When I graduated from college almost 40 years ago, I was asked to join Richard Leakey, the famous Anthropologist, to explore Lake Turkana in Kenya for evidence of hominids, pre-humans. The experience, an African romance including lions and Somali raiders, pushed me beyond my comfort zone as a spiritually traditional orthodox Jew. One evening, I sat on a bluff overlooking our tent camp and saw a sunset colored dazzlingly red by volcanic dust. I said to a colleague sitting beside me, “The sunset looks like it was painted by the hand of God.” My colleague replied, “Who?” …and walked away.
For the first time I questioned my simple traditional belief that there is a supernatural God. I know now that I no longer simply believe.
I no longer simply believe because I’ve learned the best way to make my professional and personal decisions is to make deductions based on my own direct observations and the observations of others, not by addressing or appealing to the supernatural.
I no longer simply believe that my family and close friends love me. I know that they love me from their actions and support. I no longer simply believe that my professional work is sound. I know it is sound within reasonable bounds because it passes rigorous review and continual testing by my professional peers.
I no longer believe in supernatural beings because no compelling empiric evidence for them exists. I know there remains much of this world and universe that science cannot yet address. But I will not invent or accept the supernatural to remove scientific uncertainty. Uncertainty does not bother me. I can live with uncertainty. Failures in human knowledge also don’t bother me except when, after being recognized as flawed, people still accept them because of convenience, custom or stubbornness.
I do not believe that organized religion on the scale of nations betters humanity. I know that many, if not most, of the world’s great conflicts have been either caused by, or abetted by, nationally-based religious dogma.
As I grow older, I reflect more on the two great philosophical questions of the human condition: “Does my life have a purpose?” and “What happens after death?” These remain difficult questions. But I would have to reject my very intellect, what makes me different from the rest of creation, to accept invented answers, now or in the human past, without compelling natural evidence of proof.
Yet, I know that some religious traditions positively enrich lives, including mine, by comforting those in pain and providing communal rituals celebrating life-cycle events and coherent communities and personal relationships that otherwise might be difficult for an individual to make. Although it may be a paradox, I find it intellectually acceptable to dismiss a bit of rational consistency to contribute to the community that my religion and its history provide my family and me, and by extension, the community beyond.
Paradoxes are part of the human condition too. This I believe.
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