When I was little, I attended church every Sunday. My entire extended family is Irish Catholic, so baptisms, first communions and confirmations made up a fair share of family gatherings. I recall remarking to my father one Sunday – while still young enough that my mother carried a bag filled with toys to keep me occupied and quiet – that the droning recitations of prayer sounded almost zombie-like. Oddly, though, my gradual loss of faith and shift to agnosticism was counterbalanced with a growing appreciation for the positive source of meaning and empowerment that faith, spirituality, and collective religious practice can be in people's lives.
In his rather brilliant essay, "Why I am not a Christian", Bertrand Russell writes:
I do not think that the real reason that people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.
I consider his position accurate, and appeals to emotion have no direct relevance in debates of national policy or ethics. But to claim that organized Christianity "has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world" – or to go further, as Christopher Hitchens did, when he said that "religion poisons everything" – is to ignore the positive power that even an "irrational" religious act or belief can have.
The first sign that religion and I might have a rapprochement was at a funeral I attended in high school. A choir teacher and mentor's husband had passed away, much to the sorrow of the school and community. A mass was held in a large and gorgeous Catholic church, with hardly a pew vacant.
I was seated with the choir in the loft, and with each hymn we sang and each prayer spoken by the faithful around me – the delivery didn't feel so rote this time – I began to feel a greater attachment to the meaning religious practice held for many around me, and to being present for a ritual that gave that meaning palpable form, even to a nonbeliever. When the time came to take communion, I felt a strong desire to do so, yet I did not. After this, my lack of faith was not shaken, but my tendency to dismiss transcendent spiritual experiences as irrational, or religion as oppressive, was.
This newfound appreciation was deepened by my experiences while studying in the Middle East. Religion and culture are thoroughly interwoven in the countries I primarily stayed in, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The omnipresence of the minarets and the muezzin's call – particularly around 5am – are a vivid reminder for the non-devout of the dominant deity's importance. Even for an agnostic, they are also beautiful and moving.
Many, perhaps because of my beard, would ask if I were Muslim. When I identified as either "raised as Christian" or "without belief", I never received a discourteous response, and had only one individual attempt to convert me during a discussion in the back office of his market. After sitting down, he and a number of his associates asked me what I knew of Islam, and why I would not consider conversion. While a tad unsettling, it was an interesting exchange, and I appreciated their effort.
But while many of my interactions were relatively cursory engagements like this, I was also able to absorb the deeply positive meaning a number of people close to me drew from their faith. For example: the prayer of my host father and sister in northern Jordan at dinner and at the regular daily intervals; a Saudi friend teaching my class of foreign students the process of pre-prayer cleansing, called wudu, and then leading the steps of prayer (I, again, did not participate in the actual act); and another Saudi friend gifting me a tapestry inscribed with the 99 names of Allah – his one request being that I treat it properly and hang it in a place of respect. The sincerity and, frankly, the clarity with which these individuals expressed their beliefs and shared with me the power they draw from them drove home why I would not wish to see religion disappear from human life.
Religion has undoubtedly been a reason for countless deaths, mutilations, torture, war; and it has impeded scientific advancement as Hitchens, Russell, and some militantly atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins rightly point out. Hitchens responded to counter-examples of secular tyranny in the Soviet Union and China by saying:
It is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists.
But Hitchens and the others err in ascribing this to an inherent authoritarianism of religion, rather than seeing it as spirituality's social power being appropriated for despotic temporal ends. There can also be an emancipatory bent to religion. It can come at the systemic level, such as Catholic liberation theology, as well as the interpersonal level. I witnessed this during a Passover seder I attended in Amman, where a friend and member of the Palestinian diaspora living in Jordan participated, while the Jewish individual leading the group finished with the phrase "Next year in Jerusalem … for everyone". This was perhaps one of my favourite and most powerful memories.
In the afterword to a recent edition of his book, God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens laid out a challenge:
Name an ethical statement or action, made or performed by a person of faith, that could not have been made or performed by a nonbeliever.
Whether or not his challenge can be met is irrelevant, for it pegs the legitimacy of any positive argument for religion on a zero-sum game against his construction of "pure" rationality – the singular force for Good untarnished by superstition.
It's likely that religion's popularity is a product of emotion, fear of mortality and the unknown, and yes, fealty to tradition. But just like scientific and social inquiry, religion can serve a meaningful and positive role in individual and collective struggles, from the banal to the seemingly unbearable. I do not have any religious belief, but I also will not disparage the benefits many draw from theirs.