My Thoughts on Religion (a Work in Progress)

It was October 2019. I was leaving Amazon and was on one of my last business trips. I was in Providence Rhode Island walking back to the train station. Then I saw P. F. Chang’s. I hadn’t been to P. F. Chang’s in over a decade, but when I saw the restaurant, I thought of my friend Steve Singleton. I used to love going to P. F. Chang’s with Steve. We would head out in the middle of the day for an upscale chain restaurant lunch.

I thought, “Why not revisit P. F. Chang’s? Why not go and get that Mongolian beef that I loved?” I walked into the Providence Place shopping mall next to the State House and placed my order. Then I called Steve.

He picked up with his big booming voice and said, “Rob! Great to hear from you!” After a bit of chit chat and catching up, he said to me, “It’s a good thing you called me. I do a lot of financial services recruiting and technology. I might have something for you, or at least I can introduce you to some people.”

I started telling Steve about how scary it is to leave this job. Even though I knew that this wasn’t the right job for me and that I would find much better things in the future, it was still intimidating. And then he reminded me, “You know I am a minister. I think a lot about these things and how G-d can help me through them. In my life, there have been some really tough times but I know that G-d has a plan for me.” Steve has a way of preaching without proselytizing, which is good for an AME minister preaching to a Jew. He gave me an intensely personal sermon for about 20 minutes. There’s nothing quite like getting your own personal sermon when you’re feeling down, and it made me feel so much better about the world.

To recap: I went to P. F. Chang’s and called a minister. You could consider that a sign from G-d. I don’t believe G-d actually told me to call Steve, but it certainly felt like a little miracle.

G-d as the Prime Mover

In the Jewish tradition, we don’t create images of G-d. It took me a long time to understand why. G-d is not a man or something we can comprehend in physical form. We can’t see G-d but we can see the power and energy of G-d.

To me, G-d and religion begin where science ends. Science has made amazing strides over the past few centuries. We understand how the universe and evolution work. Physics has gotten the universe down to a few short laws and a handful of particles. There’s the temptation to think that science eventually will figure out there rest of it.

But there are some questions that science can’t answer. When I was in college, I remember thinking, “How can the universe exist? How can we be here?” Eventually, I accepted that I wouldn’t get a good answer. Then a few years ago I was reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. In the middle of the book, Owen Meany was reading St. Thomas Aquinas’s, “Demonstration of G-d’s Existence from Motion” which ends with “There must be a first mover existing above all—and this we call G-d.”(1)Also, let’s take a step back and think about the crazy number of things that needed to happen for me to find this. I was reading a novel recommended by a friend to find a fictional character quoting a saint who was taking an idea from Aristotle. Aristotle had the same idea. He called it The Prime Mover.

Owen Meany, Thomas Aquinus, and Aristotle all knew that there are some things that we can never know. Science fundamentally can’t answer the question of what happened at the beginning or before the beginning. According to Big Bang theory, we have a pretty good understanding of what happened after the first second of the universe. In the first second (actually the first tiny fraction of a second) the universe expanded from a singular point to the entire universe.

However, science can’t explain what happened at the very beginning or before the beginning. Science can get very close to the beginning (like within 10^-43 of a second of the beginning of the universe) but no closer. In fact, there will always be questions that science can’t answer. In short, science says that matter and energy can not be created or destroyed(2)Through E=mc says that matter and energy can be converted to one another. This is a fundamental idea in everything we know. However, there was a point in the existence of the universe where that wasn’t true. Science can’t explain how nothing existed and now there’s something. That’s why G-d as the Prime Mover works for me. G-d is that thing that we will never be able to explain.

G-d as Sacred Beauty

In college, my friend Lutz was explaining sacred music to me. He told me that in German Lutheranism, they believed that G-d showed himself through music. For example, Bach was doing G-d’s work as a church composer, connecting people to G-d.

Sacredness is a key component of religion. As a kid, I was told to treat prayer books and religious objects differently. I was never to put a prayer book on the floor and if I dropped one on the floor I would apologize and kiss it. I wasn’t supposed to throw an unusable or destroyed yamulke(3)A yamulke is a Jewish head covering. in the trash. I was told that it needed to be burned in a special religious ceremony. From the outside, these religious rituals may seem silly, but they work as a proxy to maintain the sacredness of the religion and through that, respect for G-d.

The opposite of the word sacred is profane. I was surprised to learn that the word profane, as it was originally described by Emil Durkheim, was not about something that was bad, like curse words. It was meant to describe the ordinary. So the opposite of G-d isn’t evil in this context, it’s ordinary things.

By trying to make the world more understandable, science runs the danger that it also makes the world more profane and ordinary. There’s a temptation for science to try to explain everything.(4)In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.” Steven Pinker does this in his book How the Mind Works. Pinker describes music as a kind of auditory cheesecake. Music tickles some of things that have evolved to give us pleasure. Using the cheesecake example, Pinker says:

We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that gave us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Pinker shows why things like music or cheesecake make us happy, but it doesn’t answer the bigger questions that get to the heart of religion. Similar to the way that E.B. and Katerine White wrote about another inexplicable phenomenon, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” The purpose of religious music is different. As Jonathan Haidt says in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, religion is about raising us up and getting us closer to G-d. The feeling we get when listening to great music is one example of that.(5)A This American Life episode had a wonderful interview of a Methodist Preacher answers the question “Why do we praise G-d so much when we pray?” He says that it’s not about praising a person. It’s about praising the values that we hold dear like loving one another and being an honest person. Praising G-d is about reaffirming these values.

THE MIRACLE OF RANDOMNESS

Some people view G-d and randomness and contradictory forces. They think that G-d determines how the world evolves. I believe that there’s a lot of randomness in the world but G-d helps us to accept and appreciate the beauty in the world.

I don’t need religion to give order to the world. I don’t need G-d to have a higher plan for me. As I wrote about earlier, I need G-d to point me in the right direction. I need him to be there so that when something random and wonderful comes along, I can take advantage of it and appreciate it.

This is a fundamentally different view of randomness. It embraces the divinity of randomness. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, a deeply religious man, ended the volume with this appreciation of evolution as a divine process:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species.

In his book Antifragile, Nicholas Nassim Taleb points out that the world is inherently random. Trying to fit everything into a single model that denies randomness fights the change and experimentation that the world loves.(6)When I was at Amazon, I learned about how the company embraced randomness. In the 2015 letter to shareowners, Jeff Bezos talked Amazon’s Bias for Action and how most decisions are reversible. If you think too much about making the “right” decision that will be good for all time, you lose out on many opportunities. By accepting that randomness exists, you can examine lots of opportunities, not knowing which ones will pan out, taking advantage of those that do and abandoning those that don’t. There’s much more power in a fire than a candle. The goal is to figure out how to control and focus that fire. Taleb begins the book with the following manifesto:

HOW TO LOVE THE WIND

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.

Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile. Prologue.

Let’s look at another example of how randomness and coincidence led to a little miracle. We were coming back from my parents a couple of summers ago on the Long Island Railroad. We had a bag with all of the new children’s clothes for the new year. We needed to change trains at the Jamaica station, halfway between my parents and our house. We got off the train with all of our bags (at least we thought all of our bags) and waited for the next train. Then the conductor came off the first train and said, “Who’s bag of clothes is this?” I’d left all of the boys’ clothes on the train, but due to series of lucky coincidences, I’d gotten them back. There were so many things that needed to happen for this little miracle to occur: we forgot the clothes, the next train was running a few minutes late, the first train was at the end of its line so there were no more passengers, the conductor was still scanning the train, and we were close enough to hear her.

But what do we do in the face of this amazing coincidence? I was very lucky and should savor this moment. I needed to take this ordinary moment and make it sacred. So I thanked G-d for this wonderful occurrence and savored this little miracle by giving money to our synagogue. G-d didn’t need to be responsible for keeping our luggage safe, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t thank him for it.

JUDAISM AND THE ELEPHANT

In my experience, religions tend to agree that G-d is too big for us to understand. It’s strange to me because though they agree that G-d is beyond our understanding, they tend to all believe that they understand G-d better than the other regions. In my understanding, G-d is too big to understand, but religion provides ways of understanding him. It’s like the Indian parable of three blind men and the elephant:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

Wikipedia. Blind Men and an Elephant.

So why have a religion when you know it isn’t 100% right? Because there’s something wonderful about being part of something bigger than yourself. I remember watching Ken Burns Baseball, before I really followed a baseball team. Many people made the point that you can’t understand baseball unless you throw yourself into it. You have to have a stake in the game. Now that I’m a Mets fan, I understand that we will lose most of the time, but when we win, it makes it so much sweeter.

In my mind, there’s no one true religion. I am Jewish. That’s my religion. This is my family. I know that my family is better than your family. It’s not that I could scientifically prove this but I know that my family is the best family, at least for me. I’m sure you feel the same about your family.

There great things about being in a family, like going to family events and feeling the love around you. With Judaism, there’s a similar experience of celebrating the Sabbath and having Friday night dinner. It might seem that religious people might be more insular and focused on themselves; however, in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell found something very different. They found that religious people are nicer than non-religious people. This is true of their actions with people outside of their religious group. They are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.

Judaism is also a way of thinking and feeling that is different from science. Though my grandparents have all died I can still speak to them and get advice from them because they are a part of me.(7)When my Bubbie died, I thought of the great physicist Richard Feynman. As he was dying, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”

And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so … although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.” W.S. Merwin has a similar poem, “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

While Feynman was raised Jewish but became an atheist as he grew older. But when his young wife died, he still felt the need to write her a love letter years after she passed away. So while he may not have believed in Judiasm, he believed that she still existed somewhere.
(8)Mindy Kaling sees the power of religion in her book Kind of Hindu, saying, “I realized the one thing that would bridge all three of our lives was our faith, this intangible thing that had been passed on to me and that I would now pass on to my daughter. Somehow, through this ritual, I had transcended the impossible distance between me and my mom. I guess we do these things we don’t completely understand because we know that without them, we are untethered from our ancestors. And with the help of the forty charmed and puzzled friends and family who arrived for a Hindu head-shaving celebration, I would get through it. It felt good to know a billion other Hindus were giving their screaming daughters Mundans. In that moment, standing alone in my bedroom, I felt so connected to my mother.

“It was finally clear. The reason I’m Kind of Hindu and will raise my daughter to be Kind of Hindu is to have this connection deep inside my own heart to other people who look like us and have shared key experiences, thousands of miles away. I don’t have to be full-on religious, and I doubt I’ll ever be knowledgeable enough to satisfy her or my curiosity about our faith, but I’m really going to try.

“As long as Kit and I are Kind of Hindu, we will never be alone.”

I love the fact that I don’t have to think about their lessons in an academic way, I can just feel that they are a part of me. That miracle, that other people can live inside of me, is a wonderful thing that Judaism helps me appreciate.

Religion is also a great font of wisdom. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt takes a survey of all the wisdom literature of the world and compares it to the scientific and psychological research. His aim, going into the book, was to show that there is a psychological basis for the wisdom of religion. What he ends up finding is that there is a whole other dimension that religion (or non-religious divinity) brings to life. It’s this overall feeling or emotion of uplifting and becoming a better person. Looking back on the book 15 years after it was written, it’s aged very oddly. The wisdom literature hasn’t changed in 15 years. That’s not surprising because they’ve been time-tested for over 1000 years. However, much of the scientific literature has changed, with some of it being disproved.

After reading the book, I realized that science is good at explaining small pieces of the world, but it’s less good at how they fit together. Religion (or philosophy) is a better guide to living my life. Religion provides a framework for discussing the important questions of living a good life and being a better person. It doesn’t have all of the answers but it has most of the right questions. Discussing these questions with others helps me be a better person.

Wrapping It Up

To sum up, the world is filled with randomness and offers lots of opportunities for miracles. G-d gives me the ability to appreciate them and provides me direction. Judaism helps me to look beyond what’s physically there and feel a more divine connection to the world. And while Judaism isn’t perfect, it helps me be a better person.

That’s my current take on religion. It works for me. It helps me find the beauty and benefit in G-d and helps me to be a better person. It’s based on advice that I’ve gotten from Jewish scholars and religious leaders across religions. Lots of people will disagree with me, but then again, everyone disagrees on religion. In some ways, this is a very pragmatic view of religion. It reminds me of Pascal’s Wager which said that, even if there’s only a small chance that G-d exists, isn’t it worth believing. To me, this is a pragmatic view of G-d and Judaism that helps me be a better person. So why not believe?

APPENDIX: A NOTE ON OUR COMMON HUMANITY

I once heard a talk from a Rabbi who was also a medieval historian. He talked about how most religions have a holiday at the end of December. Jews have Hanukah, Christians have Christmas, and there’s even the Roman Saturnalia. This isn’t a coincidence. All of these religions are praying to their god to bring back the Sun as it faded into the winter solstice. All of these groups were frightened that the sun wouldn’t come back. I was surprised that a Rabbi would be talking like this.

“Doesn’t it make you feel like our religion is less special if we’re just doing the same thing as everyone else?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “quite the opposite. It makes me feel part of a larger global community where we all have the same hopes and fears.”

Further Reading

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis. A tour of the world’s wisdom concluding that religion (or something like it) it important to happiness.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind. An examination of liberal and conservative ideas, with a strong focus on the value of conservative ideas like sacredness.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile (Incerto). Taleb’s latest treatise on randomness.

Kushner, Harold S. Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life. My thoughts on Judaism are heavily influenced by Rabbi Kushner. He’s given me the freedom to authentically believe my feelings about Judaism and not feel like I’m speaking heresy.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Also, let’s take a step back and think about the crazy number of things that needed to happen for me to find this. I was reading a novel recommended by a friend to find a fictional character quoting a saint who was taking an idea from Aristotle.
2 Through E=mc says that matter and energy can be converted to one another
3 A yamulke is a Jewish head covering.
4 In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”
5 A This American Life episode had a wonderful interview of a Methodist Preacher answers the question “Why do we praise G-d so much when we pray?” He says that it’s not about praising a person. It’s about praising the values that we hold dear like loving one another and being an honest person. Praising G-d is about reaffirming these values.
6 When I was at Amazon, I learned about how the company embraced randomness. In the 2015 letter to shareowners, Jeff Bezos talked Amazon’s Bias for Action and how most decisions are reversible. If you think too much about making the “right” decision that will be good for all time, you lose out on many opportunities. By accepting that randomness exists, you can examine lots of opportunities, not knowing which ones will pan out, taking advantage of those that do and abandoning those that don’t.
7 When my Bubbie died, I thought of the great physicist Richard Feynman. As he was dying, his friend Danny Hillis said, “I’m sad because I realize you’re about to die.”

And Feynman said, “Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age a lot of what is good about you has rubbed off on the people and so … although I will be dead, I won’t be completely gone.” W.S. Merwin has a similar poem, “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

While Feynman was raised Jewish but became an atheist as he grew older. But when his young wife died, he still felt the need to write her a love letter years after she passed away. So while he may not have believed in Judiasm, he believed that she still existed somewhere.
8 Mindy Kaling sees the power of religion in her book Kind of Hindu, saying, “I realized the one thing that would bridge all three of our lives was our faith, this intangible thing that had been passed on to me and that I would now pass on to my daughter. Somehow, through this ritual, I had transcended the impossible distance between me and my mom. I guess we do these things we don’t completely understand because we know that without them, we are untethered from our ancestors. And with the help of the forty charmed and puzzled friends and family who arrived for a Hindu head-shaving celebration, I would get through it. It felt good to know a billion other Hindus were giving their screaming daughters Mundans. In that moment, standing alone in my bedroom, I felt so connected to my mother.

“It was finally clear. The reason I’m Kind of Hindu and will raise my daughter to be Kind of Hindu is to have this connection deep inside my own heart to other people who look like us and have shared key experiences, thousands of miles away. I don’t have to be full-on religious, and I doubt I’ll ever be knowledgeable enough to satisfy her or my curiosity about our faith, but I’m really going to try.

“As long as Kit and I are Kind of Hindu, we will never be alone.”