Most of the time that religion is in the news, it looks terrible. This is one of those times.
A decades-old fight about the direction of one of New York’s most prominent Hasidic Jewish groups tipped into chaos this week, when one faction clashed with the police over a tunnel that had secretly been built to the movement’s main synagogue.
The tunnel, a passageway between the headquarters of the group, the Chabad-Lubavitcher movement, and at least one adjacent property, was first discovered late last year, according to local news reports. But on Monday afternoon, after a cement truck was brought in to fill it, some Hasidic men attempted to block that effort.
The police were called, and officers said they found a group of men breaking through a wall of the prayer space that led to the tunnel. After a resulting confrontation, which included skirmishes with officers, nine people were arrested, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Rabbi Motti Seligson, a Lubavitcher spokesman, described those who had created the tunnel as a group of “extremist students.”
“This is, obviously, deeply distressing to the Lubavitch movement, and the Jewish community worldwide,” he said in a written statement.
The conflict took place at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the movement’s global headquarters, which is often referred to simply as 770 and is one of the most significant religious sites in the city.
What these “extremist students” were tunneling for primarily was meaning and purpose and a sense of importance. They were filled up by their love for the rebbe and they wanted to make his dream a reality, and in doing that, they felt like they were carrying out God’s will on earth.
I get it. I too tunnel for meaning. Outside of my writing and videos, my life is ordinary. It is only when I enter these two domains, which are not a major source of income for me, that I get filled up with meaning, purpose, importance and excitement. In my little worlds of writing and video, I get to feel like the star. In the rest of my life, I’m just another bozo on the bus.
We all want to feel special. Most people feel special by building a family or developing a career. For those of us who haven’t succeeded in the normie world, we seek out another world, perhaps an online world or a tunneling world, where we can feel important and forget about the humiliations of daily life. Everybody prefers to do what they’re good at, whether it is dunking a basketball, leading a prayer service, or volunteering for the homeless.
Normally, religion is not exciting and therefore it doesn’t make the news. On those rare occasions when religion becomes exciting, it usually becomes disturbing. A normal part of Orthodox Judaism, for example, is the requirement to pray with a minyan three times a day. That’s rarely exciting. Somehow, these tunnelers made a prosaic religious practice fascinating.
Let’s face it. Even the most religious among us live in an increasingly secular world where we have increasingly secular explanations for more and more things that happen that we used to attribute to divine forces. Earthquakes used to be understood as God’s wrath. Now even Orthodox Jews understand that earthquakes are the product of tectonic plates grinding against each other.
When clergy claim there’s no conflict between religion and science, that’s usually because they’ve recognized the prestige and power of science and know that religion can’t compete with that.
In our secular world, it’s hard for any non-believer to sympathize with religious beliefs. Usually, you are either raised with religious beliefs or such beliefs seem silly to you at best, if not downright evil.
Most Lubavitchers who believe distinctive things about the Messiah lead happy, productive lives. Their beliefs don’t drive them into gross anti-social behavior. Unbalanced people, however, in Chabad will seize on opportunities to act out, and messianic beliefs will act on them as a fire. Not everyone can handle Moshiach talk in a productive way just as not everyone can handle abortion politics in a moderate way.
Religion is a form of connection for people in a frequently disconnected America (if you don’t have friends in a church or synagogue, you won’t last long there) and that connection usually makes us happier (and therefore better). Religion matters for about half of Americans but it is rarely the decisive factor for how they live. My dad taught me that religion in America is a mile wide and an inch deep.
It is usually considered uncouth in America to insist on the exclusive claims of your religion. A Christian who says that non-Christians are going to hell is outside the mainstream of American life. On December 22, 1952, future U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower said: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” That’s a good summary of the public role of religion in America.
It used to be that people got their news from the pulpit and bima (the Jewish pulpit) and so clergy could shape what people knew about the wider world. Now that the news is secular, it’s harder for rabbis to spin disasters such as these 770 tunnelers.
Bruce David wrote in his 1966 classic book Religion in Secular Society:
Today, even though the Church is able to use the means of mass communication, it does so only marginally—marginally to its own total communication, which still relies on the nexus of pulpit and pew and on religious literature, and marginally to the total content of the mass media as a whole. Compared to the amount of entertainment, music, news, drama, secular education and all the other types of item carried by television, radio, Press and cinema, religious information has become a very tiny part indeed. Nor are religionists as good at using the media as those who are instructing or entertaining. They have developed few, if any, new techniques for its use, and they use it by courtesy and on sufferance. They tend to be older and middle-aged men using media increasingly dominated by the young. It might not be untrue to say that they are the deference note of the mass communicators, ‘employed’ to whiten the image of an industry which is frequently charged with subversive, immoral and deleterious presentations.
As long as the Church connives in using the media, the media controllers can use this fact in their own defence, as evidence of their social responsibility. But, given the religionist’s necessary assumption that religious truth is pre-eminent and that it ought to take a dominant place in our minds, the relegation of religious material to a marginal place in the programmes of the mass communications is itself a derogation of the religious message. In using the mass media the Churches permit their own material to be reduced to the level of the medium, to be put forth without much differentiation of presentation from a wide variety of highly heterogeneous and at times incongruous material. This in itself must detract from the high claims to pre-eminence which—of necessity—religion makes for itself.
Some beliefs are adaptive (e.g., my choices matter even if nobody sees them) and some beliefs are maladaptive (e.g., the world hates me). The rationality of a belief does not determine how adaptive it is. For example, believing that you your decisions today are important might not be rational or realistic due to your insignificance, but it may well give you the strength to do the things you need to do. For many people, believing in a God who cares about them and their behavior has a positive effect (though the most profound forces shaping behavior are connection and genetics). For many Jews, believing that God will send the Messiah to usher in peace on earth provides some inner peace. For a tiny number of Jews, such as these tunnelers at 770 Eastern Parkway, their belief has tipped into maladaptive and illegal behavior.
Every group, including stamp clubs, have cult-like elements. Ties bind and blind, notes Jonathan Haidt. Religion tends to become habitual and we’ve evolved to live within specific tribes and so we usually don’t question our hero system. One way to maintain a grasp on reality and to also enjoy a strong in-group identity is to periodically ask oneself what would outsiders think about what you’re saying and doing. I don’t think these 770 tunnelers paused to consider that question.
I grew up a Seventh-Day Adventist. It’s a female dominated, nurturing religion with a wild side. Most Adventists are decent people, but in the Rwandan genocide, many Adventists were mass murderers (though it’s hard to link their Adventism to their murdering).
In their 2006 book, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-day Adventism and the American Dream, the authors note:
The only thing that appeared to characterize Adventists was their marginality to the mainstream of society. They are presented as just one amid a host of deviant orientations…
[Black novelist Richard] Wright found the Adventist vision incompatible with what he saw around him. “While listening to the vivid language of the sermons I was pulled toward emotional belief, but as soon as I went out of the church and saw the bright sunshine and felt the throbbing life of the people in the streets I knew that none of it was true and that nothing would happen.”
…Like the Millerites, Adventists are portrayed as adherents of a bizarre religious system expressed in lurid, apocalyptic symbols. Their beliefs are perceived to alienate them from, and to be incompatible with, a normal, healthy appreciation of the world. Wright emphasizes that while forced to live as an Adventist, he was trapped within a deviant subculture so strange he could not even risk explaining his predicament to his friends. He presents Adventism as an enclosed world of dark delusions, which evaporate when brought into the clear light of day.
The other thing that Adventists are known for is health. There are many Adventist doctors and hospitals. So the Adventist public image is complicated — there’s a dark and sinister on the one hand, and an uplifting and healthy on the other.
I noticed a far higher percentage of California Adventists enjoyed a “normal, healthy appreciation of the world” compared with the more traditional Australian Adventists I knew.
In Jewish life, I notice that most Modern Orthodox Jews seem to enjoy a “normal, healthy appreciation of the world” while many Haredim do not. Lubavitchers consistently appear to me as the happiest and most well-balanced Hasidic sect but they have their nut jobs. It makes sense that if you are not awesome at the normal tasks of living, you’ll find a niche where you can be awesome such as building a tunnel under a synagogue. These tunnelers are no longer leading anonymous lives of no significance. They’re leading the news with their bizarre behavior.
Most people who have kids or otherwise have a flourishing life don’t need to chase excitement. I wonder if these tunnelers have kids or rewarding careers? I suspect that if they were devoted to their families, or to their jobs, they would not have acted in this way.
David Voas says the secular transition is an ongoing generational replacement of religious people by secular people. People don’t tend to change vis-a-vis religion. Only a tiny percentage of people who are raised secular become religious. People with no religion have great difficulty in acquiring one. Think about a religion not your own such as Hinduism. Here are some Hindu deities and Hindu worship. For most of you, this seems exotic and scary. This is how most secular young people react to religion. You have to be raised with religion to find it natural.
Immigration brings people from more religious countries into secular industrialized nations, but despite this, religion is dramatically in decline in the West.
Modernization has effects. Norway is the most modern country and Niger is the least. The most developed countries are the least religious and the least developed countries are the most developed. Religious decline comes relatively late in the process of modernization.
Most of the world is religious. Yes, because most of the world is not developed. Prosperity brings choice and a reduced willingness to abide by secular authority. Secular and scientific worldviews displace religious worldviews. Mobility brings people into contact with different cultures and beliefs and reduces the hold of traditional ties. Physical security reduces the need for the solace of spirituality.
Religion is a matter of custom and culture. It was the norm at one time. Now secularism is the cultural norm. To the extent that people have contact with religion today it is often in news stories about extremism and abuse. Most Westerners are not rationalists and naturalists, they just have little interest in religion.