Like Becky, I met Tristan through Tribe Writers. Because I learned about the tribe through my former writing coach, I assumed it was a Christian writers group. We all know what assuming does. Tribe Writers is a diverse group, for aspiring, new, and seasoned writers from all walks of life, and varying stories of belief - Christian and otherwise.
Tristan initiated our connection, asking to interview me about Mat and I leaving the church. Reading over what I sent him almost a year ago is like interacting with another version of myself - a layer of me which has been carefully examined, peeled back and shed. The interview was never published and when I started the Discovery series, I knew Tristan would return the favor.
It would be fun to sit down with him one day for a cup of coffee and wax poetic about God and science and church and the history of our beliefs.
Responses by Tristan Donofrio
What do you believe, and why?
I don't believe in the supernatural, and it makes the universe feel so much larger. Not believing in the supernatural made learning about nature, not about me. Learning how consistent natural laws are among things too distant to be directly experienced strikes me with awe.
I have relationships with people that I consider special. However, I don't believe any one person is special. We take ourselves and our fate too seriously. We often view the earth and even the solar system as the whole universe. But each galaxy is composed of hundreds of billions of stars, and there are one hundred billion more galaxies in the observable universe.
I believe the birth and death of stars is our story. The atoms that make up everything you see, used to exist in a star. Now those atoms are in your cell phone, your kitchen table, inside you. It's much different than believing this world is everything that ever was or will be and nothing in the sky ever moves. Gaps in knowledge have often been cited as a reason for the necessity of a creator. Whenever our knowledge is advanced, a new gap is cited. There is an endless supply of gaps. Another word for gap is excuse.
I believe mixing laws and religious interpretations is dangerous. It negates all other perspectives. Imagine being compelled by law to follow any religion fundamentally different from yours. Not so benign anymore.
I think much of human behavior can already be understood, even the unconscious desires that feel random to us. According to a study by Duke University cited in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit, as much as 45% of our daily decisions are completely autonomously, based out of habit. Processes in our bodies are automated, and making decisions is just one way. Is there a conscious choice made each time we produce new white blood cells? How do we know more are needed? Can we will ourselves to secrete more glycogen from our muscles?
I believe there is more to life than our thoughts. Thinking has its place; it's survival based. It helps us solve problems and learn how to interact with people. But the mind likes us to believe its place is everywhere and that it's permanent.
How did you discover your beliefs?
I was raised in an affluent Protestant church and briefly married in the Catholic church many years ago. I even considered conversion to Catholicism, but in the first meeting, they were already making a big ask. I was demanded to believe a part of a story I had just heard. The social coercion was transparent. I felt cheated. I came to the conclusion that there was no real substance behind what they were asking me to believe. I knew it was not for me, so I explored other perspectives. I'd always had a bad feeling about organized belief. I believed there was truth to be found elsewhere, but I hadn't had much experience with alternate ideas growing up.
Shortly after I was divorced, I made friends who were into a more "new age" spirituality. There was nothing formal at all, just general optimistic - I'm gonna live forever! - beliefs. These beliefs would often piggyback on a scientific topic such as the laws of heat and energy. Science made it more plausible to them. I once made the mistake of repeating some of these beliefs to someone I was dating at the time, and she gave me one of the craziest looks I've seen. In that context, I deserved it. But I began reading the work of biologists and astrophysicists, and my mind was opened to more beauty and elegance than had ever been captured in a sermon. I wanted this form of spirituality, free from judgment and tradition.
The author whose had the most influence on my life is Carl Sagan. His ideas inspire the perspective I carry with me. He struck a balance between rigorous scientific thinking and treating all people with empathy. I've always been empathetic. However, the scientific thinking part helped me deduce what was real versus what likely isn't. I believe free inquiry is important to have a diversity of ideas and solutions.
How do you interact with your beliefs?
I think we spend so much time in autopilot, lost in our thoughts and habits. I have to be present to interact with what I believe. So I ground myself with my meditation practice. I've found the more we look for our personal identity, the more it disappears from conscious awareness. Being able to enjoy the present moment is a timeless experience we all have the ability to access. There is a certain joy in not being tricked by your mind into some repetitive thought pattern. We tell ourselves the same stories over and over again that it's hard to believe a new narrative when the dominant ones have so much influence over our thoughts.
To me, being present makes life feel much lighter; it reduces anxiety and increases appreciation for all life.
What do you do when you doubt your beliefs?
I laugh in amusement - because that very question reminds me that I'm lost in thought. But I'm still an advocate for critical thinking. It's something I've thought about for a long time. I believe institutionalized faith is a slippery slope. All it takes is one step to find yourself in a place of permanent regret and guilt.
Over the years, I've learned that some people are taught that god increases your tolerance to pain, in response to certain decisions you've made. It makes me wonder, what about committing the dreaded "thought crime" and feeling guilty for having normal thoughts? This breaks my heart that people live this way.
I believe fear is used by institutions to get you to do the "right" thing for the wrong reasons. And that's why this all feels so complicated and leads to doubt.
To read more My Discovery Process submissions, you can find them here.