searching, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here.

Just last week, I finished reading a book titled Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, written by astrophysicist and writer Alan Lightman. Like most books I read, I can’t fully recall how I stumbled upon this book. Sometimes I wander mindlessly through Barnes & Noble and see covers or titles that interest me, then I take a quick picture on my phone, before deciding to buy a stack of books on Amazon weeks later. In a poetic way, I do believe that books find us in times that we need them. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is the type of book that I read exactly when I needed it, written in precisely the way I needed to read it.

Searching for Stars is a not singular book with one message or goal and it isn’t supposed to be. It is a more of a collection of cohesive essays than it is a book. Lightman is both a scientist and a humanist; he is somebody whose mind is compelled by logic and reason, but his heart is connected to the essence of the world that’s not so easily explained. This series that I’m writing is based on the feelings and thoughts I have in the immediate aftermath of reading the book that I will reflect on as the book that gave me the approval to finally write in my voice.

Science and religion haven’t always been at odds. In fact, some of the world’s best scientists used to also be employed by the church or were pious churchgoers themselves. It wasn’t until scientific beliefs started to undermine biblical and church teachings that their paths diverged. I do not personally believe science and religion are inherently incompatible. Lightman, in Searching, explores the conflicting feelings within in his own mind, mirroring and demonstrating the relationship of the macrocosmic world from the microcosm in his head. He does not write patronizingly; not once did he condemn the beliefs of others (revised: I don’t recall if he ever straight up condemns, but I think he makes it clear that if your beliefs harm others, those likely aren’t good beliefs, or is this my mind and my thought process? I don’t totally remember).

The title of his book – Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine – comes from a night where he was motoring to his dock on that island in Maine. He was alone in the dark when in a moment of spontaneity, decided to shut off the boat, lie down on his back, and gaze upwards at the sky. In his words below, he explains what would end up becoming a transcendent moment:

I lay down and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time––extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die––seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

When I read the passage for the first time a few days ago, I got chills. As I just re-read it to type it out, I again got those chills. Those words are poetic and personal, to the point where those words feel like they could have come from my own brain.

About two weeks ago, before I read Searching, I walked a friend to his car outside of my parents’ house around 10pm. I was outside for a few moments, thus allowing my pupils to dilate and adjust to the darkness. It was a clear winter night, with a slight chill. I looked up and, for what felt like the first time in years, I gazed at the stars. My mind and body became awash with memories from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of in years. I recall playing manhunt with friends outside or riding bikes until late in the evening, then becoming exhausted and just lying in the grass, gawking at the sky, lost in the moment of childhood euphoria. During those days, it never occurred to me that those moments would later become transcendent moments that I would reflect on over a decade later. It never seemed to me that those moments would become fewer as the years wore on. There was probably a time I did that for the very last time, and then went weeks or months before finding that feeling again.

The feeling that Lightman described is the one I felt that night and the same one I reference in part 2. When I walk through a park with Duncan and look at a leaf: The rods and cones in my eyes absorb the light reflecting off the leaf, causing neurons to fire in my brain where my brain processes what I’m seeing. In other words, the phenomenon of brain matter enables my consciousness to observe and contemplate the infinitesimal world of a leaf and the opposite, infinity of the cosmos.

When put into these terms, I’d venture to say that science and religion aren’t that much different. When people describe their connection with a god, they often explain these feelings of something bigger, grander, beautiful, limitless, and absolute. Lightman hints at this throughout Searching when he admits that there exists an element of faith in science and scientists.

One of the core theses in Searching is that humans have the tendency to “long for Absolutes in a Relatives world,” as Lightman puts it. It may even be that this longing is what drives humans towards science and religion. At their cores, both science and religion are seeking to explain something bigger than humanity. From an early age, humans are aware of their own consciousness and the results of their actions. Children wonder why something happens  in response to knocking a glass off the countertop to its shattered demise. This consciousness, this awareness, is what sets humans apart from other animals. There are intelligent animals capable of creating hierarchical societies, using tools, and partaking in monogamous relationships, but none that have the ability to consciously question their own consciousness and existence like humans. It’s important that humans recognize other animals’ intelligence, but it’s unequivocally true that human sentience is one of the most marvelous products of the universe’s existence and evolution.

Lightman points out that the workings of the brain are fascinating and exhausting to consider. I’m going to try to paraphrase one of the most compelling passages in the entire book. Lightman explains how materialists – people that believe that everything in the universe is composed of matter, including the brain, which would imply that the soul is nonexistent – believe that the trillions of neurons in brain matter collectively represent our “I-ness” or our sense of being alive and aware. He recognizes there are parts of the brain that provide us different parts of ourselves, and he poignantly compares this to how dementia heartbreakingly robs its victims of those parts bit-by-bit. At some point, if you were to continuously remove neurons one by one, you would reach a point that any personality that was once recognizably you would cease to exist. To materialists, this is good enough to denounce any notion of a soul or something more to humanity than to our other earthly cohabitants. Detractors of this argument claim that the very definition of a soul is impossible to prove because it’s more ethereal than it is concrete. This is where science and religion can have issues; Lightman admits he can’t accept anything on blind faith and requires a testable hypothesis followed by quantifiable and qualifiable data, whereas religion typically operates on faith.

Lightman concedes that science, however, also operates to some degree on faith. He references friends and other scientists who believe there will one day be “Final Theory” in physics that mathematically explains everything: how the universe came to existence, the smallest matter that comprises the universe, quantum mechanics, special relativity, and more. To Lightman, believers of this “Final theory” are operating on the same wavelength as those who unequivocally believe in a god and an afterlife.

Scientists, religious folks, and everybody in between can gain something from this. This book is written by somebody with a conflicted mind and heart, who feels connected to something bigger but can’t quite put to words what that may be. At its core, Searching for Stars on an Island Maine is a story of humanity’s greatest tragedy: Its desperate need for something more with no real way of knowing there is something more.

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.


searching, part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 1 is here; Part 3 is here.

I want there to be more to this life. I will be 25 in a couple of months, where I will celebrate a revolution around the Earth without my sister for the second time, but it will be more clear to me this time around that I will never see my sister again.

What does forever mean? To somebody that subscribes to a belief system with an afterlife, forever is relatively short, coming immediately once our bodies go cold. To somebody that doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but rather believes that our consciousness – and therefore our soul – is the result of trillions of neurons interacting with one another in our brain matter, forever is, well, forever. This dichotomy doesn’t really matter much, but I wish it felt more satisfying.

I am trained in the jargonistic, precise language of science but my brain’s natural way of thinking is romantic and spiritual. In that way, I feel like an artist, though it took me many years to actually call myself that. Surely, there is something more to life, but that something has to be logical. My trained mind refuses to accept something simply because it sounds nice, but my natural mind wants to feel connected to something bigger.

I don’t believe in miracles nor do I believe many Biblical stories. Then I walk in a park with Duncan. I stare at a leaf and realize that leaf, utilizing the sun’s energy and its inherent chlorophyll, creates energy, essentially sustaining its life force in a way that humans could never fathom doing. That product of millions of years of evolution in a universe that is billions of years old feels like a miracle. When we remove ourselves from our close, distracted lens, we can observe the sheer beauty in the existence of the world around and within us, of time, of evolution, of humanity, and even of science for figuring that out. What is a miracle? Is a miracle something that occurs that breaks the laws of nature? Or could it be a product of the laws of nature, like that leaf? A miracle is defined by our present perspective of the universe around us; for some of us, that is a religious lens, and for others, it is one dominated by science.

My sister’s existence is over. I know in the depths of my mind and my heart that I will never see, hear, or feel my sister’s physical presence ever again. That is a scientific fact. She will never again be alive in the future like she was in the past. I realize how cold-hearted this sounds, but I refuse to deceive my mind by using language that doesn’t properly convey the truth, and I feel that it is only a disservice to myself to view it in any other way. More than anything, I want to believe that in the immediate moments following my death, I will be embraced in paradise by the arms of loved family members and pets that preceded me in death, just as hopefully every one of them felt in their moments after life.  Most of all, I want to believe my sister is at peace, and I believe she is. I want to believe in the Heaven that I was raised to believe in. But belief is not something we can will into existence. Like the Red Pill in the Matrix series, once we’ve shed the beliefs of our young or previous selves, there is no going back, at least to that exact same prior belief system.

I should rewind. Forgoing a belief in Heaven is not something that people willfully decide one day. Our beliefs change and grow due to the circumstances that happen in our lives on a day-to-day pace. I don’t think we necessarily “choose” our beliefs; I think our beliefs are based on the neural pathways we form by the way we think about things and the way we think and perceive life (I could and will probably digress into these ideas at some point). After my experience freshman year, where I saw somebody who decidedly believed he was living life in the correct way with no apparent self-awareness that the very people he believed he was living “better” than also probably felt that way about him, something in my view of the world changed drastically overnight.

The idea of a hell had scared me since I was a kid. I’d commit some heinous crime – like chewing gum in school which was breaking the rules or telling my parents I finished my homework when I hadn’t completely finished it yet – and would be flooded with guilt. As a child, I believed small “wrongs” like that would lead me to Hell. (To be clear, my parents did not raise me in this way. They didn’t intentionally scare me, yell at me, or any of that. I don’t know what caused this thought process! I can’t track it in my memory bank. Pops and momma, y’all did fine.) This notion that small wrongs in the grand scheme of things would accrue, and thus lead us to Hell, was one that I couldn’t really fathom once I got older. It became clearer and clearer to me that Hell was either reserved only for the worst of the worst, truly evil people that weren’t capable of emotions, or for everybody that wasn’t damn near perfect. If it was reserved for anybody that strayed even a bit from God’s light, that didn’t feel like the God that was supposedly so loving. And if it was reserved only for the worst, that didn’t lend itself to encouraging an extraordinarily pious life that obeyed every edict in the bible – especially the ones that didn’t jibe with my moral code.

It occurred to me that I wasn’t comfortable with the concept of Hell. As I saw more of the world, learned more about the brain, and contemplated religion, morality, philosophy, and science more, it seemed that the world wasn’t black or white, and establishing anybody as wholly good or evil wasn’t such a simple task. Of course, to a monotheistic religion’s God, that wouldn’t be a problem, where he/she/it determined somebody’s worth simply by what they define is good or evil. Philosophy tries to answer this: Is something good because a god defines it as such? Or is something good because it is inherently good, therefore a god views it as such? Put more concretely: Is kindness good because the Christian God and Jesus say it is? Alternatively, the same question can be asked of evil. Is all murder bad? Looking at this abstractly, the line of questioning doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when put it in concrete terms, it does. Is murdering somebody that is going to murder one of your loved ones “evil?”

I also thought about the alternative, where things are good and bad because God has ordained them to be. Wouldn’t it eliminate the kindness of an act if we only do something because we know it to be good, as in because God says so? If I begrudgingly give money to a homeless person, ughhh, because I know I should, is it the same thing as cheerfully doing it and recognizing their worth as a human is not defined by their economic value? From a bystander’s perspective across the street, the same act looks exactly the same, but the thought-process in the donor’s head is definitely not. Are they equally as good?

Let me be very honest: one of my greatest wishes is that there is life after this one. I so desperately want to believe that my sister’s soul, her energy, her spirit are around, not just in quirky circumstances that remind me of her, but her true soul. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a skeptic; through my desire to become a doctor and scientist, I wanted to examine and understand the universe from a scientific perspective, but I also wanted to influence the world in other ways, which required spiritual exploration.

I haven’t completely renounced a belief in spirituality or an afterlife. The reason I haven’t is precisely because of that feeling I explained in above where the wonders of the world I observe in a park with Duncan overwhelm me with the feeling that I am connected to something greater, something ethereal, something forever, something almost religious.

Part 1 is here.

Part 3 is here.


searching, part 1

This is the first in a series of posts about my growth in learning to challenge conventions, explore the world of religion, science, spirituality, philosophy, and more. In these posts, I am candid about my experiences and thoughts on these topics. I hope it generates conversation in a productive and civil way, not in a divisive way. I consider my role as a writer to be somebody capable of broaching heavy topics in a gentle way. I hope I’ve done so here. The following parts will be posted over the next few days. Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here.

I grew up in Indiana, West Virginia, Alabama, and Kentucky – not exactly havens for a varying array of viewpoints. The plurality of people in these states are white, middle-class, right-leaning, and Christian, which is a pretty accurate summary of American history. Going to college in Kansas (also not a very diverse place as a whole, but colleges aren’t nearly as representative of the states in which colleges reside) was a good opportunity for me to be exposed to a world different from which I was familiar.

Prior to college, I had viewpoints and perspectives that had never been challenged. I don’t think it is that uncommon of an experience for most kids, but I think, once challenged, how we respond is widely varying. Some people double down, sticking with the paradigm they know and half-heartedly believe, thus becoming sterner in their belief system. Others recognize their experiences are different from others, meaning we come to our beliefs in different ways, and therefore, meaning that other people could have come to a different belief system under a more apt set of circumstances. Not to say that one response is better than another, but being close-minded and refusing to hear others’ views out is likely the worse response because it closes us off to discussion, alienates others that genuinely want to have a conversation, and prevents us from growing.

My barely entrenched views were challenged in the first few months of college on a couple of occasions. The first was over the course of a couple of months in my very first semester. I identified as a Catholic and believed firmly in God and God’s plan (shout-out Drake). At the time, I kind of accepted or maybe just sort of ignored some of what I perceived as downfalls in Catholic and organized Christianity doctrine (I supported gay rights as far I can remember and was super uneasy at the thought of people that believed in different religions or not being “good enough” as defined by the church were going to Hell).

I had just finished a biology lab and was getting lunch with my lab-mates in the student center when we were approached by a cheery dude probably in his junior or senior year (he looked so old to me! It’s weird to think that I’m now older than he was). He asked if we had a moment to chat, and once we said yes, proceeded to ask us about our religious beliefs. We all spoke about what we believed at the time; I identified as Catholic and he wasn’t very familiar with Catholic beliefs which shocked me. One of my lab-mates, unbeknownst to me in the moments prior, was Hindu. This cheery fella had clearly never spoken in-depth with somebody that practiced Hinduism, as he was inquiring about the student’s beliefs from what appeared to be a very ignorant lens (not that that’s an entirely bad thing in a vacuum considering I was ignorant of Hindu beliefs myself; also an interesting thing happened in my view, as a bystander, as the Christian dude subconsciously realized that Christianity and Hinduism share more similarities than differences). It was then made evident in the next moments that this guy’s objective was to proselytize (or convert, but I think the connotation of proselytize is more appropriate here) us. In fairness, my lab-mate was kind, compassion, and elegant in the description of his beliefs and the Christian guy was kind in response. The next thing that happened was that he asked us if we, including my Hindu friend, would be interested in coming to a Bible study. My Hindu friend said he’d be interested in learning more about Christianity, but that he’d get back to him (I don’t know if he ever did). I said yes since, at the time, my belief in being a good human was predicated on being a “good Christian” and being a good Christian meant knowing the Bible. I had only participated in a couple of Bible studies in high school and attended church sporadically.

I was young, open-minded, and impressionable, so I attended the Bible study. The first Bible study was enlightening, but not in the positive way I expected. I remember getting into a conversation at Bible study with this man about judging others, one of the tenets of Christianity being that Christians shouldn’t judge others. I said that I believe we shouldn’t, and that it wasn’t Christians’ place to make any sort of grand evaluations of others. He disagreed, and in what I still to this day consider some impressive logical gymnastics, said that Jesus in fact does expect you to judge others, and even more, he not only calls on Christians to judge, but to also (I’m paraphrasing here) essentially course-correct them. I was disheartened and a little frightened. In my mind, I felt that his impulse to recruit me to a Bible study was to groom me to align with his views and to pass those beliefs further. I don’t remember if I challenged him in that moment, but I know that I felt grossly deceived and frustrated that somebody felt so compelled to believe he was unequivocally correct. It made me wonder if his ultimate goal was to convert (why I used the term proselytize above) my Hindu friend, something I consider to be a wrongful act, and one that shows a lack of respect towards another person’s dignity. The problem for me then was that since I considered him an authoritative figure on the Bible and therefore a “good Christian,” I left with my mind in disarray.

My mind was shocked. It occurred to me that in his mind it was likely that people he didn’t “reach” or people who subscribed to different belief systems than he were condemned to an eternity in Hell after life on earth. (To be clear, I don’t know if he ever fully believed that but the logical inconsistencies of this type of belief system became clearer to me that day.)

After that Bible study, I was lost for some time. In the months before, I became close friends with a group of people that had very different political and religious beliefs than I, some of which were very liberal and identified as atheist or at least agnostic. In my prior life experience, I had never been close with anybody that identified as either of those things (Kentucky, remember). Not that I expected otherwise, but these guys seemed…similar to me.

Based on most Christian doctrine, one of the most unforgivable sins is the blatant acknowledgment of disbelief in God or Jesus, meaning my new pals who, by all accounts were good guys, were destined for hell. I was conflicted; How is this possible? How are Catholic priests that “have been saved” yet molested young boys within a step of redemption, but these other guys that have solid moral foundations coupled with a disbelief in God somehow further from it? Maybe, according to some Christian doctrine, they’re both one step away from achieving Heaven-hood in their life after death. But that seems so unfair and illogical. According to most religious teachings and moral codes, it is possible to be redeemed, but it’s logical that the path to redemption should be dependent on the actions committed that would require such redemption.

When writing it all out like this, I’d suppose the vast majority of people, no matter their religiosity or lack thereof, would not be so quick to condemn somebody else to eternal damnation. After all, where we are born is the greatest determinant of what religion we will subscribe to. It was in those couple of months that I came to one of the most profound lessons of life: If your views have never been challenged from internal introspection or external dialogue, it is entirely possible to be indoctrinated into a belief system that would crumble upon even the slightest recognition of apparent fallacies. In other words, if we don’t critically think about things we think we confidently believe in, we aren’t living consciously, or what I consider the core part of being human.

From that day forward, I refused to accept the world for the way it is – a phrase I now dearly despise.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here..