7 secular reasons why I’m still religious

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The following blog post was submitted anonymously by an active Latter-day Saint who serves in a leadership calling in their ward. To submit a guest post, email ourthoughts@gmail.com.

At the risk of sounding like a “lukewarm” fence sitter that will deeply disappoint both sides of the battle between secularism and religion, I have felt impressed to put in words the non-religious reasons that I still find value in religious observance. I assume that there are others like me who may struggle with maintaining authenticity and integrity when in social/religious environments that command or at least expect conformity. I hope that my thoughts will be of some benefit to others who are searching for a comfortable, livable fit that mutually involves critical thinking and religious practice.

I often feel trapped in the space between the excitement of the never ending pursuit of knowledge and the warm, familiarity of faith. While I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive as some seculars might argue, they often intersect in a less than neat and comfortable way. I value freethinking and feel uneasy when an organization asks me to disregard any evidence that isn’t in its favour but I also recognize that rigid dogma exists in abundance outside of religion as well.

I shy away from labels but if I’m going to be honest, I’m agnostic but too afraid to tell anyone at church. I’m Mormon but quick to dismiss the cultural implications associated with the church, especially when among academics. I feel drawn to the humanist movement in theory but find that in practice it looks more like mocking religion rather than promoting well-being for humanity. I have liberal viewpoints that separate me from most of my conservative family and church community yet my conservative roots and religious affiliation often keep me on the outs in liberal circles.

To be clear, I am not conflicted in what I believe or what I value. I have more moral and ethical clarity now than ever in my life. My conflict comes from finding a place where I feel like I fit in. I think we all search for like-minded people who share our most cherished beliefs and values. I have felt the skin-crawling discomfort of being in a room full of people that have an opinion diametrically opposed to my own and I have likewise felt the burning euphoria of mass resonance, and I have had these experiences both at church and at university or other secular gatherings.

So far, neither of those places has told me that I am not welcome so I continue to patronize the lot. A sort of, philosophical hedging of bets.

All of this is to say, that I don’t perfectly fit in anywhere as much as I would like to. Unfortunately for me, it seems that a perfect fit would require changes to my core self; changes that, at least right now, I am unwilling to make in either direction. While I continue to attempt to gain knowledge by staying on the broad shoulders of academia and science I have rediscovered the value of religious affiliation and observance. When I say religious affiliation and observance I’m talking about an ‘all-in’ attitude. I’m not interested in a passive-aggressive, veiled protest approach that consists of showing up to church while refusing to participate or contribute in anyway because of contrasting principles. This approach will only hurt the individual. I believe that such a person is better off either cutting ties or recommitting, any other course of action will make them feel even more resentful and contrary to the church while missing any of the possible benefits of religiosity. It’s a losing approach that will lead to dissatisfaction and dissonance.

Carl Rogers in “On Becoming a Person” emphasizes the importance of personal congruence. Be clear on who you want to be and constantly evaluate whether you are growing closer to or further away from that person. Waging a war against your religion while you are in it is not congruent behaviour. Take a break. But first maybe take a look at the ways that I have been able to use religion to help me become who I want to be. Then decide.

By no means do I believe that religion has a monopoly on any of the following commodities but it is convenient that I can get all of them in one, neatly wrapped package.

  1. Community
    I can’t do this by myself. I’m not talking about this blog, I’m talking about life. My needs exceed my resources. Especially when it comes to raising children. My wife and I are fortunate enough to have an incredibly supportive family but even then we have found ourselves at times in need of even greater support. Our church community is indescribably compassionate. This isn’t by default. We are able to access the strength in numbers because we put the effort forth in involving ourselves from the beginning. If you are going to benefit from the community you have to get as close to the dense center of it as possible. We ask for help when we need it. We express gratitude. We do our best to pay it forward, or better said, pay it around. We made ourselves an integral part of the community and it has paid off in droves. Social capital benefits the individual just as much as it does society and in the age of the suburban sprawl and globalization we are losing our sense of community. My church gives me that.Recommended reading (Putnam, Bowling Alone).
  2. Self-transcendence
    Complementary to my first point, research has convinced me that humans are hard-wired to be a part of something greater than themselves. Jon Haidt argues that by losing ourselves and becoming a part of a whole, in joining others to pursue communal interests, we ascend the “staircase” that is human spirituality. I’m inclined to agree. When we transcend our profane selves we experience a higher level of peace, self-worth, and well-being. Abraham Maslow added self-transcendence to the peak of his hierarchy of human needs and motivation after discovering that after self-actualizing, or achieving a sense of accomplishment, people sought experiences that included love, bliss, and happiness. We, and I mean we as an extrapolating assumption based solely on my own experience, can experience self-transcendence through academia, music, nature, politics, and a host of other human arenas but to this day I have to objectively acknowledge that my transcending experiences through religious practices are still “in the lead”. I have had stretches of time when I have had these experiences daily through religious meditation, prayer, and contemplation. I’m not in a place where I could begin to consider giving that up.Recommended reading (Haidt, the Righteous Mind; Seligman, Authentic Happiness; Grant, Give and Take)
  3. Meaning
    Of course, there is plenty of religious and supernatural meaning to be found in religious institutions and traditions that have value. The problem is, when someone is moving to a more secular frame of thinking they are likely to dismiss it and miss out on its philosophical merit. The meaning I speak of here is more along the lines of personal meaning in one’s day-to-day living experience. Purpose. Independent from a perspective on afterlife or spiritual communion, religion can provide a rich meaningful sense of purpose. I am constantly empowered by feelings of utility and competence in my church community. I have positioned myself to be significant and needed. People call me to ask for help in both temporal and spiritual matters. I am a valuable member. I have a role that I play that I believe is integral for the success of the entire operation. My circle of influence has been expanded because of the responsibility I have had placed on me. I feel important and significant. What I do matters and when I do it, I do it reasonably well (at least that’s what the polite people say). Church gives me a reason to wake up, not just on Sundays but every day. This purpose provides intrinsic motivation for me to flourish.Recommended reading (Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning; Pink, Drive)
  4. Reverence 

    This is the term that I’m using to describe the feeling of awe. Seeing beauty and sacredness in the world around me. Positive Psychology as well as the mindfulness movement have illustrated empirically that being able to “stop and smell the roses” has immensely advantageous implications and benefits. We only have the present. We only have our living, conscience experience. Yes, we are influenced greatly by our memories of the past and our fears and aspirations of the future but quite simply we can only be certain of our living experience which is the here and now. Mindfulness allows us to be deeply aware of the wonders and beauty that surround at any given moment. It brings gratitude for every breath of air and every pulse of blood in our veins. Similarly, in religious experience, I am offered opportunities for mindful prayer and reflection to allow gratitude to settle in my heart. I was taught as a child and continue to be taught the practice of reverent, pensive mental exercise. Religion is rich in symbolism and ritual that invoke a sacred beauty that can only be experienced so I won’t bother trying to describe it.Recommended reading/ viewing (de Botton, Religion for Atheists; Richard Seymour, How Beauty Feels, Ted 2011)

  5. Tradition
    I am not ashamed to say that at least at some level I practice religion out of respect and honour of the tradition passed down to me by my parents. I think it would be naïve to suggest that tradition plays no role in religious observance. It’s hard to say but if my parents hadn’t brought me up in this religion I’m not sure if I would have gravitated towards it on my own (that being said, neither of them were raised Mormon and they came to join on their own, so who knows). I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus but I remember wanting to keep my parents and siblings thinking that I did. It was fun. It was magical. I remember the awkward dinner conversation when I was 12 and had to pretend to start to doubt Santa’s existence because I thought the farce was getting old. I don’t believe Santa travels around and delivers presents to the entire world in one night but I do treasure the magic of the sentiment behind the symbol and I intend to perpetuate that tradition with my children. There is something warm, familiar, and reassuring about following tradition. I’m all for thinking outside of the box and being original. I love chances to be creative and go against the grain. But I also recognize that certain traditions are worth keeping.(Ramdas, Radical Women, Embracing Tradition, TedIndia 2009)
  6. Building a better world
    As mentioned previously, I am clear about my goals and values for my life, one of which is to be a part of the improvement of the world in which I live. I want to play a significant role in bettering the lives of those within my sphere of influence. A large part of that goal is brought about through quality education. I value learning and the sharing of knowledge as much as any other trait or cause. I also believe that despite the unavoidable fact that much discord and violence can be traced back to religion, the religion to which I subscribe has a similar goal of making the world a better place. We may disagree at times as to how to achieve that goal or what the end product will even look like but one endeavour on which religious and secular people alike should be able to join forces is the altruistic effort to build a better world for future generations. I am interested in having religious and secular, political and apolitical, for-profit and not-for-profit organizations pool resources for the benefit of those less fortunate. To dismiss religious organizations in this effort is a gross underestimation and mistake. Religions might have a different motive than secular organizations when it comes to goodwill but who cares? If we’re willing to help then let us.
  7. Family/ unconditional love
    By no means do I think that a family cannot be cohesive and supportive outside of religion, neither does religiosity guarantee a united family, but having a consistent routine of coming together with a shared purpose brings my family closer more times than not. I’m sure that if someone in our family dissented from religion we would still be welcoming and supportive, but there is an emotional buoyancy that I feel from being on the same page when it comes to values and beliefs with my family. That being said, there is also a deep seated confidence that comes from believing that no matter what happens you have a group of individuals who will love you unconditionally. This is not exclusively taught in religion, in fact sometimes it might be completely missed but it’s something I took from religion.Recommended reading (Solomon, Far From the Tree).

This list is not extensive and will probably be amended/added to in time. The references to literature are from completely secular authors/viewpoints. I cite them mainly to share ideas that I found poignant and purposeful. I did not mean to discredit religious points of view or texts.

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