Monday, December 05, 2005

A false dichotomy

This has been on my mind a lot lately. I have discovered the thing that I've heard as the sort of reason that people renounce atheism in order to embrace some religion or another. That is, that science and reason in themselves are unable to give meaning to life.

Most of my life I have held this assumption that to be spiritual and to find warmth and meaning in life was somehow tied to believing things that defy what my eyes see and what my science teacher tried to teach me. Salvation was found in believing things and trusting that if your eyes and reason said otherwise, then your eyes and reason were deceiving you. The alternative was simply disbelieving anything that couldn't be proven for certain--after all I've always hated being uncertain in these matters. (Especially when I thought my eternal destiny was tied to my degree of certainty, but I digress). This is the false dichotomy that I'm talking about.

I came to the point of recognizing that reason is not everything on my own. My explorations into Buddhism revealed the rest. I'd hardly considered the possibility of a religion that is not based on faith, but rather experience. There may be faith involved in varying degrees for different people, but it's not essential. Well, anyway, Buddhism as I know it is primarily about our experience of the present moment--no so much about the origins of life or what, if anything, happens after we die. Not much reason to get into debates about evolution versus creationism here.

Also, today I read chapter one in a book called The End of Faith by Sam Harris. He expressed very clearly the idea that has been rattling around in my head for the past couple of months, and it was this reading that moved me to write this entry. It seems so damn simple--like it was right on the edge of my thoughts before but I've never been quite able to bring it to the surface of my thoughts before. Too many of my old assumptions were in the way.

We cannot live by reason alone. This is why no quantity of reason, applied as antiseptic, can compete with the balm of faith, once the terrors of the world begin to intrude upon our lives. Your child has died, or your wife has acquired a horrible illness that no doctor can cure, or your own body has suddenly begun striding toward the grave--and reason, no matter how broad it's compass, will begin to smell distinctly of formaldehyde. This has lead many of us to conclude, wrongly, that human beings have needs that only beliefs in certain fantastical beliefs can fulfill. It is nowhere written, however, that human beings must be irrational, or live in a perpetual state of seige, to enjoy an abidng sense of the sacred. On the contrary, I hope to show that spirituality can be--indeed, must be--deeply rational, even as it elucidates the limits of reason.

So you don't have to either hold absurd beliefs or refuse to consider any ideas that your reason cannot understand. There is a whole lot of middle ground here. And it's a wonderful sense of freedom when you realize that you need not fear reality causing your beliefs to crash down around you! If a belief is shattered by reality, then that is just one more obstacle on the road to a clear view of the world out of the way--and this is a good thing.

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