20-years ago I read an anthropology paper which described an island of 7 provinces. The land had been divided amongst the 7 sons of a long deceased and wise king. By chance, I then stumbled upon a social psychology paper written 60 years later about the same island. It described an island with 5 provinces and recorded the concomitant explanation. In the space of 3 generations both the facts on the ground and the cultural memory had changed.
Passover was approaching, and I reflected on the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt. Given the fragility of cultural memory, I asked my rabbi his thoughts. He answered that “it’s not important that you remember what happened. It’s important that you remember what the sages tell you happened.”
His answer was a catalyst which gradually led me to disabuse myself of my religious beliefs. I read into 30 mythical stories like Moses’, most predating the Old Testament period. Despite a long search, I concluded that there is no genuine evidence for the Exodus, and that it was unintellectual to obey a commandment based on a well-worn literary device planted in the cultural memory of medieval sages. What’s more, the device is based on the say so of illiterate pre-bronze age shepherds who considered the Earth the center of the universe.
Leaving the sacred canopy of Judaism resulted in a sense of existential pain. Hoping to be convinced I was wrong I asked many people to open-up about their faith. Most spoke of improbable occurrences in their lives and in the history of the Jewish people.
These discussions helped me understand two of humanity’s cognitive foundations:
- we did not evolve to be mathematicians – we see patterns that do not exist
- memory is not a record of the facts
Ask yourself the following questions:
- How large a group of people is required for a 50% chance that 2 of them share the same birthdate? What does your intuition tell you? The answer is in fact 23. Every person I ask was wrong by at least one magnitude. Calculating probability is not innate.
- 1-million seconds equals about 12 days. How long is 1-billion seconds? No one answered close to the correct answer: 32 years. Estimates based on common sense can be grossly inaccurate.
- In the early 1900’s Germans were excited by a horse (Clever Hans) who could answer arithmetic questions by stomping his hoof. Despite being debunked as a classically conditioned response to the owner’s breathing (who would change his beathing pattern subconsciously when Hans reached the correct number of stomps), the German public preferred to trust their own eyes rather than the analysis. How many similar cosmic conclusions have we drawn from similarly shallow observations while ignoring reasonable explanations?
- Where were you when you heard the news that Rabin had been murdered? In 1977 Brown and Kulik coined the phrase “flashbulb memory”. They argued that an event “exceeding critical levels of surprise and consequentiality” will be inculcated in our memories. There is little evidence for the veracity of such memories.
- How convinced are you that your childhood memories are a real representation of the facts? Australian psychologist Donald Thomson was arrested for rape and identified in a line up. Yet, he had a watertight alibi – he was on live national TV at the time of the rape. “Eventually, the investigators discovered that the rapist had attacked the woman as she was watching TV – the very program on which Thompson had appeared. Authorities eventually cleared Thomson. The woman had confused the rapist’s face with the face that she had seen on TV.” (Baddeley, 2004). Now ask yourself again – how convinced are you that your childhood memories are a real representation of the facts?
These examples merely scratch the surface. They illustrate the problem of drawing such lofty conclusions as the existence of the God of Abraham based on historical and personal observations.
Why start talking about this now?
My findings have led to an increasing sense of frustration when I hear prospective ministers talking of legislation based on Torah ideals. I feel as if the people around me are playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. That would be fine, except in this case they pray 3 times a day for the restoration of a court system that would execute me for collecting wood in the public space on the Sabbath.
I hope my words encourage other Israelis to break a taboo and investigate what’s outside the sacred canopy of Judaism.