Thursday, April 27, 2017

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

Yeshiva University class of 2012
I was pointed in the direction of a Pew Research study that concluded the following: If you are Jewish - the more educated you are the less religious you are.

This may shock some people. But it doesn’t shock me at all. Pew defined education in terms of whether one attended college or not. If there is any place that tends to focus on empirical explanations of phenomena while ignoring or completely rejecting spiritual explanations - it is academia. I say this not as someone that rejects a college education but as someone that is a college graduate and supports it.

As a religious Jew how - one may ask - do I reconcile my support for a college education with the fact that it might weaken religious belief? For me the answer is rather simple. If one has a good Jewish education having attended a Yeshiva for all of elementary and high school, one becomes grounded their religious beliefs. 

One can then withstand the suggestion that the only things that matter in the world are things which are physical. Which can easily result in the kind of thinking that says if you can’t experience it with at least one of the five physical senses, then it doesn’t exist. Thus belief in a Spiritual Being (God) is a non starter.

But a good Jewish education will teach you that there is a spiritual side to reality that cannot be detected with our given biological senses. Once we understand that - we can easily deal with an education that tries to counter it the way academia does. We can then proceed to study the physical world without having to give up our beliefs. Instead remaining firm in them. 

Jews much smarter than I have remained devout despite getting advanced degrees. Just to name 2 of the more prominent ones, the Rav, and Rav Lichtenstein. 

There are, however, some very bright Jews that have had excellent Jewish educations and have nonetheless become skeptics and atheists after being exposed to the disciplines and biases of academia. The reasons for that are not all that clear to me – and outside the scope of this post. I do believe, however, that the vast majority of those of us that have a good Yeshiva education have remained religious despite the pressures of academia. Yeshiva University is a prime example of that.

Unfortunately, however, those without the underpinnings of a good Jewish education can easily succumb to the lure of seeing the world only in terms of the physical.

So what’s the story? Are only stupid uneducated Jews religious? Are the smart ones that have a college education the ones that abandon their beliefs? That might be the conclusion drawn by this study. But that would be far from the truth.

Greater religiosity is unrelated to their intelligence level. The fact is that many non college educated Jews  are quite brilliant. They do not attend college because they do not value a secular education.  I strongly disagree with them. But that does not make them stupid.  They avoid college because they have been indoctrinated against it. The reason for that kind of indoctrination is - in part - because of what this study shows – corroborating the fear that going to college endangers one’s faith.

There are some pretty brilliant Jews in Lakewood that have not - and will not attend college. But most of them would do very well there and would not be swayed against their beliefs.

So how do we arrive at such a reverse correlation between educated Jews and religion? I think it may be because Pew defined ‘educated’ only in terms of attending college – implying that without it, one remains ignorant and thus more dependent on religion to explain things.

Fortunately there are large numbers of religious Jews with strong Yeshiva backgrounds that have - and do attend college. Virtually all of MO does and an increasing number of Charedi Jews do. If Pew were to take a poll of college educated students with strong Yeshiva educations - my guess is that the results would be entirely different. I believe that the vast majority of them would be as strong in their beliefs and practices as they were before they attended.

Curiously, the study showed that Christian religiosity tends to be unaffected by college. That would seem to lend credence to my thoughts about college negating ones religiosity. It doesn’t.

Why do Christians fare better than Jews in this regard?  I can only guess at the answer. But I don’t think it’s is because they are less intelligent or more ignorant. If I had to guess, I would say that it is because it’s easier to be a religious Christian than it is to be a religious Jew. It is also because America is a Christian country. 71% of the population identify as Christians.  Christians also tend to compartmentalize. They see religion as going to church on Sundays. They otherwise don’t really think about it that much (except for Evangelicals).  So that in a poll, it would be a lot easier for a Christian to say they are religious than it would be for a Jew.

When looked at in the light of all this, then in my view the Pew study cannot be taken as indicative of how a college education affects the Jewish people. At least not for those Jews that have been sufficiently educated about their religion.

Hat  tip: Jerry Gottheil