Saturday, August 7, 2010

"Why do you still like religion when you don't believe in it?"

Some of the comments on my recent post about my fondness for Catholicism prompted me to try to break down the factors that contribute to my feeling that I need a bit of religiosity in my life.

First, I was raised in an intensely religious home and was myself a sincerely religious person all through my formative years, up until about five years ago when I concluded Mormonism was false but still wanted to seek out other paths to spirituality, and up until a year ago that I started calling myself an atheist. Something that has been an integral part of one's psyche and identity for so long is not easily slaked.

On the other hand, my brother, twenty-two months younger than I am, raised in the same home by the same parents, claims to have been an atheist since childhood, and I believe him. God and religion just never meant anything to him. So while environment probably played a role in my own religious longings, I suspect there's something inborn about my temperament at work as well.

Perfect pitch is something you either have or you don't, yet it is more common among people whose native language is tonal. A need to tune in to pitch to understand language won't give perfect pitch to someone who doesn't already have it, but it may sharpen an innate ability that would otherwise atrophy if one grows up listening to English instead of Chinese. A Mormon upbringing couldn't impart any religious fervor to my brother, but I wonder if I would still be as drawn to religion as I am if I hadn't been so steeped in it during childhood.

I still like certain aspects of religion and value religious practice. Others can't see the point. What does this say about whether or not religion actually has any purpose?

I have pretty good relative pitch, but I do not have perfect pitch. There are no well-crafted arguments that can give me perfect pitch, but this doesn't mean that perfect pitch isn't a real phenomenon. Nor is music that the tone deaf can't appreciate any worse because some people can't appreciate it. Human beings do not all see the same things.

I like to think of myself as a fairly cultured and sophisticated person, but when I walk into an art gallery, I freely admit that at least half the pieces in there will make me go, "Meh." That doesn't mean it's not good art. Someone else could stand in front of those same pieces and be moved to tears, and their reaction is just as valid as mine. I don't get what the big effing deal about Lady Gaga is, but obviously a lot of people disagree with me there. I can't tell the difference between the bottle of wine that costs eight dollars and the one that costs thirty. Doesn't mean I don't think a difference exists; it's just not one that matters to me.

Skepticmatt asked, why religion? Why not science fiction or fantasy or something that doesn't have the baggage that religion does?

First, it's not an either/or proposition. I read and write fiction and poetry in addition to this blog. I frequently engage with literature, music and art to stimulate my imagination and edify myself as a person. Certainly I can "feel the spirit" while watching a ballet, but the difference between these other humanities and religion is one that matters to me. Religion reaches me in a place where these other art forms don't.

A friend and I were discussing this recently. We were both religious at one time but have since become unbelievers. He admits that there are parts of religion that he still likes and sometimes misses, but feels it is unethical to take part in something that has contributed to so much suffering in the world. He compared himself to someone who really likes the taste of hamburgers, but doesn't eat meat on moral grounds.

If I were to put myself in this analogy, I would say, I can definitely see the moral high ground of a vegetarian diet, but I tried it and found it unsatisfying. Getting my "protein" (meaning) solely from "plant" (secular) sources wasn't working for me. I was still left with an aching hunger. So I'm trying a middle way, more or less equivalent to eating meat in moderation and only from sources where the animals were treated humanely.

I have another friend with a similar background who came out of religion, found himself an atheist and knew that atheism made perfect logical sense, but described it as missing a needed "emotional map." I am a critical, thinking being, yes, but I am also an emotional, feeling being, and secularism doesn't address my emotional needs to my satisfaction. We have ample examples of religion gone awry, but it also serves a useful purpose, or it wouldn't have developed in every human culture. And I no longer believe that those taking a moderate approach are contributing to extremism.

I need religion. For whatever reason, I feel un-whole when I neglect that part of my psyche. I've theorized about why. It meets an emotional need that I have and that I think many, but not all, humans share. There are certain things that all religions have in common. They all have narrative myths. They all have symbols. They all have ritual practices.

Maybe it's the kinesthetic, participatory nature of religious practice that sets it apart from other art forms. In her monologue Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney details her journey from Catholicism to atheism, and then talks a little about becoming a mother and not wanting to raise her daughter to be religious, but still wishing she had a way to mark the important events in her daughter's life with community and great music and art. Sabio wrote recently about a salt purification ceremony that he performs when he moves to a new residence, purely for "ceremony, tradition and specialness." Rituals are a way of imbuing meaning in our lives.

An excerpt of Christian Wiman's "Hive of Nerves" was quoted in a New York Times blog recently, in which he compared religious narrative to poetry. Religion is not a spectator activity. Like poetry, it takes active thinking and participation to "get," or as Wiman describes it, "it takes patience and imagination to perceive....Thus the very practical effects of music, myth, image, which tease us not out of reality but deeper and more completely into it." For me, the exciting question about poetry or other artistic or religious symbolism isn't, "What does it mean?" but, "What could it mean?" And I think we're all entitled to make our own interpretations and extract our own meaning.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly describes ecstasy, the state of stepping into another reality, and that what we have left of ancient civilizations are their sanctuaries and temples, where they went to experience life in a "more concentrated and ordered form." That is exactly what I experienced when I visited Saint Paul's Cathedral last weekend.

I don't think God exists outside of the human imagination, but if my objective is to change myself, what better place to engage with the Divine than internally?

I expect some readers will nod along and know what I'm talking about, and others won't, and that's fine.  So long as no one tries to make me like Lady Gaga, I won't try to make anyone like religion.

Related Posts: Defining Spirituality
                       Am I a Raging Religion-oholic?


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  1. I think many (especially atheists/agnostics/etc.) fail to recognize that "religion" is more than just a set of claims about what is "true". I've been meaning to detail these thoughts in blog post, but it seems you can break down what religion is into...

    1) Truth claims about what reality is and how it works (past, present and future);

    2) Claims about morality, good and bad;

    3) Practices/rituals and other norms that bring together individuals to make a community; and

    4) A sense of personal contentment or well-being, that arises from the above.

    For many, it's hard to simultaneously deplore one aspect of religion while tolerating or even embracing another as it's hard (perhaps impossible?) to do so completely - but I thought it was worth mentioning that "religion" isn't a single thing that serves a single purpose. Despite protests by religious leaders and fundamentalists, people do in the end often decide which beliefs and practices are rubbish and which are worth adopting.

  2. Have you ever heard of pantheism? It is a philosophy that provides a "middle way" between religion and hardcore atheism. Although pantheists, like atheists, do not believe in God or the supernatural, pantheists consider the totality of the natural world to be sacred and worthy of reverence. Pantheists also generally view religious stories and rituals as valuable metaphors that can have deep meaning for people and help to build an emotional connection with the natural world, even if they aren't literally true.

    If you're interested in learning more about pantheism, the following website is an excellent source:
    This FAQ page (from the same site, but a bit hard to find) is also helpful:
    Finally, page 8 of this PDF (again from the same site) has an excellent article about people who have created inspiring religious-ish rituals centered around science and nature:

  3. Thank you for this post. I still like and need religion too, and I struggle with being ok with that part of myself.

  4. “I need religion. For whatever reason, I feel un-whole when I neglect that part of my psyche.”

    I do not share this feeling and cannot emotionally relate to it. Despite being raised as a fundamentalist christian and sincerely and whole-heartedly believing it up to age 17 or so, I no longer had any desire to participate in their community or rituals once I realized their god was fictional. The rituals I had enjoyed (and I had enjoyed many of them) no longer held sway for me when I came to realize that the god they were ordered by and done in honor of did not exist. In my own life I have found that there is nothing that was provided in the church or by religion that I cannot find elsewhere; and having found it elsewhere, I choose not to participate in the practices of a religious institution which defrauds people of their income and devalues their lives by preaching an eternal afterlife.

    I suppose I harbor some resentment toward religion for having lied to me for so long, and it’s hard for me to understand the deconverted who do not.

    That being said, I do know several non-believers who regularly attend religious services and seem to gain something from doing so. I personally do not, and am always curious to hear the reasons for it from those who do. And often the reasons given are similar to your: “Religion reaches me in a place where these other art forms don't.” I guess I’m looking for something more quantifiable.

    Incidentally, I find your characterization of religion as an art form quite interesting and worthy of additional thought.

    Thank you for your response.

  5. Paul, I like your definitions of religion. I think any or all could be correct depending on who you ask. I wish more people would pick and choose what's worthwhile about religion and what's bunk. That's an option I didn't feel I had as a religious follower. I thought my faith had to be all or nothing.

    Luke, I have heard of pantheism but don't know a whole lot about it. Thank you for the links.

    Eliza, thanks. BTW, love your blog!

    skepticmatt, I've known others who have left religion and feel perfectly content and fulfilled without it. And I think that's great. I look at religion as a tool, not as The Answer. It's a tool that works for some people and doesn't for others. For me, it's a tool that helps me grow into the kind of person that I want to be, but no one is going to hell or missing out on heaven for seeing things differently, because neither place actually exists.

  6. skepticmatt -you're in good company with deconverted fundamentalists who still deal with the psychological/spiritual abuse factor - and I think part of what Leah does here is hammer out her own new perspective and separate the chaff from the wheat when it comes to the wisdom that can be found in spirituality/religion. Science has a lot of catching up to studying why humans still have to Believe - I think we former Christians have a head start in that area of study.

    Leah - The whole - "why do you still talk about/like religion/Jesus if you don't believe in it" question does get tiresome. Part of it is simply that it is normal/human to go back to relationships we were in for 20 plus years and re-evaluate "what WAS I thinking?" then versus now. The Ceremony involved is something that is worth studying and retrying - on our own terms.

  7. I used to miss hanging out with people in a communal fashion after I left church--church potlucks, choir practices--that sort of stuff. But I'm much happier without any of it in my life. I finally stopped going to church as an atheist when I took my sons to Sunday School and realized that what church would teach them was a) men are superior to women and b) men should have all the power while women should do all the work. It just isn't worth it to me.

  8. I also didn't understand why you felt the need to still have some sort of religion in your life. Not at all. I read a book called Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels and she touched on why she felt the same way. After reading that, I can understand your feelings, even though I can't relate to them myself. If it gives you comfort, hope or happiness, then I say go for it!

  9. Don't have time to say much more right now, but I wanted to tell you that I enjoyed this entry a lot. Well written, Leah.

  10. Christine, the chaff from the wheat analogy is excellent. There was a lot that I liked about being religious, and I consider myself in the process of reclaiming the good stuff and leaving the crap.

    Jude, community is actually one thing I don't miss about church. I'm rather shy. Non-online interactions with people! Blech! ;-) When I do go to church, I don't bring my children. For one thing, it's too hard for me to focus on the service and get anything out of it. For another, I think they need to be a little older before they'll be able to critically examine religion and decide whether or not they want to participate in.

    Britta, one thing I've learned in life is that understanding is often more important than agreement. And thanks for the book suggestion.

    Bud, thanks! And nice to see you around the blogosphere. It's been a while. Hope you're well!

  11. I wish we could have the community that supports each other and the learning (but not from the Bible) that religion provides, but without the crazy stuff that goes along with it...

  12. Becky, the Unitarian Universalists have that kind of community.

  13. That's probably where I'm heading is towards UU. I do miss a bit of the social aspects of the community, but overall religion just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I never enjoyed the rituals of, at least for now, I'm enjoying my Sundays free. But I may turn to the UU when my son is old enough to enjoy their classes and such. Great post!

  14. I am an atheist that was not raised with religion. I am married to a Catholic that truly loves the pomp and circumstance of the rituals. She embraces the rites of passage.

    I admit that I like the community and ceremony sometimes. It's unfortunate that when people lose faith, they ultimately end up having to give up too much.

    If we're going to ultimately proselytize atheism, we need to come up with an alternative to the spiritual needs of our theist neighbors.

    I don't know much about the UU churches, but my limited understanding is that this is part of their goal.

  15. Thanx for the mention.
    I think understanding ourselves -- our inclinations, satisfaction and that which makes us whole can be more important than factuality at times.
    Well said.

  16. Great Post Leah!

    It is interesting to think that a tenet of many religions that it is important to be honest with others (and yourself) is the very reason people decide to leave church...ergo they cannot remain a person of integrity and practice a belief in something that one now knows to not be true. It is pretty ironic that the dictates of the organization can lead to the abandonment of belief in the organization. I am still trying to work out the logistics of that for myself...

    The other thought I had in response to your post is that I think people miss the direction that is provided by the religion. The adherent doesn't have to think too much about what they ought to do since it is all spelled out for them each week at church. We all want people to make things simple for us and just tell us what to do, rather than have to figure things out for ourselves.

    In addition, for me, the sense of community that came from the assurance that everyone had something pretty important in common was a big draw as well. There is an implicit trust that people tend to have about those that share a religion in common that is hard to feel outside of religion (at least this was how I felt as an LDS). This sense of abiding trust in others is hard to obtain outside of religion and, I think, we long for a replacement. Even though a replacement cannot be found, since the realization is one that comes through maturing and, maybe, we don't want to accept all that comes with maturity.

    Just my $.02.

  17. Rob, I agree about needing to replace what people leave behind when they find they can no longer be a part of a religion. The UUs actually do a great job at that. I wrote a post about my experiences with them.

    Sabio, I'm reading a fantasy novel called The Forest House and in through main character's training to become a priestess, she learns that much of the religious lore she is learning were "true in symbol, were not true in fact."

    Facsimilogos, thanks! I think you're right that direction is part of the appeal of religion. When I was a Mormon, everything I was supposed to be doing was neatly laid out for me. Since leaving, I've had to forage my own way, which is liberating but also challenging. When it comes to spiritual practice, I think it helps to build on what has worked from others and elaborate and customize from there.

  18. Leah, thanks for this post. I've had some thoughts of my own in this vein.

    I was raised secular, became an atheist, converted to LDS, and then left the Church and reverted back to atheism. So I don't have a foundation, from childhood, of being religious, that might explain my tiny sense of loss in missing a faith community.

    I definitely don't believe in gods or an afterlife; I would be hard-pressed to explain what "the Divine" is supposed to mean, and if Christ existed at all, I don't believe in his purported miracles or resurrection. So I guess I'm pretty solidly atheist.

    But I've been participating with a Quaker community and that's become really important to me. They know I'm not a believer. They don't seem to care. It's comfortable for me - to a point. We don't have rituals; we don't discuss God. So I'm rarely confronted with the difference between us. It's a simple thing we do, sitting in silence for an hour, then talking about whatever thoughts or experiences we had in the silence, and making plans for community service. When I read Quaker books or history or blogs, though, I realize that I'm on a different page from many Friends, and then I get all self-doubting, wondering if I really belong there.

    It's hard to explain what I get out of Meetings with the Quakers, since I'm so resoundingly turned off by ritual or dogma of any sort and therefore can't define my longing as being about religion itself. It's something special to sit with other people and talk about our highest aspirations for ourselves and the rest of humanity - that's all I can say about it, really. I have yet to see such a regular grouping of atheists that runs along those lines, though I live in a small town so it might just be a lack of availability.

  19. This post is exactly what I think I was feeling when I posted today. It really is amazing to me that there are so many of us going through such similar experiences having thought processes that are nearly identical. It is funny because often I will read something somewhere and I think, "Oh, I was there three months ago." "I felt that right before I quick attending." Here is this post today. Exactly what I thinking and feeling. Good to know there are so many others out there in the same place.

    I love how you refer to religion itself as an art form in this post. I had never really thought about it that way. It is an interesting perspective.

  20. Kiley, I love the community I've found since I've started blogging! There really are a lot of us that feel the same way.

    I really do see religion as an art, and like any art, it takes practice. It's even called religious practice! But also like other arts, it's not for everyone, some are more inclined toward it than others, and though there is certainly bad religion like there's bad art, there are also myriad ways to create and practice good religion. It's much more individualistic than many organized religions portray, particularly Mormonism.

  21. I find myself identifying with this perspective of religion more and more. I'm so thankful for you writing about it - it was kind of one of those watershed moments for me, at least as far as religion is concerned. :D

  22. An interesting post! Yet, I am still not clear what you see in religion, Leah. Could I trouble you to tell me what the word "spiritual" means to you?

    By the way, you seem very accomplished in a lot of fields.

  23. You are so well spoken. I enjoyed your post.

  24. An interesting post! Yet, I am still not clear what you see in religion, Leah. Could I trouble you to tell me what the word "spiritual" means to you?

    By the way, you seem very accomplished in a lot of fields.

  25. Rob, I agree about needing to replace what people leave behind when they find they can no longer be a part of a religion. The UUs actually do a great job at that. I wrote a post about my experiences with them.

    Sabio, I'm reading a fantasy novel called The Forest House and in through main character's training to become a priestess, she learns that much of the religious lore she is learning were "true in symbol, were not true in fact."

    Facsimilogos, thanks! I think you're right that direction is part of the appeal of religion. When I was a Mormon, everything I was supposed to be doing was neatly laid out for me. Since leaving, I've had to forage my own way, which is liberating but also challenging. When it comes to spiritual practice, I think it helps to build on what has worked from others and elaborate and customize from there.

  26. I'm definitely with you, in that I also became an atheist and then felt like something was missing. In my case, though, it wasn't attending religious services, it was having a personal spiritual connection with the divine.

    I finally had to let go of trying to define my goddess and just let her be herself, and as soon as I did I had a profound spiritual experience that made a huge difference in my life. But I still face derision from fundamentalist atheists, because apparently I'm not allowed to have the kind of experience. (It's either that, or "Oh, I get the same feelings in nature / spending time with family." Good for you, now stop trying to tell me where I should be getting them from. Assuming we're even talking about the same feelings to begin with, which neither of us can prove.)

  27. You so hit the nail on the head on my frustration with atheists who tell me what my feelings are and where I should be getting those feelings! For me, attending religious services is one way I get that personal spiritual connection, and I'm done letting people tell me it's wrong or stupid or weak to seek meaning that way. It's my freaking life!

  28. Julia Sweeney has never met the real Jesus Christ, that's why she mocks Him today, because her false ideology, Roman Catholicism, let her down and robbed her of the Truth. I know, cause I was Catholic for 14 years! Jesus Christ found me when I left that institution! Wow, and Julia Sweeny as well as yourself need to just sit under a tree alone somewhere and read the book of John. I dare you. I did. The term 'Atheism' cannot exist if God does not exist.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism