Thursday, March 31, 2011


Welcome to my house. Please, take a seat. The sofa is quite comfortable. Would you like something to drink? A bite to eat? There you go.

Now that you're settled in, let me tell you a story.

Our tale begins with a boy. It is 1983 and he is in third grade, sitting at his school desk, wearing the blue shirt and clip-on tie mandated by the school, which is Catholic and headed by an obese nun with piercing eyes. On his desk before him lies an open book - a religion book, large and thin and floppy, with reproduced watercolor depictions of various Bible scenes. He is learning about the saints, looking at an artist's rendering of St. Stephen.

At that precise moment, a thought worms its way out from the recesses of his developing mind and into his consciousness. It is a thought he does not know how to acknowledge right away, and it comes in the form of a simple yet crucial question: "How do they know all of this?" He does not know the answer

And so, for the first time in his young life, the seed of doubt has been planted. Although his family is not particularly religious, he has been raised to believe in God and Jesus and all the dogma of the Catholic Church as fully as be believes in the sun and the moon. He is aware that his Jewish friends have different beliefs and that there are many religions, but being eight years old, he has never given much thought to such things. Until now.

One day he asks his teacher how we know the stories of the Bible are true. She responds with a level of agitation disproportionate to the question that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. He is too shy and too intimidated to continue with the next obvious question: "How do you know that?" He simply thinks it to himself.

Over the years, he asks the question again and again, bringing it to a variety of authority figures. None of their answers set his mind at ease until he asks a Jesuit priest in his high school. The priest explains that we do not know any of it. We believe it; we have faith. However, the priest points out, we do not know anything. Everything we know is based, to some degree or other, on belief.

This opens the boy's eyes in ways likely unintended by the priest. The boy begins to develop a personal philosophy with the intent of determining which things should be believed or disbelieved. He wants to come up with some kind of set of criteria for himself. Why believe in the Catholic God and not the Greek gods? Why Jesus and not Muhammad or the Buddha? Each question leads to a plethora of new questions.

He leaves religion behind, no longer able to justify believing in one or another faith. He constantly challenges his own thoughts and comes to new conclusions, many of which he will later reject based upon further consideration.

In adulthood, he finally reaches a level of comfort with his own beliefs and viewpoints. He achieves a sense of clarity previously unknown to him. While he acknowledges that he does not and cannot ever have all the answers, and that nothing is truly knowable, he comes to the conclusion that he now knows how to ask the questions in more meaningful ways.

This is my (rather abridged) personal story of how I began my intellectual journey to where I am today. There is much more to it, of course, but I think the essential epistemological questions that came to me as a confused child opened the path to a sort of enlightenment for me down the line. I would say that most of my growth comes from learning to accept the unanswerability of some questions rather than in finding the answers to them. I believe that however strongly you may believe in something, it is best to always keep in mind that you may be wrong. Much of the pain in the world today seems to be caused not by a particular religion or belief system, but by  rigid adherence to a system. We should keep in mind that all ultimate truths are unknowable, and we all simply have opinions about how best to live.

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