Many of us were raised on our parents or guardian’s brand of beliefs, be it Islam, atheism, Baha’I, or otherwise. But when, if at all, did we decide for ourselves what we believed?
For myself, it happened when I was eight, driving home from Costco in the backseat of my mom’s Pontiac Grand Prix. As I looked beyond the child-safe window into the world, I realized that I was small, and most everything else was big—like the sky, whose big clouds seemed to push up against the tops of the pine trees still lined the streets of Northern B.C. towns. Five years ago, if you drove north on Highway 97 through the Cariboo and through Prince George, it was a sea of red and dead pines; today, the red has decayed to grey. Brittle, standing firewood replaced what was once mighty and prized; pine trees, like humans, lose their perceived value when they begin to die—at least in our culture.
I am small: the clouds loomed. I am fragile: the legion of pine whipped by.
Regardless of my eight-year-old existential crisis, it wasn’t until my late teens that I ran out of people to ask questions of, and people in turn ran out of answers. I was accused of doubting too much, having too little faith, asking the wrong questions. I turned to the books that lined the 200-section shelves at the University, and they proffered something different. Instead of holding doubt at arm’s length, thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard saw doubt as essential to belief. Doubt, as I came to agree, is held in tension with any sort of faith, because it is precisely that doubt that allows humans to believe in anything. Science, an ultimately rational system, begins with doubt and a courageous speculation regarding the why or how—the hypothesis. We believe … and, we will prove …
Our beliefs should be tested in the same way, like any good experiment, structure, or good relationship. What belief or religion is worth assenting to if it’s not rigorous enough to withstand constant questioning, constant doubt?
Probably one of the most baffling experiences in my life involves my closest friends refusing to take the time to align their beliefs with their practices. I see the religious fighting amongst themselves, I see the financial and sexual scandals on the news, I see sacred texts used to degrade and exclude, I see people who claim to be open minded, mocking others whose beliefs are different from theirs, yet never bothering to form for themselves any kind of cogent alternative.
These things chip away at my own beliefs, instilling doubt. But doubt breeds more questions, and it’s never something I’ve shied away from. I remember my eight-year-old self in the Pontiac, looking at the trees, and I can’t let that person down.
Do you believe in something you have no reason to? If you do have reasons, articulate them to yourself and leave room for doubt. The German writer Rilke wrote, “Live the questions,” and it is this directive that has guided me from the Pontiac to the present. What’s your Pontiac moment?