The most common question I was asked after The Summit last spring was if I learned anything particularly insightful into the Orthodox Jewish experience to explain why some people stay in Orthodox Judaism and why others leave. People really want to know the answer to this question. I think they think that if they know why people leave, future defections can be prevented or at least minimized. Or maybe it’s just morbid curiosity. I’m not sure.
I promised everyone who asked me that I would write something up eventually. I think this is it.
Most religious people I’ve talked to are pretty sure that their religious convictions are correct. Their religion is the truth. They believe in God and whatever version of God’s word they think it true. They think that the reason they follow God’s word is because they know it to be true. After all, who wouldn’t act upon the truth? But this is mostly an illusion.
People do not do what they do because they think it’s true or right. People do what they do because it’s what they want to do.
Any number of factors affect what people want to do. Intellectual beliefs might be one of the factors, but it grabs a very small piece of the pie chart that completes the picture of this determination. The biggest reason people want to do certain things is because it feels good. It can be the childish kind of feeling good that comes in an instant and disappears even more quickly. It can be a more mature kind of feeling good that requires delaying gratification and yields a longer, more wholesome period of joy and pleasure. It can even be the kind of good feeling that comes from intellectually believing that what one is doing will eventually bring them joy or pleasure. But the real reason people do things is not because they are able to translate their knowledge of the truth into action. That’s not something people do. At best, knowledge can translate into feelings which might translate into action.
Think about it. Every cigarette smoker knows that smoking is harmful to one’s health. But that knowledge somehow doesn’t translate into feelings or action. Smoking feels better to a smoker than not smoking so the smoker keeps on smoking. You don’t need to convince the smoker that smoking is harmful. The smoker knows. But there is a disconnect between knowledge and action. It’s not an easy gap to bridge. In fact, it’s rare that the gap between intellect and behavior is bridged. But it can be done temporarily.
Same thing with seat belts. It makes no sense to drive without a seat belt. The car is objectively safer to drive while wearing a seat belt. That is the truth. Yet, every day there are people driving without seat belts. Truth does not automatically create behavior that correlates with truth.
Everyone knows that exercise is healthy. For about a year, I worked out every day. I lifted, I stretched, I ran, I ellipticalled, I enjoyed it a little. But I was doing it because I believed it was best for my wellness. That was enough to give me the feeling that pushed me to continue working out. Intellectual awareness was enough to convince me of the payoff. Knowledge translated into action.
An article in the New Yorker discussing the science of how we make up our minds, mentioned a study that is right on point. Researchers proved that no amount of educational information could change the mind of an anti-vaccination parent. There was no difference between parents who received data and persuasive materials demonstrating the importance and absolute safety of vaccines. People don’t change their minds based on data. They do what they want to do. What they want to do is usually based on the things that make them feel good. Not on facts and figures.