Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
I’m an atheist in the fullest sense. Anything that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, heard, tasted, studied or measured I do not believe in.
I really wish that wasn’t the case. No, I’m not asking you to convert me. Let me save you the trouble, it’s impossible.
But Being Religious is Awesome
In a survey of Americans between 1972 and 2008, 26% of those who never attend religious services reported being “very happy.” On the other hand, 48% of those who attend services more than weekly reported being “very happy.”1
That’s almost double. That is a huge huge difference. Personality factors, income, and demographics don’t even come close.
- The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.
- Spirituality is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.
- Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.
Each of the elements identified above are in turn highly correlated with well-being and happiness. That is why, in all honesty, I am in some ways jealous of my spiritual and religious friends. But enough complaining.
There has to be something for those of us that are not that religious that can create those benefits.
The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.
And it is likely to stay that way for decades, centuries, or more.
At a high level, the four components which make religious communities social capital generators are: trust (e.g. “being in a cathedral builds up my sense of trust in other people”), bonding (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to make friends”), bridging (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to meet new people and contribute to community life”), and linking (e.g. “I have met important people through my involvement in the cathedral).2
Each of those individual components can be found elsewhere, but never as strong.
- The level of trust you have of others in your congregation will be much stronger than your trust of those at your book club or dinner parties.
- Bonding opportunities at your workplace may exist, but the primary function of work is to work, not bond.
- Volunteering can help you meet new people and contribute to community life, but in my experience religious groups get more done, have more enthusiasm for their cause, and form stronger relationships with one another and those whom they meet.
- It’s possible to network with community leaders or powerful bankers, but the interaction just isn’t the same as when it’s between two equals in church, under the eyes of God.
Spirituality is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.
On this component, I have hope.
- Cultivating an attitude of gratitude through secular practice generates increasing feelings of respect and optimism.3
- Cultivating an attitude of optimism through secular practice generates increased feelings of gratitude and respect.
- Cultivating self-respect by actively changing your behavior and social assets to be worthy of your respect generates increased feelings of gratitude and optimism.
The ordering is intentional – it is easier to cultivate an attitude of gratitude than one of optimism, which in turn is easier than cultivating authentic self-respect.
Yes, church and God make cultivating each of those components much easier, but even without them it can be done.
By me, it will be done.
Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.
It really does. But there are other ways. They are more difficult, but science is starting to identify the elements that give rise to vital engagement, passion, purpose, and meaning.4
The four criteria I’ve identified so far, which apply to work and hobbies alike, are:
- Frequent opportunities to enter into a state of flow.
- Frequent opportunities to use and develop your strengths.
- Frequent opportunities to develop social connections.
- Frequent opportunities to act in alignment with your values and beliefs.
Some hobbies and jobs won’t contain those opportunities. There is a reason only half of lawyers report being satisfied with their jobs.5 Working long hours doing menial work in defense of causes they don’t believe in is no recipe for finding meaning in work.
For those of us not looking to change jobs or find a new hobby, there are ways to increase our exposure to those opportunities.
- Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. G. (2011). The Religion Paradox: If Religion Makes People Happy, Why Are So Many Dropping Out?. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology,101(6), 1278-1290. doi:10.1037/a0024402
- Williams, E. (2008). Measuring religious social capital: the scale properties of the Williams Religious Social Capital Index (WRSCI) among cathedral congregations. Journal Of Beliefs & Values: Studies In Religion & Education, 29(3), 327-332. doi:10.1080/13617670802511103
- The Science of Gratitude: More Benefits Than Expected
- Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 225). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Image Attribution: Choir