I get asked about religion a lot.
Perhaps because I'm a PK (Preacher's kid). My dad was a United Methodist Minister.
Perhaps because I'm an evolutionary biologist.
Perhaps because I'm a southern transplant and that just seems to be the kind thing to ask strangers about.
Whatever the reason, I've never minded. I love talking religion. I find it fascinating.
Full disclosure: I'm what people call "spiritual," a term that ticks most people off because they have no idea where that leaves me and can't quite pin me to a specific category. Don't worry. I'm going to explain - probably in more detail than you've ever cared to read (but you'll have to come back for Part II of the blog post tomorrow).
I believe my religion is an inherited ingroup much like my skin color or my gender. In other words, the fact that I grew up in the Methodist Church was as much a function of me being born an American than anything else.
It's not that there aren't a multitude of other religions practiced in the United States, but most dominant by far (especially given my ethnic background), is Christianity.
Given my inherited religion, and the influence of having a minister for a father, I spent a good deal of time in church as a child. I learned the teachings of Jesus, read the bible and listened to endless sermons (always quietly praying I wasn't the subject of one). To his credit, my dad graciously never used me in any of his sermon illustrations. Ever more deserving of praise is the fact that when I decided to not be confirmed at 13, my father had no issue with it. I needed to find my own way and he was fully comfortable with me exploring.
Explore I did.
I started going to different services. Once I could drive I hit up nearly every church, synagogue and other place of worship within 60 miles. I went through a pretty solid atheist phase (consider this my rebellious/moody/angsty teenage year) before deciding that it was just as arrogant for me to assume there was no god as it would be for me to believe in one.
Years later I was hiking what was once an important religious pilgrimage, 500 miles across the mountains of Spain along the Camino de Santiago.
Along the way I was reminded of why I had such a distaste for organized religion. Most of the churches offered tours (for ~10 euro), where you could wander around inside and marvel at the gold and mahogany brought back with slaves from conquests to new lands. I remember distinctly in one small town feeling visceral disgust as I watched women with children on the steps of a cathedral begging; not for money, but for bread to feed their families. People pushed by them to light candles inside the cathedral (a service available for a couple euro). I've never had a problem with religion. I've had a problem with the people using it to their advantage.
The pilgrimage in Spain ends at Santiago de Compostela, an incredible cathedral and reputed burial place of Saint James Matamoros (translated as "the Moor slayer" AKA killer of Muslims). I assure you, my pilgrimage had NOTHING to do with honoring this gentleman, but nevertheless, the Camino is often referred to as "The Way of St. James." So you might imagine my surprise that when wandering around Santiago I ran into a group of Arabic men who I presumed to be Muslim (see map graphic above) who like me, had just completed their caminos. I was insanely curious and desperate to ask them a simple question:
"Why would you walk the way of St. James? A journey that honors a man who brought death and misery to your people?"
In my pathetic Spanish, and then French I tried to communicate my question, until one of the men graciously took pity on me, and broke in with a warm smile and beautifully accented English to ask:
"May I teach you something?"
I was all ears.
He continued to have me repeat phrases in Arabic until he finished (or tired of me butchering the language), and then he translated for me saying:
"Please teacher. Take this and use your voice. Tell your country. Tell anyone who will listen:
I believe in the Savior, Jesus Christ.
I believe in the Prophet Mohammad.
I believe in Ahamad.
I believe in the Buddha.
I believe in Saptarshi.
I believe in the universe, and in transcendent time and in the power of the spirit."
We bowed. We may have prayed. I'm not sure anymore, but I walked away feeling reborn. Whatever power we come from, whatever god or prophet or savior we worship, we are bound together on this spaceship called Earth, plummeting through space and time our fates bound together.
I'd found my peace with God. With religion. With the universe. Whatever you want to call it.
I will pray with you.
I will kneel toward Mecca.
I will meditate.
Because I believe that no time spent in gratitude is time wasted.
My religion taught me this as a child. My father over and over preaching kindness, service, love of strangers. Today I can see the best in organized religion. My dear friends (hey Amy & Bill!) return year after year to Bosnia, not to preach or convert, but to practice the way of Jesus. Rebuilding homes and hope and community in a war torn nation.
To me, science preaches the same hope, and tomorrow I'll do my best to share my own version of how spirituality and science reconcile (at least for me). Until then, I'll leave you my friends with the hope that you too can find peace in the recognition that we are all on this path in time together; each walking our own way, bound by physical space, time, and love of something much greater than ourselves.