Jewish survival and the confirmation bias

While I’m criticizing Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s occasional lapses in rationalism, here’s a short response I wrote to Rabbi Slifkin’s post Two Sentences of Inspiration from back in March.  What does he recommend to the many people who write him disturbed by all their questions and doubts about the core beliefs of the Jewish faith?  As noted in my post from a couple days ago, he says that the divine providence he sees in his life (e.g. finding an article about an obscure aspect of lion behavior right when he needed it) does it for him, although he acknowledges that may not work for others.

So what is it that should take care of all the questions that rational inquiry and a 21st century scientific understanding present?  Jewish survival.  “An ancient home, centuries of exile and the worst, most irrational persecution in history, followed by the extraordinary return to the land and creation of a vibrant country,” he writes. “It’s tragic that many Jews… entirely downplay Providence when it comes to the return of the Jewish People to their homeland and the creation of the State of Israel. It’s far and away the most extraordinary and inspirational part of the Jewish experience.”

I certainly agree that Jewish survival, despite being persecuted in, thrown out of, and, when lucky, simply treated as second-class citizens in just about every country in which we’ve tried to live peacefully, is astounding and inspirational.  As my Jewish history professor George Berlin put it, “The most amazing thing about Jewish history is that there is a Jewish history.” But where does the invisible, all-good, all-powerful being come in to the picture?  To me, the Jewish survival argument for the existence of such a being is a particularly egregious example of the confirmation bias.

Here’s what I wrote in my comment.  If you go to the original post, you’ll see responses to my comment and my responses to those responses.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Freethinking Jew said…

I’m a fan, Rabbi Slifkin. HOWEVER, this post is an extreme example of the confirmation bias.

Think about what you just said: The Jews have survived despite the worst persecutions possible; therefore, an all-good, all-powerful being must be watching over us. You see what you did? You completely ignored the evidence that goes AGAINST your hypothesis of an all-good, all-powerful being watching over us (i.e. the torture, the pogroms, the forced exiles, the holocaust, etc) and you cherry picked the part (i.e. that our people still have an identity and a land) that confirms your hypothesis and said, “You see? The good L-rd’s watching over us.”

To beat a dead horse, the Jewish survival argument is:

A: We’ve suffered and no divine being stopped it
B: Yet we still exist as a people and have a land
Therefore C: A divine being must be working His magic.

But what happened to A! “Well, there is an explanation, we just don’t know what it is.” Then say that for B, too!

Chag kasher v’same’ach! 🙂 [FTJ: It was right before Passover.]


4 thoughts on “Jewish survival and the confirmation bias

  1. tesyaa

    Again, it’s a math thing. What are the odds that a group can survive for many millenia? And how many ancient societies were there that have disappeared?

  2. Samuel Dinkels (@samueldinkels)

    I discovered your blog from Rabbi Slifkin’s blog. I am also an admirer of Rabbi Slifkin.

    I agree with that belief of G-d’s active intervention as the cause of Jewish survival is a type of confirmation bias, not to mention survival bias. After all, all the murdered millions are no testimony to G-d’s protection. But ironically, if we do not hang on to some form of belief, which is not completely based on rationality, then we lose too much. So from a practical point of view, a little irrationality is not so terrible, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of other rational thinking. I think that rabbi Slifkin has a somewhat similar point of view.

    I approach Judaism as more than just with the narrow lens of religion. I see Judaism as a people and civilization with an almost 4 thousand year history. Certainly there is ample scientific historical and archeological evidence which unequivocally demonstrates that the Jews are an ancient people who made gigantic contributions to civilization hugely out of all proportion to their numbers. And the power of belief in G-d and being close to Him has been one of the pillars of Jewish survival, even if G-d as personally involved in the world does not exist. For me that is enough motivation for wanting to perpetuate it.

    Moreover, I think that for most people the rigors of the observant and orthodox lifestyle, even modern orthodox, are too difficult to be motivated by the reasons I gave for myself above. Most observant people need a little irrational thought in order maintain psychological equilibrium in the world.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Samuel, thanks so much for reading and thoughtfully commenting on my blog.

      I agree that faith in the Jewish G-d Hashem most likely helped our ancestors get through tough times and contributed to their will to survive. I also agree that even today people’s faith in their respective gods helps them psychologically.

      So now we’re faced with a dilemma: On the one hand, believing that an all-powerful, all-good being is watching over us has psychological benefits and may increase the chances of Jewish continuity. On the other hand, at this point in our history, we’ve discovered that all signs point to the fact that the Israelite god Hashem does not exist and that there is no all-powerful, all-good being watching over us.

      To give what may seem like an extreme analogy, what if we simply replace Hashem in the paragraph above with “the tooth fairy?” Would we still be able to cling on to a belief that the tooth fairy exists, if we knew that doing so would somehow be psychologically beneficial and would increase the chances of Jewish continuity?

      Perhaps some people would. But I would rather figure what is true and then, once we know what is true, build our world given that reality. Since we now know that Hashem’s existence is implausible, let’s figure out how we can do our best to glean the benefits that faith in G-d has brought until now without trying to belief things that are untrue. That’s my approach, at least. 🙂


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