There is a glut of options in the religious market today. How do we decide which way to go?
It's no different than other important decisions we make in life.
A patient is told by a doctor that she has a rare disease which will be fatal unless she takes a specific injection within the next 24 hours. Panic-stricken, she rolls up her sleeve to get the shot.
At that moment, another doctor rushes into the room. "Wait!" he shouts. "You've misdiagnosed her! If you give her that injection, she'll die in 24 hours!"
The patient nearly faints. What should she do?
Obviously get a third opinion! Get 20 more opinions!
After spending an entire day in frantic consultations, 20 doctors say that without the injection she'll die, and 10 doctors say that with the injection she'll die.
What will her decision be based on? Her decision will be based on weighing the arguments and going where the evidence lies.
As long as there is a chance to discover where the truth lies, it is in our best interest to try to discern it.
Her fear of taking an injection is not a factor. Her personal feelings about the doctors should be completely irrelevant to her decision. Her feelings have nothing to do with the actual consequences she is inevitably going to face. As long as there is a chance to discover where the truth lies, it is in her best interest to try to discern it. Ignoring reality is irrational and irresponsible.
This calculated approach to decision-making makes sense when choosing which car to buy, or in determining guilt or innocence in a court of law. These decisions are based on gathering evidence and substantiating facts.
But what does this have to do with religion? Isn't religion a matter of the heart where one should choose the path he finds most fulfilling?
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores the serious intellectual challenge religion poses. In actuality, does God exist? Does God only exist for those who believe and not exist for those who don't?
That's absurd. Either there is a God, or there isn't. Both can't be true. There is no third option.
All religions contradict each other in fundamental aspects that carry tremendous consequence; they cannot all be true. It is easy to create one's own mix'n'match religion, picking and choosing various rituals and values from whatever sources one finds personally fulfilling.
"Only a belief that is true, and only the truth, is worthy for a person to place his belief in." Sefer Ha'Ikkarim, Rabbi Yosef Albo, 1:22
But choosing one's religion based on feelings alone is ultimately a choice to disregard the truth. If there is a possibility that truth is out there, ignoring it comes at a great cost -- self-delusion.
THE NEED FOR EVIDENCE
In order to accept an idea as true, one needs to have convincing evidence that it is true.
Let's say an adult tells you he believes the Tooth Fairy exists. You ask for evidence to support that belief. He responds, "Well prove to me that the Tooth Fairy doesn't exist!"
Is it necessary to disprove his claim? Perhaps we will never know for sure that he is wrong. You may even secretly hope he is right. But as long as no positive evidence exists that it's true, we should not accept it.
For one, accepting a belief without any evidence has nothing to do with reality. It remains a personal fantasy.Secondly, beliefs have practical consequences. What would this guy do if he received a letter signed by the Tooth Fairy soliciting a $10,000 donation? Or the leader of a new sect instructs his believers to give up their lives in order to meet God. (Remember Heaven's Gate?)
Convictions are the driving force behind our actions. Because they're so serious, they need to be built on a rational basis. Blind leaps of faith have no place in Judaism. Faith is a product of desire, what one wishes to be true. It has no connection to reality. In fact, if the desire is strong enough, faith will even deny evidence that reveals the fallacy of the conviction.
A true intellectual makes decisions based on truth and evidence, as opposed to his feelings. Being an intellectual has nothing to do with being smart. We all know very smart people who have made very dumb decisions. An intellectual is one who uses his mind to lead him through life, not his heart.
THE JEWISH IDEA
The Torah says, "You shall know this day and return it to your heart -- that God is God in heaven above and on the earth below..." (Deut. 4:39). First comes knowledge -- building a strong intellectual foundation. Then follows the heart -- the emotions directed by the intellect.
...If you are a person of intellect and understanding... you are obligated to use your faculties until you gain a clear and definite knowledge... It would show a lack of willingness for anyone to rely on tradition alone who can obtain certainty by the method of rational demonstration. Everyone is obligated to investigate with his reason whatever can be acquired, and to bring evidence which deliberate judgment would support. (Rabbeinu Bachya, "Duties of the Heart")
Of course, there are varying degrees of knowledge. The more evidence one has, the more confident he can be that his belief is true. How much evidence is required in order to enter the realm of knowledge?
In a court of law, the line is 'beyond a reasonable doubt.' There may still be plenty of questions and lurking doubts. But once we have enough compelling evidence that tips the scales, it is irrational to ignore that conclusion in favor of the alternative.
WHAT ABOUT INTOLERANCE?
Searching for truth necessarily involves rejecting falsehood. At some point, conclusions must be drawn.
Is this intolerant? Is it intolerant to reject the notion that the earth is flat, even though there are people today who subscribe to such a belief? What about Holocaust deniers?
"You're wrong! I don't have to explain why. You're just an idiot for thinking it."
Defining tolerance as "the acceptance of all ideas regardless of their merit" would spell the end of critical thinking.
Intolerance is disparaging the person who holds the belief you disagree with. Intolerance seeks to control, not understand. It means being unwilling to reconsider ideas and being closed to hearing other points of view. It is thinking someone is wrong for no good reason at all.
But to define tolerance as "the acceptance of all ideas regardless of their merit" would spell the end of critical thinking. It means we no longer discriminate about the ideas we accept.
The world is filled with a plethora of competing ideas, confusing values and contradictory arguments. Every thinking person has the right to discard ideas if he or she can refute it with cogent reasoning and sufficient evidence. The search for truth demands openness and genuine tolerance, without compromising intellectual honesty.
The closed mind remains impervious to the truth. An independent, discerning mind is an indispensable guide through the raging currents of the day.