Friday, December 02, 2005

God, Religion, and Emotion

The comments on this thread forced me to order my thoughts on God and Emotion. There are two issues here that I will try to address:

I. Affirming Religious Beliefs Based on Emotion
When discussing religion with folks more religious than myself, they often fall back onto a sort of appeal to emotion, the prototypical (and extremely tired) version of which is, "Haven't you ever experienced a Shabbos?"

Yes, I've experienced many Shabbosim. Hanging out with family for 25 hours with good food is bound to give you an emotional response. The idea of counting down the hours of sabbatical peace before the chaos of the week rushes into your life is bound to put you in an emotional state of mind. Seudat Shilishit (it's easier to type the Ivrit version) is a particularly emotional time. Besides it's heavy kabbalistic overtones, you sing the 23 psalm and sing Yedid Nefesh, a lovely ode to an emotional connection with God. Then the day ends by extinguishing a candle, a practice whose origins I can only speculate about, and it's time to repeat the cycle of a weary week until the next day of rest.

It is safe to conclude that Shabbos is an emotional experience.

So what?

If you justify a religious practice on the idea that it makes you feel good, there are plenty of alternatives available to you. Join a cult (insert Mis-Nagid snark here), pop a pill, or join many other religions whose members report a positive, faith affirming, emotional experience.

While a Shabbos experience may seem truly magical in a proper setting, once you remove yourself from that setting the day loses much of it's importance. Try skipping a meal this time around and let me know how you feel. If that doesn't work, repeat.

To think of an emotional response to a religious practice as indicative of value in the practice, is a little demeaning to your religion. Emotion is a primitive brain function. Other species have emotion. Even if you don't buy into the whole evolution fraud, you have to admit that emotion is an animalistic characteristic. Surely a religion should appeal to the higher faculties of mankind. If we follow our emotion aren't we just blindly following our baser instincts?

Which leads me to my next topic.

II. Reading Emotion into God
Now that we have established that religion is not only a very human attribute, but even an animalistic one, how do you imagine God experiences emotion?

Some speculate that emotion serves an important purpose by setting goals for its organism. If you view the higher brain as a computational device, without emotion, it would be useless. Imagine building the perfect calculator and then not inputting any data. It just sits there doing nothing. I'm not sure that God would need emotion of this sort, afterall, surely he isn't a slave to his emotion as that would be a ridiculous anthropomorphism.

Frankly, I think this theory is extremely unsound, mainly because, as stated above, the emotional centers of the brain preceded the higher brain.

An alternative view is that emotion serves only very basic life functions (chiefly the four F's- Feasting, Fighting, Fleeing, and Procreating). Once the higher brain evolved, however, the two systems struggle against each other. The higher brain may dictate one course of action, while your primitive brain screams against it. The resulting dialectic is probably 90% of the human tragedy. Again, this narrative seems to have no relation to a Godly emotion. Did God go through the evolutionary process? Did He have to engage in the four F's?

(Possibly. Fighting: YHWH, Feasting: Bacchus, Fleeing: Klipa, Procreating: Catholicism)

Therefore, to imagine any sort of divine relation to emotion is fairly ridiculous. How then do you explain reports of God laughing (Baba Metiza 59b), mourning (Megillah 10b), or enjoying the aroma of good BBQ (Leviticus passim)?