An Atheist Tries Religion

I grew up as an outsider to religion. I never considered it a worthwhile pursuit and spent quite a few years as an outspoken critic. As an adult I began to explore it for myself, and I now have what I would count as a spiritual life. I still find most of what religions teach very hard to believe, but I've also found a lot of value in them. My secular education left me desperately unprepared for the hardships of adulthood and, like many people who turn to religion, when life sent me seeking answers I ended up in church. Spoiler alert: I didn't find any answers, but I did find wisdom and traditions that I now believe have great potential.

I've told my story dozens of times, but I'm sharing it here partially to fill in some details that inevitably get left out when I have three minutes to answer the question "What brought you here?", and partly as a record for my future self of where I'm at in this moment.

Negativity and antagonism

It's hard to overstate how antagonistic I was toward religion before all this began. I spent my early twenties becoming an enthusiastic disciple of the New Atheists. I read very nearly everything Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins ever wrote, watched hundreds of hours of recordings of them eviscerating fundamentalist believers on YouTube, and spent more time than that arguing in their style with actual people -- mostly on the internet but some face to face, mostly strangers but not all.

I still think they're right about a lot of things, but I realize now that what they criticize is really a caricature of religion. I'll get into what we agree on some other time, but basically where I realized they're wrong is in their wholesale dismissal of faith in all its manifestations. Not all faith is delusional or dangerous. By responding to bad theology with aggressive and contemptuous atheism, we miss out on a world of spiritual pursuits that can be at once enriching, life-giving, and mind-opening. That world is where humanity has found solace and inspiration from the beginning, and it's frankly a waste of time to completely discard it and try to build a suitable secular replacement when we inevitably end up needing solace and inspiration ourselves. I'm now convinced that that world is worth approaching with more nuance, if also some caution and a level head.

Meaningful conversations

When I was 23 I went on a trip to Israel with a few dozen other young people from Jewish backgrounds and for the first time in my life had conversations about religion and god that did not seem absurd to me. Our itinerary included many structured conversations and loads of time to interact and talk informally. Those conversations were my first introduction to some ways of thinking about god that were much harder to dismiss than the notion of a capricious, racist, homophobic megalomaniac in the sky.

These people were not arguing over what the creator of the universe wants us to eat or wear, or what kinds of sex we're allowed to have with whom; they were talking about the things that mattered most to me. Things like how to get along with family despite differences, how to build community across cultural divides, how to cope with loss and injustice, and what values should inform the crucial decisions we would be making over the course of the next decade. These were exactly the kinds of things I wanted to talk about, and it turns out the Jewish tradition has a lot to say.

Experiencing a holy place

Our trip also included a visit to the Western Wall. I had low expectations but was intrigued by how compelling other people found this place. I wrote my sorrows, hopes, and dreams on a little piece of paper the morning of the visit in preparation, and when we got there I waded into the crowd with the rest of the group. I found it fascinating that people travel from every corner of the earth to touch this wall, and that day was no different. I stood amongst hundreds of my fellow humans, many of whom were clearly having a very emotional time, impressed and slightly unnerved by how freely they expressed what they were experiencing.

When it came my turn to approach the wall, I was struck by how soothing it was to imagine the possibility that something or someone out there cared about the nonsense complaints and requests that were written on my little piece of paper. I found a little crack in the wall to slip the note into, then just stood there for a while. I thought about the millions of people who had stood before me in that same place over thousands of years, giving anonymous expression to their most profound inner commotion. I realized then that I had been missing out.

Whatever ways the modern world had messed up religion, there was at least some minuscule piece of it that I wanted. I didn't want to believe that I was just looking at yet another old stone wall. That was a special place, if only for the magnitude of human hardship and desire that had been revealed there. Probably no other location on earth has had such intimate access to the depths of the human psyche. It was like every one of the millions of prayers that had been set free because of that wall still lingered in the air, and I got to add mine to the pile, communing with generations of believers before me in the hope that there's a god out there to hear us.

Finding community and a faith of my own

A couple of years later a friend introduced me to a more conventional style of prayer, the kind where you say things out loud with your eyes closed as though you're addressing an actual extra person in the room. I found it extremely uncomfortable and awkward at first, but I immediately felt its benefits, even if it took a while for anything resembling faith to grow out of that initial positive impression.

It's like believing we're speaking to god and not each other makes it acceptable to express the realest, rawest emotions we have, and simultaneously gives them immunity from criticism. It removes these and many other psychological barriers to being vulnerable and open in the presence of other people. I haven't shared any other experience with people that so quickly helps a group of complete strangers get comfortable with each other, let alone build meaningful relationships. I've since taken up prayer as part of my routine, and do happen to believe that I'm not just talking to myself.

I was going through some personal hardship around the same time as all this, the kind of thing that makes you question what you're doing with your life. I was nostalgic for the conversations I had in Israel and in a season of many new beginnings anyway, so I decided to seek a community to explore my spirituality with.

I didn't feel capable of belief in the supernatural or physically impossible, so I didn't have high hopes. My suspicions were confirmed that this is in fact a nonstarter in some faith communities, but it turns out it's far from an absolute requirement in many. I found welcoming homes all over the spiritual map in my city, full of other seekers also unsure what to make of some of religion's more absurd truth claims. I'm still somewhat of a spiritual nomad, but I've found home at one point or another in a Reform Jewish synagogue, a community centre kitchen amongst a circle of Quakers, an Ignatian spirituality centre, and most recently with some progressive Protestant Christians on zoom.

I try to be honest about where I'm coming from and pretty much always feel extremely uncomfortable and like a huge fraud when the more worshippy parts of religious services begin, but I've been going to multiple faith-centred meetings every week for about two and a half years now, and have found the benefits of spiritual growth far outweigh the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that come with partaking in religious observances that don't always resonate with me.

"Spiritual, not religious"

That's a cliché I've heard many people use to describe themselves throughout my journey, and so far I think it's also the most accurate description of my own faith. I have a rich prayer life and regularly attend religious services, but I find the structure and dogma of all the religions I've tried so far suffocating rather than satisfying, so I don't feel comfortable yet adopting any individual one as my own. I'm still working through what role I think is appropriate for an organization like a church to have in society and in my life, but I do think at its best religion nurtures a part of us that has been perilously abandoned by secular society. At this point I consider myself a disciple of the Jewish and Christian traditions, having found valuable insights into the art of living in both.

Another major hurdle I still haven't mentally overcome is the pretty mixed track record of religion. I know now that there's a lot more to it than sociopaths conning the poor into giving up their grocery money and brainwashed followers tearing apart families and livelihoods over tactless obedience to draconian laws. I spent too much time learning about the ugly sides of religion before changing my mind about it, and so far that's still preventing me from just pretending like it's no big deal for them to continue to exist without acknowledging and apologizing for their crimes.

I realize that that kind of repentance and reconciliation takes time, and I do know many religious groups are undertaking the difficult work of repairing the world. I just wish so many of the reasons it needs repairing weren't their fault in the first place.

Figuring out what religion could look like

Despite all of these hangups, I'm still pursuing spiritual life on my own terms. I've come to accept that it's entirely possible for a given religion to be completely wrong but for a god to exist. I actually realized that when I read the Bible. Scripture is packed with stories about religious people doing it wrong. I'm endlessly bemused by the irony of modern religions that are so blind to their own fallibility yet claim those very stories as their foundation. That's another one of those things I'm still working through.

Although the baggage of religion is too burdensome for me to bear, and I'm unsure of what role that kind of codified spirituality will have in my life in the long run, I'm enjoying my spiritual journey quite a bit. I've found prayer to be uplifting and soothing. I've found groups of other people interested in discussing things I care a lot about. I've appreciated finding ways to spend some of my spare time that don't feel wasteful and meaningless.

If nothing else, religion is a brilliant social hack for bringing strangers together and making people comfortable being vulnerable together. I suspect there's more to it than that, but there's a hell of a lot of cruft to cut through to try to find out. My posture toward religion has shifted from purely antagonistic to curious but skeptical, which for me is a pretty dramatic change. It's no secret that the church as we know it is dying. As an outsider it's not hard to see why and honestly hard to have any attitude about it other than "good riddance". I see a lot of promising signs of growth amidst the ruins of those communities, though, and I'm quite interested in being a part of a new generation of church goers, more focused on faithfulness and spiritual exploration than moralistic legalism and slavish obedience.

I have no idea what that would look like or how we'd get there, but the idea excites me. And I'm pretty sure Jesus would be cool with us exploring new interpretations of ancient traditions along the way.