A Step Not Far Enough

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

An interesting article at Aeon considers "the double lives of Hasidic atheists". Based on interviews, the piece examines how these individuals reached their conclusions regarding the existence of a deity and where they have gone from there. Credit freedom of speech (as the article ought to have) and the wide availability of modern communications technology for making it easy to question the fundamental tenet of religion:

[T]hey are also proof of the increasing challenges fundamentalist religious groups face in the age of the internet and a globalised world. With so much information so readily available, such groups can no longer rely on physical and intellectual isolation to maintain their boundaries. In addition to exposing religious adherents to information that challenges the hegemony of their belief systems, the internet gives individuals living in restrictive environments an alternative community.
Most interesting to me along these lines was one such atheist's speculation that the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides was also secretly an atheist. This reminded me of a friend's similar speculation about Thomas Aquinas. Considering how pervasively the lives of fundamentalists and medieval Christians were affected by religion, the latter speculation made much more sense to me after I read this.

That said, the article is better at portraying the social and psychological difficulties these atheists face:
Yanky cut an incongruous figure. A tall ultra-Orthodox man with a short, scruffy beard and short side-locks wrapped behind his ears, wearing traditional Hasidic black-and-white garb, he was sitting on a barstool in an out-of-the-way dive bar in South Brooklyn on a Monday afternoon, sipping a Corona. But Yanky is an incongruous man. Like Solomon, he lives in an Orthodox neighbourhood, has many children who attend yeshivas, goes to synagogue to pray, hosts meals on Sabbath. His life, like the life of any Orthodox Jew, is punctuated a hundred times a day by the small demands the religion makes on its adherents' lifestyle, demands on what they can eat, what they can wear, where they can go, what they can read, whom they can speak to, what they can touch, when they can touch it, and how often.

Somewhat tragically for a person so occupied, Yanky doesn't believe in God.
Why would anyone who rejects the very foundation of so many intrusive rituals subject himself to this? The answer is usually along these lines:
[E]ven for those such as Solomon and Yanky who were educated enough to pursue outside professions, their own psychological states work just as well as any external rules to keep them put. The self-policing mechanism kicked in most strongly through the matchmaking apparatus, the place where status is determined in these communities. A person leaving the community puts a blight on their entire family, stigmatising parents, siblings, children, and even cousins, limiting their ability to marry into "good" families with no such stain.
In other words, despite having broken the greatest of their intellectual bonds, they don't go very far. This is due to the power of unearned guilt and the fact that their "communities" make sure they and their immediate relatives face numerous unpleasant consequences for the sin of speaking their minds. (In the case of women, this often includes being medicated for mental illness.) On some levels, fear of the repercussions is understandable as is the lack of fear for allowing their children to remain in ignorance -- this life is what these men and women know best. But if there is lots of evidence against the teachings of their religion, so their is, all around them, that life without faith is possible. Perhaps such a realization is too much to ask of most people, perhaps not. Whatever the case, the article is more a testament to the power of religion to stunt minds than it is of the Internet to free them.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

Penn Gillette talks about his experience with some orthodox Jews (I think one of them was Hasidic) who became atheists and basically had to live secret lives to avoid losing their spouse/children/business/community.

I think the article more shows that social ties are a Big Deal. It takes one kind of courage to break with ideas and another type entirely to make a break with your entire life. Religions are tied hand and foot to the institution of family--when the family organization breaks up, so does the religion.

This may be one reason for the popular statistic that religious people are generally "happier" than atheists. Becoming an atheist often means abandoning all those supportive social ties that are so very necessary for the health and well-being of the human animal. Rebuilding them out of strangers or learning to live without is tough. My parents are both atheists who came from religious families. After years and years of strain they have both now (mostly) reconciled with their families, but I grew up during the period of their greatest mutual estrangement and it weirds them out that I never developed those social ties or even any interest in them--to me, family is just a set of acquaintances I have a few things in common with, nothing more.

Gus Van Horn said...

I was fortunate in that my parents were from different sects and his family, at least, was non-observant. On top of that, my dad became an atheist shortly before I did. Other experiences have given me some insight into this problem, but nothing did on the level of this article.