What Religion Means to Me

With Passover beginning today and with Easter taking place this Sunday, I spent some time recently thinking about religion. On my travels, I’ve traveled to majority-Protestant countries such as Anglican Great Britain, and to majority-Catholic countries like Mexico. I have had the good fortune to visit majority-Muslim countries such as Turkey, heavily-Buddhist countries like Thailand, mixed-religion countries such as India and the United States, and Communist countries like China, where Atheism is officially encouraged but where most locals actually worship the State.

Of course, those descriptions are broad and somewhat simplistic. As such, I hope you don’t get too wrapped up in the semantics. Allow me to continue.

Some of my greatest travel memories lie in absorbing the history of the 70 countries that I’ve set foot in. So much of that history is religious history.  Countries come and go, empires rise and fall, often because of religion. Hundreds – thousands – of wars have been waged in the name of religion. The U.S. became a country under the guise of religious freedom. Many Latin American countries had their ethnicities forever changed because of European conquistadors who brought their religion to the New World, quickly dominating the local populace through slavery, through sexual conquest, and through a little something known as the Spanish Inquisition.

I have observed Semana Santa (Easter Week) processions in Spain, Guatemala, and El Salvador, at which devout, costumed locals parade through the streets on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. These are not half-baked, elementary school parades, but elaborate, solemn affairs in which everyone in town participates. I attended a Passion Play reenactment in Mexico City and a Good Friday service in Antigua, Guatemala.

Avenida La Revolucion and Semana Santa 49

While living in Mexico City, I also attended 2012’s Feast Day for the Virgin of Guadalupe, at the Basilica complex built in her honor. If you’re not familiar with the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe, know that in December of 1531, monk Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (now the first indigenous saint from Latin America, beatified in 1990) sighted an apparition of the Virgin atop Cerro de Tepeyac, a small hilltop in northern Mexico City. After three more sightings, she emblazoned her image on his cloak.  Several miracles soon occurred on the grounds, and the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe (as she is known throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas) was born! The grounds today consists of five separate churches, and a spiritual air surrounds the place. Saint Diego’s cloak is displayed in the largest basilica, which seats thousands. Pilgrims travel from around the world to visit la basilica, and often travel the last few kilometers on their knees! The days leading up to the Feast Day of December 12th see more and more visitors, and I promise to one day write a longer post about my Feast Day experience.

Basilica de Guadalupe 3

A similar pilgrimage site in Europe is Međjugorje, a small Catholic town in the majority Muslim country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was here that, on multiple occasions beginning in 1981 and continuing to the present, six local children claim to have seen an apparation of the Virgin Mary, known locally Our Lady of Međjugorje, from the slopes of Podbrdo Hill near the edge of town. The Vatican authenticated the site and today, Međjugorje is firmly on the world map. Although Međjugorje remains a poor town, modern St. James Church – built to house the influx of religious tourists – is packed to the gills each day. It was raining heavily when I visited in 2009, but I still managed to be humbled – not by the miracle, persay, but by the messages left by hundreds of pilgrims who scrambled to the top of the rocky hill to leave printed sentiments of help and love. I am not a religious person (more on that later), but perhaps the world can use more of these kinds of places?

Medjugorje 62

In 2008, I visited Egypt. My arrival there coincided with the conclusion of Ramadan, when locals celebrate the end of their weeks-long daytime fast by literally partying in the streets all night long. During that trip, I visited pharaohs’ tombs, Islamic mosques, a Jewish synagogue, and an entire neighborhood – Coptic Cairo – where Christianity, not Islam, is practiced. Coptic Cairo is home to nearly one dozen churches and shrines to various branches of Christianity.  I consider the neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from the metro, an oasis of calm in the Middle East’s largest city. The Coptic Museum, with its collection of rare Egyptian Christian art, is a gem, although most visitors make a beeline for the suspended Hanging Church or for the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, built over a cave inside which the Holy Family is believed to have once stayed. As spiritual as these churches are, they pale in physical size to the Al-Hussein Mosque in Islamic Cairo, or to the nearby tombs of Saqqara, Dashur, Memphis, and Giza. Astonishing man-made wonders, all of them. I hope one day to return.


Elsewhere in the Middle East, I once attended Orthodox Mass – conducted in Arabic (!) – held inside a tiny, mountaintop chapel in Syria. Just two days earlier, I visited the fourth-holiest mosque in all of Islam – the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. It is here that the Prophet Mohammed once read scripture. It is here that the head of John the Baptist is said to be interred. It is here that many Muslims believe Jesus will return at the End of Days. It is important for me to mention that despite the many documented cases of Islam being used to justify acts of violence towards both genders, I felt at peace here. Men and women were invited to enter the mosque – not just the main courtyard, as is sometimes the case for women and non-Muslims, but the proper temple itself. How can the Syria that I visited be the same country that is hopelessly mired in both civil war and genocidal terrorism? I shudder at the thought, and I weep for the Syria of 2011-present.

damascus mosque

Bordering Syria to the north, Turkey is often considered the “Gateway to the Middle East.” The secular-governed, though majority-Muslim nation is a first world canvas of East-meets-West food, history, and unforgettable hospitality. Istanbul, which straddles two continents, is surely one of the greatest cities in the world. Several hours to the east, the Cappadocia region of Turkey is dotted with cave churches built by Byzantine monks. I remember gazing at their jaw-dropping frescoes, which are on a much smaller scale than those of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, yet which became seared in my memory nonetheless.


Continuing east, travelers eventually reach the Indian subcontinent. In the first paragraph of this blog entry, I referred to India itself as a “mixed-religion” country. What I mean by that is that India is many things – the largest Hindu country on earth, both by population and geography; the vibrant center of Sikhism, especially Amritsar in the north; the homeland of 180 million Muslims – Shia and Sunni both; and the drawcard for thousands of “other” category seekers of spirituality. Yoga masters? Check. Hare Krishnas? Check. Nirvana-seeking, dread-locked potheads? Yep, check.

Jama Masjid 37

India deserves more than one paragraph. My 15-day trip there in 2011 barely scratched the surface of such an amazing country. I spent almost a week in Varanasi, the most important holy city for Hindus. Here, Mama Ganga, the holy Ganges River, flows alongside ghats (steps) leading from labyrinthine alleyways down to the water’s edge. I submerged my feet alongside those of hundreds of ritual Hindu bathers. Some cleansed themselves as if they had waited several lifetimes to get there. (Indeed – according to Hindu reincarnation myth, they may have lived several lifetimes.) Others – children, mostly, treated the river as their own swimming pool, diving from embankments and from row boats that ply the river. A few were bottling up the water or drinking it. One old woman washed her clothes in the river. I saw farmers bathing their cows in the river, while bodies were cremated at nearby burning ghats. A goat sat impossibly perched on a pylon, staring in my direction as if daring me to try the same pose.

Sunrise boat ride 13

A fast 40 minutes outside Varanasi lies Sarnath, a small town with more Buddhist temples than almost anywhere else in the world. Sarnath is where Buddha received enlightenment and preached his first sermon. An 18-hour train ride from Sarnath and Varanasi is Amritsar, simultaneously a large city of blaring horns and brown air and home to the Golden Temple of Sikhism.  This stunning religious site is the pilgrimage center for the Sikh people, although it’s open to everyone. The Golden Temple is a small, two story affair, but it is memorably perched over a man-made pool that is roughly the size of a football field. Volunteers serve food and water to tens of thousands of daily visitors, and the temple closes for just three hours every night before repeating the process the next day. The people I met in Amritsar are among the kindest and most open-minded I have encountered on any of my travels. Forgive the travel writing cliché, but my visit to Amritsar was so magical that I am almost hesitant to return – everything about it was just…perfect.

Golden Temple 56

India does not hold the monopoly on religious wonders in East Asia, however. In 2004, I stood in front of the largest seated Buddha in the world, on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Four years later, I visited an entire cave system of stone-carved Buddhas, near Datong, China, and saw one of the world’s largest wooden Buddhas, carved from a single sandalwood tree, at Lama Temple in Beijing. The pro-Atheism belief system of the governing Communist Party does not stop the PRC from preserving its centuries-old religious sites – for tourism and posterity, I’m sure. I once witnessed a Christian wedding held in a Western-style Tianjin church, and I likewise observed Chinese people of all ages burning incense and leaving offerings of fruit at the sublime Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai.


Across the Taiwan Strait, Chinese Taiwan is home to a variety of Buddhist sites as well. Taipei’s Longshan Temple is the liveliest urban Buddhist temple that I’ve yet visited, and its entrance is flanked on one side by a waterfall and koi pond. I spent 30 minutes observing a woman at the temple whose job appeared to be lighting fresh candles and removing the wax drippings from the sides of old ones. A few hours to the south, Taroko National Park is not only a Yosemite-esque, glacial-carved natural wonder, but also the home to several Buddhist-themed sites, such as the Bridge of 100 Lions, the Eternal Spring Shrine, and the impressive Xiangde Temple complex, built on a plateau overlooking the Liwu River.

Longshan Temple 9

And then there’s Thailand. Among the most peaceful people in the world, Thais live in an amazing, sub-tropical country that is equal parts rice paddies, teeming cities, and offshore islands. The majority are Buddhist, and the only being more “holy” than Thailand’s king and queen is Buddha himself. Hundreds – thousands – of temples dot the islands, cities, and countryside, ranging from the tiny – Bangkok’s so-small-you-can-miss-him Emerald Buddha – to the supersize – the same city’s elegant Reclining Buddha. Buddhism is a religion with multiple gods, and I won’t claim to know who they all are or what they all stand for. Is visiting temples built in their honor considered idol worship? I don’t know. To me, it hardly matters. I remember entering a fortress-like temple site in the northern city of Chiang Mai. A donation box was set out with the specific purpose of buying food to feed the city’s stray dogs. Who can’t get behind something like that?!

wat pho

What Does it All Mean?

Simply trying to contemplate the construction of these sites – not to mention the reverence of their builders – is mind-boggling. Despite the occasional hassle from opportunistic touts near some of these places, my visits there were spiritual and humbling. And yet, I am an atheist. I have never been moved to convert. Why is that?

I guess the reasons are three-fold. First, I was raised without religion in my life. Although I tried to find faith beginning late in my teenage years, I think that by the time I was 17 – and for better or for worse – that ship had already sailed.

Second, in the debate between science and religion, I choose science. In a perfect world, science and religion could stand side-by-side, complementing each other in issues of medicine, astronomy, and climate research. But alas, with people seeming more and more to choose one side 100% over the other, it has never been clearer that this is not a perfect world.

Third, acts of intolerance, often perpetrated under the guise of religion, leave a sour taste in my mouth. I am referring to terror attacks by ISIS, Boko Haram, and their ilk…and I am also referring to hate-mongering legislation such as Indiana’s strict RFRA bill. On this latter issue, I’ll simply say that any subsequent back-pedaling by Indiana Governor Mark Pence was too little, too late. He is doomed to be a one-term governor.

Each reason can be further explored over several paragraphs, or pages. I will focus on just Reason #1 for this entry. My argument here is the most coherent and, I think, the least likely to polarize readers.  Here we go!

A Secular Kid in a Spiritual World

My parents were raised in strict religious environments. My mom attended the strictest of Catholic schools and my dad went to Lutheran school. Despite their parochial upbringings, they slowly grew jaded enough to stop attending service once they reached their mid-twenties. They didn’t so much respect each other’s religious differences as point them out, and came to the realization that the fairest thing to do was to raise their children to make their own religious decisions when they (my sister and I) became old enough. This essentially meant raising us without religion. I was never baptized, and the only time I ever attended church as a child was when I went to a Saturday night slumber party at a friend’s house and his parents took everyone to church the next morning. (Needless to say, I didn’t know what the heck the pastor/priest/minister was talking about, and stifled my boredom by making fart noises in the back pew until the service ended.) Whenever a friend or cousin got married, my family skipped the religious service and only attended the reception. Side note: My parents’ choice to raise us without religion sadly resulted in my mom being disowned by both of her sisters. To this day, they are not on speaking terms, and she hasn’t seen either of them in almost 35 years.

Can you imagine what it was like being (seemingly) the only non-religious kid at my school? My parents respect history, and they never asked me to boycott a Christmas choral concert or anything like that, but still…I was the only kid in my neighborhood who didn’t go through Catechism at age 10, or through a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Where were my presents?! It wasn’t all bad, of course; I got to sleep in on Sundays and eat all the pork and unleavened bread that I wanted. 🙂

Eventually, though, I grew curious. Most of my teenage friends were of the slightly-nerdy persuasion. Several of them attended a weekly Christian youth group that met at a non-denominational church in which everyone was welcome and no one was discriminated against. The youth group was called “Life.” Some of the attendees were Catholic, some were Baptist, some were Presbyterian, etc. I didn’t fit into any particular category, but I felt welcome and enjoyed the positive, drug-free atmosphere. (I guess I was slightly nerdy, too.) We sold candy bars for the Salvation Army, we performed amateur karaoke, and we played volleyball in the church basement. Plus, there were cute girls! Mostly, it was a fun way to spend a Wednesday evening.

I never prayed during the quieter sessions, but I listened to the prayers of others and tried to “send positive vibes” wherever they were needed. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering. Someone prayed for an “A” on their biology exam. Another person prayed for their neighbor, who had started drinking again. A third person prayed for an aunt who had a breast cancer scare.

Despite the passage of time, I never found the faith that my friends had. Many of them spoke then – and most still do so today – about how “God is love.” But whenever something terrible would happen, I couldn’t wrap my arms around the concept that a “loving” God would so such a thing. One year, an F5 tornado killed 29 people in that small Illinois town of my childhood. One of my high school teachers perished, as did the neighborhood paperboy. Often, the best explanation I would get from others who sensed my confusion during the aftermath of such tragedy is this old standby: “It was just their time.” What does that even mean?! A beloved, award-winning science teacher is taken in his prime by the tornado because God decides that this teacher has lived long enough?! How can that be the act of a loving God? To me, it sounds like the act of a selfish God. Oh, and “God’s love” may be little comfort to that teacher’s widowed wife and children.

Okay, Gringo, let’s dial back the anger a bit. My point is that by the time I grew genuinely curious about religion, my stubborn consciousness had already checked out. Seeing the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of Thailand and the churches of Mexico, as impressive as these places may be, isn’t enough to convince me otherwise. I am so moved by the displays of spirituality at these world wonders because I don’t have similar faith. I am impressed by the architecture of the religious site and equally impressed by the devotion of that site’s parishioners. I feel comfortable saying this because every time I’ve traveled with friends (most of whom have more religious conviction than I do) and we’ve visited such places, they have never been as impressed as I have. Never.

One more thing: It is endlessly fascinating to me that although I have never read the Bible in any depth, and that I cannot recite many of its Psalms or Beatitudes, I am more moved by visiting its holy sites and cities – or those mentioned in the Torah, in the Qur’an, or in Asian texts – than most of my religious friends. It seems to me that sometimes, they are content enough in the religion that they were raised with to not ask profound questions or to even have much interest in visiting sites that challenge them. I visited a Hindu temple in Singapore with a couple of friends in 2006. This was our first exposure to the art and culture of the Hindu faith, and a docent at the temple was explaining what each god signified. “My God doesn’t tolerate any other gods,” one of my evangelical-leaning friends said, and left the temple, waiting for us outside. He wasn’t angry at me for dragging him here, but he wasn’t impressed, either. Of course, he was under no obligation to be suitably impressed, but I was dismayed to discover that he wasn’t even remotely curious.

I am having difficulty concluding this blog post. I began this entry as a writing exercise of sorts, and I wasn’t sure where my thoughts would take me. I can’t call my musings “profound,” but I hope that if you’ve read every paragraph through this one, you at least found my travel stories interesting, and my greater argument to be fair and balanced. I encourage everyone reading this to leave a comment below – maybe we can foster an interesting discussion, in the name of research-like. I shared my stories; what are yours?

Will I ever find faith? I don’t know. I am not actively searching – and my heart tells me “no” – but I do try to keep an open mind. It can be hard sometimes. The Kenyan-born, Oxford-educated atheist Richard Dawkins once said that there are seven levels of Atheism, level one being that you don’t believe in God but can probably be convinced otherwise, and level seven being that you know without a shred of doubt that God does not exist. He himself admitted to being a level six, saying that while he did not believe at all, he had to admit as a man of logic that you simply cannot be 100% sure. I guess that’s fair. Call me a level four…and thanks for reading.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

6 thoughts on “What Religion Means to Me”

  1. Thanks for sharing! As usual, a thought provoking read. I enjoyed your religious tour of the world.

    As a Jewish atheist who has many times been required to explain how this seeming contradiction-in-terms can even exist, let alone how it can describe my identity reasonably well, I’ve given quite a bit of thought to this issue. I do think that religion is a bit like technology; it’s neither good nor bad, but it’s what people make of it. There has been some ghastly, terrible stuff done in the name of religion, but as you pointed out re: communism, religion is not a prerequisite to ghastly, terrible human behaviour. Likewise, there have been some amazing things done in the name of religion, but there have also been some amazing things done by non-religious people. I think that people have free will and choice, and if they are generally good people who choose to find meaning in religion, that’s okay with me and I respect that. If they’re generally awful people doing awful things, then religion is a pretty powerful tool for them to use to manipulate people.

    Basically, I come down on the side of science and reason, and never could reconcile those with the existence of a super-natural all-powerful being either, so hence the atheism. But for me, Judaism is mostly culture, nationality and tradition. It’s the way some Americans identify as Italian or Greek or whatever. It’s holidays and songs and food and the way my grandfather always used to do certain things, and rituals for life’s milestones, and community.

    Some people would say that doesn’t count, and that if I don’t believe in god, I can’t really be Jewish. But I don’t really care what they think.

    (I’m in a bit of a food coma from the Passover seder I just came home from, so bear with me if that doesn’t make any sense. Seriously, SO MUCH FOOD.)

    Happy non-denominational long weekend to you!

    1. You make some good points here, Sari. And I understand what you mean by being a “Jewish atheist” – namely, a non-believer who celebrates the food and holiday culture of your ancestors. It’s something like that with my family as well – we love Christmas even though my sister and I aren’t Christians and my parents haven’t gone to church in 45 years!

      Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  2. Hi,

    I really love your post. I could see that it contained a lot feelings. I mean that youwere able to focus all contradictory feelings in your writing. Ill just add a few points and then you can take it from there if you want.

    I noticed in your post you focused on religion and not on the broad sense of spirituality. Realigion is a broad enough therm but if you focus on mono/poli organised religions, you miss some things(maybe in your next post – for example spiritism and so on).
    A very detailed account you can find in this book(one of my childhood favorites)

    Secondly, you talked about the difficulty of giving up religion and not being like the others. This seemed difficult, as much as i can tell from your writing, because christianity built itself (ex europe) on the existing spiritual believes. Normally, the more unconcious the believes are, the harder they are to be eradicated (ex saratrustra in Dacia Felix, romania). Baptism and all the sacrements transformed themselves in traditions and traditions are stronger than religion. It makes us feel that we belong. Its a socially constracted identity of who we are and if we dont accept that identity we go through identity crises which you expirienced(a healthy process)

    I personally love the bible because its a product of a collective writing just like the farytales. Some chapters are better than the others. I find the old testament better. One of my passions is the mix of psychology and religion, the psychological manifestations in the bible. Carl jung has a book called “answer to job” dealing with the anger of job because of Gods injustice, followed by Gods answer.
    I personally think that “too much God” is at the root cause of many mental issues (schyzofrenia -where the patient has mythological visions) or any other forms of abuse where the patient uses the connection with God to escape reality.

    Mediating that connection (being in here and out there) is a difficult task and its the topic of many studies (more depth psychology).

    Very is a very nice movie coming out, made in switzerland; dont know if it will make to US. Its from 2014 and it talks about an existential psychologist.


    It might answer some of your questions.

    One thing i didnt agree with was when you said some people dont question religion. I think some people are more on auto-pilot than others but i do think all humans are capable of questioning their own life.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Raluca! I appreciate the book and movie recommendations as well. I could write much, much more on the subject of religion. I have definitely gone through identity crises at various points in my life, although I can definitely articulate this fact better now than when I first grew curious as a teenager.

  3. This is a really interesting post. I have to admit I skipped through some parts but only cause my eyes are tired but I’d like to go back and read it thoroughly. A lot of thoughts came to mind as I was reading. The first at the end of the first section was about your “religious travels”, just wow! Incredible that you’ve experienced so much. I also like that you still keep an open mind in spite of everything. Maybe I’ll come back to add more to the comments.

    1. Thanks for taking a moment to read and comment. I guess I’ve seen a lot of amazing holy sites. And like I tried to convey in the body of the post (not sure if I succeeded), even though none of them made me want to convert, I still found them to be supremely spiritual places.

      Thanks again…I look forward to hearing more! 🙂

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