March 11th, 2012
01:20 AM ET

My Take: Jesus would be OK with card counting

Editor's Note: David Drury is featured in the documentary "Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians” and is writing a book about his card-counting adventures.

By David Drury, Special to CNN

(CNN)–“Shackled by a heavy burden/'neath a load of guilt and shame/ then the hand of Jesus touched me/ and now I am no longer the same.”

So begins the popular William Gaither hymn. By popular, I mean Elvis once recorded a version of it, which is what it takes for a hymn anymore.

When I stumbled into a church on the outskirts of Las Vegas one Sunday morning in 2007, I was shackled with my own heavy burden of sorts. I had $80,000 in cash hidden on my person. It was crammed into pockets, stuffed into socks and strapped beneath my clothes. The pastor was just getting his sermon fired up when I slipped into a back row with all the grace of a stiff-limbed Frankenstein.

So much for going unnoticed.

The pastor stopped midsentence and stared my way. Had he cleared his throat or even made an offhanded comment about punctuality, I would have understood. Instead, he called my first and last name into the microphone, and every head turned.

Believe it or not, I had never been to this church. While I traveled to Vegas often, my time was spent in casinos, not churches.

Blackjack is a beatable game. With card counting, perfect decision-making and plenty of capital, you can gain and cash in on an advantage against the house. East Coast college students, known as the MIT Team, used the method to plunder casinos in the 1980s and 1990s, inspiring books and movies and making card counting famous. But people have been employing this winning strategy in casinos for 50 years.

Mark Treas stands outside of a casino.

A card counter assigns a value to every card as it is dealt out of the shoe. This creates a running count that always changes and allows a player to determine when a statistical advantage falls to him or her, by virtue of more aces and face cards than usual being poised to appear. More faces mean the dealer will bust more often.

More aces mean more natural blackjacks, which pay the player at a higher rate. A card counter keeps bets low when the casino has the statistical advantage and raises them high when the advantage shifts to them.

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When I lost my Seattle office job in 2006, this was the strange career path down which I found myself traveling. I was not alone.

It started when I met a guy at church named Ben. He had made a small fortune counting cards. Ben was putting a team together comprising people he’d found through mostly church connections — pastors, worship leaders and students of theology. This was the team I trained for and joined. As card counters, our common faith was incidental, but as team members it held us together.

A scene from the new documentary Holy Rollers about Chrstians who count cards at casinos.

We took our craft to casinos, from Vegas to Atlantic City to Biloxi, Mississippi, to Bremerton, Washington. We won millions of dollars. The money was not funneled into any ministry or religious consortium.

Instead, the winnings were split between those who invested in the operation, those who managed the team - which ran between 10 and 25 players – and the players, who didn’t risk any of their own money at the tables. As a player I made what amounted to a modest annual salary with no financial risk and maintained, on average, a 10-hour workweek.

We returned home with the gift of time to our ministries and families and, yes, to plenty of questions.

If the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, as the Bible suggests, what business did a bunch of Christians have throwing around big money on a game of chance? For us, chance had nothing to do with it.

To count cards is to remove the gamble. Anything can happen in one hand or on one night, but slowly, over time, the advantage you earn by executing perfect playing decisions and betting according to your advantage bears itself out. Playing the stock market is much more of a gamble.

Yes, money is attractive, and we dealt with a lot of it. Tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. You can’t withdraw $50,000 from a casino ATM and it can take a half -day of red tape to get as much out of an account at a big bank. Our assets had to be liquid.

Until we had the better sense to put it in safety deposit boxes, we kept our cash in freezers and under mattresses. For our investors and for tax reasons, we were tasked with reporting our wins and losses accurately, but at any time any one of us could have pocketed thousands without a hint of suspicion.

While we were left to weigh our own motives, as a team we were forced to trust one another with money that could have collapsed the business if it ever went missing.

We were an uncommon fellowship, to be sure. But while we never claimed a full understanding on how God viewed our activities, I felt that he never left the room. He was ever present in our musings, discussions and deliberations. With the math on our side, we took confidence in the fact that that we lacked any of the traits of wild gamblers. But were we deceptive by hiding our intentions at the tables? Were we providing a service to the world by playing a card game? The answers varied.

Mark Treas baptized a woman before heading off to a casino to card count in the documentary 'Holy Rollers.'

Which is worse? To declare your path the righteous one and retire all questions of God’s will to the back of your mind, or to seek them out?

We chose the latter, engaging the hard questions as they arose rather than pretending to corner the market on righteousness. We wrestled with them in a way that we came to know intimately the stink of our own individual natures. But there was something pure born out of abandoning an easy, comfortable existence for a true fellowship with my teammates that came with plenty of hard questions.

Casinos have a dubious reputation as the gateway to vice and temptation. I think that’s unfair. I had Internet access and a bar around the corner from my home, so the casinos never represented any particular threat to my morality I didn’t already have at my fingertips.

Maybe that day I stumbled into that Las Vegas-area church I was looking for a familiar face in a strange town. For all the secrecy and questions, maybe I was looking for a little validation, too. I knew two of the pastors on staff because they had served at the church of my childhood.

One of those pastors was at the pulpit that day. He called my name out when he recognized me. After the service I had a brief conversation with the other in the church lobby.

“What brings you to Las Vegas?” he asked.

“I’m on a card-counting team.”

“Well, God can change anyone.”

What? I thought.

“I know a young man,” he said, “who came to Las Vegas for a dodgeball tournament. Now he’s on staff with us. Who knows what God has in store for YOU?”

This man of the cloth had essentially stuffed the cloth right in my mouth, as if to say that even I could be saved from whatever silly game I was playing. But he needn’t have tossed me a lifeline because I didn’t need saving.

Engage me. Ask the hard questions. Be confounded as I am confounded. But don’t write me off. We are all in the water together. Faith is a journey, and God calls us into relationship.

I remember a man at my table once who was furious with the aggressive way I was playing. “A fool and his money are soon parted,” he said in a huff. For six years I stood ready as ever to be the fool. But me and the money, by way of card-counting wins, never parted.

The team ended with the making of a documentary about our journey. My blackjack career ended with it. I have taken to writing my tales in the hopes of forging a new journey that doesn’t involve stacks of cash. I guess I am a gambling man after all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Drury.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (1,821 Responses)
  1. Don Camp

    I have tried to imagine Jesus in a casino playing cards to win bundles of money. I can't seem to do it. I think these guys are either not serious about following Jesus' example or have no clue what that means. They are simply trying to justify greed. Good luck.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  2. Kevin B

    The ONLY was to make a living at any form of gambling is to seek out a clear and unequal advantage over your opponent, and exploiting that advantage. Casinos do it by making the odds in their favor – professional poker players do it by only playing people they know they can beat. Knowingly taking advantage of another person's weakness is unethical, by any real standard.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • A

      Wouldn't your definition of gambling apply to any sport? Consider boxing. If one boxer's eye begins to swell and his vision is hampered or limited from that side, what side of that boxer's head do you think his opponent is going to concentrate his attack? Wouldn't his opponent have an advantage?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Kevin B

      Right – the cut eye becomes a weakness – a weakness that wasn't there at the beginning of the match – and it's something that the ref keeps a look out for, and ends the match when the weakness cannot be overcome.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  3. Bazoing

    These are the sort of people who give church a bad name. When they are concerned about you, that translates to gossip. Have a look at the website: http://www.holyrollersthemovie.com/ It is a racket like get rich via real estate seminars. And yes, they have other "ministries"; predators have these things by the dozen in any large church. Do not blame these monsters on Jesus. Look at his words not the trash that is preached by people getting rich by pretending to minister.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • smeeker

      That web site is just an ad selling DVDs.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Bazoing

      To smeeker: the site is selling a whole program. Their advertising video has all the stuff from which this "news story" was cut. It shows more about these people including them giving training courses and other "ministerial" activities.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • Bazoing

      To smeeker: the site is selling DVDs about the racket. You do not have to buy the DVD to see their advertising video on the site. That free advertising video is same video from which this "news story" was cut. It shows more about these people including glimpses of them training courses and other "ministerial" activities. It even reveals that "non-Christians" are included in their teams.

      March 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  4. mrog

    everyone has skeltons in there closet!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  5. d

    Card counting is not cheating nor gambling. It's essentially a math problem. There is nothing hypocritical about a Christian card counting team unless it's hypocritical for a Christian to use math, logic and formulae in which case what would you call Sir Isaac Newton or Copernicus.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  6. BL

    Of course Jesus wouldn't like card counting. He was definitely a Texas Hold 'em poker guy. He was very successful, because he didn't have any "tells." He was famous for always being "all in."

    March 11, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  7. Bazoing

    These are the sort of people who give church a bad name. When they are concerned about you, that translates to gossip. Have a look at their website: http://www.holyrollersthemovie.com/ It is a racket like get rich via real estate seminars. And yes, they have other "ministries" the predictors have these things by the dozen in any large church. Do not blame these monsters on Jesus. Look at his words not the trash that is preached by people getting rich by pretending to minister.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  8. Joseph

    HOW in the world is "Jesus" relevent in any way in 2012?....Why bring his name up?.....it isn't even a historical fact that he even existed. Who cares what "Jesus" would have done.....it's time to grow up and put your big boy pants on...and put down the mother goose fairy tale book.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Gumby

      Preach it, Brother Joseph!

      March 11, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • TimWilson

      I hate to dispute you, but do not want anyone reading these comments to be misguided by you. You do know that only a few extreme historians believe Jesus didn't exist. It is proven in history that Jesus did live and was public ally executed. These are facts in history, so please know your facts before you just regurgitate incorrect facts told to you by incorrect people.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      @TimWilson – Sorry, but you are incorrect. There is absolutely no independent evidence that Jesus even existed besides one small mention in the writings of Josephus, and that is even in doubt by some scholars. But I will grant you the point that a man named Jesus may have actually existed and may have even been crucified by the Romans. But if so, he was a martyr. And as with most martyrs, his life and deeds were blown all out of proportion. It's just ancient mythology. Period. End of story.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • TimWilson

      @Charles Darwin I'm glad you at least know of Josephus as so few people do, but i'm sorry you obviously have not read much of him. Josephus mentioned Jesus life, death, and his disciple's reporting of his resurrection countless times. Now, neither you nor I existed in the first century, so I will accept what someone who lived and was a historian then. So, stop downplaying certain historians that, "one small mention in the writings of Josephus, and that is even in doubt by some scholars." He was mentioned many times over and over, and very few scholars are in doubt. He was an accurate historian from the first century C.E.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      Tim Wilson is actual correct. The historians who believe Jesus did not exist are a small extreme fringe. There is more support for Jesus existing than Plato but I seldom here him being questioned to exist. Here is a quote from an agnostic from commonsenseatheism to address the ideas of atheists "Myth theory is quickly becoming an article of
      faith among atheists. More and more, I see atheists
      turning into a quasi-religious group that are
      just as stubbornly ignorant of anything that
      doesn’t line up with their worldview as any
      good fundamentalist Christian."

      March 11, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Get Real

      Tim Wilson: "Josephus mentioned Jesus life, death, and his disciple's reporting of his resurrection countless times."

      Countless? Do you call TWO times countless? Besides, Josephus was only reporting what the members of this new religion *claimed* about Jesus. He was born after the man supposedly died. Josephus was a Jew, and remained a Jew until he died. Don't you think that if he thought that this Jesus was really "God", he would have joined up with the believers?

      March 11, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Joseph

      TimWilson: They are absolutely NOT facts of history. Sorry to disappoint you. I am actually very well versed in Early Christian history as well as the creatkion of the Bible. You get your facts straight. Education is the key to combat ignorance.

      March 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • TimWilson

      What history books have you read, have you ever read Josephus?, he mentions Jesus. I cannot prove to you whether Jesus was divine or not, but the fact that he existed is recorded in history, for you to deny that is for you to just deny recorded facts. Why trust any history then.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • TimWilson

      By the way, I find it amusing that Joseph and Charles Darwin keep arguing their opinions. They are not presenting facts in their arguments. If you want a good argument, start using logic and facts; not your opinion- that's called politics, not theology.

      March 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  9. Marissa

    What is it about stories that have a religious overtone attract those who claim to hate religion. Why would people subject themselves to that which causes them anger and an excuse to belittle others. What is it that causes people to search for places where they find a dishonest way to place themselves and their intelligence above others? Thios answers will not be found here becasue they lie deep within the individual who believes the outside world and other people are the source of their chosen discontent with life. Good like guys.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      Christians wrote the book on belittling others. If you're not a Christian, you'll be tortured FOREVER in a burning hell. (nice guy your god). If you're gay, you're a pervert and will be tortured forever in a burning hell. If you use birth control, you'll be tortured forever in a burning hell. What is wrong with people that they accept ridiculous old myths as fact???

      March 11, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Jake

      The answer is simple – it is the same reason that people in the Peace Corps go places where there is famine. Those of us who consider religion to be a terrible negative thing for the world come here to fight evil. If religion didn't actively make the world a worse place, we wouldn't go out of our way to fight it. Unfortunately, it does.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      Charles and Jake are confusing is and ought. Just because something "ought" not be doesnt mean it isnt. That is a very immature and childish way to look at the world. I dont like war either but does that mean it doesnt exist?

      March 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Joseph

      Marrisa: We are doing this to help protect our children and the next generation of children. They are our future. They need to be protected and educated so they don't fall victim to this indoctrination. The central story of Christianity is built on a lie and it grew from there to the primitive, childish, negative, harmful fairy tale we have today. The truth is important. A world view should not be built on a lie.....btw I am not an atheist. You don't have to be an atheist to know Christianity is a man made myth.

      March 11, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  10. .

    Yet another swipe at Christianity by the liberal elite who run CNN, where anti Christian bigotry is not only supported, it is also encouraged.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • vintage274

      How do you figure? The article was written by the Christian man who describes himself as part of a Christian, church-going band of card counters. He talks about examining the role of his faith in his career choice. How is that in any way liberal or a product of the CNN media?

      March 11, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      If anything, the opposite is true. It seems like lately CNN has made it their mission to push Christianity on their readers through their religious blog. This isn't news, it's blatant promotion of ancient myths as fact. I guess they realize that most people in America believe in this nonsense so they feel like they should pander to them to get more readers.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Joseph

      Don't you think it's about time people fought back against Christianity? We have children to think about. How to prevent our vulnerable kids from being exposed to this ignorant, primitive indoctrination. We have to fight back it's the right thing to do and moral thing to do. I am NOT an atheist by the way but I and millions of others know Christianity is a man made mythology.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Brandon

      This man is no more a hypocrite than any other wealthy Republican Christian. It's hardly CNNs fault that 99% of Christians don't follow the teaching of Jesus. We should be happy, because the 1% that do are crazy as they come.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Gumby

      Yes, of course. Everything is the fault of the "liberal elite". *eyeroll*

      March 11, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      @Joseph – Exactly. And also, the evangelical crowd want to force religion on you and your children through legislation. They want to bring back school prayer so they can indoctrinate your kids in the classroom. They want "Intelligent Design" taught in schools. (Unintelligent Design would be a more appropriate description). They want to put religious symbols; 10 Commandments, nativity scenes, etc. etc. in government buildings. They have to be opposed at every opportunity.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  11. j mann

    I have met too many hypocrites who spout their born again BS to count. Talking about Satan one minute and cheating on their wives the next. But, hey, it's okay, I am not perfect, just forgiven, they say. This story reeks of their ability to justify anything. Good thing the casinos didn't catch them, they'd be talking to Jesus in some back room, crying out for help.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  12. Gumby

    Jesus loves money. Watch one of his ministers in action. The greed is revolting.


    March 11, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • sybaris

      Religion, the ultimate ponzi scheme

      March 11, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      Religion – the opiate of the ignorant masses.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  13. Horus

    I guess if the guy who said that "it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven" is ok with Rick Warren, megachurches, and the pope wearing gold vestments with prada shoes, then what's a little card counting by the average Christian hypocrite?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  14. LuisWu

    Ha ha, it makes perfect sense that people who are stupid enough to gamble in casinos are stupid enough to also believe in ancient mythology.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      Am I to believe that someone like you, a person who comes to insult the beliefs of others, is so intelligent? Despite the best in atheistic scholarship, I continually see them getting their @$$es handed to them in debates with the Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. Might want to research things before you spout your mouth off and look foolish.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Marissa

      Ah, the act of inflating ones intelligence level through the use of the word 'stupid'. If that's what you need to feel good about yourself...I'm stupid too. Feelin better yet?

      March 11, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • LuisWu

      I like the phrase "Christian apologists". They should indeed apologize for being so stupid. Winning debates?? HA HA HA HA HA. So, someone who blindly accepts ancient mythology as fact will win a debate over someone who uses logic, reason and objectivity to make an intelligent decision? HA HA HA HA HA. Yeah, right. Whatever. Wanna buy the Brooklyn Bridge? Grow a brain dude.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Charles Darwin

      I totally agree. It never cease to amaze me how people can cling to old myths as if they were actually real.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • j mann

      Exactly – stone age beliefs brought forward. Total disregard for science, truth and decency. Everybody but them goes to hell. What kind of god is that, anyway, sentencing his own creations to an eternity in hell? A made up god, that's what. Not to say there is not something, or an everything, a mystery, a source, a universal consciousness worth knowing. But Jehovah, killer of his own son, up in the sky, judging us – no, that is a lie. Pity anyone who believes it.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • CL

      William L Criag is an inept dunce, who bends logic into Bavarian pretzels. He blows out the same tired arguments as any other apologist. Think for yourself and don't pretend to know things that you cannot possibly know, not mention have the humility to accept uncertainty. These self serving Christian hypocrites, as is plainly laid out in this piece, shows that they only are concerned with the only reality that matters and that is the one we are in ... here on this planet.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • EvolvedDNA

      AAR..if a gamble is anything less than 100 percent certainty then any person of faith must contend that they cannot say with 100 percent certainly that god exists..or it would not be faith. Therefore gambling and belief are the same. You may feel that the odds are in your favour but that is no more than a hunch .

      March 11, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • AreAtheistReasonable?

      Insulting and using the "ad hominem" logical fallacy is the typical side-effect that atheists display after getting burned in a true philosophical debate with WLC. Here is a quote from commonsenseatheism when a particular athiest is burned by WLC: "What Joe touches upon – although I don’t presume
      to speak for him – is that logic is a very poor
      and entirely inadequate tool for understanding
      nature and reality." LMAO

      March 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • CL

      WLC is nothing more than a traveling side show. A seller of cure-all tonic on a talk show circuit. He has nothing more to offer other than being a 'professional' debater. People like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett do actual work, they actually have a reputable profession. Anyway, the veil of ignorance on the faithful is almost ironclad, so I don't suspect to win any points here.

      March 11, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  15. Pattycat

    Card playing with intelligence and patience is hard work. The harder you work, the better your pay. I think the better question would be how you live your life with the money you earn....that would determine if Jesus is ok with your choices....

    March 11, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  16. Reality

    Only for the newbies:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man or a card-counting follower would do or say?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • sybaris


      To call yourself a "Christian" is probably a misnomer. People practicing that brand of religion should call themselves "Paulists".

      March 11, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Reality

      Christianity really should be named for The Five Voodoo Doctors aka P, M, M, L and J with their changing of wine into blood and bread into living tissue and the raising of at least two dead people.

      March 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  17. Horus

    Funny how these Christians are constantly able to rationalize making lots of easy money when their own holy book says to NOT do that. I guess at these odds, no one can afford to be pious!

    March 11, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  18. jon

    why do you all refer to the name of the messiah as jesus. have you search what the name of jesus really is? its all a lie! its just another form of control over the people. that isnt even the real name of the messiah in the first place. its a false name. its very wise to study things out and not believe everything you hear.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  19. Robert

    Gambling winnings are dirty money because they take food off of families' tables, clothes off families' backs and mortgage payments that need to be made. It also contributes to people's gambling addictions. Family break-ups occur. Marriages are destroyed. If this fellow believes that Jesus approves of activities that contribute to peoples' destruction, then he does not know the God that I do.

    March 11, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • roger

      One doubts Jesus was a christian. but het the feeling that he was a spiritual man, but slipped when he lost his temper -his human side. Jesus would probably considered gambling a mockery of faith, and I don't mean faith as synonymous with religion. Religions are all mental (based on concepts built from words stored in the mind) whereas faith is spiritual and requires no verbage.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  20. Qev

    If you believe the stories, he took some pretty big gambles with his life...why not his money, too?

    March 11, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Gumby

      The problem is that preachers gamble with other peoples' money, never their own.

      March 11, 2012 at 11:54 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.