Like a lot of women of a certain age, I’ve taken up yoga. And because I don’t go halfway on my clichés, I’ve done immersion yoga weekends, learned the Sanskrit names for various ways of being upside down and at least once referred to “my practice.” Someday I’ll wake up at an ashram in India only to discover that half the people there are from Brooklyn or some other stressed-out part of the U.S.
So it’s no surprise that when I went on vacation earlier this month I ended up in a corner of upstate New York with lots of super-serious yoga classes, the kind with a little statue of a Hindu god in the front of the room. One day I went to a class on what the teacher said was the birthday of the Hindu god Ganesh. He’s the elephant deity that you see on T-shirts and socks and other things sold at Urban Outfitters.
The instructor told us about Ganesh’s history and how in India, he’s considered a remover of obstacles. Moments later we, a room full of well-meaning, spandex-wearing, mostly aging and somewhat tattooed women were chanting Ganesh mantras in Sanskrit. I’ve always been a little seduced by the ritualistic part of yoga. The om-ing and all that wishing happiness to others makes you feel virtuous as you roll up your mat. Even more embarrassing, I had half expected Ganesh to remove a few of my personal obstacles. After all, I did devote 10 minutes to chanting about his grace.
Since then, I’ve questioned my casual pursuit of spirituality. I’m agnostic about God, and there’s just a smallish space where faith might fit into my life. So I check the “spiritual but not religious” box. And, like a lot of people, I have become an acolyte of the church of self-improvement, choosing appealing bits of other faiths to better my lot. I’m just the kind of person that author and pastor Lillian Daniel has aptly mocked, writing, “You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.”
People like me are on the rise. The “Nones,” those who are not affiliated with any religion, or are agnostic, or just plain atheist, are now almost a quarter of the population, says a recent study out of Duke University. There are 19 million more Nones now than there were in 2007. And at 56 million strong, there are more Americans who are unaffiliated than there are Catholics and mainline Protestants, according to a 2015 Pew Research report. Fewer than half of young adults ages 18 to 30 are sure God exists. In a few years, the largest “religion” in the U.S. will be None.
Like many Nones, I grew up in a mixed-faith household (those are increasing too). My mother Mary Anne was a Catholic until she eloped with my atheist German father. And though she was educated by the nuns and had a college degree from the Jesuits, she never went back to the church. Mom was still a believer, but she didn’t raise us that way. We exchanged Christmas presents and dressed up for Easter but never spoke of prayer. We’d ask her about God and all the miraculous stories from the Bible, and she’d say, “Don’t take everything so literally.” That made sense, but I couldn’t understand how she could be so sure that there was a Creator at all. Skepticism came easily to me then and now.
She didn’t go back to the church when she entered the final terrible stage of the emphysema that would kill her at 73. (Like so many nurses in her day, she had smoked for decades.) But almost by accident, a month before she died she stopped at the Our Lady of Sorrows church where she had celebrated her first Communion. It was a freezing November day, and for an hour, my mom and her oxygen tank, my uncle and my atheist dad sat in the empty church.
I don’t know if she prayed. But I do know that my mother had the certainty that she would go “home,” as she called it, where her long-gone parents and my sister were. It was a comfort I envied as I watched her slip away a few days after Christmas. I could be grateful for the unending kindness of nurses and drugs like morphine, but when she was gone, it felt like a void had opened up. Then, as now, I longed for faith.
That essential human need might just be proof that God does exist. Or so argues an observant friend of mine. We have innate cravings for food and sleep and love, and so perhaps a desire to identify with a higher power is not an accident of our design, he says. That built-in yearning is there because there’s something worth yearning for. It’s the kind of logic that my mother, the student of Jesuits, would have loved.
This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.