I became vegan about the same time that I became an atheist, about eight years ago. I've watched those around me who leave religion or who have gone through faith transitions do similar things. Some give up attending church and use their Sundays to serve meals at homeless shelters, or to spend time hiking or experiencing the awe and peace of nature. Obviously, some have turned to other Christian religions. But some also have become interested in "energy healings," in crystals, in yoga and meditation, or in Wiccan or pagan worship ceremonies. I always figured this was because people were changing their views about what was right and wrong, but now I wonder if we do this as humans because we are trying to find a way to fill a spiritual void.
Growing up as a devout Mormon, it seemed like every question was already asked and answered, like every part of life looked clear through a Mormon lens. If I wanted to know if I should join the swim team in high school, I only had to pray about it. When I spent a year in Germany as a teen, I was convinced that it was because of God's intervention. After all, I had exactly the amount of money in my bank account that the travel agent I called first said a flight to Germany would cost. When I was trying to choose between Amhert College (my dream school) and Brigham Young University, which offered me the "Ezra Taft Benson" Scholarship, the highest academic and service scholarship awarded by the Mormon church university system, it seemed clear where God was calling me to go.
Similarly, I prayed to know a few years later if the Mormon man I was dating was the "right" person to marry. Once married, scriptures, prayer, temple worship, Sunday school, all helped me make decisions about how many children to have. Sometimes I had spiritual visions of the child who was waiting for me to become pregnant and join our family. I even prayed to ask God about how I should revise the novel I was working on, or which agent I should send a manuscript to. I prayed to meet the right agent or editor at conferences I was going to.
And then came my doubts about Mormonism and its all-consuming hold on my life. I first rejected the Mormon view of God as a being who watched over all of His children in meticulous detail, giving answers about such things as what clothing to wear or what food to eat. After that, the history of Mormonism itself was suspect. But if I wasn't Mormon, then who was I? And more importantly, how did I figure out what to do with my life? If there was no right or wrong in absolute terms anymore, how did I choose between the myriad of options standing before me? If I wasn't going to go to hell for doing one thing and going to heaven for another, what did I choose?
When you have a spiritual void in your life, it seems obvious now that you want to fill it. My former devotion to the Mormon "Word of Wisdom" transformed into a determination not to eat anything that came from animal sources. Since I no longer relied on God to protect the world from evil, I had to make my own choices about food to help the environment. I no longer thought that God decided how many days I would live, but had to seek out the best scientific information to decide what food and exercise was most likely to lead to a longer life. I became interested in other environmental causes, from decreasing my own carbon footprint to cycling- and pedestrian-friendly city development. And I began to exercise in a way that I can only describe as akin to religious devotion, sometimes doing two or even three sessions a day, and spending nearly all day on the weekends at my new religious "worship service."
Other changes in my life came from political and social movements. Where I had once spent hours helping with quilting projects or raising money for various arms of the church, I turned now to fundraising for local schools in need, and then to international schools. I became the Chair of Writing For Charity, and helped people donate $25,000 to refugees in Europe. Some of these projects were things Mormon friends applauded. Others were not. I wonder sometimes when I step back from myself if I was waiting on some level for a new "gold" star from some source outside of myself, someone like God.
Talking to a friend about the need to fill in the spaces that leaving a religion created, she said that she waited for six months after she left her church because she didn't want to just throw things at the hole. She wanted to fill the hole with herself, which she felt her church had long been suppressing. It's something I've thought a lot about since then. Am I looking around for things to fill my spiritual void with, rather than looking more carefully at myself? Or are the choices that I've made really good ones? I'm not sure that after a faith crisis I can ever find concrete answers to these questions, since I've also given up the idea of "right" and "wrong" in any absolute sense, but it won't stop me from trying new things out, either.