Growing up, religion was the most important thing in my life. At least, I wanted it to be, and I tried very hard to make it that way. Until about halfway through college, I went to church every week—sometimes more than once. I prayed as often as I could, and frequently made (and broke) earnest resolutions to read the bible every day. I even planned to be a missionary. Then something happened that changed all that:
I started asking questions.
One semester about halfway through my college years (there were seven and a half of those years, and this was the fourth), I had to give a speech for a class debate on the theory of evolution. Since by then I’d begun to have a lot of in-depth conversations about my faith with people who asked about things I couldn’t quite explain, I decided to argue against the theory. I figured that after researching the subject, I would reassure myself that the bible’s depiction of the beginning of time was the accurate one and that by looking into it more, I’d have plenty of ways to point this out to people in the future.
And, in a way, that is what happened.
I did my research diligently while the opposing side slacked off a bit, and, due to their overconfidence, I won the debate. During this process, I learned a lot of arguments against the theory of evolution, but I learned something else, too.
I learned that I was wrong.
Evolution was probably true, I realized. The bible is not always literally right.
And that was the first step to my corruption.
During the years following that event, my beliefs changed a lot. For one thing, I began looking at the bible differently. If one Biblical story could be wrong, I thought, Couldn’t others be wrong, too? Eventually, I decided that a lot of them—Old Testament ones, especially—probably were wrong. Technically. But, I figured (correctly, I think): they didn’t need to be true to be meaningful.
Then something else happened that caused me to question the veracity of the bible even more. My final semester of college, I had to write a long thesis paper in order to graduate with my major in history. Since during my studies I had focused on the Greek and Roman period, I decided I could get away with writing it about the New Testament.
So, I did. But I didn’t make it easy on myself. Instead, I chose several highly controversial passages about the role of women in the church, researching them in depth. At some point during this time, I learned that several of these passages were not present in all of the early biblical manuscripts. And so, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that the New Testament might be flawed as well.
Then, I graduated. Then, I lived in China for a while and because of that, for the first time in my life, I stopped going to church.
It was an easy habit to break.
My corruption continued.
When I got back to the U.S., I visited my old church again. I don’t remember what the sermon was about but I do remember sitting there and thinking to myself, very clearly, Church doesn’t feel the same to me anymore.
Suddenly, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain, it was ridiculous.
After that it was a long time before I went to services regularly again. But I didn’t lose my faith entirely—not yet. In fact, I have never lost my faith entirely—it just hasn’t meant as much to me at certain times as it has at others. Even after I moved to El Paso to move in with my first husband and, later, to Seattle to get away from him, I never let go of my belief in God and in a spiritual realm.
It just wasn’t as important to me anymore.
Then something happened that made it even less important: I met my husband. My next husband—the real one.
I met David.
It was my first night in Seattle. Well, technically, it wasn’t Seattle, it was Tacoma. I was visiting a friend in the hospital and David picked me up at a nearby coffee shop, then took me to a restaurant, then took me to a park in Seattle, then took me to another restaurant, then took me to another park, and ever since that night, I have never been alone.
From the very beginning until now, David was kind and good and everything was easy with us. It didn’t just feel good to be with him; it felt right.
I had never met a better man for me.
There was a problem, though—a small one: David was an atheist. Or an agnostic, maybe, depending on the way you phrased the question.
And so, one day early on in our relationship I decided that I needed to finally settle this question of religion in my own mind before things got too serious. He wanted to have children, after all. What would I tell them about God?
And so. For the first time in a long time, I started trying to figure out what I really believed, and after that, the metaphorical clock started ticking.
It was a race between my boyfriend and my faith.
My boyfriend won, and easily.
During the first few months of my relationship with David, I went to church—a Protestant one like the one I grew up in—several times. I also went to one of the small prayer groups they held mid-week in someone’s home so that I would have more chances to ask people questions one-on-one about some of the things I was wondering about—hell and damnation, for instance.
I didn’t get the answers I was looking for.
Worse than that: Merely as a result of questioning these things, I was, in their minds, unsaved. I didn’t fit their definition of a Christian anymore—and I didn’t fit in with them at all. I don’t even think they really liked me (though I can’t prove it, of course).
A short time later, I quit going altogether.
I’m still not sure if David caused me to give up on my faith.
But dating him definitely didn’t hurt.
And that is the story of how I lost my religion for a while. What I didn’t realize at the time is that something else would replace it very soon.
About a year into my relationship with David, we went on a trip to South America. Both of us had traveled a good deal before that, and we wanted to make it a part of our life together, too, before settling down. So, we traveled all around the continent, staying in hostels and eating cheaply and having a lot of fun.
One of the places we visited was Bogota, Colombia. It was a wildly interesting place, with a huge street fair every weekend and lots of other things to do. But for David and I, the highlight of our stay in that city occurred on the first night we were there, when in the common room of our hostel we met a feminist.
Now, at this point I should probably admit something to you, dear reader, that I am not exactly ashamed of but not exactly proud of, either: I dislike feminism. I dislike it, and so does David, and if one or the other of us did not feel that way, our relationship, which is a pretty traditional one, probably would not work at all.
Now, normally this aspect of my life doesn’t come up in conversation with people I barely know. When you’re traveling, though, the rules are different somehow, so I wasn’t surprised when that day, in that hostel, the subject was welcomed among us.
The feminist we talked to was about twenty-three years old. She was short, cute, and very opinionated. She had recently graduated from college with a major in Women’s Studies, and as she liked talking about politics and things like that, and didn’t mind disagreeing with people, the debate, which was over gender roles, got going very quickly. While I attempted to moderate my views, David, who cares much less about others’ opinions of him, did not.
“Gender roles are a good thing,” he insisted. “They give you clear expectations. They fulfill a biological need. They even help you make decisions.”
This and other similar statements made her mad, but more than that, she was surprised.
“I can’t believe you guys are actually admitting you believe these things,” she said. To her, we were sexist and—possibly worse—just dumb.
Understanding that our viewpoint on the subject was in the minority, and reveling in the challenge of being questioned for it, her reaction thoroughly amused us both. Later, another hostel resident told us that the next day she announced loudly to the rest of the guests that David and I must be either Evangelicals or Mormons. We laughed about that, too.
Though I was enjoying our conversation, after an hour or so I realized how exhausted I’d become and, leaving David to continue the fight, I went to bed. Predictably, though, I could not sleep. The girl’s reaction to my decision to be in a traditional relationship kept coming back to me and I couldn’t keep myself from arguing with her in my head.
Some of these arguments were rational, and some were less so. Well, okay, I admit it: maybe all of these arguments were less so and yet, I couldn’t help wondering then, and I still can’t help wondering now, whether this woman knew anything about how to be happy.
I wonder if she knows what it’s like to be with someone she really loves and to bring him a glass of water before he even asks, just because you know he always likes it before dinner, I asked myself as I lay in bed that night. I wonder if this woman has ever known what it is like to wake up every morning and decide that you are going to be totally, utterly, uncompromisingly good to another person to the best of your ability for that entire day, knowing that in return, the other person will do the same thing for you, and there is hardly any danger of ever getting into a fight because there is nothing to fight about because what you expect of each other is so clear, and so easy, and so agreeable to you both, to the point that serving the other person is, in fact, your best and your most favorite thing to do in the world.
She doesn’t understand that, I thought with superiority and maybe a little contempt. Not even a little. She doesn’t know what it’s like to live life for someone else—to do what I have been doing ever since meeting David and even before: to live simply, and happily, and well.
What a shame.
Maybe it was because it had been such a long day, and because I was so tired and therefore so emotional, and it didn’t really have anything to do with the feminist at all, but in that moment I had a very sudden, very wonderful revelation. I picked up a notebook and began to write, and it went something like this:
“Religions fail. Utopias fail. Ideas and ideologies fail. Even friendship fails.
“I will just try to live well.
“In fact, that is my new philosophy—my new purpose in life: to live well—no matter how different from other people that is.
“I don’t need a religion. I don’t need a theology. I don’t need to understand everything, or even to try to understand everything. And I definitely don’t need to be perfect.
“I just need to take care of myself and the people I love. And for me, for now, that is enough. In fact, it is more than enough:
“It is all that I can do.”
And with that, I put down the pen, reread what I wrote, and right there, decided on a whole new meaning for my life.
From then on, I decided, I would be a missionary.
Not a religious missionary, you understand, but still, a missionary. I would, to the best of my ability, show people how to live the good life. I would show people what I did to be happy.
I would try to teach them how to live well.
And that is why I’m writing this letter to you now, my dear reader. I want to remind you that no matter what you believe about religion and spirituality, you can live a meaningful life. You can live a good life.
You can learn to live well—whatever that means to you.
And for the next year and a half or so, that is what I did. I took care of David. I was good to him. And I took care of myself and my other friends the best I could, too. Even though I had given up on the idea of certainty, I thought about spirituality from time to time, collecting and discarding beliefs one by one.
One day during this time, for example, I saw a documentary about homosexuals who struggled with questions of faith. One of the men who was interviewed said that one day, while he was trying to decide whether or not to come out of the closet, he had a profound religious experience. He heard God say to him, out loud, the following words: “I’m not the way you think I am.”
I have remembered those words ever since, and have believed them.
I can have faith without religion, I realized during this time in my life.
And so I did.
Some time after that I saw a TV show about people who had died and then were brought back to life. All of the people that were interviewed said that upon dying, they felt complete and total peace.
There is no hell, I realized. The idea was a sham from the start.
That was also encouraging.
But that’s not where the story ends. For about two years after that, I picked up a lot of new ideas about spirituality almost by accident, but I didn’t think about it a great deal. Instead, I focused on my new, more practical belief in being kind and living a good life. Then something happened that changed that for me forever.
A year and a half into our relationship, David and I decided to start trying to have a baby. A few months later, I was pregnant.
The pregnancy was uneventful. I had some bad nausea and some problems sleeping, and I was more irritable than usual. But nothing really went wrong.
Then I gave birth.
Jane was beautiful. She was long, and fat, and had flawless skin and a perfect pug nose and very full lips and long, thick hair and fingernails well past the tips of her fingers. She looked healthy and perfect. But she wasn’t.
She wasn’t breathing.
When we went to the hospital, the doctors told us she had almost total brain damage. She lived for four and one-third days and I held her and I loved her and afterwards I was never the same.
I had faith again.
Not just an I-believe-in-more-than-I-can-see kind of faith. Faith that mattered. Faith that changed the way I live.
After Jane died, I needed to believe that she was still with me, not up in heaven somewhere, and that there was a purpose to her life. Besides that, I knew that I had put my spirituality on hold for too long and that there was more to life than my own happiness and more, even, than the happiness of the people around me. Of course, I wasn’t sure what it was.
I just knew that it was more.
Since then, I have collected a great number of new beliefs. Reincarnation, for instance. God’s spirit in us all. More important than the ideas I’ve come to accept, though, is the way I’ve let them change my life.
Now, I don’t just have beliefs; I act on them as well. I pray. I meditate. I read spiritual books. I discuss these things with friends. I have more purpose. I have more perspective. I am more comforted in my pain. I have more peace.
I am happier.
Whether you call it religion, or spirituality, or whatever, I am living for something that is higher than myself, and it feels good.
Of course, not everyone has faith in a realm that’s higher than ours. David doesn’t, for example, and he probably never will. And that is okay. He still has faith.
He has faith that if he works hard and raises good children—or at least does his best to raise good children—and has relationships that matter, it will go well for him in the end, and that even if he dies and there is nothing else past this earthly life, he is glad to have lived.
That is what he believes, and that is enough for him. It isn’t enough for me—not anymore. But for him, it is enough; these beliefs give him purpose.
Are you like him, dear reader? Have you decided that there may be no afterlife, and no God? If so, don’t worry about it too much. See, you still have religion—even without theology. You believe in something, something that makes life worth living, even if it has nothing to do with God, or a spiritual realm, or an afterlife.
You still have a purpose—even if you just believe in being nice.
You don’t have to be sure of anything. Who ever said that you did? Okay, so probably a lot of people have. But not me. I’m not sure, and I probably never will be again. In fact, I even like changing my mind sometimes.
It makes me more human.
You don’t need to be sure about your purpose to have one. You just have to figure out what you already believe, then go from there.
But don’t just figure it out and then do nothing about it; figure it out, then let it change your life. Do the things that it tells you to do, things like prayer or meditation or becoming a better person. Getting rid of an addiction or a bad temper.
Live for a reason. Make your beliefs important. Because, really, they are important.
They are the meaning of your life.