We are what we believe: What CNN readers told us about faith

Updated 9:21 AM ET, Mon April 17, 2017

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(CNN)Each of the nearly 7.5 billion people on this planet is a complex product of our upbringing, culture, and an inestimable number of other factors. But nothing informs how we live quite like what we believe.

On the CNN Original Series "Believer," Reza Aslan traveled the globe and immersed himself in the world's most fascinating faiths with that in mind. And in the process, CNN went on a related journey, seeking answers to one question:
What do you believe?
Since February, more than 600 members of our global audience have shared with us what they believe and how they came to realize it -- from chance encounters to life-changing tragedies to supernatural visions. For many others, their quest for understanding continues, with no end in sight.
Here's what we learned from your stories.

You've been passionate from a young age

For all those still wandering, uncertain of what they truly believe, there are others who have always known: the "true believers."
Michael Lowry, a self-described atheist, says it's what he DIDN'T believe in that dawned on him at a very young age. Lowry said he grew up in a Christian community but Sunday school ended up pushing him away from organized religion.

"Belief can be a dangerous thing ..."

Michael Lowry Atheist
Rachel Hutto says God helped her survive a difficult childhood, which solidified her unwavering Christian faith.
I survived my childhood and still felt that I was loved and had a purpose. I was raised Baptist, and saved at the age of 6 and baptized at 7 or 8. But I had a rough go of it growing up. God never left me and always provided. Over the years, I have witnessed the fact that He has a plan for my life, and that everything that happens has a purpose, if used for good. I truly believe that God loves each of us, indiscriminate of our color, sexual preference, criminal background, or anything that we have done or said in our lives. The only thing that any of us has to do to get to heaven is to believe that Jesus is God's son and that he died on that cross to save us.

Rachel Hutto, Christian

At 14 years old, a debate in English class led Ben V. to fully understand the power of his relationship with a higher power.
I was 14 years old. I was born and raised in a good Mormon family outside of Utah. When I was 14, we moved to Utah and it was there, ironically, that my faith was tested for the first time. Our English class assignment was to write and deliver a persuasive essay, and a classmate gave a speech (to a bunch of Mormons, mind you) on how God didn't exist. After arguing with him during the next period, I, for the first time in my life, testified to him that I believed, that I knew God was my loving Heavenly Father and that Jesus Christ was my savior. In standing for Christ, I felt for the first time that Christ really stood for me.

Ben V., Christian

You know everything can change in an instant

We spend much of our lives searching for answers about God and the afterlife, but it's often specific events that crystallize beliefs.
Brian Brandsmeier, a Buddhist, achieved "enlightenment" about the universe and his place in it thanks to a life-changing lecture from Neil deGrasse Tyson.
I heard a lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson where he described the interdependence of the entire universe. As part of that lecture, he talked about how people are made of stardust and are connected to the universe atomically. Tyson went on to say, 'We are in the universe and the universe is in us.' He also said that people are special because our advanced minds give us the ability to help the universe reflect upon itself. So what started out as dust from the 'Big Bang' can now meditate on the very meaning of that same 'Big Bang' many, many years later. At the end of that lecture, I felt a profound sense of connection to everything in existence -- my kids, the dog next door, and the entirety of existence throughout space and time. That was kind of a big deal. Everything seemed more sacred somehow. And it was one of those rare moments where I could honestly say that I tasted enlightenment.

Brian Brandsmeier, Buddhist

For Ron Rhodes, a night spent alone under the stars in Colorado's Mueller State Park proved the existence of God -- and helped him kick his pack-a-day smoking habit. Since that night over 20 years ago, Rhodes says he has never had so much as an urge to smoke another cigarette.

"... I pulled out my pack of Marlboros and I crushed them."

Ron Rhodes "A child of gods"
Even lifelong believers can have their faith rekindled in unlikely ways. For Jane France, a "Protestant Christian for over 70 years," it was her new neighbors -- a family of Muslim refugees -- who helped illuminate the similarities that unite all who worship God.
I have been a Protestant Christian for over 70 years. In 2004, I felt the presence of God fill me when I felt empty. No other words to describe it. I was in the waiting room at the hospital waiting to visit my daughter, a divorced mother of two teenage daughters. I had learned that during minor surgery doctors found that her earlier breast cancer had spread to her lungs. I couldn't imagine facing her with the news. That was 2004. Six months ago, God blessed my husband and I when a Muslim family -- mom, dad, three sons (20 to 8) and a 17-year-old daughter -- rented half a house next door. We live in a small town -- almost all white Christians -- 15 miles from Canton, Ohio. They entered the U.S. seeking asylum. Not sure if we adopted them or they adopted us, but we have become very close. We calmly discuss the similarities and differences in our religions, but know we all worship the same God. 15-year-old Hasnain is in the middle of extensive treatment for leukemia. We all pray for him, we drive them, support them, etc. Jesus' main commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, even when they are different.

Jane France, "A true believer"

You think actions speak louder than words

It's cliché, yes, but it also rings true for so many. Judging by the responses, several of you feel it matters far less what you believe than how you act on your beliefs.
Majel Moon-Brumley believes in personal responsibility, the interconnectedness of all living things, and above all, the power of kindness.

"... If we use kindness as our prime mover, we can transform the world."

Majel Moon-Brumley Buddhist
Nearly losing her son during surgery gave Jenn Coolidge a new perspective on life; our time on this Earth is short, so it's time we start making the most of it.
I realized that regardless of religion, we all follow the same tenets: Be kind, love one another, don't steal, etc. Life is a journey that we are all on. Love, honesty, kindness and respect for each other and the planet are achievable -- we just have to commit to making them happen. Having a son cross over and coming back while undergoing surgery also opened me up to the fact that THIS physical being we occupy (our bodies) is very temporary. Bottom line: Be kind. We're all in this together.

Jenn Coolidge, "Spiritually awake"

And Gilgamesh, who was raised Catholic but today describes himself as "humanist," said the overall message of the major religions is mostly the same -- it's how we put that message into action that matters.
I was raised Catholic, but from an early age, I found the mythologies/theologies of various cultures fascinating. The more ancient the story was, the more insatiable my curiosity became. As I grew up and became wiser (hopefully, at any rate), I began to look past the names and spheres of influence of the various deities, and tried to understand the message each story offered. Soon, I found more similarities than differences, once the totality of a given mythology was accounted for. That is not to say all religion is false; only that each -- including Atheism -- is just an attempt to interpret the universe at large via a form of philosophy and allegory. All religion is correct, in its own way. What matters most is what we do with the message given to us.

Gilgamesh, "Humanist"

You find strength in believing (or not)

Faith is a stabilizing force for many facing hardship. And then there are others, like David Brown Jr., who are able to discover what they really believe in as a result of tragic circumstances.
For Brown, it was an unimaginable crisis -- the abduction of his 11-month-old daughter -- and his struggle to forgive the perpetrator that made him a believer in the "power of love."

"'Daddy, everything is going to be OK.'"

David Brown Jr. "Connected to something bigger than me"
Angela was raised Christian, but the death of her grandmother when she was 10 years old led her to question everything she thought to be true. She explored other religions, and found that the only thing that made sense to her is nature, which forms the basis of what she calls her loosely Wiccan beliefs.
It began when I was 10 and my grandmother died. I started to question everything. My family was not overly religious, but loosely Christian. I never felt comfortable with that, though. After she died, I began exploring other faiths, looking for peace. By the time I was 15, I had decided that the only thing that made sense to me (and correlated with science) was nature. I discovered Polytheism and ritualistic concepts spoke to me. I felt most at peace with sunlight (or moonlight) on my face, Earth under my feet. Now, in my mid-30s, the 'label' I use is Wiccan, but even that is not the entire basis of my belief. I feel that faith is the most private thing a human has. Our connection to the Earth and each other, the sharing of energies, and the curiosity of self-awareness are what fuels our souls. I respect anyone's concept of God, but I know the flexibility of the unknown means interpretation of faith is individual. Perhaps it's supposed to be.

Angela, "Pagan -- nature based"

In hard times, sometimes all we need is a sign to show us that everything will be OK, that we aren't alone. After Hurricane Ike damaged his home in 2008, Clark Wiginton says he returned over a month later to find a surprising "love letter" that reaffirmed his faith in Jesus.
Cleaning up the ground floor of my house, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ike, everything on my desk in my study was soaked with water and ruined, except for my Bible. It sat right in the middle of several other things on my desk that had to be thrown away. The Bible had a normal cover that did not seal or zip -- just a book cover. The cover was moldy and muddy from flood water, but the pages inside were pristine -- dry and like new. The gold leading around the pages was shiny and perfect. Even the photos of my kids that I kept inside were crisp and perfect (I have photos to prove it). There had been five feet of ocean water in that room for more than 12 hours and I hadn't been in the house for over a month since the storm. In the middle of that terrible hurricane, here was a small love letter to me to remind me that God was in charge, even in the storm, and that it was going to be OK. I had followed Jesus before, but after that I'm Jesus for life, even in the storms.

Clark Wiginton, Christian

You seek beyond major religions

History is littered with evidence of humans' attempts to answer life's key questions. In modern times, most have found understanding through the world's major religions. But for some, it's the messages of other faiths -- including ancient ones -- that resonate for them.
Stephen Garth says he "did them all" -- dabbling in Islam, Christianity and other religions -- but he finally found what he was seeking through Ifa, a faith that traces its roots to West Africa.

"... If we use kindness as our prime mover, we can transform the world."

Stephen Garth Ifa (Yoruba religion)
Francis Marino grew up in the Catholic Church, but was exposed to the stories of Norse gods in high school English class. Marino says the gods of Norse Paganism provide an example we can aspire to because much like us mortals, their gods are hardly perfect.
I found a book on Norse myths. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and the stories of the saints interested me, but it was in high school in English class when I began to read the stories of the Greek and Roman gods, and finally the Norse Gods. It was not until I was a bit older that I began to get a different understanding of them, and the old customs and the new. Our faith is based in nature, ancestor veneration, focused on family, building better lives for us and our kin, for the future with respect for the past, the Earth and not pressing our views or beliefs on others, respecting the natural world, the spirits who dwell in it and everything connected to it. To us, the gods are not immortal, or perfect. Some even doubt they exist, but in the end we use their examples to drive us towards better lives -- to being strong people. We have many different views, beliefs. We do not attempt to explain the world, or the nature of man. We just strive to live and pass on our traditions and faith.

Francis Marino, "Norse Pagan"

You believe the search for meaning never ends

That we may never have all the answers we seek can be hard to accept, but for some in our audience, the idea is liberating, fuel for a life of curiosity and exploration.
Abhinand Raghavan identifies as Hindu, but says his "very religious" upbringing brought with it feelings of guilt when he fell short of adhering to the "rules of God" -- until he realized the challenge of becoming a better man was one he had to tackle on his own.

"That was something that I had to figure out by myself."

Abhinand Raghavan Hindu
For K. Robinson, exploration of the world's religions began after leaving home at age 22. That quest has led Robinson to a simple but powerful conclusion: Regardless of what you believe, striving to be a better person is all that matters.
I was 22. I left my parents' home, their rules and their religion. I had finished my undergraduate degree and I was out in the world. There were so many 'new' people. There were religions that I had never experienced -- Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs. The world was filled with new experiences, conversations and thoughts. I have come to the conclusion that no matter what religion you are, or are not, as long as you are good, kind and giving in both friendship, your time, money and self ... you count as a human being. You meet the criteria. If there is a heaven or afterlife, you're in. If there isn't, you did your best. You touched people's lives. You changed people's lives. What more could be expected of a human being?

K. Robinson, "Questioning"

Howard Acosta points to a remarkable experience as a child as the event that launched a personal faith journey. While mostly prescribing to Christianity today, Acosta does "adhere to other truths in several other faiths," and believes there's more to this world than what we can touch and see.
My brother and I saw two spirits with our own eyes -- I know factually that there's more to this life than the material world. I was 10 years old and he was 12. We were living in base housing while stationed at Newport, Rhode Island. We had just snuck downstairs to make some chocolate milk. Our mother had just stepped out next door to the townhouse attached to ours to play cards and thought she had put us to bed. As we were returning upstairs to our bedroom, my brother in front of me almost to the top, we heard a wood-clap noise behind us and I turned to look and saw a green, transparent, floating figure with arms and legs but no apparent digits, that was about the same height as me. It wiggled, as if startled that I saw it, ran through the stairwell wall and it was gone. I froze. My older brother said, 'Did you see that?!' We cried, and he said let's go call my mom on the downstairs phone. I thought it'd be safer to use the upstairs phone, because that 'thing' was behind us, but I followed him, crying along the way. Our mom said we were both having a bad dream and to go back to bed. Years later, my brother and I were attending a Bible study about 'Demons and Angels,' and I was telling this account to the group, and my brother chimed in to correct me that the wood-clap noise seemed to come from the top of the stairs, where he saw the spirit described the same way. There were two of them! One behind us on the landing and one in front at the top of the stairs that my brother saw. Since that experience, I've had to explore religion and various faiths. I'm compelled to search. I've settled mostly on the Christian faith (mainly because the son of God, love-story appeals to my wiring), but I also adhere to other truths in several other faiths.

Howard Acosta, "a believer"