Tell Us: What's Your Most Profound Moment of Interfaith Worship?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

When you are deeply immersed in a religious faith, there is always the guilty understanding that falling out of your chosen religion reflects your own inner weakness, a moral failing. Many religions are predicated on an “all-or-nothing” ideology, which implicitly separates “unbelievers” from “believers.” This segregation always bothered me, as a Christian. I could never reconcile the gritty lines carved between religions, forcing us to declare who was wrong and who was right. After a prolonged, painful struggle, I decided to leave my religion.

Immediately, it was like being unmoored in a vast, dangerous ocean. In an increasingly secular world where religion is no longer in vogue for young people, it seems like abandoning religion is an easy thing. Yet, what had always drawn me to religion was its capacity to comfort. It was an answer to the loneliness of the soul in a sprawling universe. It was the assurance of someone else being in the driver’s seat. So the abrupt disappearance of that after leaving Christianity was terrifying to me.

Then, one evening after work, I found myself standing in a circle of 20 strangers in a church in Washington, D.C. I was at the monthly meeting of The Sanctuaries, a self-described “spiritually diverse and creative community committed to personal growth and social transformation.” (I had heard of the group when it was featured in a CBS News documentary, “Faith, Spirituality & the Future,” a preview of which is seen below, and embedded above is a music video made by members of The Sanctuaries.)

The leader of the monthly meeting, a cheerful man who introduced himself as “Rev Erik,” seemed intent on assuaging away all awkwardness. “Why don’t we all just close our eyes,” he suggested gently, “And whenever you’re comfortable—only if you’re comfortable—feel free to say aloud the being or force that guides your life.”

The silence stretched. I peeked open my eyes. A girl across the circle in a hijab saw me and smiled.

“God,” a woman said suddenly.

“Allah,” said a man to her right.

“The spirit of generosity.”

“Knowledge.”

“Christ."

“Adventure,” I offered, after a beat of hesitation.

Rev Erik then suggested (everything that evening was a gentle suggestion) that we spend the time dissecting our personal definitions of the night’s theme—“thriving”—and present them in artistic ways. Here we were, grown men and women of different faiths and colors, rapping or intoning or acting out what it was to thrive in our lives. It was awkward, imperfect, vulnerable, and a distinctly spiritual endeavor. It jarred me out of the morose lethargy that had characterized my post-Christian life.

As my colleague Emma has written, these days religion is not neat and tidy, but rather “a sprawling sphere of life that encompasses everything from saccharine celebrations to the search for ultimate meaning.” Interfaith worship had once sounded like an oxymoron to me. Yet, if being spiritual is about that ultimate search for meaning, the peacefulness of contemplating what aligns us, is it not possible to enter the quiet space together, without believing in the same thing?

It helps to believe in the same deity in order to forge a spiritual community, of course. But how beautiful it was, in that moment, when the 20 of us—Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, naturalists, and more—fell silent together, as we gave thanks for the broad spread of forces that guided us. It made me feel a little less lonely.

Have you had a profound experience of interfaith worship you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about it: hello@theatlantic.com.