In Star Trek Voyager, 4th season 12th episode, the character Neelix is introduced to a dramatic dilemma as he faces a crisis of faith.
Entitled “Mortal Coil”, this episode depicts Neelix going out with the first officer of the ship to collect some raw materials to survey a protomatter nebula. During the survey he is struck by lightning and dies instantly.
He is taken back to the main ship and assessed by the medical crew, who declare him dead. However, by a stroke of luck a certain crew member happens to be ex-borg and can, through the use of technology, revive Neelix to life.
After being dead for nearly 19 hours he comes back to life.
However we soon discover that Neelix is immensely distressed by this experience because, after being dead for 19 hours, he remembers nothing of an afterlife, which he has believed in his entire life.
His people hold a belief that after death he will be united with his family and friends in a “great forest”, a place of peace and happiness where all the people who ever loved him wait for him. But he recalls nothing of any such place from his more-than-near-death experience. He embarks on a spiritual quest to understand it all.
Here’s a conversation that occurs between him and the first officer:
Neelix: I died, and there was nothing. There was no one there. No Forest.
Neelix: The Great Forest. The afterlife. I was taught that when I died, my ancestors would be there, waiting for me by the Guiding Tree. My sisters, my mother and father, my cousins, everyone who was killed in the war. I took great comfort in knowing that we’d all be together again one day. But it’s not true…
Chakotay: Don’t throw away a lifetime of faith because of one anomalous incident. Death is still the greatest mystery there is.
Neelix: I was there. I experienced it. There was nothing.
The episode goes on regarding his journey of finding purpose again in life. Interestingly the actor who played Neelix commented that “the episode was the most rewarding of the show for him, and that it was one of his favorites. “I thought that was a beautiful show,” he said, “It was very existential””
The counsel to not “throw away a lifetime of faith because of one anomalous incident” always resonated with me. It reminds us that beliefs take time to establish and shouldn’t be wiped out at the earliest dissonance.
I’ve decided that my own journey of discovery, reason and truth-seeking won’t be complete overnight and shouldn’t be undertaken quickly. Hence I have decided to not hastily or rashly throw away my lifetime of belief for “one anomalous incident”.
Interestingly, as missionaries of the LDS church we do encourage people to do just that: read the Book of Mormon, pray about it, and if you get a warm feeling, that feeling is from God and you should get baptised, essentially throwing away anything from your past that is incompatible with Mormanism (AKA potentially a “lifetime of faith”) due to one incident (the answer to a prayer). — I’ve always felt our time cycle of investigation into the church and subsequent baptism is way too rushed, and the evidence is very clear in the very low retention rate of new converts.
In any case, what about two incidents? Three? At which point do you begin to redefine your belief system?
If we simply go on and ignore all new or contradicting information because we don’t want to “throw away a lifetime of faith”, then we get to a point where we are being wilfully ignorant. We are essentially deciding to do just this:
The real question is: at which point do you turn around and say “OK, I have now decided to re-evaluate, I don’t know what the outcome will be yet, but it’s reached a critical threshold where a renovation is necessary”
When I was a teenager my parents decided to build on a second storey to our house. For a few years of my life my home became a construction site, it was quite the unique experience. By not leaving the place to go to a new one, we had to work around the construction workers, piles of concrete and dirt, loads of construction materials and continue to live our daily lives.
I view my current re-evaluation of faith as analogous to that time in my life: I am still “living” within my faith (active in the church, reading scriptures, listening to general conference, trying to obey all the commandments, etc.) but at the same time as it remaining functional, it is undergoing serious re-evaluation and renovation (Asking hard questions like “is there such a thing as spiritual truth at all?”, “are spiritual feelings reliable sources of truth?”, “did God create man in his own image, or the other way around?”, “though ‘I am a child of God’ is immensely comforting and makes me feel great purpose in life, is it actually true?” etc.)
Though I will not be rushing into any final decision, I also don’t anticipate my faith being in a state of renovation permanently. When I was a teenager, eventually the house construction was complete and we had a beautiful two storey house to show for it. Whether my “belief system”s two storey house will be double the faith and a greater desire to serve than ever, or a new worldview with many new possibilities — I don’t know at the moment.
All I do know is that currently my belief system is in a state of “functional renovation”, there are two signs hanging out the front: