why can't I eat bacon

I couldn’t but help riff on a blog by Lisa Suennen, Everything Goes better with Bacon, because it was so hilarious. I felt like giving it a Jewish “bacon-in-cheek” award. The world is full of people who are fastidious about Biblical rules but can’t say no to fast food.

But seriously, I scrupulously observe a Jewish ‘thou shalt not’ when it comes to pork products. The bizarre thing about it is that I am an atheist; I am such a committed non-believer that in some Islamic countries, I would qualify for a public beheading. And, I grew up in a non-religious home, so there isn’t that guilt of letting my parents down. I am also not generally given to superstition—knock on wood—that something bad would happen to me if I ate ham. God forbid.

To wit: I can wolf down any amount of shrimps, crab, lobster. You name the chazzerai (pronounced Ha-ze-RYE)—or “junk”—but in this case, non-kosher food. However, I can’t do pork, ham, or bacon. Irrational, I know. But where does it come from? The fear of God?

I found a kindred spirit in Jonah Lehrer, who recently wrote this in Wired:

“Though I no longer keep kosher, I’m still puzzled by why I found it easy as a child to follow these faith-based rules. Because it’s not just me; people consistently find ways to obey all sorts of onerous religious dictates. During Ramadan or Lent, for example, the observant manage to be self-denying even as they struggle to stay on a diet or hold back their temper.”

The world is full of people who are fastidious about Biblical rules, but can’t say no to fast food,” says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “There’s something about rules from God that make them easier to follow.”

To this I say, “Amen, Rabbi, what you said is even based on science.”


What’s the research?

Lehrer quotes research led by Kevin Rounding at Queen’s University in Ontario and recently published in Psychological Science (June 11, 2012). In a series of clever experiments, he demonstrated that triggering subconscious thoughts of faith increased self-control. The effect, it turns out, does not require religious belief.

More than a third of the students in the studies were atheists or agnostics, yet the scientists found that they were still influenced by subconscious thoughts of God. For Rabbi Wolpe, these results are an important reminder that human nature is deeply shaped by external structures. “People need a system of rules to live by,” he says. People drive slower when they see a police car. God is a bit like that police car: Thinking about Him makes it easier to do the right thing.”

bacon hamThis explains why I am having great trouble resisting chocolate ice cream, but resisting ham doesn’t take resistance at all. God must be indifferent to ice cream (as long as I don’t eat it with meat products) but he hates ham, and he is watching…

To tell the truth, it doesn’t ring true, at least not in my case. I am just not afraid of God’s hand smiting me for any reason, let alone for eating ham. So what is it?


Hard-wired tribalism

We all crave to belong. It is hard-wired in our brains, just as the need to eat. Banish a chimp from his troupe and if he doesn’t get killed first, he just slowly fades away and dies. Much of social activity, like touching, grooming, sharing food, and even sex in bonobos, serves the purpose of strengthening the group bond. Modern humans emerged about 100,000 years ago and with them the nuclear family, the extended family, the band, the tribe.

The need to belong was not an accident; it ensured survival, a powerful selective force. Not much later, rituals of birth, of coming-of-age, of marriage, and of burial emerged. The ubiquity of such rituals across large geographic distances and wide cultural diversity means that it must have some deep-rooted origins. Shamans, people specially endowed with supernatural powers, performed such rituals. To assume that from there, rituals progressed to a more systematized set of beliefs—call it religion—does not require a great leap of faith.

bacon ham
Nez Perce medicine man

Which raises the question: Why did we have to have religion in the first place?

Again, we have to resort to the brain in archaic times. We are wired to make sense of our environment. Imagine a chaotic world, where nothing is predictable, there are no rules of nature; cause and effect relationships do not exist. In such a world, life as we know it cannot exist. So is there any wonder that our brains are programmed to find order in the chaos, to find the cause of any phenomenon.

What if we see the “effect” but cannot find the cause? What if our ancestors were aware of the seasons and their power over their very existence but didn’t know why winter always changes into spring, and that into summer, and fall, and back to winter again? This was bound to create cognitive dissonance in our forefathers and foremothers. They could not live with such uncertainty; their brains would not allow it. To resolve the dissonance, they resorted to what we are doing today in such circumstances; they invented a cause. And the obvious invention: Some supernatural being that can do anything that is inexplicable to us.

You’ve got it; this is the genesis of the gods.


What’s the correlation?

But what does it have to do with me not eating ham? Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner psychologist, describes two styles of processing—intuition and reasoning. Intuition (or system 1) was determined to be fast and automatic, usually with strong emotional bonds included in the reasoning process. Kahneman said that this kind of reasoning was based on formed habits and very difficult to change or manipulate.

Reasoning (or system 2) was slower and much more volatile, being subject to conscious judgments and attitudes. The reason we need system 1 (intuitive) reasoning is that, in many circumstances, there simply is no time for the plodding analysis of system 2 reasoning. A car is coming at you; are you going to analyze the speed of the car and the time it will reach you? If you do, you are road kill. You jump out of the way because your intuition told you to. Those intuitive shortcuts are what keeps animals alive. Reasoning is a late development on the evolutionary timescale.

In my brain, one of those shortcuts is that belonging to my tribe is synonymous with the proscription about eating pork. The reason this proscription does not extend to shrimp, for instance, is probably cultural. Pig in Jewish culture symbolizes the epitome of treif, or non-kosher, and is associated with feelings of revulsion. Shrimps, on the other hand, do not occupy this level of disapproval. Tormentors of the Jews in Europe knew that. The way to visit ultimate humiliation upon a Jew was to force him to eat pork.

So this may be the reason why this atheist Jew has a problem with bacon, although everything goes better with it, except maybe Matzos.

Better with bacon? God forbid!

This is was originally published on 05/05/17. It has been updated as of 06/17/15.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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