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.