Monday, June 01, 2009

Closet Atheists

One of the issues plaguing Orthodoxy these days is the phenomenon of adult onset skepticism. These are a group of sincere people who were raised as religious Jews and had absolutely no doubts in their minds about their beliefs. They have now come to doubt their beliefs and turned into – what used to be called agnostics but now are called weak atheists.

A weak atheist is someone who doubts the existence of God but remains with a degree of uncertainty about it. Since there is no proof of God they choose to assume that he doesn’t exist until proven otherwise. There are many reasons they have come to these conclusions having to do with perceived contradictions between science and Torah and modern biblical scholarship that - if I understand correctly - suggests that the Torah was written by man – actually several men at different times in history.

These are sincere people who are not evil. They have merely been exposed to doubt. They are generally intellectually honest and not inherently anti-God. They just question their previous assumptions about God and Judaism that were taught dogmatically in Yeshivos.

I am not here to present a counter argument. Once someone becomes a doubter after much thought and research – especially if it was a slow and deliberate process - it will be nearly impossible to change their minds in the span of one essay or comments to it. They have heard all the arguments and rejected them.

Nor do I wish to encourage doubters to come forth with specific challenges and questions. Neither side is going to win over the other at this point. Nor am I interested in spreading doubt via their arguments.

The bottom line is that one either believes in God or not. One either believes in Judaism or not.

Belief is subjective and not based entirely on rational thought. Other things come into play such as intuition. Although the more rational thought is used the more resistant one will be to doubt. But – as I said - though reason is required it is not enough.

If I remember correctly Chazal tell us that Emunah Peshuta – simple belief – is superior to belief via rational thought. I understand why. Serious inquiry will almost always create some form of doubt. That is its nature. Simple faith eliminates that. If one simply believes and puts all questions out of their minds one can achieve a very high status of spirituality. Such is the result of a belief that is pure.

It is one thing to define Emunah Peshuta. It is another to accomplish it. The current model in Yeshivos is to assume that students believe. No time is therefore spent on this subject. Belief in God is assumed and everything flows from that assumption. And that the Torah is His word. That system worked pretty well in the past. But in our time, I believe it is not serving us as well. Doubt in our time all too easily finds its way into our psyche.

Belief has to be based on intellectual honesty. If one has a doubt it is impossible to say it isn’t there. The trick is to overcome that doubt. Yeshivos need to put more emphasis on these issues. Emunah Peshuta can no longer be relied upon to suffice – even though it may be the more spiritual option.

Rational thought is more long lasting. That is because it helps protect one from the sudden encounter with seemingly irreconcilable questions. The resulting doubt can make one’s Emunah Peshuta disappear quite quickly. It’s hard to ignore a thought once it appears. In our day it is almost impossible to avoid exposure to the ‘big questions’. If one has a curious mind he will find them – and ponder them. Better to have been prepared to deal with them logically.

I occasionally come across serious people who agonize about issues of belief who nevertheless live a committed religious life – the so-called Orthoprax Jew. They are often already married and have children. What does one do if one becomes a doubter in the middle of a happy and loving marriage? Do they continue to live a lie? What about a wife or a husband of a newly formed skeptic? Should they be told? What about the children?

Remember that many of these people started out their adult lives as believers. They were as committed to Judaism as their wives or husbands. But now they are skeptics. What are they supposed to do? How are they supposed to live? How can a wife deal with a husband who doubts both God and Judaism?

Is it possible to have a happy family life living what one believes to be a lie? Perhaps. On the other hand ‘coming out of the closet’ will almost certainly cause untold grief to every member of one’s family - wife or husband, children, parents, siblings, and friends. The disruption will be immense!

I personally believe that trying to make believers out of them again is a virtual impossibility. Although I’m sure it has happened on an exceptional basis.

What is worse is that the population of Frum skeptics is growing. They seem to come from all segments of Orthodox Judaism – from Chasidim to Charedim to modern Orthodox. And there doesn’t seem to be any answers for these closet atheists. It must be hell to live a lie especially when it involves deceiving loved ones.

The ultimate answer is to find ways to bring these people back. This is a job for people who are much smarter than I am. But as I said - this is a seemingly impossible task.

If it is too late for those who have lost their faith - it is not too late for those who may yet lose it. I think this is where we can have the most effect. Prevention. A curriculum has to be developed in Torah education that will anticipate these questions and help students deal with them at an early age. It isn’t fool proof, but it will help stem the tide.

Emunah Peshuta does not have the same hold over people in our era as it once did. outlets of exposure to these questions are all to easy to access. We can no longer afford to assume that our young people will remain true to Judaism no matter what - and focus only on Gemarah. Jewish theology and philosophy must be incorporated into every Orthodox curriculum.

I don’t have all the answers. Far from it. I mostly have questions. But we have to start somewhere. We are hemorrhaging some very bright minds to the land of doubt and skepticism. That is creating impossibly hard pressures for their families – and high risk to their children. Parents who are skeptics – even if they remain in the closet desire to teach their children the truth as they understand it. And doubt will be transmitted - one way or another.