Being an atheist doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from the religious social world. If you’re confident in yourself, being in a religious environment is no more stressful than being at a children’s party, or watching an American Super Bowl football game with friends when you don’t understand the game.
As an atheist in a religious society, you can opt to either hide yourself in a cave and ignore all the religion-based social occasions, or recognize that you have as much to offer to your friends and relatives as any believer does, and join in the fun.
Now obviously I will not advocate that you consider a new career as a missionary, as a door-to-door salvation proselytizer, or that you perform a circumcision, or engage in child brainwashing. Nor do I think that participating in animal sacrifices or self-harm is very laudatory. Most religious occasions or holidays do not involve any personal commitment beyond the invisible mental condition of “belief.”1
Also, just because you’re there in attendance, it doesn’t mean you need to spend your time railing against the religion on parade1, any more than you would need to spend your time praising a team that doesn’t happen to be playing in a sports game you are watching, or applauding an actress who doesn’t appear in a show or play you are watching, or supporting a politician who is not running for the office that you happen to be voting for.
So here are six religious activities that you can productively engage in as an atheist:
1. Being a “godparent”
Although a godparent in the Christian context is supposed to be someone who assists in guiding the child “in the faith” through childhood, the role is often extended to one of moral guidance. Personally, I am a godparent to three people, all aware at the time of my selection that I was not a believer. In one case (Roman Catholic), a minor change in the words of the ceremony was made to accommodate me, but no-one noticed and the priest was quite nice about it all.
The role of a “sandek” or “kvater” in Judaism is a bit different, as it’s more of a ceremonial commitment to the ritual of male circumcision. I am not sure if there is an equivalent at a female bar mitzvah, as I’ve never been to one, but I understand that some Jewish sects do allow this. I do have a problem with male circumcision, however, as I abhor any form of genital mutilation, nor do I see the rationale for a female bar mitzvah except to cash in on the presents, same as the boys.
The Islamic equivalent of a godfather is a shaikh, who usually acts as a guide to doctrinal purity, and thus has a more explicitly dogmatic role, rather than the softer “moral exemplar” role of the Christian godfather. So as an atheist you’re unlikely to get picked for this role, but if you are, just be sure you make sure the parents understand the sort of role model you will provide.
2. Attending a Religious Service
It’s funny. I’ve known atheists who, when travelling abroad, think nothing of attending a religious service that is alien to that encountered in their own culture, yet who feel awkward or uncomfortable about attending a service of their former religion or a more familiar service in their own culture. There are positive aspects about attending religious services, and such attendance need not denote acceptance, acquiescence, or obedience.
I frequently see non-believers having a great time at Hindu festivals, at Buddhist/Animist events in Thailand, and at local ethnic (nominally Roman Catholic) ones in the Philippines. Foreigners positively flock to ceremonial cremations in Bali, Indonesia. There is nothing wrong in enjoying the music, the architecture, the pageantry, or the pomp that surrounds many religious ceremonies. And even if little of that is present, you can still attend just to enjoy the company of others. (My mother always manages to get me into a Lutheran Christian religious service when I visit my parents; this service has none of the aforementioned endearing or engaging qualities – except some of the Christmas music, which I quite like.)
3. Singing Along
Some of my favorite music is religious. Due to its pervasive influence on human culture, many of the great musical compositions in many cultures were linked to religion or nominally crafted for the inspiration of the faithful or contemplation by the devout. But music, as Pythagoras noted, is more linked to mathematics than to any sort of transcendental human experience or expectation. It has a purity of form, in that notes, tone and rhythm in any musical tradition exist independent of dogma or doctrine. Yes, the lyrics that accompany many magnificent compositions are often religious hymns, paeans, recitations or meditative devices. But they can still be enjoyed in the same way you can enjoy reading a story about the Greek hero Jason, or the Hindu hero Rama (Pra Ram, here in Thailand), or any other work of fiction for that matter.
Music, for reasons still to be explained satisfactorily, is something that seems to imprint on us at an early age. And it’s been shown that people tend to retain their musical preferences and memories from youth into older age. For some unfathomable reason, I can still sing a number of TV commercial songs from my youth (even for cigarettes, which no-one in my home smoked, and for bologna, a cheap processed meat which I had to frequently eat but loathed2), and I have remembered some beloved songs from Disney movies from the 60’s and early 70’s. Those were the days when you got to see a film once, and then had to wait years for it to show up again on TV – if you were lucky.
The music of one’s youth often becomes associated in one’s memory with events, particularly favorable ones: the song from a special relationship, from a school event, or during a period of life that was otherwise memorable. I still remember with fondness the religious nonsense I sang as a child in summer Bible camps, not because the songs were particularly good (you have to wonder at anyone who considers “Kumbaya” to be a lyrical triumph), but because of the fun I was having at the time (Kool-Aid and cookies figured prominently here). Although, I have to say that the song “One Tin Soldier3” (from the American movie “Billy Jack” - which you should see if you haven’t), although not particularly religious, but which carried a message that some religious groups found appropriate, still has significance for me today.
There is no reason to disparage or avoid music that you like or which evokes positive memories, just because it’s religious in nature or origin. Cutting yourself off from these positive memories and enjoyments is not what atheism is about. Enjoy the music, as the lyrics are no more real than anything by Beyonce, KISS, or Garfunkel and Oats4.
4. Donating to Religious Charities
This one is a bit trickier than the others, as there are many religious charities out there which spend a significant amount of their funds and efforts to proselytize, directly or indirectly, using your money which was ostensibly given for disaster relief, rural school development, support of orphans, or whatever other laudable objective is highlighted in their fund raising materials. Charities that are truly not associated with religion are fairly thin on the ground in many countries.
I believe that the best charity is always “one life at a time” which means helping someone directly. It can be a friend or a stranger, but someone you take a personal interest in and directly give your money to help them whatever their cause. This is much more rewarding, and you are sure of where your money goes and how it’s used. You won’t get a tax deduction for it in the US, however.
However, many people want to make a contribution but lack the resources for such direct support. In that case, contribution through a collective organization, usually set up as a charity, is the best way to proceed. Sadly, many charities are merely “make work” business opportunities for their promoters, much as organized religion is in many instances. When high salaries, fund-raising costs, and head office overheads eat up donations, then, irrespective of religion, you need to steer clear of the charity. Many well-known charities are particularly guilty of this, with the American Red Cross leading my list of those whose reputation exceeds their performance5.
Many that do have good track records in some places, are more mixed in others. Habitat for Humanity’s operations here in Asia fall into that category for me. My favorite charity here in Thailand, the HDF Mercy Centre, is run by the Catholic Church. The Centre runs one of the best orphanage programs I’ve seen anywhere 6.
The real issue for any charitable donation by an atheist should be whether the money is being used appropriately and for the benefit of the intended cause. Many countries (especially the US, sadly) make it difficult to get information on the inner workings of a charity, not to mention even an objective set of accounts. This lack of transparency may result in much abuse.
The best rule is to select a charity after doing some background work (the internet is helpful, but can also be highly misleading, as the fraudsters usually do a very good job of scamming the internet search engines). It’s always best to visit or talk to someone who can personally visit the operations you are considering for support. Just be sure you know where the money is going, and how it’s being used. But, religious affiliation or not, if you want to help those less fortunate, the religion of the delivery vehicle should not matter, only its efficiency.
Here in Thailand, we tend to celebrate pretty much everything, even if we don’t understand it (one of my Thai friends thinks that Santa Claus is Jesus when he got old and fat – and don’t ask me about the discussions I’ve had about egg-laying Easter rabbits…). Most holidays are first and foremost a social occasion, usually for family and some for a larger community. There is no reason not to join in, as long as no one is being harmed7 or sacrificed. If the food is good, the company welcoming, and the event is agreeable, just join in. In many cases, the holiday has older origins than the religion in question. Only Islam has any creditable historicity to back some of its holidays. The rest of the holidays are usually just convenient dates selected for remembrance of some special event, oftentimes plagiarizing an existing holiday from an earlier religion or tradition.
The rationale doesn’t matter, what does matter is the human interaction and whether you derive any enjoyment from it. My son likes Christmas, but has never been through any religious indoctrination although he knows the Christian tradition and rationale. It’s a purely secular Christmas for him, but he has no problem joining with friends for whom the holiday does hold a religious significance – it’s just that he thinks the church service is dreadfully boring.
6. Obsequiousness to Religious Authorities and Monarchs
Most of those who have left a religion find any show of deference to past religious authorities very distasteful. For some (like me), this also extends to any monarchy or titled human beings, where the local culture demands a degree of conduct normally reserved for those previously considered to be of super-human status. As proposed in an earlier blog8, this perceived nobility was developed hand-in-glove with the concept of hereditary monarchy. The entire concept of “divine right” is anathema to human dignity. Perhaps worse is the subservience to an imagined divinity, since the monarchy or nobility constitute actual people here on earth enjoying the benefit of religious and cultural bias.
All the activities above (#1-5) are optional and so can be ignored if so desired by any atheist. But the issue of obsequiousness to authority may often be an obligation in compliance with local laws. Many countries, including those of otherwise liberal Northern Europe, have laws which prohibit criticism of religious authorities or royalty, and/or which demand some show of physical subordination to such persons. Although no-one is kowtowing or crawling on the floor anymore, there are some behaviours that are still considered “normal” and are expected in many countries. These include bowing, kneeling, averting one’s eyes, the avoidance of being “disrespectful/rude,” the requirement to wear some special garment (there are loads of restrictions on the dress of women – presumably to avoid the male potentate from experiencing an embarrassing erection during the audience…?), or the injunction to remove a particular garment (hats and shoes are popular in this category).
I really hate this sort of thing. And if you’ve ever been at a business conference, where there is a “super-star” investor, entrepreneur, or CEO, you will have seen a similar level of voluntary obsequiousness. It’s reminiscent of dogs or wolves when they come into the presence of the alpha male, replete with ass- smelling and throat baring. Except instead of ass-sniffing, humans usually engage in a demeaning activity termed “ass-kissing” in modern parlance. This gives the alpha male the right to eat first (often tax-free or with reduced taxes in many countries – just see if they are taxing trust funds or not), and to breed with the alpha female of choice (thereby giving rise to the cultural concept of the “trophy wife”, and of course the ever popular “toy boy” designation in the case of the rights of an “alpha female”).
Unless you want to be fined, ostracized, or even jailed, you need to go along with the rules of the game where social custom dictates conduct and deference denied to other fellow mundane humans. I have declined opportunities to participate in events where I would be expected to “bend-the-knee,” as it were, to some “super-human”. But this can’t always be avoided, and you must just rationalise it as abiding by social convention, no matter how much it may taste like bile or camel vomit. It’s not important enough to become a martyr for opposing it.
If you engage in the activities #1-5 above you should derive personal pleasure. But for item #6, you must engage to avoid personal problems. Just be sure you know what the laws are, and what the consequences are for any show of humanist or rational defiance of social convention. Unless of course you are the sort of person who actually enjoys acknowledging the inherited or divinely-appointed superiority of nobles, monarchs, and religious leaders, or even the “awesomeness” of modern celebrities – in which case you can kiss the Pope’s ring, kneel to the Queen of England, bow to Donald Trump and lick the shoes of Kim Kardashian (which for some people might just be a strategy for looking up her dress…).
1. Although I do, admittedly, have a problem with religious events that celebrate the death or destruction of other human beings. See my blog on the one I find particularly repugnant at http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/worst-religious-holiday.
2. Totally inexplicable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmPRHJd3uHI.
4. A comedy duo, whose memorable songs include the atheist classic “The Loophole” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8ZF_R_j0OY). If you haven’t listened to them, you don’t know what great fun you are missing.
5. See the Haiti case for a good example, as well as the chronic lack of transparency and poor top level management. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/03/american-red-cross-squander...
6. You can find them at http://www.mercycentre.org/ and if you want to sponsor a child there, let me know and I will be happy to visit with them personally on your behalf here.
7. I would put the Shi Muslim holiday of Ashura in this category, unless of course you’re a masochist or choose to avoid the bloodletting and self-flagellation (the “matam”), which typifies the holiday in some communities.