An Atheist Reading of Religion

It is a commonplace that the atheist has no use for religion of any kind. If she believes that the physical world is all there is, there is no transcendent reality out there, perhaps even that life and the universe has no external purpose or meaning, what would the point be of participating in ritual, prayer or religious study?

In fact, we can divide atheists into two types. Both hold the same beliefs but respond to them differently. The first type is not particularly bothered by the lack of purpose or deity. They are happy to live life as it comes, pursuing goals which they view as determined by natural selection, never hoping for something greater. For this type of individual, the only function religion can serve is as a cultural milieu - they recognise that there is some benefit in having shared practices with other people and as such are willing to engage, to some extent, in what there is on offer.

A second type of atheist lives in a state of what we might call existential angst. Something about their personality yearns for precisely that meaning which they believe is not there. They desperately wish to have an understanding, or perhaps a revelation, of something 'beyond' which can justify their day-to-day enterprise. They shudder at the thought that, one day, all things will be as nought and that humanity, along with the rest of the universe, will end up frozen and lifeless.

It is this second type who has much benefit to gain from religion. Let us paint the picture. They, as a conscious being, are plainly out of place in the world. The processes of nature have no right or wrong or purpose in view - they simply trudge along, finding low-energy states or ascending the evolutionary ladder. Somewhere - somehow - as part of this utterly random process, human beings arose, with all of their dizzying variety of hopes, loves, morals and feelings. What is a person in this state to do? They are like a fish out of water - totally alienated from the world around them, misplaced, stranded.

The only answer which I can see is, find other people in the same boat. The only comfort accessible in the face of a universe which has nothing in common with the self is to find other selves who one can traverse the journey of life together with. It will never suffice to overcome the inevitably of death, pain or fear but at the very least there is reassurance in there being other people around to work through the hard times with.

But what has community necessarily got to do with religion? All sorts of communities could be envisaged, with the religious one being only one variety. The answer, I believe is twofold.

Firstly, there is a distinct lack of community spirit outside of religion these days. City living with its automobile transportation means that many of us lack a group of people who we can feel belong to us with any sense of permanence. For all of its promise on paper, the technological revolution has left many of us feeling more alone than ever before. Although the Internet does let communities of a new sort arise, there is simply no substitute for close human contact.

But this is not enough to establish religion's role above that of any other group. Close communities could still form for all sorts of other purposes, for example around civil issues, shared hobbies or interests. Perhaps country-dwellers still have a sense of what it is like to sit round with people you've grown up with, doing nothing more than enjoying each other's company. If you're looking for a community of people to go through life with, you could look elsewhere.

The key function of religion lies elsewhere. Put simply, religion was, is, and always will be focussed around finding meaning in life, of the ultimate variety. The history of religion is the history of people coming together to explain, respond to or worship some higher power. From early animism to the most sophisticated theology, religion has been focussed on exactly that which the anxious atheist still strives for.

But can the atheist actually take religion seriously? I think the answer lies in the community of people she has found. I don't think even the most open-minded atheist could feel comfortable praying with a group of strong believers, since they will feel a distinct lack of commonality of purpose. But, put them together with other like-minded individuals and there is a real opportunity for a sense of community to arise.

Such a group of people can be open about their thoughts, feelings and aspirations. They can take pleasure together in participating in ancient rituals as a means of coming to terms with their alienated status vis-a-vis the cosmos. If there is no ultimate higher authority they have to answer to, nothing is stopping them from saying or doing things they don't necessarily agree with on an intellectual level.

Ultimately, such a community of atheists could find its place within the plurality of religious life. For the open-minded believer, there is no challenge in confronting and opening up to the opposite. Any sensitive religious person knows that the universe is an ambiguous place and can be legitimately interpreted as demonstrating a complete lack of design or purpose. Common ground can be found in working together to improve the world as it is - one group feeling they are responding to the voice of God and the other that they are making things better in spite of the lack of the same.

© Mayim, 2005.