I May Not Be Religious, But I Am Spiritual

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Hidden star cluster, AFGL 490. Source: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

I grew up without organized religion, feeling left out at times such as when my friends would go to youth group together without me or when I’d have dinner with a friend’s family and they would pray before eating. I would try to go to church with my friends every now and then, but it never felt like the place for me; I was much too skeptical of the stories and was offended by how they talked poorly about those who had other religious beliefs or those who at least questioned their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, I did appreciate the desire to help others that religion instills as I have always favored altruism. I was told frequently that some day, I will “find God” and I scoffed at the remark, preferring to attribute my views to my own experiences and understanding.

What these views are exactly has been difficult to describe. For a while I said I was atheist, but after discovering the term, I realized that really I was more agnostic. This was yet too apathetic of a term and after watching David Eagleman’s Possibilian talk, I began to use his active exploration of the possibilities to describe how I saw the world. This is still the best explanation I can form for my beliefs, but these beliefs relate to a much larger topic that no one religion can contain.

Throughout the years, I have continued to be a philanthropist and have become a leader focusing on inspiring others and connecting to the greater world. It is this connection to others and the desire to inspire them that helped me “find God” in my own way. I am not here to advocate for or attack any religion at all but rather to argue that while we have our own religions, there is a greater unifier. My way of “finding God” was to become more aware of myself in the context of the greater world, more aware of what I already believed and who I am as a person, and to appreciate fully not just the belief systems of various religions but the basis of their religions, which is to give meaning to the question: “Why?”

“Why?” Such a short, simple word is yet an endless question to resolve. We begin to try to answer it at a young age when we pester our elders asking “Why?” about everything such as “Why is the sky blue?” “Why don’t dogs talk?” and “Why is snow cold?” As we become older, we become less outwardly obnoxious about it, taking the search for answers into our own hands. We wonder, “Why does one otherwise healthy person get cancer and a relatively unhealthy person does not?” “Why does this person not want to date me?” “Why do people do such hateful and harmful things to others?” and ultimately, “Why do we exist?” All in all, we ask “Why?” to search for meaning in our lives.

This search for meaning can be seen as the source of all of our spirituality. If you’ve feared death, felt sad at the loss of another, or felt love for another, you’re spiritual. If you’ve pondered your purpose in this life, you’re spiritual. If you’ve felt the desire to help improve the lives of others, you’re spiritual. All of these show at least some appreciation that has come from the search for meaning. The belief systems we follow are just ways that we try to answer the same question: “Why?”

As a scientist, I am no less spiritual than any other. Far too often, I see this clash between science and religion, and it pains me to see such narrow minded beliefs. I too ask “Why?” I seek to answer the same questions. I seek to find meaning in the world just as much as any other. I feel compassion toward my fellow man. I believe in the greater good. If anything, being a scientist makes me more spiritual because it lets me actively search for these answers that we all seek.

No matter how each of us rationalizes our existence whether belonging to a certain religion or not, we have a common goal to search for meaning in our lives though we may not consciously realize it. It is this that unites us regardless of which story we believe is true. Understanding this greater unity makes me wonder “Why are so many in the world so closed minded?” “Why are religion and science viewed as distinct entities?” and “Why do we focus so much on the small things that separate us rather than the greater things that unite us?”

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Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at www.mdphdtobe.com.

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2 comments on “I May Not Be Religious, But I Am Spiritual
  1. I really love this Hannah. You make a really excellent case for those of us who don’t necessarily follow an organized religion, yet think of ourselves as spiritual. I find that it is the spirituality that you speak of here which compels me to be a doctor. Love it!

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