At nine years old, I had no idea what the word atheism meant. And if you asked me to define religion, I would probably have told you it was something families did together on Sundays.
At twelve I learned for the first time that humans had evolved from monkeys. The idea seemed weird because people didn’t look or act the least bit like monkeys, but the facts were right there in our thick hardcover textbooks and my teachers seemed certain of it and my parents didn’t seem concerned.
At seventeen I was a resolute atheist, convinced that even if there were a God, such a belief was intellectually unprovable. As a high school junior I was grasping calculus and chemistry and Romeo & Juliet and felt like I had real knowledge. Atheists wherever I encountered them – among the student body, among our teachers, talking on TV – always sounded like the smart ones, a step quicker than the rest, and I wanted to be like them. Religion by contrast seemed the province of the lazy and dogmatic and less educated.
At twenty I had become equally lazy in my atheism. There was no safe place to argue against evolutionary theory at an elite liberal arts college. Besides, all my friends were fellow atheists and agnostics. Plus who had the time for it? Even though, to be frank, the religious students on campus seemed to be better people. Better role models. Kinder, more patient, more convicted.
At twenty five I had just moved from Manhattan to San Francisco and there was a slow but steady tectonic shift in how I perceived society and what I wanted from it. After a two year taste of the corporate working world, I had come to the conclusion that it truly sucked. Four more decades of this? No way. No way. And as those foundations of self-identity began to crack and crumble and pop, so too did a lot of the habits and drive that had been built on top. Perhaps I was still atheist, but I saw for the first time that I had really been religious all along, chasing modern Gods: of status, of wealth, of consumption.
At thirty I was in bad shape. Two corporate years in New York were followed by five entrepreneurial ones in Silicon Valley. The tech startup experience, after the novelty wore off, didn’t feel all that different. In some respects I felt like I had reached the end of a familiar rope. I was pretty open to any solution, really, and asking all those annoying questions that have no answers: What’s my purpose? Why are we here? How do I best spend the rest of my life?
Today, two months shy of thirty three, I am neither atheist nor agnostic. I am religious, and growing more so. There is simply so much good there, and wisdom. Regardless of whether it is factually accurate, or scientifically proven, it is an important sort of truth. Like love and market capitalism, if enough people believe it, then it can be true to us.
When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton
Which religion do I believe? All of the lasting faiths, for starters: Christianity. Buddhism. Islam. Hinduism. Judaism. I don’t buy everything they sell, but it’s nice to shop around in the marketplace. There is tremendous wisdom in religious faith, wisdom that has helped save me from some dark places, wisdom that should be celebrated and shared, that gives you a new-yet-old way of seeing the world and your place in it.
Religion is not a discrete choice between yes and no, between belief and denial. Rather it’s useful to think of religion as a process, a journey akin to self discovery. A journey not unlike psychoanalysis or life coaching or self-development or life hacking. But a journey that has been around for thousands of years, trodden by billions of people going as far back as Buddha and Hillel. And the journey is given living testament today by billions of people around the world, in every country, island, and hamlet. When it comes to civilizational influence, no modern institution – not elective democracy, not market capitalism, not silicon technology – can hold a candle to Krishna and Yahweh and the Holy Spirit.
Protestantism has been most accessible to me given my American suburban middle class upbringing, with its open door churches and uplifting group songs and parable heavy sermons and interracial communities. Buddhism with its eastern roots also appeals to a Chinese hyphen American like me. And the usefulness of Buddha’s teaching in today’s world, with his emphasis on slack over speed, on detachment instead of engagement, on empty fullness not hoarding.
But it’s really just a start. I’d like at some point to observe Ramadan, attend a Passover Seder, witness a Quaker silent meeting for worship. And so on, across the world’s great religious traditions and around the world.
I went to church for the first time in high school. Or was it middle school? Memory makes silly putty of time as you age. In my memory, anyway, some close friends and I were Sunday guests of our science teacher and her immediate family. Sitting in the smooth mahogany pews, dwarfed by the hall’s high ceilings, feeling as if I had walked into the hollowed remains of a medieval castle. Turning right and left to see rows and rows of beaming and laughing white faces. All dressed fresh as a first day on the new job. The late morning sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. The whole program comforting in its ritual and structure and a sense of this is how it should be. Everyone no matter how good their voice or how high their confidence, singing together in simple chords to holy words. I remember nothing of the pastor or what he said. But sitting there next to childhood friends, next to our teacher whom we adored and her loving family, a family for whom this weekly practice was second nature, I glimpsed a future life that I too could have, one in which these Sunday mornings and this bonded community was a sort of religious rock that secured you against the world’s fickle winds.
Granted I am exaggerating and simplifying to make a point, but that two hour experience sparked a sense of wonder for a world I was wholly unfamiliar with, and the little spark, like a planted idea in the movie Inception, grew and grew in the coming years.
One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done – Thomas Merton
When I tell my parents about this newfound interest in religion, my Mom seems genuinely interested, as she does with seemingly any new development that I share. My Dad’s reaction is a mix of amusement and fear. “Just don’t join a cult,” he says with a forced chuckle.
I’ve never asked them about their religious beliefs. It’s barely a rung below talking about their sex lives. But from what I can gather, they were agnostic products of Mao era China, outputs of a one-party government that forbade organized religions as a threat to its ruling power.
Raised in a third tier city with no substantial endowments, Mom and Dad had fought their way to America and started anew, building over the course of two decades a comfortable and upwardly mobile suburban Texas life. A life lifted out of your standard 90s network sitcom: two new-ish cars in a covered garage, a pool table in the upstairs entertainment room, and a then-top shelf 90mhz Dell computer.
If religion had been part of the family practice before they emigrated from China, if my Grandparents had routinely gone to temple or read aloud from the Bible at night, then such a habit may have survived and even helped my parents as they launched their new American lives. But immigrating to a new country, particularly one as colorful and crazy as the States, is like holding two full-time jobs: one in which you work to pay the bills, and one which you struggle to survive the strangeness of each day. There was no time to pick up religion, as either a hobby or an immediate source of relief.
Later on, they had plenty of opportunities to find religion but it never happened. Maybe the spiritual seed had never been planted or, in my Dad’s case, there was little soil in which it could grow. Or maybe, as their salaries grew and job titles expanded and life’s little luxuries began sprouting up here and there – like a $150 pool cue stick for Dad or a fancy SUV for Mom – life became good and you fell into a comfortable routine and becoming Buddhist or Catholic would be a complete disruption to that soothing rhythm. In other words there was no crisis. Maybe finding faith requires either bottoming out or reaching an empty pinnacle. Either way you’re faced with annihilation and maybe only then, like Tolstoy or a 12-steps fanatic, do you seek God.
I’m just talking out of my ass. But for me the seed had been planted in high school, and then water and sunlight and fertilizer were poured intermittently over the years. Freshman year of college, I lived down the hall from a devout Christian Hawaiian, a good and cool guy who hosted discussions about faith in his dorm room, and who made himself available anytime to talk about God. Except in his eyes there was only the one God, the New Testament kind, and in our discussions I struggled to accept his unmovable certainty that He was the one God who mattered, knowing full well that even in our very dorm there were tens of people who would passionately argue otherwise. Can’t we all be right? Can’t there be multiple truths?
If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease. – Sengcan
But I was glad to have the discussion, the opportunity, the filling up, even if my mind felt an uncomfortable dissonance. It’s like eating at a Las Vegas buffet. You won’t enjoy every dish, but if you’re hungry then you’re gonna find something that pleases you.
Another aspect of college religious life that I remember was the organically segregated and deep faith of American born Koreans. They blended religiosity and culture so thoroughly that it was hard to distinguish the two. I found this a tad ironic since the international Korean students were entirely indifferent and uninvolved, content with their cigarette breaks and kvetching about exams. Yet the ABK religious community was as courteous as it was homogenous. Individually, apart from their small groups and fellowships, they were like any other lost brimming undergrad. Their group tightness did make me uncomfortable, but it also showed me you could have both a secular identity, and one of deep communal faith.
After college came the intro to the adult world, an uphill walkway of deadlines and responsibilities and “positive feedback”, but also of earning a salary and planning your own trips and real growth. But what I remember most from that decade is a growing doubt, a gnawing uncertainty that the highway I was driving down, in fact had been strenuously trying to speed across, was indeed the right one. I’ve written about this concept before, the so-called overachiever highway, so I’ll gloss over this part except to say that it worked pretty well for me until it didn’t.
The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead. – Mr. Peanutbutter
But organized religion says there is another way. One that I slowly discovered with every church visit and spiritual book and meditative session. I came to see that mosques and temples and synagogues provide a foundation upon which a solid life – and a family and a community – can be built. A life that emphasizes caring instead of striving, compassion instead of knowledge, about feeling small before all of the universe’s wonders instead of feeling small because you don’t quite measure up to some unrealistic comparison to your fellow man.
In return, though, religion asks for a lot. It demands your best. Potentially your whole life. But that isn’t the entry price, and I’m certainly far from striking that deal. As a first step, faith requires a lowering of your guard, an opening of your heart, a willingness to believe.
If religion is an opiate of the masses, then modern materialism is an opiate of the individual soul. Succeeding in today’s world – through making a higher salary, having your own company, earning peoples’ approval, acquiring shinier baubles – can numb you, can put your values and virtues and deeper hopes to sleep. But at some point all of us are forced to take the red pill like Neo in the Matrix, to accept reality the way it really is. Maybe it’s a personal tragedy that opens our eyes. A depressive episode. Drugs or a failed marriage or having children. Or simply an inspiring movie. Whatever it is, like Neo, we swallow the truth pill and the veil is pulled back and reality is revealed. We see for ourselves, we see for the first time, where our choices have led us. And I’ve seen – for myself – that I chose the wrong idols. Confidently worshipping at the altar of material prosperity and technological progress, thinking that the Gods of faith were outdated, irrational, irrelevant.
They aren’t. We need them more than ever.
I still resist many aspects of faith, to be sure. Some of this resistance will never go away. I can’t reconcile the Resurrection with my knowledge of human biology, Judgment Day with my knowledge of history and physics, Nirvana as an attainable attribute in any lifetime. I can’t bring myself to join a Christian small group, worried that one of two things would happen: a doubt-riddled me would become argumentative and combative and make himself unwelcome, or perhaps worse, the crowd-pleasing me would outwardly smile and play along for the sake of friendship and acceptance. In addition, despite interest in faiths other than Christianity and Buddhism, I have taken no solid steps to explore them beyond reading accessible texts on my Kindle and talking to affiliated friends.
But religion has showed me so much already. You cannot read from a book – whether the Bhagavad Gita or the Qu’ran or the Gospels – that has prospered thousands of years without being transported to a different elevation. Shown a view of the world that is rooted in deep solid time. Like a soulful grandpa times a hundred. All great art does this and religion has mastered it. Before such enormity you are small and insignificant, a speck before Allah and Vishnu, but in appreciating the divine, you become part of the infinite.
We have never had more control over our physical world, never known more about behavioral psychology and artificial intelligence and self-assembling nanomaterials. Yet the more we know, the more we should feel overpowered and overshadowed by what we will never control. We’re adrift on a powerful tidal wave that is techno-civilization, and organized religion can help us build an ark of stability, shelter, and guidance. For some this is frightening. But in the right light, it should be tremendously comforting.
That’s it for now. Thanks for reading. My thoughts are disorganized on this subject and there is just so much to learn. In future essays I’ll write about what beliefs and practices organized religions have in common, why I think we need to study and live faith more than ever, and how we could bring the best of humanity’s talents to improve on religious life as we’ve improved on every other man-made thing.