I used to be a priest in the Church of Poetry. I had 60-80 parishioners per semester, mostly young people with varying dedication to Poetry. Some entered the classroom having only worshipped Fiction; I joked that it was my job to convert them. We read poems out loud, learned the parts and styles and strategies, recognized the mystery of how and why a poem moves us.
It was work, yes, but to me it was Good Work. And the years leading up to that particular job, when the worship was more general—Writing, Reading, Learning—had been good, too.
But ultimately, I left that job. It had become too entwined with my lack of self-worth, as I failed to attain high priest status. I was not, and would never be, tenured or tenure-track. Like nearly all contingent faculty, I was paid far less to teach more students than other people with the same expertise and experience.
I faced a choice, and I made the decision to move to a new state, get married, and let my new husband be the breadwinner. In doing so, I decided also not to let myself feel exploited as a worker again. I was lucky to have that option; most don’t. But in doing so, I not only left my position as a priest; I left the belief community of Higher Education.
As a high school student, I thumbed through the course catalog at the University of Illinois, reading the course descriptions and marking the ones that looked interesting to me. When my father flipped through the catalog (yes, they were printed back then) and saw all my marks, he said, “If you take all these, you’ll be in college for ten years!” Ten years of college! It sounded like heaven to me. A place where you knew your purpose: to learn, think, create. A place where what mattered was intellectual curiosity, an agile mind, the willingness to study.
These days, “non-religious” is the fastest-growing “religious” category in America. Some of the people I know who would fall into that category consider themselves atheists; most say they believe in something, but no formal religion feels right, and all of them feel too restricted or too judgy or just too “out there.” I sometimes call myself a Buddhist, because basic Buddhist ideas feel right to me: universal compassion, relief of suffering for oneself as well as others, not striving for material possessions, resisting anger and judgment, finding both relief and joy in the experience of the present moment. But some Buddhist traditions emphasize discipline or use wording that doesn’t appeal to me.
So I guess I’m “non-religious” too, though I believe in something—a collective of souls to which we return, like water to the ocean; or a next existence in a different dimension; or most likely, something so strange to our human thinking that it cannot even be imagined or described.
But religion, it seems to me, isn’t just about belief. It helps people answer the Big Questions, like how do our actions matter, and what is the purpose of our lives. For some, our actions matter because Someone is watching and weighing them. That’s not just a scary thought; it’s also comforting. It suggests that we matter enough to be watched and weighed.
And for some, the purpose of our lives is also connected to religion: to worship something greater than us, to help other people see the truth, to bring people together in a belief community for comfort, support, and the sharing of knowledge.
My sister was a Christian, and eventually became a minister close to the end of her life. She believed in the parts of the Bible that related to helping others, especially those in need. People who were poor, who had fewer opportunities, who suffered with illness, those with differences that made it hard for them in this world—these were her people, and her presence helped relieve their suffering.
Some of the people I know who consider themselves non-religious do so because some formal religions here in the United States embrace ideas like the Prosperity Gospel, which claims that the pursuit of wealth or the possession of it is connected to righteousness. This philosophy is a perfect reflection of unregulated capitalism, which tells us that our purpose is to be consumers. If we’re rich, we should spend and make more and more money. If we’re not rich, we should work at a paying job as hard as we can so we can spend and borrow and work and spend…
The shrinking importance of church in many developed countries is a mixed bag. On one hand, fewer and fewer people face the negative consequences of breaking with a strict church code: censure with its myriad effects on one’s personal, social, and political life. On the other, we have a gaping hole in our social fabric: what replaces the church community? Where do we go to make connections with people outside our families? To talk about the things that matter to us? To be reminded of ideas bigger than the daily grind? To experience rituals that mark time, connecting us to the humanity that has gone before us and those who will come after?
Work is a poor replacement, though it fits in nicely with the capitalist mindset. If our purpose is work, and the workplace is where we connect with other people, and work is what we talk about and believe is important, then what happens when we leave the workplace? What happens when we are out of work, or—as millions of people have discovered in the past year—when we are doing our work in much more isolation, without the casual comfort of chitchat, the much-maligned workplace birthday parties, the shared lunches? And what happens when work is oppressive, demanding long hours and hard labor without providing enough to take your kids to the doctor when they’re sick?
I know this wandering essay asks more questions than it answers. I guess what I’m saying is: when I was a professor, my paid work was my religion. I loved it because I got to talk about things that mattered deeply to me—writing, reading, poetry, learning—and help other people seek out and express their original and common humanity. Higher education was my church, where I got to talk with other people who had things in common with me (other teachers and students), to celebrate what we valued (literary readings, lectures, art exhibitions), to attend to rituals that marked time (the first day of the semester, the submission of final grades). I felt I had a purpose, and that my work mattered.
Now, though I do things that are connected (I facilitate wonderful writers through small online classes, and of course I write and publish my poetry), I miss my church. Now I have to find and find again my own purpose, outside the structures that once made it easy. Now I have to remind myself that I matter, because I no longer have a “congregation” to do that for me.
This new me is learning how to find meaning and purpose in endeavors that do not pay me a living wage, if they pay at all. This new me believes that my self-worth is separate from my monetary worth, which is something I already believed about other people. This new me is actively seeking out ideas about how and why I, and all of us, matter in the world.
Maybe we are headed towards new ways of being that I can barely imagine now. Maybe new belief communities will form, communities that are neither traditional church nor work. Maybe we are on the cusp of discovering how to use technology to fight the isolation so many people feel. Maybe we will reform church or work so they serve the congregation better. Maybe we need something like gyms, but for the mind and spirit rather than the body. There are possibilities hovering around us, outside the paradigms we now know. In this, I suppose, I am a true believer.