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Religious misfits form Skeptics Book Club

  • Story Highlights
  • Each month, the author reads a book exploring a particular religion
  • She and her friends then discuss it
  • The talks touch on curiosity: How best to live, whether there's a purpose to it all
  • Talks also allow room for author's doubts as well as curiosity and enthusiasm
By Kendra Hurley
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Oprah

(OPRAH.com) -- One winter, in the middle of a particularly painful breakup, I wished I were religious. Raised in a family of scientists who consider religion to be, at best, a comforting illusion, I saw my longing as a weakness.

Religious misfits form Skeptics Book Club

But as I sat alone in the apartment I'd barely inhabited during the two years I'd been with my ex, the feeling persisted.

I wanted significance.

I wanted to trust that my sadness would pass, that everything would turn out fine; I believed faith might help me recover.

My sadness did pass, more through the curative power of time than anything else, but the desire to explore religion lingered.

When my gay coworker Clarence complained about the fire-and-brimstone, homosexuality-condemning sermons at his African-American Baptist church, we began a search together. Each Sunday we scoured New York City for a religious community that felt like home. Oprah.com: What's the right spiritual path for you?

Clarence and I liked the sermon at a Unitarian church, but later, over scrambled eggs, we agreed that its allusions to boarding school presumed a lifestyle that felt too exclusive for both Clarence, raised by a single mother in the Bronx, and me, a native Texan who taught writing to foster teens.

The funky crowd at a Unity church put us more at ease, but my allergy to New Age practices flared when the minister told us to hold hands and sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

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Then we met Clarence's friend David at his sun-drenched Quaker church. Over postservice pancakes, David talked about forming a group to talk about spirituality, a kind of book club meets pilgrimage.

I got excited -- what I'd come to like most about our church-hopping was the conversations that followed our visits, in which we tried on the dogma of the week as though it were an elaborate feathered hat, admiring the parts that fit, critiquing those that were all wrong.

Soon Clarence, David, I, and a handful of others formed what came to be known as Our Spiritual Chat Group. Each month we read a book exploring a particular religion or spiritual practice, then discussed it. I was uncomfortable at first. People got personal fast, skipping the small talk, diving into heady talk of God, soul, and childhood. And we seemed unlikely to gel into a group: Jennifer was the daughter of a strict Methodist minister; David's parents celebrated reincarnation with raucous "Come as You Were" parties. But we shared a compulsion to question the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) we each grew up with, while looking for personal ways to lead reflective lives. Oprah.com: 5 spiritual leaders share what they've learned

Now in its second year, our group has branched out to include fiction and the odd movie, all selected for their spiritual themes through a loose consensus. Our talks -- alternately skeptical and earnest, occasionally self-revelatory, and never with insistence to believe anything in particular -- touch on curiosity: how best to live, what are our obligations to self and others, whether there's a purpose to it all, and, if so, what the heck is it? These are the themes religious misfits like me have few opportunities to explore with others.

Katrine, who blames the strictness of her Lutheran upbringing for her difficulty in enjoying the success of the wine store she owns, found inspiration to enjoy the present moment in "Thornton Wilder's Our Town", a play about small-town America that bored her in high school but haunts her as an adult. Clarence has been excited by the teachings of American Buddhists Pema Chödrön and Tara Brach. Soon after reading "Brach's Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha," he started meditating and attending discussion groups at a Buddhist temple. He also began returning to his old Baptist church from time to time. The choir, he realized, moves him to tears.

A skeptic by nurture, I've come to accept that it will take something close to a miracle for me to adopt any particular creed. But our group's nondidactic approach to faith has given me a way to break from my heathen past; it allows room for my doubts as well as my curiosity and enthusiasm.

I now appreciate the spiritual side of my yoga class, and, after mulling over "What the Bleep Do We Know!?" -- a movie that mixes mysticism with physics -- I've even developed a soft spot for that New Age standard, the power of positive thinking.

But mostly I can recognize the divine in my daily life, that unexpected shift I sometimes get while listening to music, dancing, chopping vegetables, even walking home from the subway when the light is just right. (In those moments, I feel linked to a stillness so unlike the rat-a-tat of my usual thoughts and worries.)

I've come to see that my upbringing was not, after all, completely spiritually barren. Although my family didn't pray together, we did often hike together. And, really, when you're struck dumb by the Rocky Mountains, why quibble about how they got there? Oprah.com The answer to life's hardest question

By Kendra Hurley O, The Oprah Magazine © 2009

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