Building a Faith Community Without Belief in God

“You’re going to be next, right?” my friend teased, the cliche less a joke and more an attempt to empathize. We sat next to each other, the table adorned with themed flowers and faux-candles, both of us dressed for the occasion–my brother’s wedding. It would be, arguably, the crowning rite of passage in our faith community, the ultimate symbol of commitment to God, reflected in the infinity mirrors the officiator had the couple stand between following the ceremony.  A reward for their faithfulness. A high mark of status.

My friend and I were both unmarried, quickly cementing our status as second-class citizens among a people we loved. Even as late twenty-somethings, we were condescended to like teens still growing into their bodies, by friends of equal age and experience. Those of the married class offered their sage advice on how we could make corrections in our lives, they’d say, “to be as happy as we are.” We received lessons in Sunday School tailored specifically toward ridding us of our unfortunate affliction. Our younger siblings would instead turn to our married brothers and sisters for advice, more frequently than us. They wore the mantle of holy matrimony, with all its blessings and special foresight. We were just souls lost in the struggle, trying to figure it all out.

Faith communities reach deeper than the familiarity found between co-workers, the support practiced by housemates in a common living situation, or the cooperation exhibited among residents of a neighborhood.”

My friend was able to communicate all of this to me with a mere question. She’s a wonderful and dear friend, but this ability to so easily understand each other’s affliction was not particularly unique between us. I could turn to almost any member of our community, and they would immediately understand the significance of the event: why it mattered so much to my brother and his new wife, or how their advancement probably affected me. They knew what role they were supposed to play as well, exclaiming “wasn’t the ceremony so beautiful! Marriage is full of so many wonderful blessings.” Or, laughing and nodding affirmingly when the officiator made the same antiquated joke I’d heard at every wedding I’d ever been to: “Now listen, if you want to have a happy marriage, you need to learn that your wife is always right.”

I don’t recall whether his wink was actual or imagined.

Despite the social and psychological problems I would later find apparent within this cultural microcosm, I was contented. I was incredibly happy for my brother and his wife. I felt meaning in the struggle found in my affliction. I appreciated the symbolism imbued in wedding rings, the way the church had wise elders we could turn to for assistance in navigating life’s challenges. We had our own canon of inspiring stories found in scripture and in the lives of the pioneers who came before us. We shared personal heroes. We commiserated about the same anxieties which accompanied each milestone in our lives, always understood through the same gospel lens, gifted to us by our faith community.

Faith communities reach deeper than the familiarity found between co-workers, the support practiced by housemates in a common living situation, or the cooperation exhibited among residents of a neighborhood.

It would take leaving the faith to learn this.

I respected the long history of traditions which were rooted in family relations and community. It was a peculiar but proud heritage.

My deeply religious upbringing had gifted me a clear sense of life purpose, identity, moral foundations, a social support system, and assurance about the order of the cosmos. It was a powerful toolkit for creating a meaningful life.

Until it wasn’t.

Making Meaning without God
I had a faith crisis at age 19, and although I became far more unorthodox as a result, I remained firmly inside the religious tent for several years. My faith, and the community in which I grew it, still offered me some spiritual succor. But, as Sunday School lessons and scripture study increasingly failed to feed me spiritually, I indulged in them less. As I continued my exploration of other religions and philosophy, I also found enlarging historical problems with the church. It was far from what it claimed to be; if it walks like a man, talks like a man, and acts like a man…

Literal or fundamental interpretations of religion, any of them, made little sense to me anymore. They felt more like stumbling blocks, obscuring my view from the deeper meanings concealed in mythological symbols, art, and literature.

I could tolerate a metaphorical religion, albeit with major historical problems, but that isn’t what the church was offering. I needed an apparatus for tackling existence pains when it came to making important career decisions, coping with the end of romantic relationships, or finding inspiration to keep going when the world beat me down. The church had its tools, but they were all blunt or no longer relevant to the challenges at hand.

It had been several months since I had shown much concern for observing the practices and beliefs of my faith. I was surprised, not that I had become unorthodox, but that it didn’t trouble me. I was fine. I had moved on, mostly. I now stood beyond the religious tent, on untrodden ground. Unafraid, I merely thought, “well, I guess I’m out.” I hadn’t made the decision to leave, but rather found I had outgrown the tent.

It didn’t feel remotely watershed, but I knew that was the moment of creative destruction. My belief structures were stripped of their meaning, demolished. I was left to create meaning in a world void of any, with the materials in the rubble around me, and beyond. Creatio ex materia.

Tranquil chaos surrounded me, but I fervently believed that the humanities could offer answers to the big questions. Isn’t that how we justified to ourselves paying thousands of dollars for a liberal arts degree while friends chose more financially advantageous ones?

My belief structures were stripped of their meaning, demolished. I was left to create meaning in a world void of any, with the materials in the rubble around me, and beyond.”

I mined transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the existentialists, Irvin Yalom, Viktor Frankl, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and counter-cultural thinkers like Alan Watts and Carl Rogers. From them, I built an intellectual and spiritual artwork, a meaning-making machine with moderate success. I engaged with life, my experiences made rich by liberation from expectations and convention. I gave other lifestyles a chance, questioned sacred institutions: family, government authority, gender, morality, and any other social construct I could reconsider. My views and daily choices were all changing; I was letting in vast varieties of new perspectives and people.

It was beautiful, except for the incredible loneliness I felt, the realization that the world I was creating was all my own. I had little idea how much it overlapped with the people around me.

I had left my community and had no blueprint for building a new one.

I struggled to replicate, perhaps, the most significant asset religion has to offer–membership in a faith community. Faith communities certainly have toxic dynamics, some more than others, many of which contributed to the unnecessary shame and self-doubt I developed as a young man. Yet, involvement in a faith community offered numerous benefits that shouldn’t be ignored. A unique power exists in the ability to drop into a gathering of people, almost anywhere in the world, where most of one’s deepest convictions prevail, to have a common language and history, mutually understood moral tales and religious symbols, as well as a safe space to reveal ourselves to one another, to draw strength as we shared the pathway.

Returning to my faith community felt like imprisonment, stagnation at best, and I had little desire to join a new one. You can’t go home again. I had become agnostic and couldn’t find a way to convince myself otherwise; beliefs are hardly chosen. The question of God or His alleged plan for us didn’t interest me anymore.

When the French physicist LaPlace was asked by Napoleon why his work didn’t include mention of a creator, he replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” I wondered if belief in someone or something supernatural was requisite to reap the benefits of a faith community. Could I build a faith community without a belief in God?

Community Without Faith
In his book, Religion for Atheists, philosopher Alain de Botton says that “the most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true,” and I am inclined to agree with him. He suggests that “in a world beset by fundamentalists of both believing and secular varieties, it must be possible to balance a rejection of religious faith with selective reverence for religious rituals and concepts.”

Religions have existed since the dawn of human consciousness, slowly accumulating masses of wisdom on living well, and living together. Why throw the baby out with the bath water?

I was living in Washington D.C. when I experienced my beyond the tent moment. While not my goal when I joined the nonprofit world, I hoped that by surrounding myself with people who shared the same social and political goals, I could mirror the power of faith communities. We were fighting for a more free, peaceful, and prosperous world for everyone, standing on principles we felt with relative absoluteness. We expressed similar frustrations when we saw the ill effects of government policies, just as we cheered when we saw the impact our work made to improve the lives of others. We smiled with deep satisfaction when others joined our ranks. We evangelized and served, working for wages beneath our skill level, mostly happy to engage in something which resonated with our most core values.

I wondered if belief in someone or something supernatural was requisite to reap the benefits of a faith community.

Wherever we went around the city, we traded reassuring glances with others we recognized from the network. It was a small world inside the world’s most powerful city. You felt confidence when you could encounter another member of the tribe.

I had friends I saw regularly. We held common heroes. We revered the same writings. We attended happy hours where we often connected one another to new job opportunities, celebrated our network’s successes, and mourned its failures.

Still, this was far from the spiritual feasting I needed. We were focused on a global cause, our energies dedicated to something greater than ourselves, but it wasn’t personal enough. The environment was anemia to my spirituality.

We were career building.

My intellect was constantly activated, but I felt spiritually starved. Conversations turned toward self-disclosure and spiritual growth only among a few close friends, and even those to a limited degree. These emotionally intelligent interactions were not part of the network culture generally. It was a social-political force, not a commonwealth of believers.

Despite all the outpoured love and efforts to relate, I felt that these wonderful friends struggled to appreciate the unique intricacies behind my actions. Why I didn’t drink alcohol until my late twenties. Why I took dating so seriously and thought so much about marriage when I was younger. My complicated relationship with sexuality. Or, my particular inability to handle confrontation.   

Building a Community Beyond the Tent
I determined that my faith-community-alternative lacked key elements necessary for feeding the soul. It needed to demand more from its members: self-disclosure and a shared language for talking about the life journey.

De Botton asserts that religions grew out of two central needs, both of which secular society has struggled to provide powerful solutions to:

the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

Our network tackled the first need well but was deficient in the second–coping with life pains and making meaning from it.

In high school, I was exposed to the work of renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. He augmented my religious self then, but his wisdom found its greatest application in my post-religious life.

He jested that mythology is the term we ascribe to another person’s religion. He also contended that religion is the misunderstanding of mythology; when we mistake mythological symbols and stories for literal happenings, we bastardize their psychological power. The community and faith of my youth had lost their vitality because they had clouded my access to mythology. By trying to understand supernatural interventions as historical events I was distracted from seeing their mythological use.

The community and faith of my youth had lost their vitality because they had clouded my access to mythology.”

Campbell identified 4 primary uses of mythology, its most important function being its ability to carry the individual through the various stages and crises of life–to help persons grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. This most familiar aspect of Joseph Campbell’s work is found in the concept of the Hero’s Journey, the monomyth, detailed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A study of world religions reveals that most mythologies and epic stories share common structures and symbols–from Homer’s Odyssey and Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Edda to the Hindu Vedas, and the Bible. The Hero’s Journey outlines the stages through which an individual passes, most often internal or psychological ones, as they grow, or align with their cosmic potential.

I shared the concept with a few friends at a happy hour, including my coworker, Tim Hedberg, who held a similar longing for the healthier aspects of religious life. Later reflecting on the conversation, he recalled:

“I had become so hardened against ‘finding religion again’ and so comfortable in my detached agnosticism that even opening up to express that thought was new and weird. I remember that experience as a ‘light bulb’ moment. It was the moment I admitted something to myself (through the help of others). I truly did miss things that came with a faith community. And admitting that scared the shit out of me.”

My passion for this new spiritual lens resonated with Tim and others, setting in motion a series of small gatherings. Each of us had grown up very devout in our respective faiths and had since outgrown them, joining the 35% of millennials who don’t affiliate with a religion or remain otherwise agnostic. We gathered as a hodgepodge of former-Christians-turned-nones: Catholic, Evangelical, non-denominational, Pentecostal, and Mormon. We found ourselves beyond the tent, and all a bit hungry for the meaningfulness found in faith communities.

We brought food and drink to share, playfully referring to it as our own sacrament. To formalize it a bit, I referred to our group as Beyond the Tent. In turns, we shared stories about our faith transitions, and where we found ourselves in our own journeying. Tim expressed how it felt right to allow himself to “be a wiser elder, a journeyman counseling those who were still in the heart of their spiritual battle,” and at other times, “like a student comparing class notes.” We affirmed each other’s struggles with family members who expressed disappointment or betrayal. We spoke of the terrifying but liberating experience of building our own spiritual universes from the ground up. We talked of the isolation we felt both from friends still of the faith and those who hadn’t experienced their beautiful and sometimes brutal dynamics.

It landed us somewhere between group therapy and afternoon tea.

The Monomyth's 17 Stages

We dissected Campbell’s work and practiced using the 12-stage outline or 17-stage outline of the Hero’s Journey to map our current struggles. His monomyth identified dynamic guideposts by which we could navigate existential challenges. Through the medium of storytelling we discerned our own missteps, moments where fear prevented us from taking the proper path, and ultimately, created stories that resonated on a deeply spiritual level.

An image of the Pacific Northwest became a Call to Adventure, inspiring me to move to Seattle.

For another, lunch with an older friend, who had already left the faith, turned into a Meeting with the Mentor.

Somebody choosing to phone their father, after being rejected for leaving the faith, became a Threshold Crossing, a reconciled relationship.

Another member of our group had already come out to his family. He later learned that his own journey beyond the tent became a Return with the Elixir, a gift inspiring his brother to go his own way.

These small fruits tasted sweet.

Not There Yet
Sadly, my experiment in community building was short-lived, fading once a few of us moved to different states. I have made few efforts since to revitalize the project, and I feel mixed as to how successful Beyond the Tent actually was. Also wondering what we could have done differently, Tim lamented that “we all had troubles and worries and limited energy to indulge. We had no common meeting spot, no ‘pastor’ or ‘priest’ to call our small congregation with friendly reminders to come on back next Sunday, no tithing congregation to purchase goodies as a reward for our continued participation. We just had each other and our stories, but was that enough?”

We had built-in several hallmarks of faith communities, but we didn’t meet often enough or long enough to develop a real sense of community. Some people only attended once.

However, for the core of regulars, I’d like to think that a special bond will always exist. We made each other’s spiritual lives better. We became socio-cultural entrepreneurs. We empowered one another to keep going, to tread new paths, and hopefully, learned that our individual spiritual journeys are inextricably connected to those around us. 

My friend who attended my brother’s wedding remains deeply involved with my former faith, and as far as I can tell, she continues to find it incredibly meaningful. For me, I still have not been able to recreate the power of membership in the faith community I left. I’m not there yet. Perhaps, faith communities are truly unique social institutions, gifted to humanity rather than fabricated by us. Or, maybe, those communities just take a long time to develop.

For now, I’ll continue building where I can and journeying with whoever is willing.

(Image source: Andrew Dong/Unsplash)

 

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