The Ravenous Need For Religious Order

Several weeks ago, a dear friend of mine told me, “I thought I could handle being an atheist. But I just can’t. The world is too terrifying without a religious structure. So I’ve chosen to go back to church, and go back to believing.” He said it with a downcast look of shame as if he was confessing something terrible. I didn’t think he was. I appreciated his honesty.

I often feel like the world is divided between two types of people: those who feel the Religious Itch and those who don’t. I’ve previously described these two groups as the Unbound and the Bound. The Bound are those who feel empty without being tied to a religious structure; the Unbound are those who cannot comprehend such a state as anything other than bondage.

I’m an atheist who also happens to be one of the Bound. Like so many, I feel the raging maw of emptiness when I confront a world without ordered religion. Before I found my current religious practice, I would look at my theistic friends – even my conservative theistic friends – and envy them. I yearned for the structure that I once knew as a Catholic, as a missionary in YWAM, as a Protestant child.

If there is one thing that fundamentalists understand, it is the ravenous craving for a religious order. When Eastern Orthodox theocrat Rod Dreher speaks about the desperate need for re-enchantment in the modern world, he is speaking to a deep appetite. When Jewish writer Yoram Hazony writes about the poverty of modern religious life and uses that to defend The Virtues of Nationalism, he is sounding a dog whistle that only The Bound can hear. And, in a recent piece for the Atlantic, Christian apologist Timothy Keller argues for a revival of Christianity in our culture leading with the conviction that religion itself is good for society. He writes,

Many secular social theorists—including Émile Durkheim and Jonathan Haidt, to name two—show how religion makes contributions to society that cannot be readily supplied by other sources. Cultural unity, Durkheim argued in the 1890s, requires a “conscience collective,” a set of shared moral norms that bind us together in a sustained way. These norms are understood to be grounded in something sacred and transcendent, not created by culture. Durkheim recognized the difficulties secular cultures have in cultivating moral beliefs that are strong and unquestionable enough to unite people.

In his book Kindly Inquisitors, journalist and atheist Jonathan Rauch writes from the other side of the faith divide about the dissatisfaction with the secular liberal order:

The complaint from spirituality is in many respects the strongest and the most deeply felt. It says to liberal science: “Look at the vast continents of human spiritual and supernatural belief and experience, the deeps of myth and the peaks of religious revelation. All of that you relegate to the fringe of nuttiness or the interior limbo of purely mental phenomena. Are you simply going to ignore so much that is so important? Are you going to dismiss or define away what is, for millions of people, the richest part of human life? Can you so impoverish human souls, leaving them nothing but the parched findings of your sciences? If so, it is a disgrace.”

I feel all of this acutely, and this presents to me a seemingly irreconcilable conflict: I have a deep need for an ordering religion to bring solace, liturgy, and community into my life, and yet I have an intellectual temperament that precludes the very foundations upon which theistic belief is based. I also know that to truly go back – to truly immerse myself in that theistic structure, would be to forego my intellectual integrity. I can’t sacrifice my intellectual honesty on the altar of religious need.

To believe in a conscious god or gods, to believe in unfalsifiable miracles and revelations, would be to lie. I cannot force myself to believe something I know to my bones to be contrary to reason. I can only face the ferocious mystery of reality, no matter how terrifying it might be. The human mind is not well equipped to confront an entire world of mystery, but for me, it is the only way.

The answer, for me, is nontheistic religion. I have often said that I don’t think I would ever have been able to leave theistic belief if I was not offered a nontheistic religion and spirituality as an alternative. I am a deeply religious person, and The Satanic Temple and secular Buddhism provide me a marriage of Reason and Religion.

I believe that atheists and secularists ignore this yearning for religious order to our peril. As long as we dismiss the human yearning for religious structure and enchantment, the theocrats will have the upper hand. When I hear religious people speak, I recognize a desperation. At the core of their arguments for the faith, I see a terror of a life without meaning, community, or structure. That fear is shared by many of their listeners. As long as secularists fail to recognize that need, and fail to offer sustainable religious and spiritual alternatives that provide rituals, symbols, codes, and communities, a certain subset of the population will be immune to our arguments.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in a blog post. And, if you enjoy my work, please consider becoming a patron and signing up for my newsletter.

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “The Ravenous Need For Religious Order

  1. I would disagree with the statement that it is the order that humans need from religion. I think that there is a need for comfort -not order…. some may find comfort in order but that is not what we are looking for. Our base desires addressed through religion have much more to do with comfort that order in my opinion. The comfort I seek from the Satanic practices I engage in are based on this need of comfort and security. This need is what I think drives religion but these are my very condensed thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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