Two Religious Practices That Atheists Should Do More Often
As a writer, sometimes it’s important to step away from subjects that are in your wheelhouse and write about more challenging topics. Or, at least topics that are more challenging to you. That’s why, today, I’m going to write about something that’s been on my mind, but that I’ve been to busy (=lazy) to explore: First, though, let me explain why this is a subject that I find difficult to cover as a writer. The trouble with religion
Religion gets a fairly bad wrap these days. Tell people you’re religious (Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, pick your poison) and a lot of them mentally put you at the kid’s table in their minds. You can almost hear their silent screams:
“It’s nearly 2020 for god sake (lowercase “g”). Religion is only for people too scared to take on life alone or too stupid to read a science book. Either way, it’s time to grow the hell up (lowercase “h”).”
There seems to be something in the very word “religion” that stirs up controversy. Which is why I thought it would be fun to write about. For the record, I’m somewhat agnostic toward the whole religion thing. I tend to think both atheists and religious people are equally stubborn and ambitiously over-confident about a subject no one could possibly know. Frankly, both sides tend to waste a lot of time and energy justifying their personal beliefs to complete strangers.
That said, I am more sympathetic to religious folk than a lot of people I know, and I think there’s a lot we could all learn from religious communities. So, today, I’ll be talking about two religious practices that I think agnostics and atheists should incorporate into their daily lives. 1) Giving thanks before meals
Growing up in a religious household, I distinctly remember that dinners were a time for two things: family and thanks. We would start each meal by bowing our heads and one person would say “grace” for the food we were about to eat. To a lot of non-religious people, this tradition can seem cult-like (I think it’s the whole “bowing of the head” part… which I totally understand). But honestly, since I’ve stepped away from religious practices about a decade ago, this is one of the aspects of religion that I miss the most because it kept me grateful for things I now take for granted.
To be fair, the secular world has tried to modify this in the form of gratitude journals and self-help exercises. These practices are good but often too vague to yield long-lasting results. People will sit down for a month and write about being thankful for their family, their friends, their jobs, etc.
The problem is that in many scenarios, non-religious people aren’t exactly sure whom they should thank. It’s hard to be grateful if you consider those positive things in your life as earned, not received (a lot of people have tried thanking the “Universe” but, let’s be real, that’s just another form of religion). What these self-helpers have keyed into, however, is that gratitude is great for so many aspects of your life, especially your health. HappierHuman.com gives 31 science-backed benefits to gratitude including better relationships, longer living, and boosts in professional careers. Even Harvard Health shows that giving thanks can make you happier. And that’s exactly why being thankful for meals is an awesome compromise. It’s the best of both worlds. You don’t have to thank God or god (whichever spelling you prefer) for the food on your plate. You can thank all the work that went into producing it: the farmers, the truck drivers, the grocery store clerks, the chefs, the servers, the dishwashers, etc. With every meal you have, there are tangible, non-religious reasons to be thankful and you have a practical outlet for your thankfulness.
So consider taking a few minutes before each meal and saying thanks to all those invisible faces who made it happen—or instead of verbalizing it, focus on that feeling of how lucky you are to have not had to go out, hunt, kill, farm, and prepare it yourself. Oh and no... you don’t even have to bow your head.
This is probably one aspect of religion that I miss the least. Though the term “tithe” is most commonly known from Christianity, other religions (including Eastern-based religions) have the same basic practice: giving a small percentage of your income/assets to either the church or people in need.
That’s not to say that atheists or non-believers never give. But, it’s undeniable that they tend to give less (statistically speaking). In an article on how religion motivates people to give and serve, the Conversation.com states:
It is true that factors such as wealth, income, education and marital status are all predictors of giving. But religious belief and practice are one of the best predictors. Overall, religious Americans volunteer more, give more, and give more often not only to religious but secular causes as well.
Plus, the Washington Times ran an article discussing recent data from the Philanthropy Panel Study (though I can’t seem to find a link to the study itself, so take it all with a grain of salt) which had the following to say:
While 62 percent of religious households give to charity, only 46 percent of nonreligious households do.
On average, religiously affiliated households donate $1,590 to charity annually, while households with no religious affiliation contribute $695.
And in 2016 religious institutions received more than twice as much charitable giving, $122.94 billion, as any other industry in the nonprofit sector. The next-highest category, education, received $59.77 billion in contributions
I can already hear the “yeah buts…” from atheists, and I can see the self-congratulatory pats on the back by the religious. Both responses are off point. The differences shown above shouldn’t be surprising.
It’s not that religious individuals are inherently better people, they simply have stricter and more concrete guidelines for giving: around 10% of their time and/or money to those in need. The rules for giving in the secular world, though, typically boil down to “I’ll do it when and if I feel like it” (not to mention the lack of all those fire-and-brimstone threats if you don’t). But regardless of your religious affiliations (or lack thereof), volunteering and giving have loads of benefits, even when it comes to your physical health. The Cleveland Clinic refers to getting a “Helper’s High,” while GreaterGood.com (associated with berkeley.edu) provides 5 practical ways giving is good for your health. The most interesting finding, to me at least, was how giving/volunteering tends to reduce stress and gives you all the benefits that go along with that.
So if you don’t feel motivated to give your time or money for others, then be selfish and do it for yourself. Honestly, people on the receiving end have bigger problems in their lives than thinking about the integrity of your “why.”
Conclusion Again, and I can’t stress this enough, I’m not advocating any readers toward or away from any religion. I honestly couldn’t care less what you believe. I do, however, care about working on being more grateful for the things in my life and being more generous to others who have less things in theirs.
This is particularly true as I have personally grown away from religion and, consequently, spent my 20s needlessly more selfish than I should have.
When it comes to religion, whether you love it, hate it, or simply don’t care (my peeps’), anyone and everyone has something to bring to the table no matter what their background. So this holiday season, try to remember to give thanks and, as often as you can, just give.