Religion knows what people need and they deliver in a big way! It understands the human desires for belonging, identity, sense of community, friendship, camaraderie, and even romance. I have fond memories of church picnics, where I met my best friends for pickup basketball games, and afterward stuff ourselves with wonderful culinary delights from the buffet table. I was a member of the church softball team, where I always received encouragement every time I came up to bat. In church we sang songs and listened to inspiring lectures that tapped into our desire to be good, moral people. The camaraderie this instilled among the congregation was very satisfying and built a strong sense of belonging. I often left the church parking lot with an emotional high and a desire to become a better member of my blissful society. Yes, religion knows well how to satisfy our deepest, social needs, but there is a shadowy, darker side undermining all the glee.
If a positive, supportive, social atmosphere is the drug then adhering to damaging dogma is the payment. To keep the friends, sense of belonging and emotional highs coming, one must outwardly adhere to a dubious set of beliefs and rules without question. The tools religions use to enforce their dogma, thus their power over people, is fear in the form of social rejection, guilt, shame, and threats of eternal punishment. A common thread among most religions is the existence of a formal removal mechanism from the community for anybody not adhering to prescribed dogma. Catholics call this excommunication, Amish and Mennonites call it shunning, Jehovah’s Witnesses call it disfellowship, and Scientology calls it disconnection. In Islam it is often a reason to kill the offender. In any case, someone in non-compliance with dogma risks losing their entire social network, and often family, leaving a gigantic emotional and identity void. Luckily, there are options to fill these important, individual social needs without dogma and accompanying fear.
It is quite possible to experience all the same happy emotions and comforting feelings of belonging, community, charity, friendship, camaraderie and intimacy without religion and with genuine satisfaction. Religion does not have ownership of these human qualities, humanity does. Christopher Hitchens issued his famous challenge to theists: “Name one moral act that a religious person can do that an atheist cannot.” I feel comfortable extrapolating this concept to include meeting social needs. There are safe places to land the wounded psyche and regain a lost sense of community and belonging when leaving religion, but it does take courage, effort, and time.
There are many local secular groups that offer the opportunity to participate in all the same activities you enjoyed at religious gatherings. Singing, music and inspiring lectures can be found at Sunday Assemblies for those who desire an upbeat experience. Humanist gatherings can provide opportunities to organize and volunteer for charitable events without the underlying goal of recruiting followers. Rational thinkers have meetings to discuss local and national issues without the filter of religious belief. If you enjoy getting to know people from every social and economic demographic with interesting jobs and backgrounds, try going to an atheist group’s social event. It’s important to know there are millions of people who don’t subscribe to religious dogma, but desire a strong sense of social connection and have created a whole world outside of religion to meet that need.