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“So what religion are you?” Cheryl asked with penetrating, I-need-to-know eyes. Grade 10 English class was just about to begin and I was taken aback by this assertive stranger. I explained my father was Jewish, my mother was Christian and I was neither. She was appalled. “You don’t have a religion? Then how can you know who you are? You have no identity!” I half expected her to reach out and touch me to see if I was a real person. My parents raised my sister and me with some of the rituals of both religions, but we never set foot in a synagogue or a church. Cheryl didn’t know it, but I had already put considerable effort into contemplating her exact question, at the behest of my best friend.

Three years earlier, in Grade 7 homeroom, I was intrigued by a guy with slick black hair who proudly marched out of class every morning when the national anthem began. As we rushed from gym to math one afternoon, I chased after him to ask about his mysterious morning routine, and so began a friendship that doubled as my immersion into Christian theology.

If you are familiar with the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses, you may know what I did not – that devotion to country undermines the all-encompassing devotion one ought to have to God. Warren introduced me to an intricate belief system that was fascinating to a young teenager brought up in a secular household. He never lost patience with my endless questions about his religion, but the more he tried to persuade me of his beliefs, the more convinced I was that there was no rational route to God. Over and over again I asked him why a benevolent God would deny knowledge of Himself to those who, like me, lacked faith. Warren’s answer was always the same and never satisfied me: my heart wasn’t truly open to knowing God. He eventually became impatient with my reluctance to attend his church’s information sessions, and we drifted apart. But the issue of my apparent spiritual deficiency, which both Warren and Cheryl had seized upon, wasn’t behind me.

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A couple of decades later, my then spouse and I attended a couples retreat run by a psychiatrist who impressed us, so I sought him out for an individual session at his country property. In our first five minutes together, he instructed, “I want you to imagine God in front of you or whatever higher spirit you believe in.” I told him I was having trouble getting started because nothing really came to mind. “Well,” he continued, “how do you define spirituality for yourself?” I was still stumped and mumbled that the word “spiritual” had so many different meanings and it wasn’t something I was entirely comfortable with. Barely missing a beat, he announced, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I have nothing to offer someone who doesn’t have a spiritual side.” We stood, staring at each other, before he ushered me to the door and I made the long drive home, deflated.

In fact, it is another psychiatrist’s definition of spirituality that appeals to me: Iain McGilchrist writes that “spirituality is simply a question of having an open enough mind to see that there are things in the world at large that transcend what we can know and fully comprehend.” For me, nothing more needs to be said. I can be awed by nature without feeling compelled to invoke metaphysical theories or intuitions.

My fascination with different ways of interpreting our place in the universe nudged me down the path of psychedelic journeys guided by experienced shamans. On one occasion, my oldest daughter appeared to me in a hallucination, insisting I didn’t love her. As I pleaded with her to believe that I loved her deeply and unconditionally, she morphed into God, who mouthed my words back to me, insisting I had no choice but to believe in Him. I resisted, shouted back and shuddered with angst as my guide held me tight until I calmed down. As discombobulating as that encounter was, it did not cause me to rethink my worldview. But it really brought home to me how formidable it can be to have one’s tightly held beliefs challenged – core assumptions about oneself, life and its meaning.

This cognitive stubbornness perturbs me – much more than my so-called lack of spirituality. It’s disturbing because humans all share this feature, as I first experienced in my passionate school debates with Warren. How could two reasonable people like me and him have such monolithic certainty in beliefs that were in complete contradiction? When Cheryl interrogated me in English class, I chalked it up to the peculiar nature of religion, but as I aged, I came to realize that the cognitive gaps between people are not limited to questions of spirituality. Reflecting on current polarized arguments surrounding climate change, vaccination passports, critical race theory, take your pick, I see chasms between people that are as insurmountable as the canyon between Warren’s and my views of God and the afterlife. We’re each beholden to a massive, customized web of interlocking assumptions about the world – belief systems that we cling to even though they are not as self-evident to others as we assume or think they should be.

As a younger man, I was optimistic that we could bridge the gaps between us. Surely our curiosity about other people’s belief systems and how they developed their convictions would engender the kind of empathy that spans our differences. I’m no longer as sanguine. My debates with Warren were civil, even friendly; today’s discussions are stained with personal attacks, manipulative disinformation, hate speech and cancel-culture censorship. Maybe the flexibility required to be curious about others’ worldviews requires the naiveté of a young teenage mind. Maybe we are forever stuck in tribal warfare that is only obvious to someone who has lived through a handful of decades of it. Cheryl might grant me a greater degree of individuality today than she was prepared to offer in Grade 10, but perhaps not. Why should her worldview be any less entrenched than my own?

Ted Cadsby lives in Toronto.

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