After a tragic event, accident or attack, turn to social media and many of the responses will be to pray. This call to action, of ‘thoughts and prayers’ implies comfort, hope and consideration. But what happens when this isn’t an option for you? How do you find that little thing to hold on to, when a lack of faith can make you feel powerless?
I, like almost every British person of a certain age, was made to pray at the Christian school I attended. We were told that shutting our eyes and talking to God was an effective way of helping those in need. I closed my eyes tight and clasped my little hands together but nothing happened; He never spoke to me, and I could never force myself to believe in something that I fundamentally didn’t. I am an atheist.
I am an atheist, and yet at almost every trying time in my life, every moment that I’ve felt lost, or loss, fear, or a desire to help, I’ve attempted to pray, and begun almost every time with the embarrassing words, “hey, God, sorry I don’t really believe in you, but could you give me a hand here just in case…?”
When my grandfather died, my grandmother had been filled with hope that he was in a better place and they would soon be together again. So why couldn’t I have that comfort, when I was raised Christian just as she was?
It has been found that religious people of all faiths are marginally happier and more satisfied than non-religious people, but what I have always found interesting is not in the comparison of happiness levels on a shallow scale, but how atheists can harness the tools that theists have to find the same sort of inner fulfilment without following a deity.
Across the board, experts have agreed that the biggest psychological benefit of following an organised religion is the community support that comes with it; this includes feelings of hope and protection, which, arguably, are the main reasons behind my desire for faith. In an article about life satisfaction and mental health in theists compared to atheists, Dr Paul McLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospitals, told The Telegraph: “For many people, a strong faith can be a protective factor. With it usually comes strong social support which is a recognised protective factor against psychological trauma.”
One of the reasons faith seems attractive for many is the safety and support that comes with it, much of which actually comes from the church as opposed to the faith itself.
Interestingly, it has also been found that people are more likely to turn to church or practice religious behaviours in times of trouble; this not only reinforces the significance of the community itself, as the church will help its people in their times of need, but also explains my tendency to yearn for religion only when I am suffering.
Research from Psychology Today states: “…In healthy nations (where basic needs are being met, when people feel safe walking home alone at night, etc.), there was no advantage to being religious — both religious and non-religious people reported feeling respected and socially supported, and as a result both reported being happy.
“In unhealthy nations, religion offered an advantage, in terms of an uptick in well-being. It ends up that your life circumstances influence the presence and benefits of being religious.”
But if — hypothetically — 2016 was the “worst year in history”, and it has been proven that following religion aids well-being, why are millennials following religion less than ever before?
Research conducted throughout the US showed that the decrease in religion — both in terms of organised religion and spirituality — could be due to a culture of individualism now perpetuating the western world.
Dr Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University, told The Huffington Post in an interview: “We found that religious involvement was low when individualism was high… Individualism is a cultural system that places more emphasis on the self and less on social rules. Individualism can conflict with religion, especially as religion usually involves following certain rules and being part of a group.”
This theory also goes some way in explaining why fewer millennials are following religion compared to older people, as studies have shown that as individualism is rising, we are focussing more on ourselves and worldwide issues than our immediate communities, such as local churches.
I was raised by a few different branches of Christianity — my grandmother was strictly Catholic and my school was Church of England — and yet I never regularly went to church, and due to my own moral beliefs (certain churches within Christianity can have an anti-LGBT+ stance for example), I have never felt a true affinity with the church-going community.
If research indicating social support in church is key in promoting well-being, it seems as if my yearning for faith really stems from a desire to be included and supported by a family-like community, something that you don’t necessarily need religious belief for.
But this is not the only reason atheists can be compelled towards faith. I often find myself at a loss to help when tragedies occur, both to my friends or family, or on a worldwide scale.
When the crisis in Syria reached beyond horrific levels last year, I saw many people praying and wished I had the belief to do the same, as often donating money feels like you’re not physically helping. Donating can feel like “not enough”, whereas prayer seems more personal.
But it turns out action itself without prayer can be the answer. The Bible itself says: “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James, 2:14–26) If we take this to mean that prayer without action is meaningless, atheists can do well to just perform good deeds and positive thinking, simply by removing the act of faith.
I may not be able to say “my prayers are with you”, but I can still listen. I may not be able to dedicate a prayer to a worldwide tragedy, but I can still volunteer, organise events, spread awareness, and find time for reflective thought. Atheists can in fact harness many of the tools religious people use in their daily life to be more motivated, hopeful and generous, but instead of having a faith in God to connect their thoughts to their actions, non-believers really just need to find the will.
There are many positive ways to find hope, practice self-care and look out for your community as a non-believer. Instead of looking to a church when going through difficult times, why not see a therapist, or talk to a family member? Instead of getting involved with religious activities, why not get involved in a community event? If you, like me, feel powerless after a major world trauma, remember that there are places where you can donate, volunteer or otherwise help.
In the end, I will go through hard times and probably will always feel at a loss during each hard time. I will continue to inelegantly pray ‘just in case’ and I will probably always feel that strange tug whenever I walk past a church. But I am learning to rely on my thoughts, friends, community and family in times of need instead of yearn for what I do not have.
I cannot force myself to believe, just as I would never dream of forcing someone not to believe. My long and fruitless struggle to find God has taught me one very important thing about faith, however. There is always, and will always be, somebody I can rely on, find hope and inspiration from, and find comfort from: myself.
Emily Chudy is a writer and journalist from London. She has been published in getwestlondon, Retail Week, Fresh Produce Journal and more.