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       I grew up without religion. Both of my parents aren’t religious, so we never went to church or synagogue or mosque or temple or wherever. The fervent religious might scoff at this, many orthodox religions believe that children are “closer to God”, but I believe this absence of religion in my early life was paramount for the nuanced, complicated, semi-paradoxical understanding of religion that I currently have today.

       Already, I can feel a good portion of the audience for this essay recoiling. Religion is still a very taboo topic in our society because discussion concerning it leads to confrontation for many people. Confrontation is not my interest in discussions of religion. The goal of speaking about religion should never be to invalidate another person’s religion unless their religion is not consistent OR causes harm. Modern beliefs in religion, especially extreme ones, are extrapolations of religious texts that are not internally consistent within their religion. This is how we can have Sufism and ISIS adherents reading the same sacred text, the Qur’an, and determining almost oppositional worldviews to each other. I am, ultimately, interested in how people understand religion, not just what religion says.

       My early atheism didn’t stick. I’ve been interested in religion from a young age despite the amount of science that I was learning. I wasn’t able to answer certain questions about my reality, my deep inner feelings, through science. I asked my parents many questions and asked about religions. They happily explained some of the religions that existed, offering me options in my potential faith (or lack thereof). I didn’t choose, never have.

       Religion is our worldview. Religion is not specific. Religion is highly mutable and changes regularly. I choose to be changed by what I read, what I learn. I don’t choose a religion. I choose a path through the dark forest, where light can be seen more clearly: shafts of light through shadow. Fundamentally, I don’t believe that there is anything real about religion. There are real-life consequences to religion because of how it can unify groups of people into caring materially for all those around them or into committing horrible acts without remorse. If religion is a set of stories that are believed as real by followers, then literature analysis and sociohistorical analysis can explain some of the stories’ underlying meanings. I want to know how religion has affected people and been affected by people. I can’t adhere to any religion if I want to accomplish this task. I also can’t not adhere to the religions I study, otherwise I will not be affected by them. Thus, I must be many things; I must be no single thing; I must be nothing.

       I am still an atheist despite this being an inversion of my previous statement. I am also poly-religious. I am also pagan. I am also a Jew, though not via religion (which complicates some of my non-allegiance). This set of beliefs is blasphemy in many different religions (though not all). Ultimately, I am a spiritualist. I personally agree with the rhetoric of spiritual parts of religions and I disagree with the theological parts of religions. In God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero asserts that Joseph Campbell overlooked the diversity of practice and certain beliefs. I agree with both men, I believe Joseph Campbell when he describes religions as different software running on the same operating system and I believe Prothero when he points out the many differences amongst religion. They are both correct; they’re just picking up on different strands of religion. I have noticed that throughout history, the most important spiritual leaders rarely talk about theology; they discuss spirituality as paramount above the “rules” of religions. The connections between humans and the world around us are not defined by a set of precise rules, but rather a contiguous morphing of morals based on the situation. Some religions, like Buddhism, use spiritual rules to inform this morphing of morals, which is more effective in the lives of adherents than the more basic theological rules of Abrahamic faiths.

       I’m not a Buddhist either, though I like a lot of what they’re putting down. My relationship to “GOD”, A.K.A. the UNIVERSE, is a changing, colloquial conversation. This is how Kabbalah’s The Zohar conceptualizes the relations of humans with the unknown. I call this relationship The Synchronicity Wavelength, a continuity between ourselves and the universe that allows us to better understand our own souls. This isn’t fate or destiny; it is the use of listening to change one’s material existence for the better. This feeling, this vibe, is open to everyone, but its power is limited by the material conditions of the person-who-feels’ existence. If a rich person follows this relationship, this inner feeling, they have a higher likelihood of success. If a poor person does the exact same, they often fail due to their lack of resources to bring their inner world into reality. This relationship can also be understood as what psychology calls The Internal Locus of Control. Our internal locus of control cannot supersede the external locus of control except when a person has the resources to make their internal world external.

        Life is paradox. Religion is paradox. I thrive as a paradox of many things. I am misrepresented and my visage is decried and celebrated. I am nothing. I am the entire universe wrapped in itself. I am both microcosm and macrocosm, depending on your view. I am visible and invisible when people look at me. I know it all already while knowing nothing about that which is unknown. I feel full and empty, broken and mended. I am backwards and forwards, alive and dead. I am the one who crosses rivers. People forgot my name on the Moon. I am baked by the Sun. I am the Earth and the Sky. I am the spaces between steam over a brewing cup of tea. If I am not me then who am I? I was you and you were me, now we’re all together. I was old when I was born and I will still be young when I die and decompose in the soil. I will feed new life. Somebody told me I was a man and I laughed at them. Somebody told me I was a woman and I took creek water and splashed it on my head four times. I told myself what I am and I told others. I am not and never was what I have said I am. How many times can we obfuscate the truth before a lie is undone? How many times can the same film play while fascists fail to see the subtext? How many will die before we accept them as ourselves? When will the other be within the one? When will the one die, birthing the great other? When will the cycles of endless birth and death cease? When will the colonization of other cultures be done? When will my people awaken? When will my people see the sky? When will my people feel the earth?

        Spirituality should not be about learning ambivalently what the old voices of spirit have to say. It must contain this, but it cannot be just that. We have to make anew the world because we don’t have much time. We change or humanity pushes the thorn of colonialism and capitalism deeper into its skin. Spirit and art are the main things that have changed my life. I removed the thorn in my own flesh but the wound remains; it never heals. Every European, every colonizer has a thorn deep in their flesh or a wound gushing endlessly. Nobody is guilty and nobody is innocent. However, those that push the thorn deeper relish then in the pain of themselves: this is not self-harm but rather a projection of the worst parts of oneself onto others. The colonizer punishes all those around them, taking their internal, spiritual pain and making it external via their action. Those who pulled the thorn out, yet gush blood eternally have finally empathized with the rest of humanity. The colonizer is now a brother/sister: a comrade with the colonized. I feel this wound every day; I have other wounds as well, but we won’t get into those. This comrade nature does not wipe away the histories of colonization; in fact it galvanizes the comrade to fight in order to uplift the voices of those who have no voice. If our material conditions affect our ability to make our internal locus of control external, then those with more resources need to speak up and truly act to benefit those that are not them. The greatest challenge is to recognize the other within the self; it is a beautiful realization.

        I was always told to not be emotional by society. My male body, a signifier to many of emotional lack, was wracked constantly with emotions that I buried. I dug a grave for my feelings when I was a child, when nobody should have to do that. I didn’t unearth them until I awakened the other within myself. My return to empathy, to true love of the great diversity of humanity made me realize that my life and work couldn’t just be for me. My art reflects this. Though I do talk a lot about my own personal issues, I make sure to regularly stand up for those who have no voice in society as well as undermining the structures and systems that maintain that lack of voice. As a Jew, I learned to converse with the universe. I learned to critique the world around me and not be satisfied with a simple answer. The world is mysterious and infinite. The world is complex to the nth degree. I recognize this constantly in my spirituality and my art. We have to both work to understand that complexity as well as to undermine simple understandings of the world that maintain harmful power structures.

         Thanks for reading this. I think we all need love and hope right now. That’s the other big thing in spirituality, it helps me keep going. I know that people are stuck in their own heads, their own cultures. I know that people don’t look around and really see the world around them for what it is, but rather contort their observations of the world to fit with their worldview. I can’t change that, but I can struggle against it with my art and my writing.

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