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Reflections: An Atheist’s Religious Engagement

Posted by on October 13, 2014

One might wonder why an atheist would choose to attend an interfaith trip.  Why an atheist would want to be surrounded by various faiths that she had already considered and rejected.  Perhaps, as a non-religious person, she was searching to connect for a faith that eluded her.

I’m not looking for faith – that’s not what I’m missing from my life.  And I’ve already accepted that religion, though to my estimation may not be objectively true, can still have value.  There is a reason why almost every culture that has come to be on this Earth has developed it’s own spirituality – religion can enhance one’s life experiences.

So what is it that makes religion so compelling, if not the faith aspect?  After all, every faith is different, but for various religions to still compel people so strongly, there has to be an element that runs common to them all.

I became very aware of both the similarities and differences of various faiths on this trip.  For example, although the three major Abrahamic traditions use some of the same texts, they obviously differ in major ways.  From Judaism, in which being devout means adhering to elaborate strictures about how to live in this world (involving everything from how one’s meat is slaughtered to what color threads may be in certain garments), to Christianity, which focuses more on how to can enter heaven, to Islam which combines elements of both, we see incredible diversity.  I saw further contrasts in our visits to the two temples we had planned: we went from the peaceful, quiet, and tranquil Baha’i temple to the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago which overloaded the senses: everywhere was a different sound, a different smell, and there were so many bright colors everywhere you looked.

However, common threads ran through our experiences.  I saw the same form of prayer across three traditions – practitioners knelt to touch their forehead to the floor in Islam, Hinduism, and Serbian Orthodox Christianity (of which we caught a glimpse of in the film Words with Gods).  Women were also considered very important in each tradition: our guide at the Hindu temple said that women were the best custodians of tradition in many religions.  At the American Islamic College, an imam told us that the word for God in the common prayer one will see Muslims repeat throughout the day invokes womb-like imagery of nurture and creation, which affirms woman’s awesome abilities.  Even when the traditions were practiced differently by men and women (like in Judaism where only men are expected to cover their heads, or in Islam where the opposite is true), we learned that these practices were not to denigrate women at all.

I found that part of what makes religion so compelling is that it is a marker of community, of identity both personal and cultural.  To what extant can one separate Hinduism from India when mythology about the various deities point to holy sites there?  How can one separate the spiritual practices in Judaism from the historical plight(s) of the Jewish people?  And how can one be sure of whether customs and ideas of propriety are formed by culture or religion when the two are so inextricably entwined, which we also see very strongly in Islam?

I found that as an atheist, it is this community facet of religion which is what intrigues me the most.  And as such, I can’t think of a better way to learn about the world and other people than to observe and involve myself in the various beliefs that people of the world hold, and how those beliefs structure their daily actions and their life goals.

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