Belief and Belonging: Against Groupthink

Belief and Belonging

Last week I went and watched my son graduate from Virginia Boys State. After the ceremony, I waited through waves of boys in identical white shirts and blue shorts for him to emerge, and when he did, his shoulders were slouched and his eyes tired.

In the car I asked him, “How’d it go?”

He shrugged.

“Did you have a good time?”

“No.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“No.”

“Nothing at all?”

He said no, he hadn’t learned anything.

I kept pressing him, and eventually said, “If you had to give someone your takeaway from this past week in one sentence, what would it be?”

Without pause, he said, “Republicans are assholes.”

All rising seniors, the boys were there for practical learning on how government works. They broke up into cities and formed governments, with adult counselors to steer them clear of a Lord of the Flies week. The boys ran for various offices, they competed and negotiated with other cities.

They made promises for votes. They traded votes for political favors. In Evan’s final analysis it came down to “a big popularity contest.”

I can understand why he would find a week like this unpleasant. He’s reserved and bookish. He has strong opinions, but in large groups he watches from the fringe, keeps his opinions to himself. Politics is a game he can’t play.

But something deeper was troubling him about the week. “You had to think their way or you were shunned,” he told me. He went on to describe how boys with dissenting opinions were marginalized and shamed by boys and counselors alike.

In the final service, the boys sang a song, and as they repeated it in rounds, it began to sound more like a chant than singing, several hundred strong young male voices calling out, “What does the Lord require of thee?” and the response, “To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.”

“Three boys were sent home because they said they were atheist and didn’t want to go to the religious services,” Evan told me as we drove home. He shook his head. He rubbed his tired eyes.

In order to drive out and watch Evan graduate I had missed the Bar Mitzvah of my friends’ son, Spencer. My family came into the house shortly after Evan and I got home, talking about how impressed they were by Spencer’s Shabbat morning service. The d’var Torah, his commentary on the week’s reading, was on the old familiar story in Numbers about Balaam and the talking ass and the companion passage, Micah 5:6-6:8.

My daughter thought it was the best thing she’d ever heard in a religious service when Spencer introduced his homily by saying he was glad he got this passage because it gave him the opportunity to see how many times he could crack his brother and sister up by saying “talking ass.”

After that, Spencer gave his exposition on the very passage the boys were singing two hours away: It has been told of you O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

When he got to walk humbly, Spencer proclaimed, “I don’t know if I believe in God or not and religion isn’t how I make my decisions every day.” He said, “I’m still working on what I believe about God,” and called it a “developing relationship.”

My sister, who was raised Fundamentalist Baptist as I was, wept as she watched Spencer stand before his congregation and speak honestly—and even more, as she looked around and saw that no one was scandalized, no one outraged, no one red-faced and angry.

How different this is from anything we ever experienced in a religious congregation. How different it is from Evan’s experience at Boys State.

I do not want to talk about politics—it only comes up because it is impossible to describe Evan’s week without doing so. I do not want to contrast one religious tradition with another either.

This is about the contrast between two ways of being in community: on the one hand is a closed and fearful view of the world, a constant worrying that if the boy doesn’t toe the line, vocalize assent to the letter of the law, then he cannot be trusted, cannot be a part of the community.

On the other hand is an open view, a willingness to let the boy express what he actually thinks. This comes from a place not of fear, but of confidence. Everyone in education knows that the strictest disciplinarians in the classroom are the ones most afraid of losing control.

This technique might keep order in a classroom, but it serves no good purpose in the realm of belief. As William James points out in Varieties of Religious Experience, you cannot believe what you do not believe—there are living options and non-living options, and you cannot breathe life into a non-living option; fake it till you make it is a call to nothing more than shoddy self-deception.

Robert Penn Warren writes that it is possible to be a “heretic in the truth.” Even if what the boy proclaims is true, if he embraces it because he is coerced, cajoled, shamed, then he doesn’t have the truth at all. A faith foisted on him is no faith at all.

I am not idealizing; I know this synagogue has had its share of drama. It is inevitable when so many personalities come together in community. But here is what my family observed: The Agudath Sholom congregation embraced this boy even as he stood and proclaimed his doubts.

It was a beautiful service.

Originally posted at “Good Letters,” July 25, 2013

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