In Fear and Trembling, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard inquires, “If at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all—what then would life be but despair?”. The first time I stood under a sukkah I finally understood what Kierkegaard meant: how awful would it be if there is no higher power and the world we see is all that there is. Standing in that space on a chilly October evening, experiencing the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, I had to ask myself if I’m missing something important. While I am comfortable being agnostic, I often wonder if I would be more fulfilled if I belonged to a religious tradition. Is it more grounding to be in a community with traditions that go back thousands of years? Does life make a little more sense when you can ask a faith leader what it’s about? In particular, I think about this during Interfaith Fellow meetings, where the majority of the focus questions are around religious beliefs and traditions, which I cannot relate to. I love listening to their discussions of ancient traditions, values, and customs, but struggle to connect to the religious Fellows in the same way that they can connect to each other, even to Fellows of different faiths. I can insert my tightly held family values of honesty, kindness, and integrity into these discussions, but it almost feels hollow. As in, who doesn’t value those simple things that we’re taught as kids? It’s hard to consider those behaviors (which are really the baseline to live in society at all) to be specific values shared between religious and non-religious folk. So it’s easy to feel out of place in these discussions about faith organizations or values, because I can’t quite insert myself into this space in any meaningful way.
After listening in on weeks of glowing conversations of cultural and religious upbringing and warm stories about religious schools, summer camps, and community engagement, truthfully, I’m left feeling a little empty. It’s lovely to see connections being made across religious identities, don’t get me wrong. But I’m noticing that people of different faiths can often find more in common with each other than with someone of a secular background. I find that at each meeting, I see more parallels between the faiths represented in our group, yet I feel more alienated as someone without spiritual beliefs. During these conversations, I wonder if there’s a punchline that I’m not getting or a particular feeling that I’m unable to experience. Here’s an example everyone reading this can relate to: a human eye has three photoreceptors, which are receptors that allow us to see colors. In contrast, the mantis shrimp eye has twelve. Therefore, they are possibly able to see several times as many colors as we can even imagine. This fact incites a certain itch within us. I often wonder if my experience with faith, in comparison to that of religious people, is similar. Are there feelings and experiences that I’m unable to experience as a secular person? If anything, what exactly am I missing out on? But more importantly, are there any truly universal experiences that every human being can feel, regardless of faith identity?