A blog by Barry Edelson

A Near-Life Experience

One night recently, I was nearly killed by a drunk driver. The light was just turning green at a large intersection, and I had my foot on the accelerator, just as another car raced across my path against a red light. Somehow, I caught sight of him bearing down on me from my left and hit the brakes. If I had started to move a split second sooner, he would have hit me broadside at full speed. Instinctively, I leaned on my horn, but he had already streaked by.

Within a few seconds after my close call, I was consciously aware of a strange expectation: that the incident would crowd out every other thought in my head. This is what usually happens after a traumatic episode, isn't it? I was on my way home from a late meeting, and there were any number of things on my mind – nothing unusually stressful, just an ordinary array of concerns at home and at work – preoccupations that wouldn't seem to stand up well to the emotional clamor of a near-death experience. But, apart from feeling predictably shaky for a few minutes and slowing down excessively at every intersection on the rest of my way home, the episode faded astonishingly quickly. Mental images of the bloody car wreck that was averted by a fraction of a second failed to keep my attention focused on my mortality for more than a few sporadic moments over the next day or so.

My failure to achieve true distress prompted me to think carefully about how I might have responded had I possessed a strong religious faith. It's easy to understand how one's faith could appear to give meaning to a seemingly random occurrence. Who would not wish to replace the fear and uncertainty inherent in even the most mundane aspects of life – driving home at the end of day, for example – with the solace and certitude of religious conviction? Who would not prefer purpose and meaning to senselessness and the abyss?

What we would prefer, however, has nothing to do with what is real. And what is belief other than a wish for life to be something other than what it is?

I am most baffled by those who suppose that it is better to believe in something, anything, than to rely on human reason as a guide to life. The inability of our collective mind to explain the most basic questions of the universe – for example, why is there something instead of nothing?– is often cited as evidence that there must be some unseen force controlling our destiny. But the limitations of science and philosophy do not give credence to any particular system of belief that purports to answer such questions. Faith's fatal flaw is that it requires the famous leap: a leap into something accepted but, by definition, impossible to know.

On the question of faith, I always seem come back to the same idea: There are things I know and there are things I don't know. Come to think of it, I have no idea if that driver was actually drunk – or male, for that matter – but you believed it, didn't you? It's an easy thing to believe. It fits our picture of the world. It makes sense. But there is no way to know if it is true.

I know someone who is fond of admonishing me: "You don't believe in anything." Not true, I say: I believe in proof.

October 7, 2005

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