My atheism lasted for a few years, despite a private yearning I had to feel connected with the world in the way I had as an adolescent, when I thought that God was always with me. I kept researching and exploring lots of different approaches to faith, hoping I’d find one that fit better than Christianity had. Sometimes I felt like God didn’t exist, but in a kind of resigned way—I was probably more agnostic than anything else.
Like so many other brooding young teenagers, I was drawn to the pagan iconography of Wicca, and would conduct in my bathroom candlelit ceremonies that I’d read about in the internet. I chose to explore my spirituality next to the toilet not for any symbolic reason, but because the rest of the apartment was carpeted and I was afraid of burning the house down while trying to commune with the universe. These rituals felt forced, though, like I was in it for the witchiness more than any actual engagement with the belief system, which I quickly realized was pretty wack of me. Religion should be about more than the desire to wear cool-looking pentagram necklaces.
Next I dabbled in Buddhism, an Eastern religion that many of the writers I liked at the time (Allen Ginsberg and other Beats) had referenced and appropriated, sometimes irresponsibly, in their work. The problem was, Buddhism emphasized the loss of one’s self in order to feel more wholly a part of existence, and I was far too self-centered for that. Also meditation, which is important to the faith, makes me restless—whenever I try it, I always end up thinking of cheeseburgers and whether Warren Beatty is actually the most handsome man to ever walk the earth (he is).
Despite these failed experiments, I still felt that God was out there for me somewhere. I just didn’t know where to find him and/or her. Throughout my teenage years, I continued to think about all the big questions: What is the purpose of life? What happens after we die? Does it really matter where I go to college? But I came up empty. I decided to let go for a while and see if, instead of my looking everywhere for God, God could find me.
Finally, about two years ago, when I was 18 or 19, I realized something: religion, for me, had always been about finding my people more than feeling a bond with God. In my baby Jewishness, I was looking to align myself with the part of my family I loved best. Then I followed the lead of my friends into Christianity, then S.’s lead into atheism. Once I was able to isolate the idea of religion as a relationship that I PERSONALLY have with spirituality as opposed to a designation that lumped me in with people that I loved or admired, I stopped trying to force myself into religious communities that didn’t fit. It can be really lovely and useful to have a network of people with whom you share a special relationship with God, but it’s also OK if you don’t.
After this epiphany, I finally felt like I was able to work on sussing out what I believe and how best to honor and express that. I started reading a lot of work by G. I. Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader who lived around the turn of the last century and practiced a kind of “esoteric Christianity” that emphasizes an awareness of everything going on around you and relating your individual place in the universe to the greater whole, as well as a lot of other great stuff that I felt reflected my desire for connectivity with THE BIG ENORMOUS EVERYTHING, but without some of the strict dogma I found so troubling with other belief systems.
My change of heart also had to do with Virginia Woolf’s idea of “moments of being,” which refers to times in your life that shock you awake and grab your wrist and pull you towards a new understanding or realization. They’re not BIG DEFINING PERIODS—more like coincidences and little phenomena that happen on an everyday level, but are personally huge to you. One of my formative experiences was turning around in a bookstore and running into, funnily enough, a guy from my evangelical youth group whom I hadn’t thought about for years, but had been on my mind the moment before he appeared, for whatever reason. I had always found uncanny situations like these holy and meaningful, like little telegrams from God that read: “Pay attention to this! It’s important!”
These two philosophies coincided with my overarching conviction, which is that it’s so unbelievably wondrous that everyone and everything is able to exist and function on the planet at the same time that it suggests some kind of divine order. I’m obsessed with the ways we come together—which is probably why all my religious dead ends came from a need for belonging and communication—but on a grander scale than just person-to-person. What I believe now isn’t tied a church, or to any of my loved ones, or my ethnic history, but GUESS WHAT? It doesn’t need to be. When what you believe is your own creation, whether entirely so or collaged from established religions, you can do whatever you like. ♦