What do you believe in? My quest for faith without religion

One of my favourite advice columns in Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar series was her response to a letter from a woman questioning the existence of God. Her six-month-old daughter had, against the odds, survived surgery to remove a brain tumour, and a lot of people had been praying for her (agnostic) family. The woman told Cheryl that the terrifying event had left her wondering whether there was such thing as God, and if so, had he saved her daughter’s life? But if God existed, she wondered, why had he let her daughter get sick in the first place? Strayed’s reply was, as always, shoulder-droppingly moving.

“What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway?”

The reason I love this passage so much is because it beautifully sums up what religion means to me – not the dedication to please a supernatural bearded man who condemns and judges, but the innate compulsion to honour the powerful spirit of love that exists around us and within us. Something we can channel to give us strength, something that inspires us to be more and give more, something reflected in the extraordinary beauty of nature, something that serves as a life raft when we are adrift in stormy seas. Something vastly more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

It’s sometimes difficult for people to understand how I can believe in angels and in God yet not conform to any church-based faith. It’s sometimes difficult for me to explain this.

I realise everyone has their own views on religion, and I dont wish to force my views on anyone. I totally understand that there are all sorts of reasons institutional religion appeals to people  a sense of certainty, for example. I respect everyones right to determine their own values and faith; this is simply the expression of what feels true for me. To borrow another Cheryl quote: My truth is not a condemnation of yours.

Last week I went to a number of sessions at the always-brilliant Sydney Writer’s Festival; one of the standouts for me was social researcher Hugh Mackay’s talk entitled Finding Meaning Without Religion.

Around two-thirds of Australians say we believe in God or some ‘higher power’, but fewer than one in 10 of us attend church weekly. To me, that indicates that people are searching for spirituality in their lives without pledging allegiance to a churchs definition. We’re individually searching our hearts for what’s meaningful to each of us. I suspect for many people that search leads not to stories in ancient lands and gardens, but – as Strayed so eloquently put it – the “way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body”.  Or as the Dalai Lama says simply: “My religion is kindness.”

What being religious, or spiritual-but-not-religious, gives us is a sort of roadmap – albeit sketchy – to navigate this confusing and sometimes bitterly unfair world. It gives us hope and it gives us meaning. Essentially, religion is people putting their faith in something larger than themselves.

If you find that larger thing in scriptures, hymns, rituals and visits to religious buildings, that’s wonderful. If you don’t, Hugh suggests you look for your own sense of meaning “in the eyes of the people who love you, or who are at least prepared to put up with you” (lol). There’s a Maori proverb from my native New Zealand which says: He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. That means: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

I’m paraphrasing here, but what Hugh is suggesting is we place our faith in the ties that bind us and the love we have for each other. That is something both tangible and intangible. We often think of religion in terms of salvation and redemption, yet when you look back to the darkest periods of your life, who saved you and who helped you find redemption? I’d wager it was the people who love you.

I’m not at all saying institutional religion is invalid, I’m simply saying that in my personal experience, matters of faith are best reduced to a framework of love and compassion. I find that in the divine, but I also find it expressed through the people around me.

Hugh explains: “It’s in our DNA to be cooperative and to form community. The way we form community is to behave in kind, tolerant and respectful ways towards each other. Instead of what religion you belong to, he wants to know: What kind of world are you dreaming of? And how does this affect the way you go about your life and treat other people?” Perhaps this is what Ram Dass was getting at when he suggested we treat everyone we meet as God in drag”.

Those questions, Hugh says, are far more important that what box you tick in the religion question on your census.

The religion question – what I believe (spoiler alert: it's complicated)

Woman praying I love the idea of belonging to a religion. Think about it: a pathway to inner peace and hope. Sounds pretty good to me! But the reason I struggle to align myself with any religion – and this is just my personal opinion – is it feels like they want to tell me what to do, and make me feel like I’m a horrible person if I don’t follow those rules. This seems like a weird way to teach people how to love and to be better people – which is surely the point of a religion, no?

As an angel card reader I am sometimes asked what my religious beliefs are, and that’s not an easy question for me to address. Here is my attempt at an answer.

Having been completely put off by the heavy doctrine of Catholicism so entrenched in my childhood, I give institutional religion a wide berth now. I don’t believe faith should be an instrument for judgment, a means of control or a reason to make anyone feel superior. I have yet to find a religion that resonates with me and satisfies that criteria.
It’s not my intention to diss religion, because there are many wonderful things about belonging to a faith – and of course, not all religions are created equal. What’s more, I would never claim to be an expert on this, nor offer guidance on what others should believe. This is purely my own personal statement on faith. And it is a highly personal topic, because it is influenced by your individual heritage, ethnicity and relationships.

There’s no handy census category for my branch of spirituality. I guess I would describe myself as a non-church-going Christian – but that doesn’t really cover it, because some of the principles and values I live by have come from Buddhism.

When asked to describe his faith, the Dalai Lama says simply: “My religion is kindness.” I like this.

While doing angel card readings I refer to ‘the Universe’ because that is a non-confrontational term that speaks to a common awareness that there is a higher power guiding (but not controlling) us all. In my head I’m referring to God, but I’m very careful with the language I use, as so many people are put off by the shackles connected to that word – which I completely understand.

Church pews
The God I talk to, pray to and lean on stands for love, forgiveness and kindness. He doesn’t protect me from the bad things that can happen in this world but he gives me the strength to navigate my way through them. He shows me where the light is and helps me find peace within myself. He makes me want to be a better person, not because I am a 'sinner' or any other such negative label, but because I am as entitled to love as anyone else and worthy of aspiring to be the best person I can be.

This week I had a fairly awkward Skype conversation with my deeply religious father about angel cards. To be clear I was not trying to force him to be supportive of my readings but I did feel like it was important that my parents knew this was part of my life, now that I am doing this professionally. I have been reading angel cards for years but I have never talked to them about it, because I suspected such a conversation would not go well.The conversation did not go well.

It didn’t go badly, either, to be fair. Instead of criticism and disapproval I got silence. Which I tried to fill with more explanations about why providing angel card readings to other people is important to me. Eventually I gave up and changed the subject (to the weather, if you must know, because that’s the safest possible conversation you can have with a New Zealander!). But after the call was over, I wondered – what was I looking for in that moment? Our relationships with our parents are hugely complicated things because

Rosary beads on bible
they’re loaded with so much expectation about roles and behaviour, on both sides. And religion can play a key role in these relationships because it underpins the way we treat the people we care about and sometimes shapes our expectations of how those people think and behave.
It’s interesting to me that, despite being a competent, fully self-functioning woman in her mid-30s, I found myself looking for acceptance from my father in this area. I didn’t need his approval, but I wanted it, and I don’t know why. But I do know that there’s nothing to be gained by hoping he might get on board with me following a spiritual path that is not in line with his. It’s a wonderful thing to know your parents love you and are proud of you no matter what you do – and I absolutely know that to be true. That is enough. That is more than enough.

Weird – I started this post trying to answer the very big question about what I believe in, and I’ve found myself in another place entirely. I guess religion will do that to you.