How do secularists deal without the comfort of religion?
December 30, 2007 5:33 PM   Subscribe

Religion fulfills certain psychological needs. How do non-believers manage without it?

I'm an agnostic and I am constantly finding myself jealous of religious people. I think that religion fulfills many psychological needs and I'm definitely feeling the effect of not having those needs fulfilled.

I long for ceremony, ritual, rites of passage. I want a temple to pray at even though I have no one to pray to. I want to do that thing where the Christians all go down the aisle and take turns eating and drinking symbolic stuff. I have no idea why, but those things just seem to lift my spirits so much and I feel down without them. I was trying so hard not to fall asleep through the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha," but I perked right up when they started talking about making everything into a ritual as a means of making the mundane enjoyable.

They also help tremendously for the sake of focus. I'm tossing around the idea of getting a Wiccan book and doing a spell for any goal I have. I wouldn't actually believe in the magic, but doing a spell to improve my career would make such a difference in helping my focus on the goal and feel good about it.

I want something to cling to. I want some equivalent to "God has a plan" and "The lord will provide." I have heard religious folk saying "The lord gives me strength." Where am I supposed to find that kind of strength? Where does it come from? Where am I supposed to get it? I would love so much to be able to have some idea to concentrate on to help me struggle through hard times.

I want a guide for how to live. I wouldn't follow it blindly on faith. I would certainly do some picking, choosing, and editing of such a guide. But having to come up with it completely from scratch makes me feel so lost and confused.

I want some meaning handed to me. I get frustrated with people who say secularists can't possibly have any meaning in their lives, because I believe that a person should have their own meaning instead of the meaning some higher power handed to them. Still, they almost have a point. Coming up with your own meaning is hard. I want something external to help get me my meaning.

SO, after all that blather, I would like to ask my godless brethren how they fill these holes without religion.
posted by giggleknickers to Religion & Philosophy (76 answers total) 75 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you might like Zen Buddhism, which can be fairly ritualistic but at the same time empty of much of the superstructure of theology that other religions have (this is what I do).

Also, Unitarian Universalism is full of agnostic members, and pulls in elements from many faiths and rituals. The UU church largely does not take positions on what you should or should not believe, and still provides services and community and probably like minded people to yourself.
posted by voidcontext at 5:41 PM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you want organised ritual agnosticism, voidcontext has it - check out UU.

My husband is an atheist and I'm sort of a universal agnostic. I find meaning in ethics. You might find the Ethical Culture Society to be a good starting point for your quest.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:47 PM on December 30, 2007

Honestly, I just don't have most of those holes. I have very rarely felt a need for rites of passage, ceremony, whatever. On an intellectual level I get that those things are meaningful for a lot of people, and I can see how it might be nice to have people join you in celebrating aspects of your life - but it's not something I feel a need for myself most of the time.

I did have one major psychological/emotional change in my life many years ago that made me feel like I did need some sort of way of marking the passage. So I got a tattoo, and that was plenty ceremony enough for me. Other than that one instance, I don't generally feel a need for ritual. Nor do I want any particular guide for how to live; I've come up with my own rules/guidelines over time, mostly based on a general golden-rule sort of idea. It's still an outside source; my ethics just come from observing people and thinking about how to treat people and how I want to be treated, and reading about many different philosophies, rather than from one specific tradition of thought. I find strength from the people in my life and the relationships I have with them, and from doing volunteer work that helps others. Sometimes I find strength in just allowing myself to be alone and quiet and treating myself gently while I heal from whatever is hurting me.

Without knowing where you're coming from with your personal history, I wonder if you previously had some sort of religious background? Obviously I'll never know for sure, but I suspect atheism is a very different experience for those of us who were born and raised atheist than for people who were raised with faith, or at least with agnosticism. There's something fundamental about faith, and the comfort/strength it seems to provide people, that I just don't get. My partner was raised Christian and is now an atheist, and we talk about this a lot. Although we've wound up at the same place spiritually, and we talk about it all the time, there are some fundamental things about each other's world views that I don't think we'll ever completely understand. Which I just say by way of noting that if there's really a very specific sort of ceremony/ritual need that you have, perhaps based on a past religious practice that you no longer have, you might find it useful to specifically seek out other people who are ex-members of your previous faith to see how they're handling the loss of those specific traditions. I have an ex-Mormon friend who seems to find it very comforting to talk to other ex-Mormons about her search for new spiritual practices.
posted by Stacey at 5:50 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Not everyone is needy or have "these holes" in the way you describe, but the vast, vast majority of people sure are.

Knowing it's all a crock -- that any faith's established ritual can attract and capture anyone -- keeps me from needing it. I need this stuff like I need a hole in the head.

Your above looks like a religious person's caricature of what the a-religous state of being is.

You clearly want the supernatural to exist for you, so it will. Good luck with that, just try to avoid one of the more wacky or outright harmful ones.
posted by panamax at 5:51 PM on December 30, 2007

SO, after all that blather, I would like to ask my godless brethren how they fill these holes without religion.

Speaking only for myself, I don't. There aren't any holes to fill. Why should life have a "meaning"? That strikes me as the height of middle (or upper) class Western narcissism. It doesn't have a meaning, it just is.

Do what I do; forget all the claptrap about the meaning of life and get on with actually living.
posted by Justinian at 5:53 PM on December 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

Dawkins has a number of truly inspirational passages. That sort of wonder at the variety and tenacity and cleverness of life helps a lot.

That, and poetry, get me through.
posted by orthogonality at 5:57 PM on December 30, 2007

I hear you. I'm an atheist, and I feel much the same way. Generally, when I discuss this with people, they get a little irritated. The religious ones say, "Yup. What did you expect. Go find Jesus!" The atheists say, "I don't see what the problem is. I don't believe, and I'm totally happy."

Some of these atheists are probably bullshitting. They're not all that happy, but my problem puts them on the defensive. On the other hand, some of them probably are happy. Not everyone has a need for ritual and focus on the same level.

The question is, if you DO need these things, and you can't make yourself religious, what are you supposed to do. I'll admit to not having the perfect answer. There's no reason why the strongest rituals must be religious ones, but in most modern cultures, they are.

With that in mind, I'm confident that you can add more ritual into your life if you want to. For one thing, what's wrong with going to church (temple, mosque, whatever)? You don't have to believe. You don't have to lie to people and tell them you do. (If you do, find another church.) Think of it as participating in a piece of theatre. Get into the singing. Get into the community.

This is an extreme option, but you could also join the military. It's rife with ritual and purpose.

There are also tons of weaker, secular rituals. They may not fully meet your needs, but they may lesson your feeling of not-having-any-structure. Something as simple as a weekly poker night might work. For the last ten years, my wife and I have sat on the sofa, every Sunday, and read the NY Times. It sounds silly, but that ritual is very important to me. I go to bed, Saturday night, looking forward to it.

It also really helps to keep busy. I do understand your need for purpose and focus, but much of the time it's no problem for me. It would be a problem if I had tons of free time on my hands, but I don't. I really don't worry about The Meaning Of It All, because I'm too busy cooking dinner or whatever.

If you get busy, really really busy, with some sort of project that takes up all your mind and challenges you, you can get into a state that some people call flow. It feels a bit like religious ecstasy. From that link:

"Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."
posted by grumblebee at 5:58 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

There is as much or as little ritual in the preparation of a mug of tea as you choose to invest in it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:58 PM on December 30, 2007 [11 favorites]

You want meaning handed to you? Careful now, that kind of hole makes you sort of ripe for sumthin' culty, ya know?

I heard a great interview with the woman who played Pat on SNL who later had ovarian cancer I think. (sorry, I don't remember her name but maybe someone downstream will recall it). Anyway, she talks about growing up with religion and missing that ritual now that she is raising a child. She wants her child to find the comfort of the rituals but she doesn't believe in God. She wrote a book but I don't know if she addresses this particular aspect in her book. Religion is a built in sense of belonging and extended family. Who can witness a gospel choir and not want to be part of that?

I don't think coming up with your own meaning is hard. I find meaning in small things, especially nature and living things. I am absolutely not a wiccan. I raise monarche butterflies and plant gardens to attract them. Watching that life cycle, letting them go once they hatch, that has meaning to me. I think religion is a crock and a crutch and frankly where I live I've had my fill of the Southern Baptist holy rollers. I wonder how people so rigid in every other aspect of their life buy into this group fantasy of religion and why they can't expend a tiny bit of that creative energy in some other aspect of their lives. It just boggles my mind. It also boggles my mind why one of the main dictates seems to be roping in others to buy in to the fantasy and how sad/angry they get when you decline.

Maybe you should go test drive some different churches and groups. Check them all out, talk to members, see if you feel comfortable with the people and the message, but don't rule out finding your own meaning and defining your own rituals. You decide what they mean to you and to the bigger picture. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 5:59 PM on December 30, 2007

Politics, therapy, hobbies, passions, drugs, and any other form of order one invites to his or her life.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:01 PM on December 30, 2007

I want some meaning handed to me.

Maybe not the best approach.
posted by jca at 6:06 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd like to go back to my mention of my Sunday newspaper ritual. Yes, it's an important ritual to me, but it wasn't at first. At first, it was just something fun and relaxing to do. It slowly became a ritual over time.

This is important, because I think some people go looking for ritual, try something once, find that it doesn't immediately speak to them, and then move on, discouraged. Ritual only becomes ritual through repetition.

I think this is why so many people yearn and cling to the rituals from their childhood. As kids, we were forced into certain activities, not necessarily against our wills. Those activities became rituals, but we don't remember the process. They just seem like natural rituals to us.

I agree with Stacy that people who grew up with religious ritual -- or even with many secular rituals -- in their lives will likely have a stronger need for rituals as adults than people who don't. My wife and I are both atheists, but she grew up in a family that celebrated Christmas every year. I didn't. My family had almost no rituals, religious or otherwise. I go along with the tree and the stockings for my wife's sake, and I often enjoy it, but I don't think I'll ever totally understand what it means to her.
posted by grumblebee at 6:07 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Many sports are highly ritualistic. (One could say that a sport IS a ritual.)
posted by grumblebee at 6:09 PM on December 30, 2007

I think there are many types of non-theists. Many men I've dated have been the type that weren't ever particularly religious or attached to religious rituals/themes. I was the opposite. When I was young I was not only religious, but I loved things like Christmas trees, Easter flowers, Advent calendars, feast days, etc. Sometimes they find it hard to understand that I have cravings for such rituals.

But really, many of those traditions and rituals have more pagan roots than Christian roots. So I keep them. They are fun, I enjoy them, and I've even added more, like flaming Christmas pudding. Joining groups that participate in such rituals in a non-religious way, EG, foodie or cultural groups, has been particularly nice.

On a deeper level, there are dozens and dozens of non-theist philosophers that posit moral frameworks and "meanings" devoid of God. Bertrand Russell's Free Man's Worship was an influence of mine. I also take great solace in nature and I've enjoyed E.O. Wilson and other nature/biology writers.
posted by idle at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

It just sounds like you have the type of brain wiring that needs faith, but you have the intelligence to not blindly follow it. This is a surprisingly rare combination.

As some others have hinted, many of us who are not religious do not have the psychological requirements you are outlining. It's like the difference a child who "must" have a security blanket and the child who confidently exists without such a device. We all have different psychological makeups, requirements, and qualities.

I want something external to help get me my meaning.

Most people settle down, have kids, and then realize that's the meaning. Some people find it, instead, in the arts, writing, etc. Others find it in philanthropy. None of these things requires religion, although many consider that a decent alternative.
posted by wackybrit at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2007

Do things you enjoy. You shouldn't have much trouble developing rituals around activities you enjoy. Having things you can do that you really enjoy will help you through hard times. I personally recommend physical activities for this kind of thing, but it could be anything for you.

Don't worry about meaning. I know that sounds dismissive, but there isn't anything there to worry about.

If you are worried about how to live, there are a lot of writings on the subject of ethics that aren't based on religion. Read those if you want to. Otherwise, you can't really go wrong following the golden rule.
posted by ssg at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2007

Well, obviously I can't speak for all non-believers, but I don't think we all necessarily have those holes to fill--at least, not to the same extent. Sure, everyone has psychological needs, but we don't all have the exact same needs. For example, I like having traditions and rituals, but I've never been jealous of religious rituals. I don't have any particular desire for meaning--I'm perfectly comfortable with life being meaningless; it doesn't take away from my enjoyment of things. My guide for living would probably be 50% the Golden Rule, 30% various morals and lessons learned in childhood, 20% various stuff picked up in adulthood. (By "picked up" I mean seeing someone behave in a certain way and thinking, "yes, that's a good way to be.")

So I guess my overall answer is, "in a haphazard fashion, taking things from many different sources."
posted by equalpants at 6:10 PM on December 30, 2007

Yup, like previous posters I do not have the holes you describe. A scientific understanding of the universe, along with a general desire to have a positive impact on the world, on balance, get me through life easily enough. An enjoyment of art and the beauty of nature help too. Good food, good friends and a healthy environment, these are the things you need.

Mindless ritual and a belief in some fictional deity, not so much.
posted by krisjohn at 6:12 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

The better question is not how others find non-religious meaning in their lives, but rather why you want it handed to you in the first place. Meaning, in a metaphysical sense, is pretty much always just paredolia; it says more about the perceiver than the perceived.

Seriously. You're not going to find an answer you're comfortable with, long term, until you know why it's so desperately important to you.
posted by aramaic at 6:16 PM on December 30, 2007

Go visit a church, synagogue, or whatever knowing two things:

1. Not all religious people are the wacky, Benn Hinn-lovin', put-one-hand-on-the-tv-and-the-other-on-your-wallet-and- PRAAAY-with-me- televangelist-watching-creeps, racist, sexist, homophobic, judgmental, prosperity gospel-believin', Bible-thumpin', science-hatin', evolution believin', world-shunnin', nutjobs they are so often made out to be on AskMe. I mean, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Schweitzer were religious. Not every theist is Pat Robertson.

2. Each Sunday (or Saturday), the pews are filled with many more people who think like you than you may think.

Being a part of a religious community does not mean you necessarily subscribe to every doctrine and creed of that religious community. It can mean that you are with a group of fellow sojourners who are on a journey to discover more about life, existence, one another, and even God.

In my experience, the spiritual life is not a matter of knowing answers. It is a matter of learning to ask the right questions, which it sounds to me like what you are doing. I wish you well.
posted by 4ster at 6:16 PM on December 30, 2007 [7 favorites]

It is perhaps the obvious answer but evolution fills much of the void for me. The explanatory power of the theory of evolution is awe-inspiring, and a guide to understanding the world around you. It also provides a logical reason to appreciate and learn from religion without buying into the supernatural elements. Religions have accumulated much wisdom and ability to sustain human spirit (along with less desireable elements) through natural selection in the course of being passed down from generation to generation. I recommend Richard Dawkins and Joseph Campbell for exploring both of these ideas further.

There is nothing wrong with using the ritual and trappings of religion if you find that it benefits you. I've been known to read fortune cookies and cast runes on occasion and ponder their significance even while knowing with the logical part of my mind that they have no objective basis in reality. Meditation is an activity you can engage in without surrendering to illogic.

If I could be said to have faith in one thing it is that all things are value-neutral, aside from the meaning we impart to them, and that meaning can be consciously chosen. Just something I ramble about occasionally.
posted by Manjusri at 6:18 PM on December 30, 2007

Maybe this poem (Aubade, Larkin) will help people who don't understand the questioner's "holes". To illustrate that the questioner is not alone, here's a quote from the prominent atheist author, Philip Pullman: "I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I'm an atheist, I'm certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it."
posted by Burger-Eating Invasion Monkey at 6:19 PM on December 30, 2007 [5 favorites]

Many science writers push that line that if you really understand what science tells us about the universe, you will be as-filled-with awe as someone who believes in God. It's stupid to quantify awe, but I think there's a grain of truth there.

Here's the problem: many of us learn enough science to shake possibilities of faith (just understanding The Scientific Method can do that), but we don't delve deeply enough to get turned on the way real scientists get turned on. Of course we don't: science is hard.

But a way in is through the study of Darwinian Natural Selection. It's a relatively easy part of science for the layman to grasp. I'm sure everyone reading this knows the basic ideas involved, but if you don't yet have an intuitive grasp of how elephants and humans and visual systems could have arisen from simple life forms -- without intelligent intervention -- you have yet to have your mind BLOWN. They good news is that there are tons of books on this subject that are well written and easy to understand. I recommend Evolution For Everyone.
posted by grumblebee at 6:24 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Absinthe: ritualized preparation, specialized paraphernalia, (supposedly) transcendent experiences.

See also: English high tea (milk first!), fancy machine espresso, french press coffee.
posted by casarkos at 6:25 PM on December 30, 2007

You might check out the Quakers. They have no creed.
posted by orange swan at 6:26 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I long for ceremony, ritual, rites of passage.

I like Thanksgiving a lot because everyone likes to eat, and therefore everyone is united by their mutual love of food and the togetherness created by this shared experience. The same goes for other secular holidays where enjoyment of the season and traditional meals and gatherings are part of the ceremony and ritual. As for rites of passage, I encounter plenty of those in my career path.

As for needing a purpose or a plan... I guess I can't help you there. I've always considered myself to be comfortable as an atheist chiefly because I don't need a purpose or plan to my life- I just live it in the most enjoyable way I can.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:27 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Be careful what you wish for.
posted by meehawl at 6:32 PM on December 30, 2007

It just sounds like you have the type of brain wiring that needs faith, but you have the intelligence to not blindly follow it. This is a surprisingly rare combination.

This reminds me of a passage from a book I just read. "Who Knows?" by Raymond Smullyen (who some of you know as a creator of logic puzzles). Smullyen is an agnostic. I think if I was one, this book would be my bible. It made me wish I WAS one.

Here's the passage:

I tend to believe that Calvin was right in that we all unconsciously believe in God, only I don't share Calvin's belief that this constitutes evidence that there is a God. I also believe ... that our unconscious belief in a God, coupled with our conscious rejection of the idea, is responsible for an enormous number of neurotic disorders...

I don't agree that we ALL unconsciously believe in God, but I think there's some truth to what Smullyan says.
posted by grumblebee at 6:37 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't know if I feel those holes. Maybe I used to, but never as keenly. I do feel as though there is a lot of ritual in my life, and it is there because I put it there. There is a mornings-at-home ritual. There are certain end-of-day rituals. Perhaps you would call them habits, and I would, but they are also rituals that mark my day as much as any bell or service.

As for meaning, I read a lot of sportswriting. No seriously. The kind of stuff that shows up in the Best American series picks up my outlook on life better than anything else I've tried (except that post-massage stoned feeling maybe). It appeals, I think, not because it hands me meaning but because it consists of tales of people finding their own meanings, maybe even trying a few times before they get it right. There is undeserved triumph and undeserved failure and the deserved flavors of both; there are accidents and the meanings people add afterward to make sense of the accidents' reprecussions. And there is always courage. Looking for that courage has served me better than convincing myself in pat answers that fall apart after a while. (And when I was younger I tried so hard to find those answers.)

Steve Prefontaine said, "A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways as they're capable of understanding." I try to think of all meaning like that. So to me the right answer is to find the courage to make your own meanings and your own rituals, with people you love. Experiment, make mistakes, try again. I always hope that the result will finally be a life I can be proud of.
posted by dame at 6:38 PM on December 30, 2007

It's funny, I'm agnostic and I feel the exact opposite. When I was a little kid and believed in God, I was always so angry about the things God was doing to me and just couldn't understand why God would be like that. Then I grew up and realized that there probably wasn't a God and that really a lot of things just boiled down to chance and that bad things happen for no particular reason. There wasn't some God in the sky that was just refusing to help me for no particular reason.
posted by whoaali at 6:40 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Which is to say a life full of meaning.
posted by dame at 6:41 PM on December 30, 2007

Some people give themselves up to God, some people give themselves up to Jesus, I give myself up to uncertainty. I find a spiritual satisfaction in saying "I don't know. Nobody knows. Maybe nobody will ever know." It makes me happy.

You could try reading about Negative Capability, that's what got me started in this direction.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 6:42 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't have any of the holes you speak of. I don't think you're going to be agnostic for long, if you are in fact agnostic now.

The only guide I need for how to live is the golden rule - it's so good it's a part of every major religion. Though of course they fuck it up with superfluous rules - dictating bloody genocide for instance.

If you really want ritual and fellowship, some martial arts dojos can be pretty strong in those areas. They can also be pretty good at making you an emotionally stronger person - being able to endure a grueling trial (or even just a tough training) and abide, can really be quite an achievement, and helps you understand that if you just keep going and don't quit, you have the strength to do more than you think - and it doesn't come from some magical space ghost, it comes from yourself.

I find comfort in friends, animals, art and music, the incredible beauty of the world I find myself in, and travel.
posted by The Monkey at 6:50 PM on December 30, 2007

I don't have any of the holes you speak of. I don't think you're going to be agnostic for long, if you are in fact agnostic now.

That's an odd thing to say. I'm a Strong Atheist. I'm deeply dissatisfied being one, and if I could wave a wand and make myself a theist, I'd do it in a second.

I've been the way I am for at least two decades. My atheism never gets any weaker, yet I never feel at peace with it, either.
posted by grumblebee at 6:53 PM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

The people who say God gives them strength and so on – where do you think the strength actually comes from? From themselves. Arguably they can be stronger than a non-believer at times, but only by means of a complex piece of flim-flam that persuades them that their inner strength is being beamed into them from outside.

There are many structured meditations that you can do to build a sense of strength, and connection with the universe and other people, that are non-theistic. You can ritualize a meditation session with incense, a candle, visual aids of various kinds – or not, as you like. Try Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs for some ideas, or learn how to do kundalini yoga, maybe. I know several people for whom their yoga practice is a rock of stability.
posted by zadcat at 6:54 PM on December 30, 2007

You could look at Humanism.
posted by slavlin at 6:54 PM on December 30, 2007

I want a guide for how to live.

Buddhism provides a nice philosophical basis for a life. We are lucky enough to be alive during a Buddhist renaissance, when people such as Thich Nhat Hahn are able to make clear how relevant philosophy can be to how we live our lives.

There are many strains of Buddhism that have turned into full on religions with gods and spirits etc, as well rituals out the wazoo if that's your thing, but the basics remain fully grounded in secular human experience.
posted by tkolar at 7:04 PM on December 30, 2007

I know the feeling. I just finished the second of Octavia Butler's Earthseed books and wished something like that was going on now. I want a community built on love, supported by shared experiences: ritual, history. I've known lots of wonderful Quakers and think there's probably something there.

The best thing I've found recently is Bruce Springsteen concerts. It's 20,000 people (or more) being led by the greatest showman living in songs about deeply human experiences. It helps that he's a smart populist lefty, too, if you're the sort who likes your politics a little more spiritually moving than is standard.
posted by wemayfreeze at 7:05 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I really think this is the wrong question to ask...or altleast it's not put in the right context. There is a wealth of philosophy available on what it means to be truely religious. The basics identify the sacred from the profane/secular. Kant's beliefs about beauty, Plato's take on piety...what a gift really is, and how it transforms itself as well as the recipient...and the differences between religeon and magic (eg. giving thanks in contrast with self empowerment).

In other words, you have to have a way of separating in your mind what it means to be truely religious in comparison with what it means to be ritualistic for self empowerment. And you have to have a way of defining what it means to be happy (eg. does it mean that you actively push out things that threaten perceived happiness, or is it being open to said threats, living through the experiences of joy and despair)

As with anything philosophical, you're not going to find an universal answer but rather an insight on what you're missing out on. If you are serious about this question I really recommend some reading...various good books have been written (I'm sure others can be recommended) are a few that I remember from a philosophy of religion course:

- Eliade's Sacred and the Profane(good descriptions for their time on manifestations of the sacred, good though controversial stuff on what it means to be truely religious)
- The trial of Socrates (in particular the discussions of Piety, the greater good, and the soul)
- Bhagavad-Gita (if only to get a grasp of how reality is explained to be an illusion...or how everything eminates from a singularity)
- The Spirituality of Imperfection (a really good read that expands on the philosophy behind AA. This might be the best book to start with)
-Lewis Hyde's The Gift (an excellent read on what a gift is)

Delve as much as you want into any of these perspectives. I think the more time you put into studying what religion really is, the less you'll consider it simply a comfort or psychological need. (atleast the terminology you use could change)
posted by samsara at 7:08 PM on December 30, 2007

In my experience, they do various cultural traditions instead, and dabble in the rites of other faiths and creeds. They also follow secular moral codes or puzzle out their own. After three generations of atheism in my family, the concept of real magic feels bizarre, but we celebrate Christmas, birthdays, Hanukah and little things like that.

I think it’s my personal belief that rituals are for the living, not the big spook, so while it would be nice if there was a god, my need for meaning is not inherently connected to if there’s more than throbbing biological urges or not, but the sensation of meaning.

Unitarians may be able to help you. They’re a church for people who feel the need to have a church but not a creed or a particular god or gods.
posted by Phalene at 7:16 PM on December 30, 2007

<>There is as much or as little ritual in the preparation of a mug of tea as you choose to invest in it.
BitterOldPunk is right.

I have many elaborate rituals investing my life with meaning. There is the crucial Chicken Nugget ritual which is held on High Holy Chicken Nugget Day. There is the Chocolate Cake ceremony which is held whenever very good things happen. There is the Partita in D minor celebration. There is the Serving of Scrambled Eggs on the Special Plate with Parsley.

Life is meaningless. That means whatever meaning it has, I give it. My life is full of awesome rituals which would make no sense to anyone else, yet make me happy. Make up your own - why give someone else the fun of choosing your purpose?
posted by winna at 7:18 PM on December 30, 2007 [9 favorites]

I heard a great interview with the woman who played Pat on SNL who later had ovarian cancer I think. (sorry, I don't remember her name but maybe someone downstream will recall it).

Her name is Julia Sweeney and she did a performance called "Letting Go of God" which is available as an audiobook now but originally was on This American Life. It's interesting and funny...she touches on the idea of "not belonging anymore," if I recall.
posted by cabingirl at 7:19 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't believe that there's this other thing that makes the bad of what is worth it. When I see bad people that I know succeed I sort of wish that there was a cosmic leveling to lay them low. I sort of empathize with you. Because the spell for me is broken. It doesn't work if you don't believe it's true it feels like playing dress up. Which is kind of a bummer.

I mean I get other things a sense of awe at the complex systems and elegant rules. I play games with myself. Like when I touch an object I think about how it was made and how many people had to work together to make it. People who dug up the medal and people who cast it and made the molds and designed it and made the tools and designed the tools and it never ends, not for any object. It's sort of like counting sheep. And it gives me a sense that we're all in this together. And that'll do. Or it will have to.

I like to picture people falling in love in other countries and picture people seeing an animal that they haven't seen before and getting excited. I think about the people that I care about and try and conjure them in my mind and think about what they're doing and how they're feeling.

There's nothing so great about the practice of most religions. I mean confession that catholics have. That's pretty good. But mass? Communion. There nothing that great. Watch a movie or join a book club. People need people to watch their scotch and the biggest thing religion does is interject people into your life. But there are other ways of doing that. So find one of the dozens.
posted by I Foody at 7:32 PM on December 30, 2007

There's nothing so great about the practice of most religions. I mean confession that catholics have. That's pretty good. But mass? Communion. There nothing that great.

Two things worth considering here:

- Following a religion is not a means to personal gain, power, weatlh, happiness. Following a religion is however a way of life that permiates outside the rituals.

- Rituals, at their basic level, are enactments of the story of creation. Since Christianity is rooted in the progression of history (eg. it's focus is on documented heirophanies that can be set to a particular time..cause and causation as well as the unprecidented future)

- For Catholism, mass and communion are a way of returning back to the time of original sacredness. The idea of the sacred is crucial here, as anything that people hold sacred, they also want to protect and preserve.

- When you walk into a Catholic church, there will always be a waiting area. The function of this room is to serve as a transitionary plane to help one prepare to leave the secular/profane world, and enter the sacred (thus the holy water to cleanse etc).

Now I hope I didn't convert you (unlikely). The reason I pointed these things out is because there is often a lot more going on than what initially appears. It's like reading Shakespear as a kid, then again as an adult...noticing an entirely different story develop.
posted by samsara at 7:55 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

quoting Robin Meyers

" Religion ought to be emotionally satisfying, socially significant, biblically responsible and intellectually honest"

There are several Covenant churches out there that are non-credal, will welcome you and will not require you to go along with specific beliefs.
posted by francesca too at 7:58 PM on December 30, 2007

Ok that was more than two things (mental note to self, use preview more often)
posted by samsara at 7:59 PM on December 30, 2007

SO, after all that blather, I would like to ask my godless brethren how they fill these holes without religion.

I grew up without religion of any sort and didn't really know about it until I was in elementary school and I just never saw those holes in myself or other people.

I grew up in the country with a great reverence for nature and a pretty solid community and I guess I just believe, and do believe, in other people. I never thought about it much until I had a Christian boyfriend who was very relaxed, on the surface, with me being areligious -- I don't even call myself atheist or agnostic, it is just something I never think about and my extended family is full of Jews Christians and Buddhists -- but talked about those holes that you refer to. We talked about it a lot, really over and over. I didn't see them in myself or him [or anything weird about him being Christian, that was fine] but he saw holes in me and felt holes in himself that he was putting religion in as some sort of certaintude. Needless to say, this was one of a few irrenconcilable points we had.

I feel ties to some of the practices of my family (my direct parents/sister aren't religious, but beyond that) and have always admired certain religious leaders without having to accept the entire breadth of their teachings. I like Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin, Wendell Berry, Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and others who I'm sure I'm forgetting. William Sloane Coffin talks a lot about love, and about justice, and about our obligations to one another and to those less fortunate. So do many of the others. I figure there is nothing wrong with taking those messages and running with them even if I don't do it in the service to any particular deity or spirituality.
posted by jessamyn at 7:59 PM on December 30, 2007

What holes? Part of the reason why some of us are nonbelievers is that we don't feel that particular void that many religious people do.
posted by cmgonzalez at 8:01 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

I agree with the suggestions above that if you grew up with ritual it's easier to miss it. I grew up Jewish, and I follow many Jewish traditions now even though I don't believe in the religion behind it anymore. The rituals offer me comfort, and giving them up would leave me with the kind of void you describe.

Science comes to mind as a structuring force. Gardening, for example, puts you in touch with the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, gives you something to care for, and gives you back something in turn. I'm an apartment-dweller and not much of a gardener, but taking care of my plants and growing new seedlings is a ritual that offers me something to lean on while demanding my care and attention. Being outside is also important to me, especially time out of the city where I can experience nature.

As far as personal ethics, the Golden Rule pretty much covers most situations. I work to live an ethical life, to be kind to other people and to myself, to be a good person.
posted by bassjump at 8:02 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't look elsewhere for meaning; it's a mistake. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said
"If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the (Father's) kingdom is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father's) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.

When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty."
There is nothing about extrinsic meaning there.*

It's also worth noting that the core of religion has nothing to do with "psychological needs." Such needs are, from a spiritual perspective, at best irrelevant and possibly an obstacle to leading a good life, and religious practice teaches one to cut through them rather than to satisfy them. That so many religious people fall back on some rigid "meaning" and ritual only shows how easy it is to go astray. At least that's how I see it, from my (atheist/agnostic) Buddhist practice and my Christian upbringing.

*Admittedly, the Gospel of Thomas is not part of the canon, but I understand it's the oldest of the Gospels, and the canon was selected much later... Personally I'm inclined to give it more weight than the rest of the Bible
posted by Coventry at 8:09 PM on December 30, 2007 [4 favorites]

The religious ones say, "Yup. What did you expect. Go find Jesus!" The atheists say, "I don't see what the problem is. I don't believe, and I'm totally happy."

This seems very astute - this is the sort of question where different preconceptions will end up in radically different places. Keep in mind that you will mostly find variations of the atheist/agnostic viewpoint here.

Religion really isn't primarily about rites and rituals, but rather its about a relationship with God. I suspect that any sort of ritual by itself, whether it is secular or religious, is not going to satisfy your angst. Even if you found something to "make the mundane enjoyable", you would still feel some longing for something deeper and more significant.

I am a Christian, and believe that you are experiencing a deep human longing for God. Not that that by itself is any sort of proof of God's existence, but I do think it is something that you should pay attention to.

One possible response is to read through the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, John which are the biographies of Jesus) not as something to blindly and unthinkingly follow, but as an opportunity to get to know the person of Jesus, and rationally, logically, consider what you find. What rings true (or false) for you? What characters do you identify with? If this was true, what would it mean for you? What are the key things that make this difficult/impossible to believe?

The worst that could happen is that you become more familiar with some classic literature.

However, (I don't know how open you are to this possibility, but you consider yourself an agnostic rather than an atheist) you might discover some of the truth and significance you are longing for. Not something to blindly and irrationally follow, but something substantive that you can wrestle with and consider, and perhaps even come to believe in.

I hope this isn't taken as too preachy - that not my intent. I wish you well on your pursuit!
posted by jpdoane at 8:10 PM on December 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You are describing a basic and nearly universal craving for ritual that is, in itself, probably the reason that religion exists in the first place, and also the reason that so many religions have such similar characteristics.

I highly recommend Carl Jung's famous book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, and anything by Joseph Campbell. They won't give you religion, but they will help you understand your cravings, and the fulfillment of that understanding is a kind of ritual in itself.
posted by bingo at 8:14 PM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

I was raised by UU-atheist-yet-religious parents in rural New England.

I don't do the UU thing anymore, and don't consider myself religious in any way. But I do try (imperfectly, often impotently) to contribute to good & justice in the world. Dorky, I know. There's some ritual (and faith) in that for me. Making the effort, again, to make things better (against evidence to the contrary).

I'm not much for tangible rituals, I don't find myself needing those, but I like the ideas above about food rituals, including food connected with seasonal holidays. Maybe even crafts. :D
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:15 PM on December 30, 2007

Coming up with your own meaning is hard. But maybe that's because there isn't any inherent meaning. Having it "handed to you" is the easy way. You don't have to do the work to get to the point where you can admit to yourself that there doesn't need to be any engraved-in-stone meaning.

But I do understand some of what you're saying. I have also at times felt that I'd like to be part of something...I've said many times that I wish there were a church for atheists. I think this comes from our need to be part of a group; it's not just the ritual, it's the ritual combined with the presence of others performing it. Maybe finding more likeminded friends might help you?

Reading this book was one of the main turning points in my personal philosophy. It helped me to understand that there are biologically rooted reasons for much of what we do, and in a way, left me free to develop my own personal meaning in life.

For me, this is life's meaning:
1. Enjoy life, it's short. Be happy.
2. Try to help others to be happy too. Try not to make them unhappy.
3. Try to produce something that will enrich the world, and perhaps endure past my own death. (I know that last is just vanity, but it's my personal vanity and I don't mind it much.)

That's it! It works pretty well. Good luck to you.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 8:30 PM on December 30, 2007

Best answer: I'm an athiest, but there are elements of some religions that I really like and have incorporated into my life. For instance, I believe that I have to give to the universe in order for the universe to give anything back to me (sort of like the idea of karma). I've kind of got a cycle going. If something really great happens for me, it is my turn to pay back the universe by donating to a charity or person in need. I also try to live closely in tune with the seasons and with nature. I follow seasonal rituals of putting my hands in dirt, growing and harvesting things.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:40 PM on December 30, 2007

Atheist~agnostic here. When I was a little kid, I was vaguely and half-heartedly sent along to the local Methodist Sunday School at the start of every year - more to ward off the fears and minor interference of the JW side of my extended family that I was going to grow up and die a Godless heathen, without chance of redemption from anyone's God. My parents certainly weren't overtly religious.

About my earliest memory of actually thinking about anything (rather than the blind and aimless questioning that children do, seemingly for amusement) comes from one Sunday morning when I was about 5. I remember sitting on the edge of the stage, half-hidden behind the curtain (Sunday School was held in the church hall) with a bible in my hand, and wondering what the hell the point of it all was - an unknowable God, watching you all the time, who supposedly loved you but may or may not help in times of need. And stuff like "build on the rocks, and not upon the sand" - why, that's just common sense, even if you're not talking about really building something; were people so dumb they really needed to be told that over and over?

(It wasn't until I was older, and went on holidays to the Gold Coast during a cyclone, that I decided for myself the answer was "yes" ;-)

In my own way, I figured out something that I later learnt was similar to ol' Pascal and his wager, but came to the opposite conclusion. Basically, I decided for myself that if there was a God - one who could see into your heart and, like some universal Santa, know if you were bad or good - then religion imposed from without was a crock, a delusion, a waste of time. 'Goodness' had to some from within, or it was worthless. Half the damned Bible is about the importance of the choice coming from within, regardless of personal consequences, so where does a Church, any Church, fit in to that? And, if there wasn't a God? ... well, I'd been brought up a good kid, so I was going to be good anyway. The important thing, it seemed to me, was to try to do the right thing as hard as I could - not because of fear, not because of a promise, but because I wanted to.

Fast-forward a few years, and I'm in my mid 30's. Much shit had happened, I was in a fairly bad state mentally and in my life, and I started to question this again. I'd tried to be good, but it hadn't worked; my life had turned to shit. At that time, many people I knew - nice people, good people, who were intelligent and excellent at their jobs; people who I respected - were religious; all stripes, ranging from the traditionalist to the revivalist. I started to feel a little envious of them - they had something to fill The Hole In Their Soul, something I didn't have. Religion did serve a purpose after all!

I still couldn't bring myself to believe like that - to this day, I remain too practical and too inquisitive to take anything on faith - but I ended up coming to much the same conclusion as I had 30-odd years earlier, albeit with an appreciation of the nature and importance of belief. Basically, I still believe that unless you're the sort of person who can accept the incongruities and contradictions that come with inserting someone else's pre-packaged answer into your existing beliefs, whatever you form your life around has to come from within.

I'm still jealous sometimes of people who have a ready-made answer to fill that hole, even if it is as stupid an answer (in my opinion) as "because it's the will of God". They have it easy because they can accept that; I have it hard because I have to think and work at it! But, I'm comfortable with that now.

Go and stare at a flower - I mean really look; take in the form and structure; have a little think about the purpose and function of each part; consider the reason for the colour and shape and location of everything that makes up the flower. Find another plant, and do the same - marvel at how so different a thing could have essentially the same function and purpose; ponder that something - be it God, time, inevitability, whatever - is such a driving force that it can cause Life to diverge in style and form so much, yet each follows its different paths to the same end.

And go home, turn on the TV , grab a beer, and realise you've just been staring at a living entity's sexual organs for the last 20 minutes...
posted by Pinback at 10:17 PM on December 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Great question, great thread. I struggle with this question myself sometimes. I could never believe in a literal God and I distrust the religions I know, but I do envy the ceremony and mysticism and tradition they get to enjoy. Moreover I've had a few 'religious experiences' just on my own, e.g. hiking in the wilderness, where I felt sense a unity with the universe, or more accurately, an altered state of consciousness. I never understood religion until I had felt that. It's still all very mysterious to me so I try to be open-minded.

If you think about it, you will notice that our culture has a great deal of secular ceremonies and rites. Some are private, like making tea. Others are communal, like rock concerts, sporting events, movies and plays, parades and festivals, and so on. It is amusing to try and identify traditions and ceremonial flourishes that have developed even in the most mundane daily activities. For me, I've found that the rush of excitement that connects me with the infinite comes most easily through music, so I go to a lot of concerts, and I play with my band a lot. That fills some of the holes. But it doesn't give me meaning.

What is the meaning of life? If you were an ordinary animal, the purpose of your life would be to fill an ecological niche. You would eat, reproduce, work toward the survival of your family group, and eventually die. As humans we have the same purpose. Any other meaning beyond that we create ourselves.

Our culture used to look to clergy for advice on how to live. The clergy have been overthrown and now we look to therapists and media personalities, and, indirectly, science. Do you want a secular guide to help you through the hard times? It's a therapist. Still that doesn't really give you meaning.

If you could ask a million people what gives their live meaning you will probably get a million different answers. It's an intensely personal question. I think we all have to go on some sort of spiritual quest to figure that out. The answer may be that there is no meaning, other than to simply be -- intuitively I suspect this is true, yet I find it unsatisfying. But I can create meaning if I wish. I can decide, for example, that my purpose in life will be to make the world a (marginally) better place, and maybe one of these days I will come up with a way to do that effectively while maintaining the balance I need, and that will make me happy. I could also join a religion and decide that their purpose is my purpose; if I find such a religion where I can agree with their purpose, maybe that's not such a bad idea, but I doubt I will. Maybe you'll have better luck.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:44 PM on December 30, 2007

Every time I see Road-Kill I say silently or mostly aloud... "May you be reborn a Buddha." Sorta fills my ceremony appetite.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:44 PM on December 30, 2007

'Secularist' doesn't mean 'non believer'. There are any number of religious secularists - even though I gather that the word is being used an an insult by the US right. Just fyi.

As to the question: I'm an atheist. I don't have the need for ritual or ceremony I've seen in some - though I have family members (most atheists, one a Jew) who do. So I suppose I'm saying, perhaps churlishly, that I believe the premise "Religion fulfills certain psychological needs" leaves a little to be desired. (On reflection: I suppose it's entirely possible that I'm psychologically depr[ia]ved...)

Having said all that, such ceremony and ritual as I do consume, I get by following a local sporting franchise.
posted by pompomtom at 10:53 PM on December 30, 2007

Coventry wrote...
It's also worth noting that the core of religion has nothing to do with "psychological needs."

I couldn't disagree more. If you study the world's many different religions you'll find that they *all* grapple with the same issues: certainty in an uncertain world, how to live in community with those around us, and the meaning to all the suffering we see and experience.

These are all core issues for the human psyche, and it's not a coincidence that religions have developed to address them.

I understand that from a theistic view point these issues are not necessarily the "core of religion", but from the secular world they appear to be the common threads that tie together all faiths, no matter how diverse they may be.
posted by tkolar at 10:57 PM on December 30, 2007

I'd give the Wiccan thing a try. Or, basically, start connecting with nature. There's immense satisfaction to be had in communing with nature. Learning to understand, enjoy, and love nature provides the powerful connection to "something larger", to forces outside of yourself, without taking on all silliness of religious doctrine. Go for long walks. Collect natural objects: interesting rocks, cool pine cones, and pretty flowers. Having an extensive acorn collection does get you laid. Buy some plants. Buy books about nature and natural philosophy. Try praying to a tree. Praying to a particular tree for help makes just as much sense as praying to a non-existent God but, unlike said divinity, the tree actually existed before you were born and will exist long after you are dead. Learn to see the beauty in that and you'll get most of the satisfaction that people get out of being in a church without having to deal with irritating church people. You may also want to share your newfound love of nature with others -- do so. That's what the internet is for. Take pictures, write poems, paint paintings or build sculpture. Once you start down this path doing any sort of communal Wiccan ritual won't be strange at all.
posted by nixerman at 11:57 PM on December 30, 2007

I make music. It has everything good -- the ritual, the catharsis, the sense of wonder, the sense of belonging, and the sense that the world is ordered and beautiful, but without any of the scary groupthink and dogma parts. I feel pretty lucky that this works out for me.
posted by speicus at 12:37 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You ask a lot of big questions, but here's my small piece of it.

Religion fulfills certain psychological needs. How do non-believers manage without it?

I'd say that religion fulfills certain psychological and social desires, but they aren't "needs." Therefore, if you don't have these needs, you have no problem managing without.

That said, as an atheist I most commonly find my religious match (save the god part) with Quakers and Anabaptists like Mennonites. You may also find something interesting in the world of Peace churches, but if you're looking for ritual you're going to have to be more specific. I'd say there is organized ritual in just about any spiritual direction you can go in, if you're willing to get into it that much. Buddhists, Catholics, Lutherans all have ritual for those who want it. There's always party people, in other words. Heck, you can join the Lions Club or Masons.
posted by rhizome at 1:00 AM on December 31, 2007

I wasn't talking from a theistic point of view, tkolar. I was talking spiritually. My point was that pursuing a religious practice to fulfill a personal psychological need would be fundamentally selfish, whereas spiritual practice as I understand it is about getting notions of self out of the way of leading a good life. I realize a lot of people do stick with a religion out of a sense of personal need for meaning and ritual, but in my opinion that is a subtly materialistic way to live and the end result is often religiosity and empty ritual.
posted by Coventry at 3:06 AM on December 31, 2007

You might find yoga useful. Most yoga classes end with a few minutes of guided meditation as a relaxation exercise, and you can make this as personally meaningful as you choose.
posted by happyturtle at 5:02 AM on December 31, 2007

I want a guide for how to live. I wouldn't follow it blindly on faith. I would certainly do some picking, choosing, and editing of such a guide. But having to come up with it completely from scratch makes me feel so lost and confused.

It seems to me that the first step would be to work out what you already believe. A first step might be to work through a few newspapers and identify how you feel about each story. Break it down until you've identified something that you believe in an axiomatic, non-negotiable sense, and add it to your list. For example, one entry might be something like "Racism is unacceptable".

For another angle, you could work through something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and see how much of it you would be prepared to add to your own personal canon.

This would at least give you some kind of stake in the ground that you can use as a starting point, and you might find it surprisingly empowering and comforting just on its own.
posted by teleskiving at 6:29 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Those "needs" are not necessarily universal or timeless. Culture evolves and changes. Real knowledge of the natural world replaces superstitious guesswork. Substantive experience effecting change replaces rituals that purport to effect change (or renew the social structure as it is, for that matter). "Religion" is not one thing, in any case, except in the broadest Durkheimian sense.

I am a stone-cold atheist. I have no need for spiritual beliefs or secular rituals to make me feel human. I consider myself an animal with the capacity to reason, evolved over tens of thousands of years (quite quickly in natural evolutionary terms). Animals do not have religion and do just fine. Animals with reason should be even more capable of living without fear.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:25 AM on December 31, 2007

I'll second the recommendations of Buddhism, reconnecting with nature, and playing music.

If you combine mindfulness with just about any ritual, you can get your meaning-fix. For me, playing music with others works. We do it the same day every week, we start at the same time, and a sort of ritual has evolved. The music is bigger than we are.

I've been enjoying these down-to-earth introductory talks about Buddhism.
posted by PatoPata at 8:35 AM on December 31, 2007

Yeah, no holes to fill for me. I understand Christianity quite well, I understand what captures people about it and why it is important to some people, but I do not need it. It basically never crosses my mind. Being in a church setting is actually actively uncomfortable for me, because I know I'm just pretending - I'm waiting to get out so I can go back to whatever it is that I want to do, while these other people are getting something out of it.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:01 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

How about opium? It might be Philosophy 101, but the man does make a good point.

To summarize, a good drug like opium has the same capacity to rule your life, fill it with illusory meaning and happiness, and leave you feeling empty without it, than does your garden-variety major religion.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you go and pick up a proper opium addiction to fill your psychological holes. What I am saying is that it is very easy indeed to find some arbitrary thing to fulfill the need to belong to something greater than yourself, to give up that hopeless existential dread for a set path with specific rules of being, thinking, and doing. If you really want some meaning handed to you, you'll find that there are a multitude of people out there who will jump all over each other to present you with the answer. Screw them. Take the things you really enjoy - the things in your life that really make you happy - and immerse yourself in them. Make that your religion, whatever that may be.
posted by tjvis at 10:36 AM on December 31, 2007

Strong atheist here, and I do think most people have a big, gaping hole o' NEED to fill. I mean... you come home from work, you have some time to yourself, and you gotta do SOMEthing, right? What you fill that hole with is up to you -- it can be negative (wrt your health, personal relationships, money, etc.), positive, or any point in between.

Negative: Alcohol/drug/gambling/television/internet/pr0n/sex addiction, unhealthy relationships (just to avoid being alone), etc.
Positive: Physical fitness, higher learning, travel, art/music, parenthood, business, etc.

Religion, I would say is generally somewhere in the middle. Sure, it's better than turning one's liver into mush, but you're replacing it with mild schitzophrenia that distorts your reality with an imaginary structure. (But it's SOOOO easy. There's such a well-developed support stucture -- weekly indoctrination ceremonies, family/friend peer pressure, etc. It's harder, IMO, to avoid religion that to succumb to it.)

So, given that you've recognized this need in yourself -- as opposed to just unconsciously already filled it with booze/drugs/what-have-you -- why not fill the void with something wholly positive? Get obsessive about playing guitar. Get in really good shape and run some 5k races. Rebuild your grandpa's '42 Chevy. Adopt a few unwanted pets. (I said "a few"!) Take up gourmet cooking. Dance. Paint. Knit.

There's so much better stuff to do than dedicating your life to a fairy tale.
posted by LordSludge at 10:50 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Religion fulfills certain psychological needs. How do non-believers manage without it?

Religion does/can fill certain psychological needs. It's why we created it, I suspect. Voltaire was a deist, so he probably meant something different when he said, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him." But I think his statement is the simplest explanation of why we did in fact invent god(s). We needed it because life was too bewildering without it/them. We don't know how we got here or why, we don't know what it is that we're supposed to be doing here, we don't know why things happen (though science chips away at that void), and we don't know how the universe got here or what existence is. "What does it all mean?" we have been asking for as long as we have existed. All of this is very uncomfortable and unsettling and anxiety-making, because we as humans hate unanswered questions and really, what's the point of living if we don't know any of these things? If we're just here randomly we might as well be mold, so why bother struggling as we do? So we think up the best answers we can and wedge them into those holes as placeholders and that soothes us and gives us something to hold onto, even if we happen know on some level that it is a self-imposed illusion.

So in answer to the question of how nonbelievers do without the comforts of religion, I think the answer is that we face life's uncertainties with courage instead of seeking refuge from them. We refuse to delude ourselves for comfort, recognizing that if we did shelter under the secure illusion of religion, we would likely be missing our chance at an authentic experience of life for what it really is. We seek whatever truths we can find. As a metaphor, you could say that we are leaving the safety of home and parents and are striking out in the world on our own to find whatever we find and become our own person (this applies more to those who grew up in a religious setting and then realized they didn't believe. Can't speak for the natively areligious). It doesn't mean we don't feel an ache for answers, explanations, and security, just that we develop muscles to tolerate the lack of them as part of authentic existence.

"I want something to cling to...I want some equivalent to "God has a plan" and "The Lord will provide"...I want a guide for how to live...having to come up with it completely from scratch makes me feel so lost and confused...I want some meaning handed to me...Coming up with your own meaning is hard..."

I think this is another of the reasons why religion developed. This is the basis of the accusation many nonbelievers make when they refer to religion as a crutch. They're saying that existence is indeed hard, but don't take the easy way out and delude yourself. They're saying, as Bertrand Russell said (approximate quote), "Stand on your own two feet and look fair and square at the world with a fearless attitude and a free intelligence." They're saying bear up to the feelings of being lost and in the dark. Strike out on your own and see what you find. They're saying that's the way to really learn the most about who you are and what life is rather than concocting a fiction that allows you to never have to leave the starting line or face the truly hard things for yourself. It would be great if there were a benevolent father who loved you and cared for you and protected you as parents do a child (listen to your italicized words above - you are saying "somebody take care of me and tell me what to do") At the same time, that would keep you from fully developing into what you might become.

I remember when I finally said to myself, "I do not believe." I felt so lost, which is how you sound. The very foundations of my understanding of the universe, existence, time, history, and reality had finally gone poof and there was nothing to replace it. That's immense! I felt adrift in space and existence with no anchor. I couldn't go back to believing (honestly I'd like to - it was easier!), and it was really unsettling to have nothing to anchor me. It is vaguely analagous to graduating from college and finding yourself out in the big world, having to support yourself completely, and realizing you have to craft your whole life yourself from there forward and nobody will do it for you. No proscribed tracks, no guidance, no freebies, no answers, no support, no guarantees... but freedom and responsibility. Just a fully independent you, sink or swim. And with that freedom and responsibility, you find out who you really are.

The only thing I know is that I don't know. So I can't tell you how to live or what to do about religion. But you might consider leaving unanswered questions unanswered if you can't determine an answer, leaving holes unfilled. Try accepting that as the reality of life based on what you're capable of understanding and see what you can build with what you've got. Instead of "God has a plan," and "The Lord will provide," try saying, "I have a plan," and "I will provide." The strength is in you and can be developed. You can feel secure about yourself in the world if you let go of the expectation that someone else will manage it for you. Growth is painful but ultimately rewarding.

With all of that said, I second the above suggestion of reading some Joseph Campbell. I love his views of religion. He basically says that all religions lead to the same place, and he broadens them out of their specific dogmatic confines and delves into the founding myths underlying them all. That's where you get into some real substance about the journey and odyssey of life, and the issue of meaning. It's not answer, but more of a delicious question and sense of wonder, wonder being a positive interpretation of not knowing.

Good luck, sister! Life awaits.
posted by kookoobirdz at 1:46 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Funny you should ask. The Washington Post just ran an article about this.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 2:12 PM on December 31, 2007

What an interesting thread. I distinctly remember being, oh, about ten years old and reading the Narnia books, and desperately wanting them to be true. Unfortunately, I was never good at consciously convincing myself of things, so I never really believed in Aslan or Jesus. These days the scientific world view feels satisfying (and awe-inspiring) enough for me, though, so I don't feel any lack of meaning in my life.

The desire for ritual, however, I do understand. I don't expressly feel like I'm missing tradition and ceremony, but I very much enjoy it, and I've made some effort in my life to make room for those that I'm comfortable with. My family celebrates Christmas, despite not being Christian; when I can I'll make a bigger deal out of the secular traditions and holidays, too, like Thanksgiving and New Years. Holidays are fun, they have color themes and decorations and offer good excuses to throw a party. I think if I were to go religious, I'd be inclined to go for one of the dramatic, old religions that involves special languages and great music and particular foods, which is a really awful way to choose a faith. I enjoy that stuff, and in college I always made a point of going to opening and Honors convocations (despite being told from all quarters that it was utterly lame of me) because I really do love all the circumstance - the costumes (academic robes) and the traditional music (school fight song) and speeches about the Things That Matter (academics and Our Futures). Those happen to be things I actually buy into as having some worth in the world - except the fight songs - so I could enjoy the pomp without feeling like an impostor the way I always have when I've been to churches. I feel similarly about graduations, weddings, and other events where I inevitably cry.
posted by you're a kitty! at 4:01 PM on January 2, 2008

SO, after all that blather, I would like to ask my godless brethren how they fill these holes without religion.

Art and nature, and these aren't substitutes, but the real deal that religion attempts to mentally bridge for the dispossessed. So, on that note, I would add freedom and equality to the list of devotions that religion replaces by turning inwards and away from this life.
posted by Brian B. at 10:22 AM on January 5, 2008

What's "meaning"? If there isn't any meaning, then the idea of meaning and the idea of truth are in conflict. The presence of "meaning" in an act or an existence would imply that this act or existence is there for the purpose of something else, i.e. doesn't exist solely for itself. If you accept that idea, then the condition of existing solely for oneself is the definition of meaninglessness. But why do we attach a negative character to the idea of "meaninglessness"? Is it perhaps a defensive reaction based on the fact that we know it is actually the case? Most of us live within what Nietzsche called "necessary illusions" because we can't handle spending our lives up on the windy mountaintops with Zarathustra. And the necessary illusions are by no means always religious. Just as Christians can be "bible-pounders", atheists can be "_____-pounders", just as adamant in their belief system as anyone else.
What would be the implications of living with no meaning or belief system at all? I don't know. But I believe I'll shut up now. My only advice: try to get over the desire to have meaning handed to you. Generally that kind of meaning won't be top quality, to say the least, and will generally be handed to you by people with ulterior motives. In the words of Thoreau, "if I knew for certain that a man was coming to my house with the express intention of doing me good, I would run for my life".
posted by arcadia at 6:37 AM on January 22, 2008

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