The better we can understand what religion really offers people, the easier it will be to find common ground with those around us, and the better off we all will be.
What I Love About Religion
by Steve Major
I was raised in a nonreligious home, and growing up the appeal of religion consistently eluded me. As time wore on the contradiction between the negative light in which I viewed religion and its extreme popularity began to weigh on me, and I decided it was time to reexamine it with a more open mind.
Atheism, by definition and etymology, is the lack of belief in god(s). It speaks to what we are not, rather than what we are. Humanism builds on that foundation with a host of progressive ethical and moral beliefs, including a commitment to environmentalism, equality, and social responsibility.
I frequently hear humanists say that they want to keep the conversation positive and focused on what we believe in rather than what we don’t; and I agree. Unfortunately that can be difficult when faced with news reports of religious extremism and violence, or seeing religious organizations put their own interests over the safety of their congregants. And I suspect we’ve all felt somewhat marginalized by the religious pandering in our political sphere. All of that can create an echo chamber in which religion of all kinds gets lumped together with its very worst elements.
That’s why I’ve decided to write a list of the things that I love about religion. I won’t be able to think of all of them; and there’s nothing on this list that couldn’t be done by the nonreligious too; but this is stuff that religion does well, and it’s a reminder of why it has such lasting appeal. Perhaps it will inspire us to keep growing within our own community as well.
1. Art, music and architecture.
From stained glass windows to Silent Night, and from giant Buddhist statues to Hindu festival masks, religion is directly responsible for countless works of priceless art. This is in part because people have been willing to put a lot of money into it; it’s partly because, historically, having a huge stone cathedral was symbolic of how powerful the church was relative to the peasants who lived nearby; but we also have to remember that part of the reason there is so much beautiful religious artwork in the world is because people felt good making it. People will always work harder on something when it’s a gift for someone they care about.
2. Patching the holes in the social safety net.
Religious organizations act as a kind of unofficial insurance provider to their members. In many communities people who were unable to afford insurance would still be able to turn to their church or synagogue for help if they had an emergency. The conservative Knights of Columbus began as a mutual benefits society, similar to a union, for low-income catholic immigrants. I hope that there will soon be a time when these services are rendered unnecessary by a government run single payer healthcare system; but for a lot of people, being able to turn to their church for help when they needed it was the difference between life and death.
3. Providing a tightknit community.
There comes a point at which a community is so tight that they have no room for outsiders, and you do see that to some extent with the more extreme groups, but for most people their religious community is a welcoming and supportive one that becomes a bit like an extended family.
Religious communities have choirs, which I love, and daycare and lots of other services that can only be done with people who are looking out for one another. People take turns volunteering for stuff, organizing events, parties, classes, swap-meets, and generally donating their time and money for the mutual benefit of everyone in that community. I know more than a few agnostics who go to church or temple purely because it is a great way to be social with the people they live near.
4. Religion reinforces a sense of shared history.
A lot of religious holidays, particularly in Judaism, are about remembering and reflecting on the history of a people. The historical accuracy of the commemorated events notwithstanding, the traditions help to reinforce a sense of purpose and belonging. By emphasizing a connection to the past, those involved are encouraged to put their own lives into a larger historical perspective.
5. A lot of religious people are super nice.
Nobody can be summed up properly with a single adjective, but when I make a list of my friends whom I would describe first and foremost as being genuinely, generously, unambiguously NICE… they’re almost all people who’ve invested themselves in the “God is Love” theory of religion. A lot of them are also very smart, and who understand the contradictions inherent in their beliefs and have made the conscious decision not to worry about them. That’s not a choice I would, or I think even could make, but I am resolved not to hold it against those who do.
Some of these folks believe in the literal truth of stuff like Angels and Noah’s Flood… which I’m less comfortable with… but you know what? They’re still ridiculously super nice and positive and supportive, and sometimes that’s just enough.
One couple I know in particular went from being homeless to having a successful business and adopting the sweetest little boy whom they love as much as anyone has ever loved anything. If they want to credit God for their success, then I’m not going to say a word against it. Particularly since it is not unreasonable to think that perhaps the reassurance and optimism they drew from their faith probably did make a difference as they overcame their obstacles.
The humanist community has done a lot of important work as well: we raise a lot of money for charitable causes; we’ve started having chaplains at universities and in the military to counsel and comfort the nonreligious in need of help; we’ve become much more politically active; there are meet-ups and groups around the country where people can go to discuss issues relating to nontheism; and our energetic defense of science and reason have profound benefits for the world around us.
But as we work to keep making the world a safer place to be atheist, and continue to counter superstition with evidence, it is important that we remember that religion provides people with a lot more than creation myths and rule books.
The better we can understand what religion really offers people, emotionally as well as intellectually, the easier it will be to find common ground with those around us, and the better off we all will be.
Steve Major is the development associate for the American Humanist Association.