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Ki Teitzei: Religion and Dysfunctionality

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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 life?!

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 religion?

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 and functionality.

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 psychological well-being.

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 scenarios.

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 human beings?

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 by self-interest.

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?

Photo by Kevin O’Mara/Flickr.

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ivan

I agree that it is better to be a wonderful person of faith and high morality than an arrogant depraved ignorant atheist

ania bien

In light of this article, how do you explain what is happening in the Middle East (Syria, Egypt, Lybia, Tunisia) at this moment, among the deeply religious Muslims ?

Ravs Daughter

As an observer of several family members of mine, I completely agree that religion is a cloak that mentally ill can hide behind. The structure of Judaism is such that really one can avoid thinking and just follow the rules in the book to handle a situation, or ask a Rav and dodge introspection and conscious soul wrestling altogether. One member in my family, bi-polar cons everyone with his piety to distract them from his mood swings, anger, etc. The other one converted to Judaism because they did not trust their judgement and wanted to follow the rules, do the… Read more »

Ruchama Burrell

I am surprised neither you nor any of the comments I read mentioned the basic scientific principle: correlation does not equal cause and effect. And of course there are some interesting more recent works arguing that religious belief, however erroneous may have given some peoples a distinct evolutionary advantage because it encourages cooperation necessary to the survival of humans.

Steve Lack

Nice, Rav. Love your analysis, but why so much? Keep it simple: The problem resides in most of most peoples upbringing, where we learn that If it works and bothers nobody, then its Right. But the opposite is the truth. So we need to define Right. (And Truth, too.) Torah does that. If one isnt Jewish, then surely genuine Faith can help. And, sure, many observant folks and families are dysfunctional – but what explains the fact that the divorce rate among Chabad and other frum sects is under 2% or maybe 1% while the U.S. divorce rate is closer… Read more »

Tzvi Friedl

Religion and Dysfunctionality There is a fourth possibility which is that I am certain that Sdom had very low criminality and peoples lives were very relaxed.In order to believe in G_d a person has to have some passion and love. As soon as passion and love come into the play human beings arent the placid robots of a modern technologically sophisticated but emotionally indifferent society.Love as we know very easily can go in the wrong direction, and seeing that this physical world is governed by the laws of gravity chances are high that it does indeed go down the wrong… Read more »

S Godick

I was disappointed by your essay. The first half of your column is based on innuendo and anecdote and so is really besides the point. I am on thin ice since I havent actually seen the Paul article but from your description of it I think it would be best to attempt a more dispassionate methodological critique. For example, how can one possibly relate to the U.S. as a monolithic society? It is really a composite of many societies. African American society, for example, still has not recovered from its slave legacy and as a result suffers from familial dysfunction… Read more »

Carol Baron

Rabbi Jacobson,You have opened the door to what may be the most difficult problem in the history of the United States; but you may have underestimated the significance of the term psychosociological conditions introduced by Douglas Paul. The question being raised in this inquiry by all participants may not really be personal religiosity in a disfunctional society but the longing to live an ethical life in a disfunctional society that rewards psychotic behavior, from which one cannot–except under unusual and lucky circumstances–withdraw. Therefore, within the same person who by profession fabricates lies and undermines the health and well-being of his… Read more »

Irv

The paper you have cited was originally published in 2005, and roundly criticized in the scientific community for its methodology. Paul himself is one of those evolutionist anti-religious atheists with an axe to grind, as can be readily discerned by articles by him and about him on the internet. Its obvious that judging dysfunctionality of religion by looking at statistics of countries doesnt make sense; e.g. if someone commits a murder, determine if the murderer is religious, not if the country he comes from is religious or not. Do teenage pregnancies occur in those who are davka more religious, or… Read more »

Precious from New York City

Will the real G-d stand up? I love it!

Suffice it to say, I loved your article, well put.

Ari Hirim

For all those that choose to do the next right thing (because of reading your article) I applaud you.

Ilene Winn-Lederer

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
Your article is brilliant,insightful and a fine segue into Elul. In turn, I am reminded of our beginnings in Gan Eden, the first stitch in the embroidery of a world which has grown so tangled and complex as to nearly obscure the memory of its own origins.

The elusive wonders of science and technology notwithstanding, I find the need to cut through the pilpul and to live this life as Jew by a simple reminder. To paraphrase Hillel: Choose to be good and choose to do good; everything else is commentary. A Guten Yontif to you and yours…

JJ Gross

Your essay is brilliant. But there is more to be said re; societies that are functional because they are irreligious vs those that are religious therefore dysfunctional (I am not talking about Jews now). Aside from the fact that, e.g. Sweden has one of the highest, if not the highest, suicide rates in the world, there is a far more overarching evidence of dysfunctionality that I presume was not even addressed in Gregory Paul’s paper — namely the impulse of secular societies to self-extinction. The negative birthrate in supposedly enlightened societies coupled with the willful opening of their floodgates to… Read more »

Rabbi Jacobson, I have another hypothosis for the results of the study. Please tell me what you think of what I write. A big part of Religion is that one is not selfish but selfless, and that one has the humility that all comes from Hashem and not from ones own doing. Besides being the right way to live it makes for a more functional person. Perhaps in sociolist countries where people are provided from cradel to grave, and where becoming wealthy, and metirialism is not that much of a virtue there is more functionality. However in countries where people… Read more »

Tzvi Isaacson

This may be the first time I have ever felt compelled to finish one of the Rabbis articles to the end but I am very happy that I did. If each of us, starting with the Gdolim to the simplest of us would have the courage to ask ourselves these kinds of questions honestly, to accept this kind of challenge,I believe we would grow so much as a people and nation that maybe we would come to a level to deserve better leadership. And this,Bezrat Hashem, might bring us to Mashiach. Kol HaKavod R.Jacobson!

David Sher

Very fine article. I agree with your points that religion should be able to demonstrate that it creates more ethical, moral and well balanced people. I believe that Judaism has been able to make this claim for much of its history because it always required one to hold the paradox in ones head at the same moment: for my sake was the world created I am but ashes and dust. If you can keep those things in mind at the same exact time you cannot fail to behave ethically towards others (because you are not better than anything, even inanimate… Read more »

Stephen Moskovitz

perspective, what is essential to understand, is that people of faith have it all the time whether they attend or participate in organized groups of believers or not. People are always connected and many are in the field, life forces that require the field of reflecting as the gyroscopic force, the whirlwind of acceptance. dysfunction is bad communication skills. there is genius in dysfunction as well. and dysfunction is not black and white, linear, and continuous. Dysfunction is just one aspect of healing the generational wounds and dysfunction can lead to the personal discovery of the generational connection and acknowledgement… Read more »

With no offense to Rabbi Jacobson, who normally has some very beautiful and uplifting articles, this piece was very disappointing.Firstly, why do you feel the need to defend ourselves from some pompous study? If you want to stress the right way of being religous, make your point from Torah, w/o the (true, yet)lengthy and purely defensive diffrentiation b/w the lab and real life.Secondly, I highly doubt that America can be considered a more religous country. Furthermore, to judge dysfunctional people based on their employment, number of murders and abortions is ridiculous. You must know countless of wealthy, married, non criminal… Read more »

mikaela oremus

dear rabbi , your article send goosebumps to my arms, it was really thought provoking and self examining for one, as i could really relate to it. at the moment i am in arnhem in holland, visiting relatives, holland is an atheistic country that functions well, however the majority believe you are stark raving mad to believe in G- D as i do ,, next time i shall say..to them,, whence they ask, that g-d that u dont believe in, i also dont believe in,,,i hope to go to the synagogue 4 shabbat tonight here in arnhem, if im not… Read more »

Stephen J. Lack

Rabbi Jacobsen, Happy Erev Shabbos! Your article is interesting, but I thought that Judaism is not a religion. Judaism is One HaShem. Religion is however many gods you like.Even if, especially if, one is Jewish. Judaism is Torah. Functionality occurs when we are close to or getting close to Torah, lishmah. The opposite occurs when we move away from Torah, from HaShem. Just look at our beloved Eretz Kodesh. Yetzer HaRah surely has a ball when we fall into the trap of studying and critiquing Religion and studies of Religion. I really enjoy all your work and look forward one… Read more »

Esther Sarah Evans

bHIll go one step beyond what the Berditchever Rebbe said and notjust agree with him, but add thatJudaism is not a religion. Unfortunately, we sometimes referto it as such for lack of a betterword, but this is wrong, for a Jewis a Jew, even if he is not alwaysgoing by the book, and even the bookis as universal as the universe itself and expands every time someone pressesin its direction. This all permeating, all emcompassing Torah of HaShem is ashard to pinpoint as HaShem Himself. To narrow this down to the concept of religion practised by others is a total… Read more »