From as far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with what ancient peoples believed about the world. Greek Mythology, with its many Gods and Monsters fascinated me. The Bible fascinated me. And when I was in High School, I found myself devouring religious works: the Quran, the Christian Bible, books about Taoism and Buddhism.
It was a process of seeking, of trying to make sense of it all. Of trying to find a group of likeminded people who saw the world the way I did. Full of mystery and challenge, great beauty and meaning.
From a very young age, however, I belonged very decidedly in the scientific camp. My father is a scientist, and my first great childhood hero was the detective Sherlock Holmes, with his rational and empirical logic. The scientific worldview seems to me irrefutably true and powerful. It has gotten us away from millennia of starvation, disease, violence, and misery to an age of unparalleled bounty, unprecedented peace.
Growing up in Israel, it wasn’t hard to see the damage that the different religions have wrought. The effects of the Crusades are still visible here, the awakening of radical Islam a daily reality, the stubbornness, chauvinism, and lack of empathy so common in the Jewish religion’s treatment of non-Jews — a continuous cause of friction.
And so from the time I was 13, I was increasingly identified with the more logical side of my personality. Attracted to thinkers like Ayn Rand, who placed the evidence of one’s senses and cold logic above emotions, wishful thinking, and most decidedly — faith.
By age 18, I was a committed Atheist. My early interest in religion has become a fascination with murderous fundamentalism. The fascination with people’s beliefs became a fascination with how their beliefs made them do terrible things.
It wasn’t until I heard Alain de Botton speak, in his famous Atheism 2.0 TED talk, and later in his Religion for Atheists tour in NYC, that I began to seriously consider the possibility that I could enjoy the best of both worlds. That religion was not necessarily all gloom and doom, but that it may contain useful bits of wisdom, and rituals of great beauty and meaning. In other words that rejecting the religious metaphysics did not mean religion itself, as an institution, lacks all value.
I later met someone, a girl, who had a completely different experience of religion than I. She told me how beautiful the Jewish Sabbath had been for her: a space carved out of the week for quiet reflection, friendship and family, free from daily pursuits and struggles.
Deciding to give this practice a try changed my life. My Neo-Sabbath was different from the traditional Jewish model. I allowed myself to ride the Subway, use electronic devices, and travel. But I made a rule that Saturdays must be reserved for autotelic activities: activities done for their own sake.
I began using my Saturdays to read in the park, take long walks, go to museums and shows, and meet friends. More than anything, I began thinking about my life, where it was going, and how fast. This little religious trick of a Sabbath was working. And working in mysterious (or at least complex and unexpected) ways!
Then came meditation. After seeing an interview with Sam Harris, another famous Atheist, I decided to give Insight (Vipassana) Meditation a try. I took an 8-week course at the buddhist Insight Meditation Center in NYC, and was hooked. From the very early days of practice, it was evident that the practice had cascading benefits throughout my life. Within a week, I was noticing patterns in my own thinking that had been there all along but which I had never noticed before. Within a couple of weeks, I could see some of the reasons for these patterns. By the third week I had vivid memories of past traumas, and could see very clearly the connections between those traumas and some of my unproductive behaviors.
Nothing had prepared me for the consistency and sheer breadth of the insights I’ve gotten from practicing Vipassana meditation. For a couple of months, it was like a reliable assembly line was producing insights day in and day out. As if those insights were waiting just under the surface and came gushing out as soon as I had paid stable, nonjudgmental attention to them.
It was clear to me now that while many religious beliefs and practices seem absurd and horrific, at least *some* religious practices are invaluable. That those hold the potential of transforming our lives without demanding the kind of blind faith I was so loath to give. Indeed without changing our metaphysical views one way or the other.
Now the questions that haunted me were: What other treasures are hidden within our most ancient traditions? What pearls of wisdom are obscured by inaccessible dialect or absurd mythology? What other great gifts can the ancients bestow on our modern, secular society? And why do religions so often go wrong? Why do they end up corrupted? Why do they end up causing so much more evil than good in the world?
These are the questions that led me to sign up for a Masters degree in Religious Studies.