What does “sacred” mean? Does the concept have a place in atheist living? Typically, the word sacred is used in a religious context: “considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspiring awe or reverence among believers in a given set of spiritual ideas.” (Wikipedia) But it can also have non-religious meaning along the same lines especially the experience of awe.
As a person who previously experienced many sacred moments in religious context, it’s something I find myself returning to again and again. Where does the sacred fit into the lives of those who do not believe in things that transcend the natural world? Can the natural world provide transcendent moments?
I Don’t Worship Anyone
There is a common sentiment in atheist circles that no one and nothing deserves our devotion. I think this is a bit reactionary, a tad naive and not just a little self indulgently arrogant. It is also one of the biggest hurdles in communication with people of religion. It’s an obnoxious cliche stated by Christians, but I think there’s some truth in the assertion that “we all worship something”. There is something that will cause each of us to bow our proverbial knee. For many, it’s money, often in the form of a job. For others it’s another person/love and for some it’s intelligence/knowledge.
In addition, we may be able to explain a lot of things, but not everything. And just because we can explain it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t still fill us with feelings of awe and wonder. The most simple, explicable moments can cause a sense of awe. And just because we can explain what causes the feeling of “awe” doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful or meaningful. It is just as powerful as when a person experiences it in a religious context. In fact, the last thing we should do is turn over those feelings to the religious people around us and argue that atheists don’t or shouldn’t have them. There are few things more annoying to me than an atheist buzzkill trying to explain away my awe. Hey buddy, if you don’t want to be awe-inspired, that’s fine, but don’t be a pretentious jerk about it.
Freedom to Explore Awe
I think one of the amazing freedoms we have outside of religion is acknowledging our need for and exploring the ways in which we can experience awe – sacred moments, transcendent moments, moments of inexplicable wonder. Discovering how to do this, how to tweak our perceptions, how to engage in communal and personal ritual as atheists/agnostics/skeptics/freethinkers is something I find so powerful. We are only recently discovering the value of awe and, as Jason Silva puts it, technologists are the “ecstatic technicians of the sacred”. How brilliant is that?!
Psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has proposed that our ability to awe was biologically selected for by evolution because it imbues our lives with sense of cosmic significance that has resulted in a species that works harder not just to survive but to flourish and thrive.
Stanford researchers Melanie Rudd, Kathleen Vohs, and Jennifer Aaker state in their study
[E]xperiencing awe… caused people to perceive they have more time available and lessened impatience. Furthermore, by altering time perception, feeling awe… led participants to more strongly desire to spend time helping others and partake in experiential goods over material ones. A small dose of awe even gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction. Thus, these results also have implications for how people spend their time, and underscore the importance and promise of cultivating awe in everyday life.
Whether or not you agree with the merits of any of this, examples of how the non-religious are trying to experience “the sacred” are increasing in leaps and bounds. Some of the main methods may, for some, seem uncomfortably similar to how the religious do it -– organized community (church, atheist assemblies, etc) and personal and communal rituals.
But perhaps this is more a matter of “which came first?” Religious rituals and communities may have been created out of a base need. Maybe the non-religious are now just getting around to laying claim to something that belonged to them in the first place. Even if you personally don’t like the idea of an “atheist church” or don’t find use for structured atheist rituals in your life, participation in these communities is skyrocketing and demand for them is saying something about components many are finding lacking in their lives – community and awe.