The last few prayers I had made were for a sign, sent weakly into the heavens, shriveling in my memory shortly thereafter like grapes left in a desert sun. I had hit a wall, an impasse in my relationship with religion — a connection that had been carefully fostered in Catholic schools until my entrance into college. I would think to myself: Four years is all it took for you to give up on your religion, and the guilt would sear into me, reminding me of its presence when I would ride past a bursting church on Sunday afternoons or be invited to lead prayer at Thanksgiving dinner. I would try desperately to rebuild my dwindling faith from the ground up, asking friends about Bible studies and weekend retreats but never actually attending them, somewhere in the back of my mind fearing that I would be outed as a fraud.
Although it would be convenient to pin UCSB as the source of my newfound religious skepticism, I realize that my move away from religion had already begun in high school. The potpourri of different faiths and ideologies I encountered at UCSB merely gave me a chance to examine what I truly believe and make the final move from religion into spirituality.
In a recent interview, Woody Allen said, “To me, there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful.” The quote began to put my own dilemma into perspective, shedding light on a quandary I had been facing for quite some time. For Allen, belief systems function as a means to personal goodness and cosmic understanding, not an end. It is this distinction that is vital to the practice of religion, but is too often forgotten.
Somewhere along the line, dogma had become more important than deed, and it is this disconnect that inevitably led me to dismiss the collective search for God and embark on my own personal journey to find a faith that transcends the confines of religion. I have unbelievable respect for those who use religion as a tool to deepen their connection with the world around them, and I’m open to borrowing from various religious principles in order to craft my own path to understanding God. However, I also recognize that religion is too often a tool for stratification and disunity — yet another way to spread “holier than thou” sentiments and thoughtlessly reject the foreign ideas of others.
At times religion can also serve as a veil, leading to ignorance and misunderstanding that is itself dangerous. A recent story in the New York Times references a Pew survey that found supposedly pious Americans to be profoundly ignorant about the world’s major religions, including their own. In fact, atheists and agnostics performed the best on the survey, leading one to question how strong the alignment between individuals and religion truly is. As Socrates once said, “The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance,” thus, we should rid ourselves of the transgression of ignorance before tending to the surplus of others.
After 18 years of organized religion, it would seem difficult to move forward in a world where I’m continually defining its boundaries. In some ways, it is. I miss being able to feel the closeness and collective power of a church community, punctuate my year with religious events and confess my sins to a priest just to feel the weightlessness of my conscience afterwards. But my feelings toward spirituality and divinity are not altogether absent — just more organic. I still feel grateful for the blessings I enjoy, apologetic for my personal shortcomings and awed at the complexity of the world around me. The difference, maybe, is that the feelings are natural, and for now that’s enough to convince me that I’m moving in the right direction.