How to find grace as an atheist?
June 30, 2016 2:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I find grace - the feeling that no matter what, I am loved and lovable - as an atheist?

In this article, some of the most down-trodden and rejected people find grace in God. Grace - the idea that God loves and cares for them, no matter what, and that they are never alone.

Or in the words of a woman driven into prostitution by drug addiction: "Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me."

I remember hints of this feeling, back when I was religious. And I am reminded of Al Green, who one day was "saved" by feeling God's love. Sometimes I feel hints of it in the eyes of my dog, who loves me unconditionally.

So my question. How do I find grace - the feeling that no matter what, we are loved and lovable - as an atheist? Is it cultivated? Is it an empty illusion? How did you find it?

I would appreciate any insight into this matter. If I am asking the wrong question, please let me know as well.
posted by beigeness to Religion & Philosophy (41 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I tend to think that now that I don't believe in God, that feeling of grace is not dependent on outside forces, it's dependent on me. If you're familiar with the psychological concept of locus of control, the idea spoke a lot to me when I was coming to terms with losing my religion. Now I could depend on myself for the morality and grace that I needed to live my life happily. Note that I say could -- I was never quite happy with the externality of God, although I didn't know how to express it at the time -- but it's not just could, it's have to. You have to depend on yourself, so it's also kind of scary, since you know better than anyone that you can disappoint yourself. But that's not all you can do. You can do better for yourself.

I feel so much more at peace now than I did when I was trying to impress a God by following what felt sometimes like very arbitrary rules. I know what my expectations are for myself, and I work for them, and that gives me the feeling of grace.

I do sometimes miss feeling like there is another presence I can depend on wholly -- I think we all do at times. But it usually passes pretty quickly.

I hope this helps.
posted by possibilityleft at 2:12 PM on June 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

In my mind, being loved is a separate thing from being lovable. If there is no one around who loves me, which is certainly something that could happen, then I won't be loved. But I'll still be lovable. Loveableness is something I inherently posess; it lives inside me, independent from what other people think of me. That's because I'm awesome, and so are you.

We are all ultimately alone. Yet at the same time, we are part of a bigger whole, called humanity, and that makes us not alone: in a way, we're all one. We're all in this together. Even if/when there is no one around to love us.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:21 PM on June 30, 2016 [14 favorites]

I would agree with what possibilityleft said, that as an atheist, I don't feel like there's an external presence that accompanies me or unconditionally loves me. I'm not sure that I believe in grace as you define it - while I think everyone is worthy of dignity and having basic rights respected, I think being lovable is somewhat dependent on the person. But that's also why I strive to be lovable, because I don't think it comes automatically.

But I do take comfort in the commonality of human experiences. Some ways that I can tap into that is groups like the Unitarian Universalists, volunteering for charities, and attending big, uplifting concerts (things like being in a crowd of thousands of people all singing "Everyone Hurts" or whathaveyou) or group sings.

I don't have personal experience with this, but some people that use hallucinogenic drugs like Psilocybin mushrooms come away feeling more at peace with their place in the universe, even without a god.
posted by Candleman at 2:28 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think that nether loving or being loved is connected to whether you are or are not an atheist. It sounds like you are saying grace only comes from God. There are those who believe that and it sounds like, even though you are an atheist, you believe it too. So, I wonder if you are not letting in the grace from other sources because you are still connecting grace to a God you say you don't believe in. If you want to go down that religious path, I read that God speaks to us in three ways; through scripture, through nature and through other people. Even as an atheist, a sunrise or a storm can fill you with grace. A child can fill you with grace. Beautifully performed art can fill you with grace. A sense of humility for what you have and a desire to give to others can fill you with grace. Witnessing kindness can fill you with grace. One definition of grace is the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful. In other words, being still and marveling at the surrounding existence.
posted by CollectiveMind at 2:31 PM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you want to read more, lookup secular humanism.
posted by cmm at 2:36 PM on June 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Is it cultivated? Is it an empty illusion? How did you find it?

I'm not sure if this is helpful but I was raised without religion and it never occurred to me until I was much older that everyone wasn't inherently lovable just because they existed. Like to me, being human, or being alive, is to be lovable. And that didn't rely on the existence of another person or being to make it true, it was just a "first principles" thing. It wasn't until I got older and started dating people who were raised with religion (and who often wondered about me, didn't I feel like there was a hole inside me because of the absence of God?) that I became aware of this.

So I'm not sure it helps to have someone say "It's a construct, and if it's not helping you, discard it" but it may be worth learning about religious-ish traditions in which people care for one another and recognize the inherent worth in one another and, to my mind, achieve a state of grace through service to one another. I enjoyed Dorothy Day's autiobiography The Long Loneliness which touches on this as well as William Sloane Coffin's The Heart is a Little to the Left along these lines.
posted by jessamyn at 2:41 PM on June 30, 2016 [11 favorites]

I believe that the practice of compassion - which isn't easy, it's a difficult muscle - makes you more aware of and receptive to the compassion around you. It's the thing that comes to my mind when everyone talks about that Mr. Rogers quote about looking for the helpers.

Without a god, I have to look for those things in pretty much one of two places: science or humanity. And while there are a bunch of individuals who are complete fuckshits, pretty much all the grace in the world comes from people. Look for it, try to be it, look for opportunities to put yourself around people who are really good at it and avoid people who actively try to keep you from it.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:42 PM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I identify as an agnostic, but ultimately, in my heart, I do not believe in any god (or god-like force). I've also never been a theist.

I want to echo what Too-Tacky said. I'm loveable, even if at a specific moment, nobody loves me.

And more importantly, I try to cultivate empathy and compassion, and to try to feel that everyone else is loveable too. (I'm far, far, far from prefect at this.) This includes people who might've been a**holes to me, from people who have cut me off in traffic, yelled at me for no apparent reason, to people who should've gone to jail for what they've done. I don't have to personally love them, but I should not be mad at them, and understand that they're human and are probably acting in the best way they know how. Once you realize everyone truly is loveable--even if not by you specifically--you'll be able to find that for yourself as well.

(I imagine the next step is actually loving everybody. But... well... I'm not sure I will or want to go there.)
posted by ethidda at 2:54 PM on June 30, 2016

As a lifelong, 3rd generation atheist, rationalist, humanist, etc., I think of love as an epiphenomenon, akin to life, colors, consciousness, jazz and thai cooking. It's a thing, you might not be able to touch it, but it exists.

You can choose to give your life any meaning you want, as you don't have meaning imposed on you by a god or religion.

I've chosen love as a big part of my life's meaning. This means that I feel love, and am worthy of love, just by this choice.

TLDR: watch Steven Universe.
posted by signal at 2:58 PM on June 30, 2016 [5 favorites]

I know someone who gets this from marijuana - a feeling of being the beloved favorite child of a benevolent universe. Is it an illusion? I guess so, but so is the feeling of being loved by God. Though maybe you could say those feelings are just a metaphorical way of recognizing how wonderful you are and how much you deserve love.

If weed doesn't work that way for you, maybe you could focus more on loving than on being loved. You may not be able to guarantee someone loves you, but you can love things and people yourself. You could argue that loving is more important than being loved.
posted by Redstart at 3:00 PM on June 30, 2016

this is a really hard problem imho. i think a large part is the lack of a community. in the past i have considered joining a quakers' meeting (to the point where i discussed the possibility with some members who were very welcoming). i have also, during another hard time, invented my own "religion" - a daily ritual that included meditation and "talking to" an imagined something (an imaginary friend, if you like). i don't think these acts were "cheating", but rather attempts to draw strength from the beliefs and actions that help members of religious communities.

less drastically, i have been helped by living in a culture where there's more respect for simply taking life easy: an acceptance that you don't have to be constantly pushing; that you can be lazy from time to time and it's ok. that helps me take care of myself.
posted by andrewcooke at 3:08 PM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

My notion of "god loves me" that I experienced when I was in a Catholic family upbringing has been replaced by cultivating mindful self talk practices. Such as: having a kind of mantra that for me enables me to find a centre of love and acceptance within.

Mine has been "I am enough, just as I am" for some years - not to limit growth, but to practise acceptance that I can be loved as I am, even if no one professes to/or actually loves me. No masks, no pretence, no faking greatness or goodness, but being accepting of who I am in the daily life rituals to which I attend.

[Doesn't mean I'm above being a mess of self-doubt and disorganisation in equal measure, but that would also be the case for a lot of believers too?]
posted by honey-barbara at 3:08 PM on June 30, 2016

the feeling that no matter what, we are loved and lovable

You have to be loved by someone, and if there's no invested supernatural force or creature doing that (which is what we're assuming), it's got to be down to other people (or other animals with sufficiently developed nervous systems). People are a mixed bag. Empathy, cruelty, selfishness, altruism (which I think of as a kind of egoism, sufficiently extended), etc., all of those co-exist in us, and our cultures and families and happenstance tease out one or another quality at one or another time. I think there's grace in fellowship you personally cultivate (or that occurs as a result of tuning in with someone at a frequency you both know), and through larger moments of shared community, which can emerge spontaneously on their own, or are the result of political design. Experience broadens the range of frequencies (and people) you can tune to; seeking different kinds of experiences, through travel, work, conversation, and openness helps with that. There are better and worse politics for community-making; involving yourself in those dynamics, to the degree you can, gives you a chance to shape how that goes, in your space and time.

I've got a sort of vitalist, sort of residually religious feeling, like jessamyn's talked about; anyone who is alive is a kind of miracle, imo, in that consciousness - awareness riding on/through complexity - is a wonder, an amazing fluke that I feel (as a kind of "moral" intuition) that it would be arrogant to dismiss. I can't justify why dismissal would be "arrogant", I haven't fully evicted religion from the house, I guess. It's not rational.

I experience a kind of awe in the presence of nature, like I think most people do. I expect that it's a sensory response to e.g. the sheer scale of mountains, or the fractal patterns in leaves, or the rhythms of ocean waves - just my receptors just tuning in (again) and settling to coded input that's phylogenetically familiar. But it is pleasant, and makes me feel, not loved, but connected, tuned in.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:18 PM on June 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is what acts of kindness are for, they kindle the warmth of spirit, if you can forgive that figure of speech. Increases the benevolence and regard for humanity. Projection, maybe, but tomayto tomahto. Angels don't have to be celestial; I like the idea of donning the role on an ad hoc volunteer temp basis. (On the fly, you might say.) We get periodic opportunities to throw someone a lifeline or a hand up, and we can choose to pass the chance up, or embrace it. I never regret embracing it, and it feels like connecting myself into a larger network of empathy and goodwill when I do. It burgeons my hope in humanity and dispels my contempt and cynicism. Which sounds to me like what you're looking for. And which is by no means the sole domain of the religious or spiritual.

Apologies if it's more of a fanciful woo approach than you're inclined to accommodate, I'm talking metaphorical ripples of goodwill in the pond of humanity, not like a glowy spiderweb of ectoplasm or something. Although that's a pretty neat mental image.
posted by Fantods at 3:21 PM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was raised Catholic and I still love the wonder and ritual of it all (when I have to go to mass for a family thing). Once I lost my faith, I still had a belief that there is a force bigger than me that doesn't necessarily guide me or anyone else but is a force that is on the side of good and beauty and love. My logical mind knows that I'm just making it up but it makes me feel better so that part of my mind lets my heart go with it.
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:22 PM on June 30, 2016

Is it cultivated? Is it an empty illusion? How did you find it?

The fact that you think this is something that has to be found is a holdover from religious cultivation. Look at any baby. Is that child loveable? This is the default setting for humans.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:25 PM on June 30, 2016 [8 favorites]

I'm a lifelong atheist who actually never knew what "grace" was until you just defined it. But I've always been touched by this quote, and I think it's because it's about grace -- the unconditional love and forgiveness an individual can have for themself.

"I have concluded through careful, empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me. Keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less then I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I am capable of. I believe they know everything that I do and think and they still love me and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me." - Adam Savage
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 3:46 PM on June 30, 2016 [18 favorites]

As an atheist, I find grace when I am kind: to others, but also (much harder) to myself.
posted by smirkette at 3:52 PM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think of my kid who I love unconditionally.

I realize that my fiancé loves me unconditionally like this.

I realize that every single person I see is someone else's baby. That we as a society exist in a fabric of these relationships.

I know that the pain and suffering we as a society experience is because people are afraid; they are cut off from love.

That's grace. Loving as deeply and sincerely as our meager humanity will allow.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:56 PM on June 30, 2016 [9 favorites]

For a serious rationalist, there isn't quite a pure supernatural agent of consolation. Noam Chomsky mentions this in the film 'Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?'.

I'm not quite a total rationalist myself, because I feel that much of our experience is interpreted, and that Ideas, Concepts, and Metaphors are things that have a great deal of influence in our lives. We wouldn't exactly describe them as real in a concrete physical sense, but they are very real in their consequences and effects on us.

Spirituality and Religion are essentially rooted in metaphors, and in that sense they have a real aspect (aside from doctrinal wrangles). These thoughts sorta come up in Unitarianism sometimes.

The Idea of Grace is a Real Thing, if you need it.
posted by ovvl at 4:06 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Part of this -- not to be semantic -- is to define a few of these philosophical concepts for yourself. You don't need to reinvent the wheel.

First, what is this 'grace' you speak of? What is love? These are huge philosophical concepts, and that article doesn't get into any sort of philosophy at all. The article argues that people (the Volk, really, vs other classes) need belief/folk religion, not philosophy. By love do you mean inherent value? A sense of belonging? A progression to order and against entropy? You'll have to decide what exactly you're missing -- or not missing, but needing to recognize.

Second, how much of an atheist are you? A Jesuit friend of mine doesn't class me as one, although for intents and purposes, I work that way in common life. The principle concept of any sort of universal truth can exist and be true is at odds with some forms of atheism, but not others. Jung's concept of the numinous may be useful for you to start with, if you have not examined that. I've done a lot of psychoanalytic work that has helped me understand larger concepts, and how I have beomce that Jesuit's spiritual brother even though we joke about playing for opposite teams.

I do not see amazement in certain things -- some of the examples above make me roll my eyes, and I'm sure I'm not alone. For me, meeting certain people and it creating a fork in my life, the utter way things work out, are not scientifically explainable. This is where the strangeness of 'something beyond' humanity's ken dwells for me.

Also nature. Space and big fuckin' redwoods and sand and volcanoes and persistence of thousands of year old honey and ice age flowers? And we get to exist at the same time.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 4:06 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by bq at 4:09 PM on June 30, 2016

The first principle of Unitarian Universalism (nominally a Christian sect, but in practice open to all including atheists) is to "affirm the dignity and worth of every person." The idea being, it's your personhood, nothing more, nothing less, that makes you valuable. For good measure, it's possible and not even a stretch to embrace the other principles without believing in a god either.

You are human, so I love you. (Or at least I strive to.)
posted by mchorn at 4:20 PM on June 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it needs to come from action, fundamentally? There are tricks (saying 'thank you, thank you, thank you' to the universe at random intervals, standing in the sun and smiling and feeling that moment last forever) but the feeling comes out of the action rather than the other way round imo.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:57 PM on June 30, 2016

Love the universe. Learn about it, watch it, admire it, be confounded by it until you love it with your every breath. Love the look of dirty concrete pavement. Love the glare in the evening when the sun is setting in your eyes. Love the irritable woman yelling at another driver out of her car window. Love the fascinating process of watching your body decay and die. Love the fact that every instant is ephemera, that the earth is hurtling through space so fast that you are thousands of miles from where you started a second ago.

Once you love all of Creation it will start to love you back.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:32 PM on June 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

"Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here."

Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata"
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:00 PM on June 30, 2016

I have found grace through attending Al-Anon meetings, which have helped me learn to love myself, see myself as loveable, and feel loved. I think being part of a loving community or chosen family is one way to feel grace, especially if being of service is built into the community. There's a new book out called Grace Without God, which may address your question in depth. (Given the title, I sure as hell hope it does.) In my experience, cultivating a sense of gratitude is key to experiencing moments of grace. The god thing is completely optional.
posted by Bella Donna at 7:04 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you guys! A lot to think about.
posted by beigeness at 7:12 PM on June 30, 2016

Response by poster: I think it needs to come from action, fundamentally?

But the dying drug addict doesn't feel grace because she is accomplishing wonderful things. She feels grace because God loves and cares for her unconditionally and she is one of God's children. Even as she fails again and again.

Look at any baby. Is that child lovable? This is the default setting for humans.

DarlingBri, jessamyn - I do think something that by default is on got shut off inside me. Perhaps that is why what I am looking for can't be put into words. I am trying to turn on something that should be there naturally.

Lovableness is something I inherently possess; it lives inside me, independent from what other people think of me. That's because I'm awesome, and so are you.

I wish I knew how to get there. Even when I am feeling my best, I think I'm missing self-love or grace or whatever it is.

some of the examples above make me roll my eyes, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Ok, I am a not-very-bright cynic, but this quote: "Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me" no, it does not make me roll my eyes. I think it's powerful and beautiful and transcendent... words do not do it justice. It is Grace.
posted by beigeness at 7:51 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, think about your dog, the least cynical being in your life. You may not even be the greatest pet owner in the world, but maybe there is no greatest friend for a pet. We're all something to the world, even if it's the person who puts the food in the bowl and lightens up for a moment when they walk through the door and see that shaggy little face.

If it's in the face of your dog, the smile of a stranger, or even the harsh rebuke from a waitress annoyed that you don't know how to put together a simple order because you're tired and not familiar with the menu, the world is treating you as an individual worthy of evaluating as a human being. Whether a god loves you or just accompanies you, that god is with you in your moments of highest elation and lowest depression. But you're there regardless, and if that god isn't real, or is beyond human comprehension, you still wander through life.

In the lonely moments, you're there. Not the you that is consciously making choices, but the version of you in the future that will remember this as a moment of interest or one you forget. Life is a series of moments, and you can feel confident that some will pass, some will be remembered, but all are human moments that you are living.

And what, if nothing else, is the conception of a god the idea that you are a human worthy of love, compassion, and acknowledgment?
posted by mikeh at 9:39 PM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

To clarify -- the concept of 'babies are inherently magical' as a source of grace is also 'shut off' for me -- that's an example of what I mean makes me roll my cubey eyes.

This increasingly seems to come down to needing to help define 'grace,' which is being used irregularly. The woman who gets into the car with her god is not necessarily feeling a presence that is interconnected to life -- there is a big disconnect between philosophical concepts of connection and grace and a folk religion that expresses itself in the concept of an intimately personal God. The author of that piece is not experiencing religion in the same way as most of the 'downtrodden' who use it as a coping mechanism. Neither party has the right language or background.

This is heavy philosophical and psychological Stuff. In my experience it must connect to the entire process of knowledge of self, both of the body and the inner mind. This is why it can be accessed from various points -- yoga or UU groups or intentional communities or analysis or certain religious work. (Neither memorizing a psalm or pouring milk on the new moon or holding a plank for 2 minutes will do it.) It is work, and that work starts from within.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 10:03 PM on June 30, 2016

the dying drug addict doesn't feel grace because she is accomplishing wonderful things. She feels grace because God loves and cares for her unconditionally and she is one of God's children. Even as she fails again and again.

If as you stated, grace is a feeling, then surely we can conjure up that feeling out of whole cloth? Especially if we have a great need to do so. We people have an amazing ability to create the tools we need, and if what we need is the feeling that we are loved by someone or something outside of ourselves, then that is what we create. I can see how people who have it the hardest might feel that need stronger than anyone, and it doesn't surprise me that they are very religious.

This ability is just one of the reasons that we are awesome and so are you.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:28 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

But the dying drug addict doesn't feel grace because she is accomplishing wonderful things. She feels grace because God loves and cares for her unconditionally and she is one of God's children. Even as she fails again and again.

I don't want to put a science damper on this, but there are things the brain thinks and does which we can't explain but which are nonetheless repeatable, observable things. My sister is epileptic. Before her epilepsy was treated, she had a range of symptoms one of which was hyperreligiosity. And as you read above, we were raised without religion and really didn't even have much of a reference point in it our entire lives so this was pretty confusing to the family. But when her epilepsy was active, she became quite religious. When her epilepsy was treated, this stopped.

Now, I do not say this at all to be dismissive of people who are religious but to say if you are looking towards a feeling to indicate that there is a presence... you might work on that feeling (in the many ways that people have indicated above) and be open to the possibility that it might be a thing that you are able to generate in your own brain.
posted by jessamyn at 6:58 AM on July 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

She feels grace because God loves and cares for her unconditionally and she is one of God's children.

This is a not very believable abstraction for me. I know that some people report having what they describe as mystical religious experiences, actual sensations or visions of a presence of godly love. I don't know what that's about, fundamentally; it has been correlated with unusual temporal lobe activity / temporal lobe epilepsy (a doc on that). (Although, for someone like William James (read here), the explanation for that kind of experience doesn't matter as much as its psychosocial effects, some of which he thinks are pretty useful.)

(If you don't feel that, like I don't, sound/music aren't processed far from there... and I agree with people bringing up music, you can sometimes feel hints of something "rapturous", if you listen to or make the right thing at the right time.)

Even when I am feeling my best, I think I'm missing self-love or grace or whatever it is.

Sorry to weigh your question down with a clunky contemporary idea like this, but, any chance you might be depressed?

Just want to clarify - "frequencies" was metaphoric, above. Meant it more like, speaking the same language as someone, having had similar experiences to trade, being paced together in thought and feeling. Being "on the same wavelength". "Resonating". Etc.

on preview, did not see jessamyn's post (went away and came back and didn't refresh) - sorry, jessamyn :/
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:19 AM on July 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So, for the record, "Grace" is really mostly a christian concept - growing up jewish, literally nobody even said the word. Even after having it explained to me, I still don't really understand it emotionally, because it's a word that's imbued with a lot of cultural meaning, not literal meaning. Most people I knew and currently know, even the more religious ones, don't have a strong personal relationship with a deity. You may want this feeling because you already have a cultural predilection towards it. I'm assuming at this point that you've grown up in a majority christian area.

But let's back up a minute here. A key understanding to have about humans generally is that we all, for lack of a better phrase, have a hole. Most of us are trying to fill the hole, one way or another. Some of us fill it with engaging vocations, some of us try to do good works, others raise families, and many seek religion. Religion and god is a very comforting way to fill that hole, because, frankly, it's a beautiful lie told to us from a young age by people we trust. It comes with a community, certain assurances, and many comforts about the world to come. So we're all trying to fill our hole, and we all want to believe in something.

I'm a secular humanist. I believe in people because people are what we have. Not because I think people are amazing - I believe most people are True Neutral; I think I myself am True Neutral - but people are worth investing in. Even if they weren't, humans are social animals and thus, your own happiness is often dependent on positive social contact with other humans. I don't think that I'm loved no matter what; I think I'm loved by my supportive family and friends. I'm lucky. I don't have that many friends near where I am now, but I have a few, and my distant friends and family and my wife seem to love me a great deal. I understand how fortunate that makes me. I try to be kind to people in my life, and I think they respond well to it. My loved ones are a bulwark against all my most depressed, self-hating thoughts. If you can find people who you care about, and who care about you, that's all the love you really need. I understand that can be hard to find. But I don't think unconditional always-loved matters much. I think real love from real people matters more.

People don't really want to believe that their life is irrelevant to the universe, that we'll die and be eventually forgotten, and that nothing inherently matters. I always ask people, "The notion that life has no inherent meaning: Does it encourage you or terrify you?" Most people respond that it terrifies them. I find it freeing. With no built-in pre-determined meaning, you're free to choose the meaning that matters to you, to make the life you want to make. But a lot of people find freedom frightening. Being responsible for your own happiness is too much to bear for many. To me, atheism offers a promise: It's a harder path to live, because it demands more of you intellectually and emotionally, but it makes you a far stronger person. You don't need grace, because you have the strength of your convictions and relationships and your knowledge. If you're strong enough to handle the challenges, it can make you a more resilient person. Unfortunately, many atheists are depressed, because they don't have the foolhardy certainty that everything is always okay. Everything isn't always okay! But if you can handle that, if you can move forward with strength, you can handle a lot. And that supportive community, however you find it, helps.
posted by Strudel at 9:00 AM on July 1, 2016 [15 favorites]

I'm gonna double down on my suggestion to watch Steven Universe. For example, this piece of wisdom from a homosexual polymorphic sentient rock named Pearl:

"Humans just lead short, boring, insignificant lives, so they make up stories to feel like they're a part of something bigger. They want to blame all the world's problems on some single enemy they can fight, instead of a complex network of interrelated forces beyond anyone's control."

Or another homosexual etc permafusion named Garnet:

"You, are an experience! Make sure that you're a good experience. Now GO. HAVE. FUN! "
posted by signal at 1:25 PM on July 1, 2016

I want to gently suggest that you may be on a journey towards atheism but might not have made it all the way there. I (third generation agnostic/atheist sort) am having an impossible time reading this as anything but a Christian question. (Mostly I'm just "+1" on Strudel's 1st paragraph, I think.)
posted by kmennie at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am an ex-Muslim. :)

But yes, it is kind of a Christian question, in the sense that Christianity spread the notion of a God whose love is unconditional, no matter what. The idea that being saved comes from faith and faith alone, not action, is contrary to most other religions. So a serial killer's deathbed conversion if genuine, would be totally legit. Objectionable, but moving. I remember this sticking in my craw from religion class, but I can see how for chronic drug-users or criminals or the rejected this principle is salvation, a life-line to cling to.

Thank you Strudel. I think you're right. Oh well. I'm going to try to cultivate grace and self-forgiveness anyway.
posted by beigeness at 2:01 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

IANAA (I Am Not An Atheist or really any belief starting with A) and I don't really know how to find grace without a faith. But I also don't think grace, as I understand it in a Christian context (and maybe a Muslim context?) is something you would say you need if you don't believe those religions are true. When I think about God's Grace it's usually in response to God's Judgment.

A common metaphor is a penitent standing before a judge. The judge has every right to condemn the penitent, based on the law, but at the last moment (for dramatic effect :)) the judge holds back from that final strike of the gavel. The space between the gavel and the desk -- the impulse and inspiration and impact of the judge's decision -- is grace.

So if you don't believe in God as I think we do in Islam and Christianity, you might not believe in a universal system of morality that God created / enforces / acts by. And if you don't believe in that morality, there may be no need for legalism, and there may be no need for grace. If you can't do anything wrong, you can't be forgiven. Paradoxically, that strikes me as one of the more gracious aspects of living under an understanding there isn't a god.

I think what I'd miss more would be universal, unconditional love and acceptance, and the sense that someone is on my side and is going along with me; and the comfort that the someone has some ability to impact my life.

One thing I will share is in so many cases, and this is taught formally in many of the faith circles in which I rest, even in the case of a theistic community this love and acceptance is delivered and experienced through other people. We consider ourselves channels for God's love. While faith folks might say it's only possible to love truly and well by drawing on or opening to become a channel for the spirit of an all-loving god, I wonder if you could find any hope in letting this idea be true for you also. As the light of love shines on you it will shine on others; as you shine, everyone around you will be lit up. Can you be open to an ambiguous idea of light or love or comfort or hugs, or find a source for it that makes sense in your worldview? I believe hypothetical-agnostic-me would find this comforting.

In Alcoholics Anonymous they encourage people to think about a higher power, with no pressure to define it the same way or define it at all.

What if you open yourself to see, and then recognize and intentionally affirm, those moments of grace and acceptance and comfort that are so compelling to you? If you start with those moments, holding what is valuable to you, maybe over time it will start to make more sense as a system of meaning.
posted by ramenopres at 3:58 PM on July 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I sometimes think that there isn't such a wide gap between loving and being loved as generally is made out. When I am with someone who I feel loves me, it is easier to feel more love for myself and for others. But when I feel love for someone else, whether that person is close to me or long dead, I am kind of generating love that can nourish me even if it feels like it is from inside of me -- and even if, to some extent, it stays inside of me because I cannot (or choose not to) express it to the person I love.

That woman whose story you described, I wonder whether it could also be told as, 'whenever she got in the car, she brought God with her,' because she brought the force of her loving of God (according to her beliefs).

I think that maybe if you practice loving and feeling love -- towards your family, your dog, your favorite view on your commute, the random baby across from you on the subway for whom you can wish all good and peaceful things, and try to practice acts of loving kindness, you might find that the love you are generating also kind of loves you back, and it might feel like grace.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:37 AM on July 3, 2016

Best answer: As a formerly religious person, this question resonates with me. I too miss the feeling of grace and comfort that comes with a belief in God. But I think a lot of the comments here are missing something really vital to the experience of this idea of "grace" -- at least in the Christian sense of the word. It's not just a feeling of love and acceptance, though that's a large part of it. It's a feeling of purpose. That you were brought into this world for a reason, that your life has a plan, and that there is a place for you in the loving arms of an all-comforting deity when you die. Love can be found within ourselves, or through the love of others, or our pets. But the grace of a loving God is more than that. It is a story we tell ourselves that affirms the value of our existence. Every lapse into drug addiction is God testing us; every failure and tragedy is part of a larger plan; every time we commit a horrible act and lash out at others, our creator is there to comfort us, to wash away the sin, to let us start over again. Of course the real world doesn't work that way. The real world remembers, and so do we, and we beat ourselves up, because we are constantly falling short of what we hope to be. But a belief in God is a belief that there is someone(thing) out there who believes we are better than that, who believes in our best self, who is never upset or ashamed of us but who always is there to comfort and love us. The only problem is that it's nonsense (in my humble opinion). Nevertheless, there are times I wish I still believed it.

So to get at an answer to the question of how to replace grace, or how to find it in a context outside of religion -- it is I think very difficult. Much more difficult than many of the comments here suggest. It is not enough to find a way to love ourselves. For eventually, at some point, we will have moments where we hate ourselves. The other suggestion here, to try to be happy by embracing the fleeting nature of existence, is potentially closer to the mark (at least for me), but ultimately it seems like just as much of a trick as believing in God. And of course the problem is that it comes without any of the community, or history of culture, or affirmation of value that a religious life brings.

To replace grace requires, I think, a story. It could be a story of your life -- where you started, where you are, where you will end. This is of course essentially a narcissistic endeavor. But I don't think you find peace and grace without being a part of a larger story. This is one of the tricks of Christian grace and so if we're looking for a way to replicate that grace we can't fight it, we must instead embrace it. You can either put yourself at the center of the story (this is what religious grace suggests) or you can put the larger world at the center of the story. If the former is out, then the question becomes how to structure the latter in a way that provides us with peace, joy, and comfort. I don't know the answer to that question and it would presumptuous to even suggest that there is an answer. There is no answer. To be a player in the story of life that does not include a great creator who looks down upon us with love and wisdom is to give up on answers.

As for me, the closest thing I've ever come to grace is to identify as much as possible with other people. To try to turn my empathy levels up to 11. To read fiction, and memoirs, and to understand the lives of others. To make somebody else happy. To offer somebody else comfort. To listen to somebody. Seeking love is, in my experience, a spiral of frustration and pain. Loving others, on the other hand, is fulfilling. It feels good. I feel connected to the larger story that is playing out around me. It's not the same kind of grace I felt when I was religious but it's certainly some kind of substitute. I'm here, there's nothing I can do about it, and everybody else around me is in the same boat. We are lucky to be here, even if being here is difficult.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:38 AM on July 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

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