My faith wavered, then disappeared

I found belonging in a different community


Atmika Iyer/Talon

Faith exists in multiple different countries, in multiple different cultures — it just goes by a different name. Religion is a subjective, and unique experience defined by open-mindedness and belief.

By Atmika Iyer, Oak Park High School - CA

I was wearing a blue and pink half-sari, standing under a thick cover of branches and leaves to seek shelter from the rain. My bare feet were bouncing up and down lightly in the puddles on the cold, stone floors of a quiet temple in Virginia. A Hindu priest came forward, with three threads, black, red and yellow, braided and tied in his hands. He slipped it around my wrist. The simple bracelet represents the belief that the wearer will always have the blessings of their ancestors.
For a year that bracelet stayed on my wrist, its permanent presence resembling my unwavering faith in karma and the various gods of Hinduism. After a year, I found myself playing with the thread, wondering if I should take it off. For 16 years of my life, I never questioned the concept of God. I never questioned this idea of a higher power, but after 16 years of unquestioning belief, I found myself asking if I had genuine faith, or if I was reliant on a concept that I had been raised on.
For a few months, the bracelet stayed in a ceramic mug at my bedside table. I found my right hand picking at my left wrist, searching for something to fiddle with whenever I was nervous. Every day, I walked out of my room, and the bracelet caught my eye. I wanted to figure out what I believed before I wore a symbol of what I used to believe again. I knew wearing something wouldn’t alter whatever it is I was searching for, but symbols are powerful.
I started researching. I looked into the concept of energy, morality being religion, even crystals, but at the end of the day, it was research and interviewing through this article that helped me find an answer.
It was a cool summer evening at 6:30 on July 23, 2019 when I walked into a mosque. I was wearing what one would be wearing to a Hindu temple, a chudidhar, traditional Indian clothing, and a bindi, a dot on the forehead to protect the third eye. I felt guilty, because I was going to a mosque where the dress code is different, I knew I would feel disrespected if someone came to my temple without respecting the dress code and yet, there I was, about to do the same thing.

So, I took my dupatta (silk scarf worn with the chudidhar) and draped it over my head and around my shoulders. Once I got through the gate, I saw two lines going in two separate directions, one for men, and one for women. I was walking in the women’s section when I noticed a library right before the area of worship. When I poked my head into the library, I saw a man who I correctly assumed to be the imam (the leader of a mosque).

I went to see if there were others like me, struggling with their religious identity. I told him that I was a journalist looking for the connection between the younger generations and the rise in atheism.

“Even while we are praying, we are not connected with prayer. It’s more like a time card. ‘I gotta go, I got to worship, my dad saw me there, my mom saw me there, I know my mom saw me over there. She’ll say good things about me so that my dad will buy me the car that I want.’ So, is the purpose of spirituality a new car, or is the purpose of spirituality connecting with God?” Imam Muhammed Shoayb Mehtar asked.

That made me question what my belief was rooted in. Was it that I was brought up on it? Was I dependent on it? Did I really believe? At the time, I did not know. So, I turned to Google to find out where this disconnect was coming from.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2019, 26% of Americans state that they are not a member of any religion. In 2010, that number was 17%.

“Less than half of millennials, the youngest demographic group in the study, identify as Christian; 40% of them are unaffiliated. The oldest demographic group, born between 1928 and 1945 and known as the Silent Generation, is 84% Christian and 10% unaffiliated,” Ian Lovett wrote in his Wall Street Journal article,  “Religion Is on the Decline as More Adults Check ‘None.’”

I talked to a religious leader and researched through every proper source Google had to offer, and I still couldn’t find an answer. I decided to change tactics, and ask someone who I knew, respected and trusted for some advice and clarity.

“I think [cultural and generational gaps] could be bridged, but it’s going to take an active and concerted effort. I think technology has driven a wedge like we’ve never seen before between the older generations and the younger generations, and I don’t think that particular gap will be bridged,” Social Sciences teacher DJ Cook said, when speaking from a psychological perspective.

I asked Cook to share his experience with religion growing up to understand if the process of questioning one’s faith had a common thread or if each individual’s experience was completely unique.

“It was ingrained into me that even if you’re not believing, believe just in case — almost like an insurance policy. When I got older, I realized how silly that is because that’s the opposite of what your faith in religion should be. And then I went to college, and I felt a lot of guilt about my declining interest and belief in religion,” Cook said. “[I grew up] with religion as a part of my life, so to roll back from that was painful because a lot of cognitive dissonance [took place]. It caused a lot of anxiety, it caused a lot of anguish.”

When certain thoughts and beliefs one has are incongruous with other thoughts and beliefs, people experience cognitive dissonance. I could relate to that part of his story. For me, it caused emotional pain. Every time something happened where I used to rely on the support of a higher power, I could no longer be comforted by that thought. It was isolating.

So, I started seeking support. I sat down with my mom, trying to formulate words, expecting anger or disappointment. She looked at me and said that she was happy that I was exploring my perception of the world, and if that led me back to Hinduism, that’s great. But, if I found my own understanding of the world, that I’ll have done it in my own way. When the fear of ostracization no longer plagued me, I was able to label my experience for what it was: an eye-opening set of months that made religion no longer seem like a part of my understanding of the world.

An organization called Secularism and Nonreligion published an article called,How Do Religious People Become Atheists? Applying a Grounded Theory Approach to Propose a Model of Deconversion.” The article explores what a religious individual goes through when losing their faith. 

“The literature on deconversion suggests that deconversion involves a very gradual change, which tends to happen during adolescence and early adulthood,” writers Sergio Perez and Frédérique Vallières wrote in the research document.

The article goes on to outline that this process of deconversion is often stirred by a disconnect between a religious outline of what life should be versus what it actually is.

The article went on to say that most people deconverting “were influenced by experiencing conflicts between religious views and how they felt towards issues related to abortion, sex, gender inequality, women’s- and LGBTQ-rights, and the questionable behavior of some religious figures.”

Perez and Vallières’s paper uses the book, “Version of deconversion: Autobiography and the loss of faith.” The author, John Barbor, wrote that during deconversion, an individual goes through four stages: “intellectual doubt regarding the system of beliefs; moral criticism towards a way of life; emotional stress and suffering; and the repudiation of the individual’s former community.”

For a little while, I felt the loss of community. There is something different about coming together with people based on a shared belief system. People who practice religion often find comfort in the community they have built around those shared values. And while it took some time, I realized my community can be a little bigger than just those who shared the same religion and culture.

“[A community is] anything that makes you feel self worth, makes you feel important [and/or] makes you feel loved. That can come in a lot of different contexts. I’ve got great friends, my friends, my life is very similar to Matt Damon in ‘Good Will Hunting,’ very similar,” Cook said. “I have no family, basically, and my friends would lay down in traffic for me. No questions asked. Even if I was wrong they [would] go beat somebody up for me. That’s the community I have, you know; they are loyal friends, and I really respect loyalty.”
The faith I held in religion soon transferred to people — they were my answer, they were who my faith transferred to. I believe in the people around me. I believe in my best friend, and that she’ll be there for me when I need her. I believe my mom will always have a shoulder for me to cry on, my dad will always have words of advice.
As soon as I anchored my faith in people, I stopped just passing by my bracelet. It wasn’t about religion anymore. If my belief is really to be in people, it would be the people who shaped my lineage, the people I surround myself with. The bracelet was a physical reminder of the relationships I value — love.
That isn’t to say religion doesn’t have positive impacts or traits — just that religion didn’t function that way for me.
“Religion has always been a part of my life, and it taught me valuable lessons I never would have learned if I were atheist. One major way religion has helped me is that it taught me to love others unconditionally because that’s what God would do. It taught me that no matter what someone’s race, religion, sexuality, gender, disability or views are, they are deserving of love,” junior Lindsey DiConti said. “I believe that God created them to be exactly who they are, race and sexuality and ability and all, and God doesn’t make mistakes. Religion is a comfort to me. Even when I feel completely alone, I know things will be okay because I believe that God loves me and will never leave me. It’s comforting to know.”
And while I may not be religious, I still understand that each person has their own understanding of the world. Perhaps mine doesn’t include religion, but that shouldn’t take away from another’s faith.
Maybe religion will be upheld in the coming years, maybe it won’t. Imam Mehtar had an optimistic take on it.
“You know they’re using this word, us ‘brown-faces,’ right now in the media. What we can do (whether it’s people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.) in America to leave a good outcome is present the best and the most beautiful character. I think if we [do] that, it’ll uphold not only our backgrounds, but also our religions as well,” Imam Mehtar said.

This story was originally published on The Oak Park Talon on March 20, 2020.