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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

When in doubt: an atheist's Christmas Add to ...

I lost my faith in God when I was 13. It wasn't as if I hadn't tried. Before my confirmation in the Episcopalian Church of Wilmette, Ill., I spent months in ardent prayer, longing for a conversion experience that would erase my growing doubts. Sadly, it didn't happen. By the time I walked down the aisle to be accepted into the Church, I couldn't even rustle up enough uncertainty to settle for being an agnostic. I was pretty sure that God was no more real than Santa Claus. I felt like a fraud, but I went through with it anyway.

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Later on, I read Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rand. I learned that religion was stupid and evil, the source of endless misery in the world. I adopted the rational, enlightened belief that we'd all be better off without it. This brand of militant atheism is much in fashion these days. For years, I never set foot inside a North American church, except when somebody I knew was married or buried.

But the faith instinct stubbornly refused to die.

I fell in love with Renaissance art, and made pilgrimages to Assisi to see the Giottos. It was hard to overlook the fact that the most transcendent art in human history is faith-based. It was impossible to dismiss the roots of this art as nothing more than primitive superstition. I was drawn to ancient churches, synagogues and mosques, and found their spaces deeply moving.

I used to scoff at Christmas-and-Easter Christians - the people who turn up at church twice a year in a sort of last, nostalgic grasp at faith, or who take their children "so they'll be exposed to it." But now, I'm one of those people too. It started a few years ago, when we decided to go to Christmas Eve services at a little picture-postcard church near us in the country. It doesn't get much use the rest of the year, but everyone turns out for Christmas. The minister's wife pounded on the organ as we belted out the old favourites. The minister read the Christmas story, which I knew by heart. On an impulse, I knelt at the altar for communion and took the wine and wafer. The congregation recited the Lord's Prayer. We all sang Silent Night, lit candles in the dark and wished our neighbours Merry Christmas.

I didn't believe a word of it, not a word. But it didn't matter. I was so affected that I could scarcely speak. And so, although I would never call myself a believer, "atheist" doesn't sound right either. "Reluctant nonbeliever" is more like it.

After that, I began to wonder if people might be hard-wired for faith. It turns out that we are. In his illuminating new book, The Faith Instinct, Nicholas Wade points out that religiosity is deeply embedded in every human culture. It confers enormous evolutionary benefits. The most important thing it does is bind people together through collective rituals so that they can take collective action. There is no church of oneself.

By strengthening the social fabric, religion makes people extraordinarily co-operative. It governs self-restraint in a society by ensuring that people do not deviate from common codes of conduct (because the gods will punish them if they do). It also organizes people for aggression against other societies, even at the risk of self-sacrifice.

Back at the dawn of humankind, the groups of people who were best at taking collective action - including warfare - were the ones who survived. "That is why human nature is part angel and part brute," the author writes. "An individual may be either one or the other, but societies and nations are inextricably both."

Religion tends to wane as countries modernize. But its value systems endure. You don't have to be religious to endorse the Ten Commandments. And the religious instinct - the longing for ritual, belonging and belief - is wired into our brains as much as it ever was. Although many of us rational, enlightened people have our doubts about the supernatural, we're still in search of some larger purpose. We long to belong to a community of believers, and if we can't find that belonging in religion, we look somewhere else.

I envy people of faith. By all accounts, they are happier, healthier and more emotionally secure than the rest of us. They give away more money and do more good works. They are kinder, more generous and more community-minded. We secular humanists, by contrast, tend to be stingy, lonely folks. I wouldn't choose to be a nonbeliever if I could help it, but I can't.

Yet I've discovered (to my surprise) a deep appreciation for the rituals of religion. I am thrilled by the Muslim call to prayer. I actually enjoy Passover seders, even when they last till 2 a.m. I think it is important to say grace (okay, a brief one) before a big family dinner. I hate the modern loss of ritual and solemnity surrounding death. Something's lost when people get together and have a party and pretend the loved one has done nothing more dramatic than move to Cleveland. These are serious matters, and we shouldn't pretend they're not.

I really can't tell you exactly why I go to church on Christmas Eve. It's partly to honour my faith instinct, I suppose. It's to pay respect to my Christian roots, and to acknowledge all those flinty, rock-ribbed, practical, churchgoing Protestant ancestors of mine whose values largely shaped our culture. It's to sing loud and out of tune together with a lot of other people (music is as primal as religion, it turns out). It's to pay homage to the importance of tradition and continuity, and to experience the extraordinary power and solace and comfort of community.

It's not God. But it will do.

 

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