The odds of a man deciding that he will jump off a building and try to fly like Superman are much better if the man is convinced that he is, in fact, Superman.
In other words, what we attempt to do (regardless of whether or not we succeed, and the man ends up being rather untidily scraped off of the sidewalk), is governed by what we think we can do. Our worldview is an essential precondition for the actions we voluntarily undertake.
Our beliefs matter. Even whether or not we have beliefs matters: a person who thinks that G-d loves him and is involved in every facet of his life will act very differently than will a self-described rational atheist.
In some ways, this may look like a distinction without a difference: an accountant in a big firm may make the same decisions whether or not that accountant thinks that G-d exists. But in other situations, a person’s beliefs can make all the difference in the world. It is the religious person who will take risks that a rational person will not: perhaps committing to an early marriage, starting a business, or in trying to invent new things.
None of this is speculation or even particularly novel: it is merely an observation of what we already know. And I think that, at least at some level, causality is equally as obvious as the correlation. People who blow themselves up to kill random strangers are often driven by a sincerely-held belief that it is the right thing to do. People who do not share those same beliefs about the virtues of suicide bombing do not become suicide bombers.
We can go even further in this summary of what should be blindingly obvious: the beliefs that lead a person to take a risk do not need to be based in provable fact – which is convenient for those of us who are religious, because we cannot logically prove, to the satisfaction of every thinking atheist in the world, the existence of G-d.
I have a friend who, many years ago when we were both in University, decided to become an observant Jew. He explained himself as follows:
“ I don’t know what I believe. But I do know that the facts are plain enough: I look around campus, and I see that the kids who are working hard and avoiding overuse of alcohol and drugs are the orthodox ones.”
“So if I want kids like that, I should be observant, too.”
It was a strange argument to me – a purely utilitarian defense of religious observance. But in the years since then, it has been making an increasing amount of sense to me, because it speaks to the primacy of outcomes.
As my friend might have put it: Some beliefs, regardless of any underlying truth, lead to far more successful results than others.
I happen to believe that G-d is intimately involved in my life. And I see that this changes just about everything. The way in which we see the world dictates how we act in it. If, when I wake up at 3 AM, I think it is merely accidental, then I am likely to promptly go back to sleep. But if I think there must, somehow, be a reason that I have woken at 3 AM, then I will check my email first to see if there is something I am supposed to do. Confirmation bias kicks in, and I rarely regret waking at 3 AM.
The same applies to “stray” thoughts that come to me, usually in prayer. I could shrug these thoughts off as a distraction (most people do), or I can choose to see these thoughts as things I am supposed to consider, or act upon. It all comes down to one basic question: do I believe that my present existence is essentially the result of a long series of coincidences, however improbable? Or do I think that a Creator is responsible, a Creator who can be intimately involved in every aspect of my life, seeking to grow and develop together with me?
There is no way to prove that G-d exists, or that He does not. I am satisfied with that: I think that if we could prove this either way, then we would not have the freedom to choose what we believe. And there is far more beauty in choosing a relationship than in one that is imposed.
But I think that it is equally obvious that whether we choose to have a relationship with G-d or not should be a central question in our lives. Religious people make very different choices than do atheists. We are more able, paradoxically, to make changes in our lives because we are listening for, and give serious consideration to, stray thoughts.
It stands to reason that a person’s ability to grow becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some believe that people cannot change – and I am willing to accept that in their case, this is so. After all, by stating that belief, they have created that reality for themselves. But I also know, from first-hand knowledge of myself and countless others, that if we believe that we can change, then it surely is true.
Here is the punchline: There are chapters in the Torah (starting at Lev. 26:21) dedicated to explaining G-d’s perspective on these dueling worldviews. The end of Leviticus tells us that G-d wants us to hearken to G-d and his commandments, to live as if G-d is involved in our lives. Not much that is surprising there. But the Torah in these chapters tells us about the alternative as well: the contrasting position is to act with keri, a word that appears in a tight cluster seven times in the Torah (26:21, 23, 24, 26:27, 26:28, 40, 41), and nowhere else in the entire document. (The number seven corresponds to seven days, which could be understood as “all the time”, as in 24×7.)
What does keri mean? Maimonides translates it as “chance”, the idea that events in our world are purely statistical, that everything that happens is nothing more or less than the result of impersonal forces in the universe. In other words, the Torah is warning us against what is today the normative secular view that G-d either does not exist, or does not care about us. How could an all-powerful deity care whether I thank him for my food, or consider what he will think if I say an unkind word about someone? And to even ask that question is to wonder whether keri is really the governing principle, not a Creator at all.
Why does the Torah care how we see things? The answer connects directly back to the beginning of this essay: G-d knows that we can grow – and improve the world around us – if we in turn believe that such growth and improvement is possible in the first place.
The lesson is simple enough: Our lives have meaning if we think that they do. Our thoughts create our reality, not the other way around.
In this realm, people of all kinds develop rituals and processes, helping them develop a pattern for how to make coffee in the world, or daily routines that help us be productive in certain ways. Those rituals don’t have to be justified or justifiable; they are simply ways in which we learn to function. But they also easily stray and wander into causality: the sports fan who has a lucky sock. The sock may not actually be lucky – and almost certainly is not. But it serves a functional purpose in helping that fan cope.
For any given set of data, there are always at least two explanations. This is not hard to illustrate with mathematics: There are an infinite number of possible formulas to describe the number sequence 1, 2, 3, 4.
In the real world, of course, very few things are as simple as mathematics. We are overwhelmed with data, and our minds have to sort out what is – and is not – relevant, and then determine priorities, etc. This takes years for newborns to achieve, and, judging by a great many of us, quite a few never quite get there. Our minds are always looking for patterns, explanations for why things are the way that they are, ways to cope with all the choices available to us. We develop (or adopt) explanations for things.