While I profess to be an atheist at heart, occasionally I find myself still attending religious services such as christenings, first communions, confirmations, weddings, funerals etc. and I ask myself, why can’t I just summon up the courage (if that’s the correct word), to say “NO” to these requests and invitations? This is the topic I would like to explore here and I would love to have anyone who comes across this post, give his/her take on this conundrum which I believe many atheists and non-believers face.
I grew up and live in a very multicultural country, and even when I was still deeply committed to my own faith, it was always the norm for me to attend religious ceremonies of all sorts including Hindu Pujas, Muslim weddings and funerals etc. as well as other services performed by religious institution that were at odds with my own brand of Christianity. Attending services performed by religious organizations that I did not believe in was therefore nothing new to me. So when my children, grandchildren or close family are involved in a religious function now, I find it almost impossible to stay away, or not join with them in their celebration, simply because I no longer believe in the spiritual messages that are inevitably preached on these occasions.
You may disagree with me or you may think that I am being disingenuous, but I don’t think it’s hypocritical that I haven’t taken a firm stand to not partake in these religious practices, because to me, religion has always served two purposes. The first is obviously the propagation of the religious message being preached, but the second purpose is really the social aspect of the gathering itself which is what I find so difficult to ignore.
I have just returned from a European vacation where I visited the great cities of London, Paris, Rome among others, and what struck me above all else was the extent to which religion was involved in the making of these societies. The monuments that were erected to honour past “saints”, the grandiose nature of these imposing structures, the magnificence of the art and sculptures simply cannot be ignored and one is left with the feeling of awe and bewilderment while in the presence of such symbols of power and strength. Regardless of where we look in the world, we find that the growth of civilization was strongly influenced by one religion or another to the extent that there was little difference between the powers that the church wielded and the powers and authority of the state and civilian rulers. In some instances, they were one and the same and the voice of the religious leader was the voice of the monarch and vice versa. It was a partnership made in heaven, to use a well worn phrase.
The reason that I bring this up is to emphasize that from the dawn of humanity, religion has been so ingrained in our psyche and way of life that even though we might reject the base on which it is built, its tentacles extend so far into everything we do, that it’s difficult to ignore it entirely. Rejecting all the trappings of religion along with the obviously outdated and blatantly false messages that it delivers, can therefore be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Why is this so? Why do I feel this way? Is there any compromise in this apparent conflict of ideas? Perhaps if we look at these religious celebrations more closely, we may find a way through this maze of confusion, and the best place to start is usually at the beginning, the first and introductory event into the world of religion, which is baptism of the new infant.
Christenings otherwise known as Baptisms.
Here we have a function that is designed to welcome a new born into the faith and the religious community of the parents. It’s where the indoctrination begins, well sort of, because the parents basically are asked to promise that they will bring up the child in the teachings of the particular faith and if for any reason they are unable to do so, there is usually a back up couple referred to as god-parents who will ensure that this is done. But is that all there is to it? The answer is invariably no, as there is usually a social gathering that goes with it. Besides being the introduction of the child into its inherited religion, it’s also the introduction of the child into society as a whole.
Here is another milepost in the life of the child that is difficult to ignore. In this case, the children themselves may feel disappointed if I didn’t attend their function. At this stage of their life, I am reluctant to introduce any conflict between what the parents are teaching their children and what I myself believe, so once again I go along and participate in the semantics of the occasion. Am I wrong?
At this stage, children are now beginning to reason things out for themselves. Many children go through this stage out of pure formality and for them it’s more of an occasion to meet friends and build acquaintances than to confirm their belief in any particular religion. Very few of them would attend services on their own if given the opportunity, but now do so because their parents expect them to keep going to church. At this stage it may be more palatable for me to take a stand and explain my own views on religion, but once again, in order to avoid creating conflict especially with the parents, I don’t.
Of all the religious events that are held, this is by far, the most difficult one to ignore. Funerals are where the religious prove their point; that this world is only temporary and the body is just a vessel for an immortal soul. Whether that is true or not is immaterial, the family and friends of the departed gather there to find comfort, solace and hope, that this is not the last they will see of their loved one. I stay away from expressing any such sentiments simply focusing on the positive aspects of the person’s life while expressing my condolences. Sometimes I wonder if there was such a thing as an atheist funeral, what words are said at such an occasion. I have never attended one and am curious to know.
As atheists, I get the impression that we are expected to reject these types of ceremonies, but while we may not agree with the religious aspect, I can’t think of a good reason why we shouldn’t maintain the social aspect of these events. Unfortunately, the social aspect of the event is seldom held separately from the religious rituals hence the need to either take part in the whole shebang, or stay away altogether.
What I am getting at in my own roundabout way, is the social vacuum that seems to be created when one becomes an atheist. Religion offers a joyful experience with all its trapping of singing and festivities while atheism comes across as very bland and lacking in flavour. By definition, Atheism isn’t a belief but a lack of belief in any sort of supernatural being or deity. It can therefore be viewed as a negative way of living, one that lacks any meaning to life itself. I won’t be surprised if the reason why so many people who no longer practice their religion, yet cannot bring themselves to openly admit that they are in fact atheists, is because atheism doesn’t offer them any of the social interactions that religions do, and that’s a pity.