I’m Not Religious, Am I?

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I’m not religious. Or at least I didn’t think I was.

Raised in a secular Jewish household, I grew up associating religious holidays with comforting food and the warmth of family. Shabbat every Friday meant my dad’s homemade pizza and dinner with the whole family, Passover meant my grandmother’s matzo ball soup and laughing with cousins. I was never forced to go to synagogue, never made to learn Hebrew for my bat mitzvah, never prohibited from exhaling a strained “oh my God!” in moments of exasperation. My parents, both physicians, gave me space to construct my own ideas about spirituality.

However, having two parents who studied science for the greater part of their lives leads to a certain type of childhood experience. Perhaps it was the Big Bang picture book read to me at five years old by my mother or the simplified explanation of Einstein’s theory of relativity by my father at 10; maybe it was the unsettling ER story or the occasional somber news of a patient diagnosed with cancer. Surrounded by the logic and reason of the physical world, I began to place my faith in science.

In my mind, there was a clear divide between science and religion. On one hand was logic—tangible, conclusive. And on the other hand was emotion—ambiguous, invisible.

Then I started playing piano.

At seven, I worked through basic classical etudes, now at 17, I play exclusively jazz. At first, practicing piano was just another box to check. Now I find that music is the closest thing I have to religion. Every day I set aside two hours of my time to practice. Similar to a time of focused worship, each session is deliberate and demanding. Yet during these two hours, I feel a sense of release. At once I am deeply engaged, and at the same time, I stop thinking. Often the time stretches and slips, twisting around my fingertips—I’ll look up and find it’s been an hour (maybe I should tell Einstein about this trick). For me, this phenomenon is by far the most spiritual aspect of music.

And that’s just solo piano. When I’m playing with other people, I feel even more that what we’re doing is quasi-religious. We communicate and bond through sound, listening much more than talking. We support each other in our different roles: the bass and drums ground the group; the piano provides the color; the horns tell the story. I meet new people through music, and we grow closer through our joint dedication to this faith.

Sometimes, sitting by myself as a sheet of sunlight floats through my window, illuminating the specks of dust frozen in the air, listening to Miles Davis, I get this itch of wonder. How does such beauty exist randomly, spontaneously, without some sort of purpose?

Music, to me, is unexplainable. Holy.

And the most mystifying thing is this: music is entirely rooted and reflected in science. We are driven to tears by simple changes in the frequencies of sound waves. We exult when certain wavelengths combine in different proportions. Just as the path of a quantum particle may take infinite forms, the journey of a jazz improvisation has infinite possibilities from the starting note to the final breath. Just as gravity establishes the foundations of what we know to be true about the physical world, the gravity of a tonal center anchors all harmony in music.

Through music, I experience spirituality, yet I also find reflections and affirmations of the fundamental laws of science. Music has helped me soften the lines of my beliefs, proving that religion can be found through the beauty of sound, in science itself.

So maybe I am religious.

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