I am proud to count myself among the godless.
Until I was about 16, I considered myself a Muslim. But I was a guilty Muslim, because throughout my life I could not feel close to God, despite a fair amount of effort and worry. But one summer day, my grandfather, who was something of a professional skeptic, decided to press me on the question: Why are you a Muslim? After a spirited back-and-forth, we discovered that I possessed no persuasive explanation other than the accident of birth. Within a year, I was reborn an atheist.
I took a great deal of pride in my conversion, and I was devoted to the cause. I relished debating the nature of the cosmos with religious family, friends and strangers, and consistently held that society would be enriched by the decline of organized religion.
The scope of religious faith extends far beyond belief in God.
And yet, having been a devout atheist for all of my adult life, in recent years I have developed a far more sympathetic perspective toward those with faith. Liberated from the pressure to accept religion in its entirety, I've been able to sort through it like a toolkit, discarding the things I don't like and embracing the ones I do. I now find debates about the existence of higher beings less interesting than before, and prefer instead to study the ability of religion to organize and inspire human behavior.
I remain as resolute an atheist as ever, but I encourage my godless brethren to consider the vast offerings of the world's religions with care. The scope of faith in religions extends far beyond belief in God. It invests a valuable kind of hope in community, purpose, ritual and gratitude, ideas that can be embraced without embracing religion itself.
The power of community is invaluable.
Atheists, particularly those who were raised in religious households and communities, are not typically fond of the idea of attending church. The ideas discussed at houses of worship are often the sort of rhetoric about heaven and hell that alienated atheists from religion in the first place.
But it's also important to remember that religious institutions are about far more than worshiping a god. They are community hubs, a place for people to connect with family, friends and neighbors. They guarantee routine interaction with people you know well and, just as importantly, people you don't know very well.
They're also versatile public spaces. Many are devoted to caring for some marginalized members of the community, often providing food and shelter for the homeless. Most allow their halls to be used in off-hours for concerts, political organizing or other cultural gatherings for little or no fees. They value the priorities of the community rather than the highest bidders when it comes to sharing space. In other words, houses of worship are bastions of civil society at a time when community has by many measures eroded.
This sense of community operates on a much wider scale as well. Religion allows people to feel kinship with strangers halfway across the globe with whom they share values, which can serve as a remarkable vehicle for cosmopolitanism. Religious pilgrimages that take people across borders are not only spiritual quests, but also social ones. A powerful example of this is how Malcolm X was so moved by the great multicolored crush of humanity he witnessed on a pilgrimage to Mecca that upon his return he decided to adopt a much more inclusive understanding of race relations.
People need a strong sense of purpose to live well.
Many atheists look at religion as a device for averting one's eyes from the harsh realities of an indifferent universe and the certainty of death. This line of thinking states that faith in God is a form of self-deception to avoid uncomfortable conclusions. The atheist's response is to balk; the prospect of meaninglessness might be terrifying, but that doesn't justify making up tales to escape it.
The idea of religion can't be reduced to avoidance. It also springs from a human impulse for people to ground themselves in something bigger than themselves.
People look to religious teaching for guidance and meaning. Whether or not some supernatural being is watching from on high, most people are eager to adopt rules of conduct that allow them to feel that they are doing right by themselves and the people they love. Arguably the framework that religion provides for living a virtuous life is a stronger motivation for belief than the idea of an afterlife — the former infuses itself into everyday life, while the latter is an abstract hope.
Atheists would do well to think about how secular communities can foster a more deliberate and overt discussion of duty and ethics outside of religious communities. Atheists don't need their own 10 Commandments, but they should realize that most people don't want to wake every day and have their jobs serve as the only thing that commands their lives.
Prayer is an essential tool for modern life.
There may be nothing more unsavory than prayer to the average atheist. It's hard for them to envision a greater waste of time than spending long periods of time whispering to an entity that doesn't exist.
But prayer is not just about dialogue with higher beings; it's also dialogue with the self. Prayer promotes quiet reflection on anxieties, hopes, injustice, moral quandaries and gratitude. Undoubtedly one can turn their thoughts to these matters at any time of day, but prayer routinizes this process and makes it deliberate and important. In a way, it makes concentrated contemplation itself sacred.
Prayer is a form of meditation, which is a word that many of those without faith are increasingly comfortable with and a practice that atheists should embrace as a matter of habit. The mental and physical health benefits of meditation are simply staggering. The reality is that the speed, stress and invasiveness of modern life is unmanageable without practices that instill resilience and calm in the mind.
Holiday rituals offer people a unique kind of meaning and joy.
Atheists are typically unmoved by celebrations that mark the birth of the divine or some kind of miracle, and sometimes they even complain about being assaulted during the holidays by all kinds of religious propaganda.
But celebrations like Christmas and Hanukkah are often more about traditions of family and friends and food and drink than about theological ideas, and their popularity speak to the bonding value of rituals. While there are certainly households that use holy days to talk more about God than usual, it's safe to say that for many the pleasures of sharing lavish meals and exchanging gifts is more about expressions of love toward other humans than anything celestial. The joy of these celebrations is made stronger through their anticipation and the guarantee that they will happen again.
Of course some non-religious anniversaries already achieve the same effect — Thanksgiving isn't all that different from Christmas, after all — but the point here is that religion taps into something essential about the human predilection for, well, partying. And that's worth embracing.
In other words: Rather than mock the celebration of miracles, embrace Festivus.
This list is by no means exhaustive. There's endless debate to be had about the strengths and weaknesses of religion from an atheist's perspective, and this is only a taste. But here's to the pleasure of knowing you can learn quite a lot from those with worldviews that you can find frustrating as hell.