The first time I was bullied was at religious school. Sitting meekly in the back of the classroom with my legs crossed and my mind disinterested in the piece of Arabic text on my lap, I spotted two girls glancing at me and sheepishly whispering something between themselves. Every other student had someone else to sit with; every other student seemed to grasp the scripture better than me. 

I had been attending this class for months now, managing to achieve superficial progress and growing ever more skeptical with each religious history class. Even with my makeshift hijab and improvised Qur’anic accent, I felt foreign among my peers and distant from my teachers. 

In retrospect, it was not until I was 18 that I found the language, the self-confidence — and, to my surprise — the coursework to finally confront and digest my lifelong discomfort with religion. 

Eventually, as I got older, this discomfort transformed into a newfound awareness and familiarity with the idea of ‘secular spirituality.’ Secular spirituality, which is becoming an increasingly mainstream branch of spirituality, argues that spirituality does not demand a belief in, or engagement with, any supernatural deities, forces, or energies. Spirituality is a set of thoughts, philosophies, emotions, words, and actions stemming from the unshakable belief that everything in the universe — including the human experience — is interdependent. 

This broad definition of spirituality encompasses the fact that any experience can evoke sensations of awe, connectedness, and awareness, all of which can be seen as spiritual. Being immersed in nature, meditation — or, in my case, learning about the human body and mind — are all wonderful examples of experiences that can be personally spiritual. I found that secular spirituality is personalized, grows, and adapts at my own pace, if I let it. 

Religion & family: My grandfather

Religion has always been a part of my life. It is a familial, cultural — and indeed — personal narrative that I have had the privilege of inheriting from my parents and previous generations before them. 

I recall my paternal grandfather passing away from colon cancer, yet my memories will not let me remember who he was before. All I can remember is my father’s hands held up in supplication more than they usually were. All I can remember is how protective our practicing of religious customs was during this time of inexplicable grief and bereavement. 

I did not know my grandfather well, but I keenly observed how our family’s deepening trust in faith kept his memory alive. I knew him by proxy; I became aware of the intensity of his presence through how he seemed to strengthen the faith and devotion of others who knew him, like my father. 

Growing up, though the occasional bullying I experienced at religious school left a sour taste in my mouth, I also observed that religion was more than just a set of ideologies and practices my parents would perform and teach. Religion was, and still is, the language they use to translate their deepest emotions into currencies of resilience, reflection, and connection. 

Looking back, it is certainly a beautiful sight to see how love, grief, and faith intermingle. However, I remember being overwhelmed with a peculiar, fluttering ball of guilt in my stomach. This guilt — which has transformed much since then — told me: look around you, how could you not love something that has given your family so much resilience and peace? This question still lingers in my mind. 

Still, I am now assertive and independent enough from my family to resolve my childhood discomfort with faith without having it question the integrity of my relationship with my family. As an agnostic-atheist, I interpret the concept of God to be fundamentally unknowable to humans. Even if there is some spirituality to human existence, and even if God does exist, I do not believe humans can capture it through institutionalized religion because spirituality is a highly personal experience. 

The classroom: Where science & spirituality converged 

There is a common narrative in society that spirituality and science are insurmountably disconnected, and this narrative infiltrated my worldview. It meant I took unexpected avenues to find where spirituality, philosophy, and science comfortably intersect for me. 

As a science student, it was easy for me to think of spirituality and science as mutually incompatible: both attempt to solve the mystery of human and natural existence, but only one solves it in a way that provides certainty in its results through the rigour of the scientific method and elaborate mathematical equations. 

Now, I realize how naive my mindset was. 

Since my grandfather’s passing, I have taken an abundance of undergraduate courses related to biology and neuroscience for my program. However, I did not expect that they would fulfill a new, previously spiritually unsatiated space in me as I ventured into my studies of the brain and mind. 

Last semester, I took a course in anatomy and physiology where I learned about the sheer volume of biomechanical and systems coordination required to simply bend my knee. In another course, I tried to digest the fact that me and the tree outside the classroom window likely shared a common ancestor at some point during the evolutionary labyrinth. In my introductory neuroscience course, I was taught about the sequence of biological processes that allow me to move my finger, much less think and feel. 

As my classmates around me committed pen to paper, eagerly taking notes to prepare themselves for the looming final exam, I sat silently transfixed, meditating at the back of the class about the neuroscientific machinery operating in my skull that allowed me to do even the most mindless of tasks. Questions swarmed my head: how much of the universe remains undiscovered? How is everything mutually dependent? What happens when this chain of mutual dependence is broken? 

When I stepped out of these classes, I not only felt a sense of excitement and wonder at the vastness of science. Ironically, the materialism of my scientific coursework awakened me to the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all of nature’s workings, including myself. 

Of course, before this, I did not have an anthropocentric view of the world, nor did I believe humans to be exempt from certain natural laws. But by studying the sophistication of our brains, bodies, and minds, I was beginning to see myself as a culmination of intricacies that would take a lifetime to contemplate. I was beginning to see the beauty in all my supposed imperfections — the wrinkles on my hands, the stretch marks on my hips, and the texture of my black, thinning hair. How could I ever think my body is ugly or undesirable when it does so much just to keep me alive? 

This newfound bearing on the world, prompted by my studies and periods of introspection, bred in me a self-love that was not fragile and conditional like all the other types of self-love I have tried to force on myself. This love and empathy I felt in me radiated outward into the world, manifesting through my patience and the ability to forgive.

Embracing science and spirituality

After sitting with these thoughts and experiences for a few weeks, I realized the complex relationship that existed between science and spirituality. The course content I was learning connected me with the natural world in ways I had never experienced before, the experience of which usually seems to be reserved for episodes induced by consuming psychedelics. 

Science is a tool that allows us to quantify, qualify, and understand the natural world in and around us. Western science is fundamentally empirical, but this empiricism developed my heightened sense of empathy, love, and sensibility beyond what I previously extracted from religion. 

In his New York Times-bestselling book How to Change Your Mind, author and journalist Michael Pollan discusses an interaction he had with Richard Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist studying psychedelic science. Psychedelics — such as magic mushrooms and LSD — are naturally derived substances that can powerfully influence the mind toward a state of ‘ego death.’ Ambiguously, ego death is a subjective experience where the ‘self’ dissolves and is an experiential precursor to the feelings of interconnectedness one might feel following a magic mushroom experience. 

The clinical and therapeutic novelty of psychedelics is increasingly being embraced by scientists and clinicians alike; more scientists, such as Griffiths, are open to understanding psychedelics using both scientific and non-conventional methods. 

Pollan describes Griffiths’s capacity for “negative capability,” which he defines as the “ability to exist amid uncertainties, mysteries, and doubt without reaching for absolutes, whether those of science or spirituality.” This ability to exist in a state of uncertainty applies to engaging in science as a practice and living a spiritual life. Pollan recounts a meeting with Griffiths in which he asks him about his views regarding science and spirituality. Griffiths replied that the two concepts are not “mutually exclusive” — and that he “has little patience for absolutists on either side of the supposed divide. He instead argues that the two ways “can inform each other and correct each other’s defects… and then, possibly, answer the big questions we face.” 

Divorcing science and spirituality not only breeds hostility but hinders the human capacity to experience the world empirically and esoterically. Both fields are equally valuable to our collective narrative, and the human quest for meaning. 

Though religion is formally no longer a part of my world, through my experiences with spirituality, I can relate to the feelings of inspiration and devotion that institutionalized faith evokes in people such as my parents. While I do not fully understand or relate to some perspectives that organized religion offers, I am more comfortable now than ever living in the vague in-between of science and spirituality. As I venture deeper into the wonders of science, my journey into secular spirituality has empowered me to embrace and appreciate the unknown. I am eternally grateful for who I have become in the process.