Every Christmas Eve father drove us around Washington to see the lights. Traditionally we stopped at three places: the Catholic tree lot where oversize bulbs hung like luminous fruit; the Baptist minister’s house, done up in multicolored electric dazzle; and the Mormon Temple.
The Temple was a disorienting place for a child. Fantastically overdrawn, its thin golden spires vaulted almost aggressively toward the wintertime sky. At Christmas you could follow the crowds to a walk-through light show on Temple grounds, thousands of minute bulbs affixed to each tree with devotional precision. This bedazzling journey culminated in a living crèche, where men wearing false beards and dun-colored clothing stood in uncomfortable silence, as if trapped forever in that moment of anguish when one player has forgotten his lines.
One year I wandered into the visitor’s center. Inside, a brusquely confident teenager was lecturing the crowd, like young Jesus left behind in Jerusalem. His face had that certain unreachability of the firmly convinced, an emotional distance both powerful and faintly alarming. Pausing in his thoughts, he offered us a suggestion.
“If you want to know whether the Book of Mormon is true,” he said, “try this simple experiment. Take it into a quiet, dark room. Honestly and openly pray there, saying: God, if this book is the truth, please make it known to me. And a small voice will appear to you saying yes, this is the Truth.”
It took many years to work out the full implication of that teenager’s words, but they have underwritten the shape of my belief ever since. I reflected in that moment that he was absolutely right; moreover, that if anyone, of any faith, were to try this experiment, that person would also hear the small, inward voice giving him sacred confirmation. A Muslim, devoutly memorizing the Qur’an; a Bahá’í holding the writings of the Báb; a Christian placing his Bible on a stump – as Billy Graham is said to have done – and asking with an open heart: God, is this your voice?
With that recognition, the first seed of rationalism was planted in my mind. I saw us as essentially fallible thinkers, prone to confuse the inner and outer life. I knew I would need some objective standard by which to judge the validity of my own beliefs, or I was in danger of spending my life devoted to a chimera.
I believe the only tool available to us for understanding the world is reason.
I believe that rational thought is correct thought, by which I mean thought that is aligned with what actually is. I believe that if there are metaphysical truths they are still objective truths, and must be known through rational inquiry or not known at all. With this awakening began, for me, decades of joyous exploration through science. Now in the middle of my life, the lights of over a hundred billion galaxies surround me, outshining the pale flicker of childhood in a glorious display.
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