Keeping the Faith After Leaving Religion

Poetry book under tree
Poetry book under tree

The tiny piece of poetry invites us to see ourselves as part of a great story of humanity. Credit - Getty Images

There are things that are true that shouldn’t be. The meat shouldn’t think. We shouldn’t die. But there it is. We shouldn’t be able to create consciousness— a conscious world-changing mind—by having sex. But there it is. It is poetic to notice these things. They are so bizarre that if you spend a lot of time just thinking about these things it messes up your regular foolish head and lets you breathe. That’s what poetry does. It’s also what religion does, but religion takes these impossible truths as a license to invent, which doesn’t ring bells for a lot of us anymore.

But religion got a lot right about holidays and ritual readings. I’ve been a scholar of the history of doubt and disbelief for a few decades, and in giving talks about my books I’ve had the opportunity to listen to people speak about religion and the loss or lack of it. I’ve been surprised at what I’ve come to understand, for one thing, about how a lot of us who are happy to be unbelievers still take part in religion’s holidays—and many of us feel conflicted about it.

The spring holidays (Easter, Passover, Holi) are upon us and they’re worth thinking about in poetic terms. Many of us who don’t believe in God or organized religion usually celebrate just to make other people happy and we like parts of the parties. We may tolerate the more religious talk with an outsider’s melancholy.

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I’m not trying to get anyone to do anymore holidays or ritual than they already do; I’m just suggesting we add a poem and find a way to have a deeper experience with what we are participating in, and to notice that we are doing it together.

Of course, for many people the supernatural parts of religion are super important, but I think poetry does that same job. I know, it’s not an exact fit, but hear me out.

After my first big Doubt talk, a very pregnant couple asked me whether they could have a religious ceremony for the baby as their parents were hoping, even if they are atheists? They seemed happy when they described what the grandparent generation wanted, they lit up when they mentioned that the food would be delicious, and that they’d been to these things their whole lives. But they genuinely didn’t want to insult their family faith by faking it, nor betray their true belief in science and reality in a way that they might live with as an act of cowardice or just a badly wrong note.

I hadn’t been expecting this kind of question, so I gave a historical answer about how ritual is reinterpreted in different times and places to match what people believe and want. I said Yes. I told them that I take part in religious ritual and holidays—poetically—and consider them a sweet part of life. As the two of them were going, I shouted after them that they may want to add some poetry so that they’d be lifted up at the ceremony.

I’m sure they knew what I meant, since poetry is not uncommon at any ritual, and has become expected at weddings and funerals. Still, I shouted further, because some Walt Whitman lines came to mind. I added that there’s a famous place in Leaves of Grass when he has asked himself what the point of life is, with a terrific incisiveness, really raking life and himself over the coals in the question and then he writes:

Answer: That you are here—that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

It was an electric moment in the room. Today I’d suggest a poem to do with babies for the particular kind of event we were talking about, but as it happened it struck a lot of people in the room quiet and they wanted a copy, they wanted to know where to find it.

The tiny piece of poetry invites us to see ourselves as part of a great story of humanity. It reminds us that it is already quite a thing just that we came into existence. I am always knocked out by the “and identity.” He’s reminding us of the unlikelihood of our personalities, of our wild inner lives, and personally it catches me when I feel like I’m skidding.

Why did I shout that out? I didn’t have kids yet, but I had been to family ceremonies for babies where someone read a poem and the whole room changed, times where the new mother heard the words and looked encouraged and shining, where parenthood was exalted as so adventurous and inventive and wondrous that the whole party was moved to join the human fray, to take on the roller-coaster of this experience and do what it takes to have that kind of joy. I wanted those two to have that lift. It was an epiphany for me, about what people want and need, about what is troubling us and what might help fix it.

I’ve come to see how apt the Whitman was in that moment of epiphany, especially that “you may contribute a verse.” That’s basically my message. You have the right to have your own genuine encounter with whatever you have inherited from your religion that you feel like keeping. You don’t have to make anything up from scratch. We have rich ritual and profound poetry. We only have to put them together.

That goes for holidays, too. Choose a poem from any anthology of world poetry for a holiday. Come back to the same poem next year, next time. Which poem? Well, religious holidays are often “about family” for us, but if you look closely, holidays often have a deep theme, for instance the absolution of shame. Or a community attempt to be reborn with the spring. We can see holidays as poetically doing what some say they do supernaturally and pick our poem to match that feeling or idea. And we can feel connected to each other in this.

One tip from religion is that we need repetition. We need repetition because in order for words that can shift our perspective to work on us we need to remind ourselves over and over. We need repetition because coming back to deep ideas helps us to understand them. And we need repetition because, over time, it helps us see how we have changed and how we have stayed the same—just as visiting a city we once lived in can help us see ourselves more clearly and know ourselves in time. Consider the poems we hear over and over at weddings, say, as not cliches but rather as what we can call cultural liturgy. We can all participate in choosing that, voting with what we use and make popular.

Listening to people who came to my talks I learned that many of us are okay without a caring God or heaven, or gods, or karma and rebirth. But it’s important to notice what else we lost when we left religion. Nonbelievers of many stripes wrestle with those losses. Religions provide rituals and recitations to confirm vows, guide meditation, affirm morality, make decisions, process shame, and cope with death. They provide texts for silent meditation, and mark off time in the communal calendar for quiet introspection. They get us to sing, dance, swim, fast, feast, and they remind us to try to be grateful. People reinvent all of this, or miss it and feel locked out, sure that they can’t touch the ritual without full belief.

A historical surprise I kept getting is how normal it is through time for people to keep practicing the rituals they were taught, while shifting the details towards personal taste and usefulness. The reason they don’t drop them is because they matter. The lights that we hang at the same time are not nothing. Chocolate shaped bunnies and chocolate covered matzoh, colored eggs and colors thrown on each other—they are not nothing. They can bring together communities that are breaking.

In today’s hypercharged political situation, it seems fair to ask what we are passing along to the next generation. Poetry brings us empathy, first of all from the intimacy of the poetic voice, and because it is a place to show our truth rather than to show off. Poetry draws us close and whispers of the paradoxes of the human experience, that we feel so permanent and our problems so significant, and yet we know well of death and how things fall apart.

The way many of us see it, God or another unseen personality is the one demanding the rituals at holidays, weddings, and the like—so if you don’t believe, there is no reason to do them. When we are pushed to take part, we feel uncomfortable with how all the odd behaviors seem to suggest we believe in nonsense. But what if in fact it is the ritual that supports people? Religious ritual can carry participants through life’s great transformations.

Whether it is a wedding or a funeral, rituals take us step by step into the knowledge that something big has happened and things will never be the same. Rituals can gather our support around us, in a crisis, say, at a time when it would never otherwise occur to us to have a party.

At the big moments, surely some of the words spoken should be something you believe, a visit with the poetic that leaves you less shaken than you were, and much stirred. Other than that, all the Interfaithless need is to remember that the rest of us are out here, trying to be awake to the poetry of all this madness and beauty. I laughed when I made up the term Interfaithless, but it stuck because there are a lot of us who have faith in the inter of us.

A lot of people who aren’t religious still love holidays—perhaps especially as a time that families and friends travel to be together. Rituals take effort, too, often in the form of dessert decoration and mood demands. Maybe just read the poem and do whatever part of the holiday comes easy.

People benefit from holidays whether they are believers or not. Rituals tell the body what time of year it is, and suggest a focusing idea for all of us, an idea like renewal, or abstaining, forgiving, or indulgence. They give us something to look forward to, like special drinks and snacks and feasts that only come out once a year. We need wonder in our lives and that’s what holidays are for. They set up occasions to sense the awe of it all.

We live mostly without what religion and other rituals give people in many societies. What we have lost and need back isn’t the supernatural. The enchantment of the world was always poetic, it was always real. Consciousness is at least as magical as virgin birth. The inspiration we need has to do with noticing the weird beauty of the real. We may lean on traditions in these big life moments because they are ready-made and expected. I think we are right to intuit that such moments call for ceremony.

A small adjustment to the way we think about ritual and the poetry of our lives can offer a large payout of support. And it’s not just about us individually. It’s about who we are as a community, so we can feel the good of ourselves frequently and not only when there has been a catastrophe. And it’s about who the next generation gets to be. A little poetry can save the world.

The Interfaithless can take a holiday moment to notice the spectacular absurdity of being ambitious mortals failing and loving and trying and dying and living, together. A little intention goes a long way in the human corner of this rather extraordinary universe.