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.
Rachel Hutto says God helped her survive a difficult childhood, which solidified her unwavering Christian faith.
At 14 years old, a debate in English class led Ben V. to fully understand the power of his relationship with a higher power.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.