Thursday, February 8, 2018

Needing the Secular World: A Thought Experiment and Some Rodney Stark


In the last 
post, I discussed the idea that Haredim, while they might possess individual scientists, are incapable of creating their own genuine scientific culture. This brought up an argument from the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz of the necessity of being able to fill out all jobs required by a society. It is not enough for Haredim to say that other people should be doctors or lawyers and, for that matter, policemen and garbage collectors; Haredim need to be able to fill these positions themselves. The fact that Haredim cannot do this, in the long run, poses a major ideological challenge far beyond any particular scientific argument. I would like to further develop this idea with a thought experiment and consideration of the Rodney Stark model of conversion. 

Imagine a town divided between secular people and Haredim. No one has a political advantage to allow them to force their values on anyone. Both Haredi and secular parents are keen to pass on their values to their children and keep them from going over to the other side. One major advantage that secular parents would have is that, ironically, it would be easier for them to raise their children without ever interacting with the other side. The reason for this is that there is no job that they require that they cannot simply fill in with their own people without recourse to Haredim. They can make sure that their children only visit secular doctors and have their trash picked up by secular garbageman. Haredim, for all their talk about maintaining their purity, are forced to lead relatively open lives. Every day Haredi children will walk past secular policemen and garbageman. If they get sick, they will be hard-pressed to make sure that they are seen by a religious doctor. It will not only that these people happen to be secular, but the children will be conscious of these facts as they have been taught to think of these as non-religious jobs.  

Haredim, of all people, should be able to instinctively appreciate how such casual contact with the outside world can become spiritually dangerous. To understand the problem at an intellectual level, it is useful to turn to the sociologist Rodney Stark and his model of conversion. Stark argues for the importance of social relations in causing people to convert to a different denomination or even to move outside of one's religion. People are unlikely to be converted and even more importantly stay converted due to some argument made by a stranger in the street. By contrast, they are very open to their friends and family. 


There are two major reasons why a personal connection is so much more valuable than an intellectual argument. Human beings are social creatures. Even if we wanted to, we are unlikely to be able to change our lives around an argument, even one we believed. By contrast, we do readily change our behavior to match those around us. Furthermore, it is social relations that are going to keep a person within a movement. An argument can be countered with another argument. By contrast, you cannot will a new set of social connections into place; it takes years of work (particularly if you are not a neurotypical).

A good example of this kind of thinking can be found in Mormonism. The LDS Church, decades ago, recognized that having missionaries try to "cold call" strangers was essentially useless. By contrast, having a potential convert meet with a missionary at the home of a Mormon friend was very effective. Hence the LDS Church has now built their entire missionary program around this premise. 

Everyone has their moments of crisis. People with a strong spiritual sensibility are likely to have more of them and they are likely to involve their chosen faiths. Keep in mind that, if you never expect much from your religion, it can never disappoint you. It is precisely the true believer who can become disillusioned. When that happens it can only benefit the LDS Church if you have a Mormon friend that you can find yourself falling into a theological conversation with. This friend can then suggest that perhaps you might want to come over to his house sometime to continue this conversation with some of his other "friends."

This idea that people are ultimately converted by their friends leads us to a particular narrative of conversion. There is a first stage in which a person "socially" converts in the sense that they take on a group of friends, who happen to follow a particular religion. At this point, there is nothing intellectual involved. In fact, the person would likely insist that they have not converted or changed in any significant way. That being said, this is the truly crucial stage. At some point, a person is going to realize that he has come to associate with people from a particular religion and that religion carries a particular ideology that needs to be taken into consideration. A person who fully converts is likely to look back and reframe their narrative to make themselves seekers who found their faith when, in truth, it was the religion that found them.  

This idea of social conversions can be seen in Chabad. The society around a Chabad house consists of a series of circles. At the center is the Chabad emissary couple. Around them, you will have some observant people. But most people at a Chabad house are not Orthodox. You can have people who have been associated with Chabad for years as an important part of their lives without ever becoming Orthodox. They like the Chabad rabbis and perhaps recognize some need for Jewish spirituality, but have no interest in being ritually observant. 

This state of affairs is possible because Chabad emissaries tend to be both remarkably nice and tolerant. Non-religious Jews are amazed at how tolerant Chabad emissaries are and want to be friends with them. In the long run, this model has proven to be incredibly effective even if that is hard to see on a day to day level where it appears that what you have is an observant rabbi surrounded by a non-observant congregation just like you would see in a Conservative synagogue.

My wife an excellent example of this. As a teenager with a non-Jewish mother, she started going to the Chabad in Pasadena on Friday nights mostly as a matter of convenience as it was easier to get there by bus than the Conservative Temple. Her taking on ritual observance and then realizing that, if she ever wanted to get married, she needed an actual Orthodox conversion was a process that took years. This process was made possible by the kindness and tolerance by the Chabad emissaries for someone who was not halakically Jewish.

As to ideological conversions, consider the example of C. S. Lewis. The most dramatic moment of Lewis' journey from atheism to Christianity was a late night conversation with a number of religious Christians, including J. R. R. Tolkien, in which Lewis argued that the main ideas of Christianity came from ancient paganism and therefore should be taken with equal seriousness. One might enjoy Greek and Norse mythology and even see it as a source for great moral teachings, but one cannot be expected to seriously believe in these religions. The response was that the ancient pagans intuitively understood certain truths that were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. 

Now what can easily be lost in this story is that Lewis did not simply walk up to some random Christians at his favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, and start an argument with them. At this point in his life, he had started believing in God largely because the writers he most identified with were theists and that he found that he could not disassociate what he admired from that theism. He had even started going to church as an exercise in being part of the theism team. This led him to become friends with a number of intellectually serious practicing Christians and it was with these Christian friends that he had his famous late-night conversation about pagan mythology.    

To bring this back to our earlier thought experiment, in order to keep their children in the "faith," both the secular and Haredi parents are going to have to keep an eye out for alternative social circles as opposed to some guy handing out leaflets. The secular parents have nothing to worry about as there is no reason why their children would consciously ever have to interact with Haredim. They will know that Haredim exist as theoretical abstractions walking in the streets in strange clothes almost like philosophical zombies. There will never be a reason to take them seriously as individuals with names. Haredi parents will be able to work with no such advantage. Their children will have to interact with secular people, such as doctors and policemen, as individuals with names. This can form the basis for a friendship or at least enough of one that, when that inevitable moment of crisis comes and they feel frustrated with the Haredi community, that they might think to go talk to that secular person in their life. The moment we cross that line, the child might still be a long way from leaving and may have no conscious desire to do so, but his soul is now in play.

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