Why atheists should attend church

You don’t need religion to have a religious experience.

(Hold the phone, Captain Literal, there’s some truth to this potential paradox.)

For many, a “religious” experience simply means something, as my friend Paul notes, that “transcends” the moment. This transcendence can imply moving from the natural to the supernatural. Or, as I’m asserting here, the experience can merely be a gestalt — the sum of the sensory experiences of the moment, combined with the thoughts and memories of the person beholding them, that creates a new experience larger than the sum of its parts.

Whether this experience can be explained by the touch of a supernatural entity or the activation of a region of the brain is, while metaphysically fascinating, beside the point.

A moment that I recently experienced was unexpected and profound. At the end of a particularly intense work day, I went to the beach by my house. I played in the water for a few minutes, dried off and began my trek from the shore back to my car. Sunset was nearly upon us. As I walked back, I realized that 100 or so people had gathered on the beach. Some were sprawled on beach blankets, some were talking softly at picnic tables and others seemed to simply pause, as if they were waiting for something to happen.

I realized that the group was there for a shared purpose; and a shared belief. Each individual had come to this place to behold something beautiful, something special. It was the golden disc of the early evening sky sinking behind the expanse of ocean before us. In its last few moments of visibility, no one spoke. We all watched for that exact moment when the sun would disappear from our view. When it did, everyone clapped.

This event, I believe, was held in an impromptu church. Here we were, strangers, united only in our desire to experience someone bigger than ourselves, who experienced something that transcended the details of the event itself. Did we all experience the same thing? No. But by the sounds of the clapping — the physical “amens” if you will — a great many did.

It was a powerful moment. It made me think about my youth, attending Catholic masses. The mass didn’t speak to me much, to be frank. I suspect that I simply wasn’t the right audience. But I do remember that many seemed to be quite taken by the experience. So, too, are those I see on television who attend Baptist revivals or faith healings.

I wonder if all of theses people really believe the minutiae of their holy books or simply want to experience the transcendent? If the latter, it seems that gathering together, sharing an experience with others who value sharing an experience, was a helpful ingredient.

Last week’s Reason Rally, which ranged from the silly to the profound, may have hinted at the very premise of my proposition. Maybe everybody, in one form or anther, needs to attend “church” once and a while.


About SWIRLosopher

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

2 thoughts on “Why atheists should attend church

    • You’re right, Morse. I think it was Joseph Campbell who suggested that people tend to get lost in the myth and forget the metaphor. Simply because the word “church” – in formal and colloquial usage – specifically relates to organized religion, doesn’t mean that the rest of us should ignore the metaphorical purpose that the word attempts to describe.

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