The Ethical Dilemma: I’m an Atheist, But I Still Crave Religion. Help!

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Why Does A Longtime Atheist Still Crave Religion? I’m 87 and have been an atheist for at least sixty years. I don’t broadcast it, but I don’t deny it. My circle of friends are all of various religions. I feel that religions are a plague on society—again, I don’t broadcast it. Yet I still seem to have a religious sensitivity—I don’t reject others’ beliefs, and I try to avoid opening up the subject. I feel secure in my belief, and I don’t need friends’ approval or agreement.

I have joined the local Unitarian Church and have announced my belief. But I wonder why I feel the need for any religion. I could even join a traditional church if I felt it could meet my wants.

Does this make sense?

—Non-Believer Drawn To Beliefs


Dear Non-Believer,

Yes, it makes sense. You are a human(ist), and as such you crave community with other human(ist)s. If my deductive reasoning is correct, you must have been some kind of believer for nearly twenty-seven years before you became an atheist, so you were raised in a religious tradition. Never underestimate the influence those early years still exert on all the decades that follow. That’s why religions typically begin indoctrination before kids reach the age of reason.

I know a surprising (at least to me) number of atheists who still go to their former denomination houses of worship and observe their holidays and rituals, because they enjoy the tradition and nostalgia, and the continuity with their ancestors and families and friends—even though they don’t believe a word of the doctrine (or maybe the good parts, but not the god parts). There’s nothing wrong with hanging on to the aspects of religion you like and dispensing with the rest. In fact, that’s what many religious people do, sometimes consciously, but often without realizing it (case in point: the vast majority of avowed Catholics use birth control, despite the church’s prohibition).

It sounds as though you are craving community. It also sounds as though you aren’t feeling as completely comfortable as you profess with your atheism or the absence of some kind of church in your life. You even use the term “belief” twice, once to refer to your non-belief and once regarding the Unitarian Church; I’m not sure whether you mean you announced your atheism to the Unitarians or that you professed belief in some form of higher power. There’s some cognitive dissonance afoot: You say you are solidly atheist, but you long for some kind of group with a spiritual or even religious aspect.

Maybe the local Unitarian Church just isn’t the right fit. Perhaps there are other options in your area, such as Ethical Culture or Sunday Assembly. Maybe there’s a nearby American Humanist Association chapter or other atheist group you could join that would fill the void you are sensing.

At the other end of the spectrum, you could visit a traditional church (or two, or three) and see how that feels. If you decided to “broadcast” your views, you’d be a terrific ambassador for atheists who bridge the worlds of belief and non-belief, demonstrating that non-believers can appreciate the trappings of organized religion without internalizing the doctrine—and that not all non-believers are hostile to believers.

So relax and be open to following your yearnings wherever they lead you. Enjoy the process of seeking even you don’t have an articulated goal or endpoint. The aim is to see if there’s a place where you feel you belong, no matter what kind of place that turns out to be. There are many people who, like you, straddle the worlds of religion and atheism, as conflicted as that may seem. Not everything in life makes sense, and that’s OK.