Monday, January 26, 2009


[Participants in a recent Holocaust denial conference. Were they sincere?]

An interesting idea which occurred to me recently is that the very fact that people convert to Judaism would seem to confirm the truth of Judaism.

There is no good reason to convert to Judaism except that Judaism is the truth or because of marriage to a Jew. In my case, for example, marriage was obviously not a motive because I was only 16 years old. All the emotional benefits of religion, for example the comforting belief in an afterlife, can be found more easily in Christianity. I think that this may also help explain the fact that European Jews have on the average higher levels of intelligence than other ethnic groups - the most highly intelligent European gentiles converted. (I happen to be a member of Mensa, the national high IQ society.)

On the other hand, the reasons to convert from Judaism to atheism, although atheism is clearly false, are quite obvious. The main one would be the ability to indulge in sex outside marriage without guilt.

I think it's somewhat similar to the Holocaust. There would seem to be no good reason for gentile historians to believe in the Holocaust if it did not happen. On the other hand, there are clearly several reasons for gentile historians to deny the Holocaust although it did happen - anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and so on.

This also helps us to understand why the Jews are the eternal people. There will always be some honest people in the world and therefore there will always be Jews. Other ideologies, based on fantasy and imagination, constantly change, appear and disappear.


Anonymous said...

You wrote:
I think that this may also help explain the fact that European Jews have on the average higher levels of intelligence than other ethnic groups

Was there any studies on this? Were the studies non-biased? Statistically valid?

jewish philosopher said...

I think that it is well established that Ashkenazi Jews have an IQ about 20 points above average, which makes them the most intelligent ethnic group in the world.

Joshua said...

Ashkenazi Jews are on average about 10 points higher than average. That's a lot less than 20. Wikipedia has a decent summary of this Also, this doesn't make Ashkenazim the most intelligent. Certain Asian groups get similar data. This is aside from the fact that IQ is not a very good determinant for intelligence and that there may be other issues coming into play (especially cultural ones).

In any event, the entire post is a bit off: The notion that no one would convert if Judaism wasn't true doesn't make any sense. You don't need a religion to be true for people to convert, you just need some people to believe it is true. That's not at all a difficult bar to set. Some pretty crazy religions manage to do that just fine.

jewish philosopher said...

People generally believe whatever they are most comfortable believing. Why would anyone be most comfortable believing in Judaism if it was not true, if his parents were not Jewish and his fiancé was not Jewish?

Joshua said...

JP. A variety of reasons: Most obviously someone might find the discipline and stricture comforting. (Look at how even today you have people becoming Catholic monks. Heck I know someone who converted to Catholicism and then became a monk) But even then, that isn't relevant. Many people do do things because they think they are doing the right thing. You just need people to come to that conclusion. People come to strange conclusions all the time.

jewish philosopher said...

"you have people becoming Catholic monks"

Your friend was probably about the only one.

Of course someone might convert to Judaism just because he loves the cute black skullcaps; anything is possible. It just doesn't seem so likely.

Joshua Zelinsky said...

A decline in the rate of people becoming monks and nuns doesn't alter the primary point; people convert to restrictive religions all the time. So the fact that people have done so cannot be a good argument for any specific religion.

jewish philosopher said...

"people convert to restrictive religions all the time"

Who? And Judaism is probably the most burdensome of all religions.

Joshua Zelinsky said...

Well, yourself. Again many examples of Catholics. People who become strict Hindus or strict Muslims. People who become Scientologists. Scientology is a great example in that it was founded less than 60 years ago, so almost everyone today who is involved is a convert. The Church today has at least a 100,000 adherents.

Moreover, Judaism is only one of the most burdensome religions in certain charedi forms. (Most frum Jews aren't nearly as restricted). And people convert to other religions that are very strict also. The bottom line is that people convert to stricter religions all the time. That people do so is not at all evidence that those religions are more likely to be correct.

jewish philosopher said...

Regarding Catholicism, and Christianity in general, it's a simple, easy religion for someone who is worried about the afterlife. Attend a one hour service once a week, lead a pretty decent, family life (which makes sense anyway) and you're guaranteed eternal bliss. And if you mess up, Jesus died for your sins. What's not to like?

Islam is the religion for macho men and women who love them and there seem to be plenty of those around.

I don't think that too many people become real Hindus, however some do meditate now and then. Like the Beatles used to.

I don't know enough about Scientology to comment.

For the average layman, Orthodox Judaism is probably the world's most burdensome (and probably therefore least popular) religion.

Joshua said...

You are wrong at multiple levels.

Catholicism in some forms (especially as it is currently practiced in the United States) isn't that burdensome but that's post Vatican II Catholicism and even then fairly weak. So called Traditional Catholics ( ) who are much stricter than your average Catholic are increasing in number. Moreover, Catholicism succeeded getting converts for over a thousand years in various strict forms.

Your summary of Islam is also simply wrong. Many forms of Islam are very strict. Islam as practiced in many areas of Africa was stricter but less patriarchal than the indigenous religions it replaced. So your dismissal is simply inaccurate.

Regarding Hinduism: You seem to be confusing Buddhism with Hinduism. Forms of Buddhism are what people who "meditate now and then" are generally doing, not Hinduism. Hinduism is a complicated case because it doesn't have any formal conversion procedure. But again, if one looks historically it has done quite well in India and surrounding countries. A nice short list of famous Hindu converts is at Wikipedia:

It might also help if you read some actual investigation of what causes people to change religion. One fascinating book about this which focuses on Protestant denominations in the United States is Fink and Stark's "The Churching of America" where they may a very strong case that Christian denominations do better in the US if they are stricter.

This also isn't a new idea at all. Mordechai Kaplain for example, saw one problem with the Reform movement of his day that it wasn't strict about anything and so had no way of establishing a firm identity.

The bottom line is that claiming that people are less likely to convert to a religion that is strict is simply not born out by the evidence.

jewish philosopher said...

In other religions, "strict" means you can't have an abortion or practice homosexuality. Orthodox Judaism involved a lot more that that. Christians have traditionally considered the Torah to be so burdensome that it was a divine punishment for the Jews.

The bottom line is that most people believe whatever they are most comfortable believing, however I can't think of any plausible insincere motive for practicing Judaism, other than having a Jewish spouse or parents.

jewish philosopher said...

Regarding the relative strictness of Judaism and Islam, this is interesting.

Joshua said...

Whether Orthodox Judaism has generally been stricter than Christianity is not terribly relevant (incidentally, there are many different degrees of strictness and for most of US history where denominations were strongly competing (i.e. prior to about 1960) homosexuality and abortion were close to non-issues so your focus on such ideas is at best extremely anachronistic). Many people want stricter religions. Nor for that matter is the desire to have a strict system necessarily in any way an insincere response. Indeed, if it were simply about truth claims then presumably many of the people who become geirim would instead just keep shiva mitzvot b'nei Noach. But they don't. You might wonder why. Many people find belief systems which imply strict rules to be comforting.

The forum post you link to isn't accurate; Islam has many different forms, some which are very lenient others which are very strict.

jewish philosopher said...

"Many people want stricter religions."

Surprising to all religious leaders I can think of.

"instead just keep shiva mitzvot b'nei Noach"

Many do. But many aspire to the supreme honor of being part of the chosen people.

Basically, you're arguing that if a someone converts to Orthodox Judaism he is not necessarily doing so because it's the truth and he is too honest to deny it, but rather he may be converting due to some unknown, irrational whim. To me, that doesn't seem very likely.

Joshua said...

Saying "To me, that doesn't seem very likely" isn't an argument other than a statement of general incredulity. As I already outlined, one sees exactly this occurring with other religions in which people convert out of apparent motivations that are not rational. If you were correct, people would rarely convert from less strict to more strict religions. But that simply isn't the case. Moreover, the reasons for such conversions are not as you put it "unknown, irrational whims" but often deep emotional reasons. Irrational? Probably. But not at all whims.

jewish philosopher said...

I think in court, if an attorney accuses a witness of lying, he will usually have to give some plausible motive for the the witness to lie if he expects the jury to believe him. To simply wave his hands and say "I have know idea why Mr Doe would want to lie about having witnessed my client commit the crime, but obviously plenty of people lie all the time." might not be too persuasive.

Joshua Zelinsky said...

I've given plausible motives and what's more shown that this trend occurs with other religions. Furthermore, this isn't the same as claiming someone is lying since we are talking about emotional states. Human emotional states are very complicated and subtle. Claims by individuals about why they are making a given decision cannot in general be trusted (an opinion you agree with in your own claims about why you think frum Jews go off the derech)

jewish philosopher said...

Your explanation then for conversion to Orthodox Judaism is the Strictness Instinct - some people need strictness. The only problem with that is that there is no such thing. No one is attracted to strictness. There is however a religious instinct and many people will reject liberal religions because they are not sincerely spiritual

If you're going to just make stuff up, why not say people convert to satisfy their Bagel and Lox Instinct.

Joshua said...

You might have a point if I were making it up. There is however a lot of evidence for the claim. See for example the aforementioned book by Fink and Stark which gives hard data supporting the hypothesis.

jewish philosopher said...

Some people prefer a more sincere, seemingly authentic religious experience as opposed to a more watered down experience. Also, more isolationist groups may lose fewer members. But no one is looking for "strictness" for its own sake.

Joshua said...

You can all it what you like. Certainly many people see more strict religions as more "sincere" and "authentic" and will likely see them as less watered down. Regardless, the basic point stands; there are easy reasons why someone would become an Orthodox Jew other than the assumption that Orthodoxy is simply correct.

jewish philosopher said...

And you can't name one, other than your own imaginary desire for strictness, which has never been heard of in the world of psychology until now. There is no known human need or desire for a lot of meaningless rules and restrictions. Roger Finke and Rodney Stark are writing about American churchs where strictness means doctrinal strictness, not practical strictness.

Joshua said...

They are talking about both forms of strictness which are intertwined in Christianity. But that's not the primary point. You agree that there are plausible other reasons for someone to convert such as the feeling authenticity you name.

jewish philosopher said...

But that could more easily be found in any other revealed religion.

Joshua said...

Yes, and yet people pick all sorts of different religions to convert to. People are complicated like that.

jewish philosopher said...

"There is no good reason to convert to Judaism except that Judaism is the truth or because of marriage to a Jew."

And I still have not heard anything to contradict that. The claim "someone might find the discipline and stricture comforting" seems baseless. Who has ever heard of a motive like that? What dieter is comforted by all the restrictions and sacrifices? What employee of an exploitive company is comforted by all the excessive discipline?

Please try to think a little bit more before posting comments.

Joshua said...

Ok. This is going to be my last attempt on this matter since you don't seem to be listening.

First, by your own description people might convert if they find Judaism to be a more "sincere, seemingly authentic religious experience as opposed to a more watered down experience."

Moreover, some people do like discipline in their lives. You've obviously seen people take on chumrot of questionable halachic necessity. Why do people do that? For reasons similar to why someone might become Orthodox.

jewish philosopher said...

I am listening very hard, but apparently you aren't. My comment about sincere religious experience was made in reference to Finke and Stark who wrote about conservative Christian churches, not Judaism.

"You've obviously seen people take on chumrot of questionable halachic necessity. Why do people do that?"

Ask them, seriously. Personally, I believe in following the practices of whichever community I'm a part of.

Bob Skarol said...

Actually, Dr. Richard Lynn (one of the biggest names in psychometry) has pegged the average Ashkenazi Jewish IQ at 107.8. This is the highest average of any group, but barely above Germans at 107 and several other groups (Netherlands 107, Poland 106 etc). The structure of Ashkenazi IQ is heavily weighted toward verbal intelligence and below average on visuospatial intelligence (this is interesting when it comes to mathematics, which I'll get to shortly), while most European groups, no matter the average, tend be "even" between visuospatial and verbal intelligence scores. E. Asians tend to be heavily weighted toward high visuospatial ability in the structure of their intelligence (which some feel explains their high number of individuals skilled in mathematics) while on average scoring below European groups when it comes to verbal intelligence. The myth of super-high Jewish IQ (as in 20 points above 'average') in the US came from one study of a small group of Jewish children in a class for gifted students. Dr. Lynn lays out the evidence and scores etc. quite well. His work is easy to find on Google, etc. Most noteworthy is his work showing that IQ isn't the only element of academic success. For instance, E. Asians, with averages from 103 - 105 tend to enjoy academic and career success above what their IQ scores would predict, the same with Jews. When this was investigated, it was the heavy emphasis on academics in the home in comparison to other ethnic groups in the US. So hit the books.

It should be noted that "verbal" intelligence is not only "reading and writing", but actually abstract thinking and problem solving. As with E. Asians being on average better in mathematics than Caucasians, Jews are better still in mathematics on average than E. Asians because of very high verbal reasoning ability. Lynn et al also state that other Europeans/Westerners who are outstanding in mathematics tend to be so because of high verbal reasoning ability or a combination of verbal and visuospatial, while for E. Asians it seems to almost totally a visuospatial area of cognitive ability. Interesting stuff for sure.

The interesting structure of Jewish IQ may be linked to centuries of studying the Torah, with families finding it desirable to have their daughters marry the most learned, etc. Better to ask people like Lynn.

By the way, some of us in Mensa are atheists, and we really aren't bad people, really.

jewish philosopher said...

Based on people's stated religions, American Mensans seem to have about the same range of religious beliefs as Americans in general.