in context
– and isn’t that also part of the scientific
method, to be thorough and look at the whole picture, rather
than at part of it? If we are to help raise the quality
of family life and children’s development, it’s
vital to not only do studies, but also to actually be better
parents and educators, living up to our responsibility as
being (whether we like it or not) the only role models our
children have in their earliest formative years.
You want to understand children? Instead of dragging them
to a lab for tests and creating superficial settings, where
we can never really know whether the children are reacting
as they would in their “natural habitat,” observe
and study your own children at play. Let them be themselves
– love them unconditionally, nurture and embrace them
– and then witness the results… (Of course,
the converse is also true, but I would rather not mention
the consequences of a dysfunctional childhood).
What connection does this have with Gregory Paul’s
religion/dysfunctional study? Besides for providing me the
opportunity to vent a bit, my point is that for all the
value of “studies” and “research,”
there are simply some things that can only be experienced
through… well, experience. Can we truly understand
a human being or a social group as an outside observer?
Or even worse, observing the “specimen” outside
of its natural environment?
Obviously, there is great value in objective observation.
But its insight must be coupled with the “subjective”
reality inherent in every human experience.
With that in mind, let us return to the issue of Paul’s
finding that functional societies have a lower rate of religiosity.
Paul’s conclusion, like any theory, is open to debate,
despite its data and evidence. For instance, are there other
factors that come into play in a more socially functional
country, which may affect its religious commitment? How
much of a role does, for instance, prosperity play in the
decreasing numbers of believers? How much is affected by
our open society, our accelerating communications and technologies,
our distractions and inundation with information overload,
our material obsessions? How do we actually define dysfunctionality:
Is it defined by poverty and homicide (as Paul suggests),
or is it defined by divorce and misery, which is quite common
even (or especially) among the affluent? And how do we actually
define religion – religion has many variations and levels
of intensity and commitment, from moderate to extreme? Are
we talking about people who consider themselves morally
religious, or those that are fundamentalists? Are all religious
people more dysfunctional than their secular counterparts?
With that being said, however, this column is not interested
in tearing down Paul’s observations. Even if his findings
are correct, allow me to submit a third possibility –
besides the two obvious and untenable ones mentioned above
(that religion causes dysfunctionality or that the dysfunctional
turn toward religion).
There is a well-known story about the famous 18th century
Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who
was well known for his empathy and non-judgmental character.
One Rosh Hashanah he invited his neighbor to come with him
to synagogue. The neighbor declined, saying, “Rebbe,
I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in G-d. It would
be hypocritical of me to step foot in a synagogue."
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak smiled and replied, “The G-d that
you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”
The same can be said about religion. Would the Berditchever
believe in today’s religion? For that matter, would
Abraham, Moses, Rabbi Akiva, the Arizal – and thousands
of the Jewish giants in history – accept or even recognize
the religious communities of our time?
I submit that a religion that leads to dysfunctional behavior
is not true religion. Indeed, its is the antithesis of the
guidelines dictated by faith, which demand that a person
achieve the highest possible state of personal refinement
The same can be said about religion that serves as a cure
(or even crutch) for the dysfunctional.
No doubt that dysfunctionality exists amongst the many
people today who identify themselves as “religious,”
or follow certain religious rituals, dress and other codes.
Some may even argue that the insulated and sheltered conditions
of a religious enclave are conducive to abuse and dysfunction.
Religious communities had been accused of minimizing or
covering-up problems, due to pride and shame. Other reasons
may include the fear of destroying the reputation of a family
and the resulting difficulties in finding shidduchim (matches)
for children. Regardless of the reasons, dysfunctionality
does exist in so-called religious communities.
Equally true is the fact that that some people who grew
up in dysfunctional homes have turned to religion for healing,
nurturing and building a more functional life. Indeed, there
is nothing wrong with that. It is no worse than someone
turning to any healthy environment for their personal and
But this is not the essence of real faith. Religion is
not defined by those that distort its value or those that
use it for their personal salvation.
The truths of a real religious system is that it serves
as a blueprint for life for all people and all
life situations – both for the functional as well as the
dysfunctional. And who amongst us is completely functional?
It is a comprehensive approach to life that addresses all
It could very well be, that Gregory Paul’s findings
demonstrates the growing resistance to false gods and religions,
which is amplified in healthier and more functional societies.
Paul’s study, whether you like or dislike its results,
presents us all with a powerful question: Is the religion
we practice indeed a destructive force? Is it only for the
dysfunctional an unhealthy? Is it a mechanical program that
people are born into, and just go through the motions?
Or is religion a force that drives human progress? A system
that shapes highly refined, sensitive, productive, evolved
I pose the following challenge to myself and the entire
religious community: Can we demonstrate to ourselves,
our families and the world at large that our faith can indeed
create more functionality in our homes, in our schools and
in our communities?
Yes, it may be easier to just dismiss the studies of secular
scholars. There may even be basis to dismiss them due their
own bias, sometimes to the point, dare I say, of “fanatical
atheism,” with an agenda to undermine and mock everything
religious. But even if that were true, dismissing their
critique does not solve our problem. Just because secular
people can be dysfunctional and self-righteous – or
even more dysfunctional than people of faith – doesn’t
justify dysfunctionality amongst the religious.
On the contrary: The person of faith has a higher standard
to answer to. It is far more disturbing when a man or woman
of faith is abusive, due to the expectation that faith places
upon the human being – to live up to the Divine Image
in which each us was created; to be the healthiest, most
loving, majestic being that we possibly can be.
This, I propose, is the mandate of our times: To reclaim
the true nature of faith and commitment. To revisit the
belief system of Abraham, a pioneer who stood up to the
paganistic tide of his times, and embraced a reality beyond
anything humans can create. A man who committed himself
and his family – in a way that would perpetuate for
generations to come, till this very day – to live
a life of virtue instead of vice, giving instead of taking,
serving instead of being served; a life of selfless devotion
to a cause higher than himself; a life of remolding his
personality to be aligned with the Divine, instead of the
other way around, fitting beliefs into personal models driven
Our calling is to marginalize (and possibly eliminate)
so-called “religious” behavior that feeds the
stereotype of close-minded, unevolved and condescending
religiosity. And more importantly, reintroduce the alternative
– faith and religion that allows man to actualize
and shine in his full glory.
When Nietzsche famously declared, “God is dead,”
he essentially issued a challenge to us all. Nietzsche may
not have been aware of the Berditchever’s words, but
in essence Nietzsche was saying that the “God”
of his belief system was dead, not because he died, but
because was never alive in the first place. That false God
deserved to die. In other words: The God you don’t
believe in, I too don’t believe in.
So now the question remains:
Will the true and real G-d please stand up? Will a health
and growth driven religion finally arise?
And above all: Will we do what it takes to ensure that
the true G-d and the true religion reclaim its appropriate
and functional place in our lives?
What better time to address this than in these special
days of Elul, days filled with compassionate and love, when
we prepare for a New Year, with emphasis on NEW?