I recently participated in an interfaith panel about the relationship between religion and education. That opportunity allowed me not only to become more familiar with several religions, but to get to know the other panelists representing the Baha’i, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist faiths. I very much enjoyed that, and have appreciated our continued friendship and correspondence. The Baha’i panelist recently invited me and the others to her home for dinner. She also invited some people from a different interfaith panel, including one person representing atheism/humanism (he would want me to clarify that those are not interchangeable terms, but he feels comfortable identifying with both distinct perspectives). In our dinner discussion, this man said something like, “I’m not saying that religion does no good—I think it absolutely does. I believe, though, that it is possible to achieve those benefits without requiring religion. I think that you could get all the good things religion provides—community, counseling, morality, etc.—in a secular setting.”
As a religious person, I obviously believe that there is great value in religion, but I was unable to give an immediate response—what could I say? Since then, though, I have continued pondering the idea, and have come up with a few answers:
1. Grace: Without a belief in God or a sense of sin, it would be impossible to feel the same kind of sweet relief and rejoicing in an unmerited gift. It would be possible to happily chuckle at a pleasantly serendipitous occurrence, but that is essentially different from feeling that Someone has lovingly given you something, despite justifiably withholding the gift.
2. Mythological narrative: Religion gives people a mythological narrative which not only informs their lives, but often permits them to participate in some way with its events. This provides them with a sense of direction and belonging that transcends the contemporary. There are non-religious narratives (and I’m sure non-religious people strive to identify with them), but I do not think they have the same power. Identifying with a historical or social movement is one thing, but it pales in comparison with feeling a part of the epic clash between good and evil.
3. A super-human ideal: Without religion, humanity’s highest ideal is humanity itself. With a belief in a higher power, we can look above and beyond ourselves. Goethe captured this idea, I think, when he said, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” Robert Browing likewise wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” By aiming not simply at the good, but at the perfect, we encourage greater goodness.
There are certainly other answers, but these three have stood out in my mind. If nothing else, I can certainly say that my personal religious experiences and beliefs have been beautiful, uplifting, and meaningful in my life, and I'm grateful that my parents raised me with and within a faith.