Monday, August 4, 2008


Melissa LaFavers


Lately, I've been taking strolls around my neighborhood. I walk on sidewalks mostly shaded by tall, old trees. Their branches sway in soft Summer breezes, their leaves shine bright, healthy green in the sun. I turn my face to the sky and smile in the sunshine, soaking up the air, the warmth, the beauty all around me. I feel gratitude for my feet, my legs, my heartbeat, the sweetness of a warm July day.

This, to me, is sacred.

Often I find religious folks perplexed when confronted with the idea of not believing in god. Their belief in their god is so woven into every facet of their lives that they can't fathom how life could have meaning of any kind without the imagined presence of their heavenly father hovering over everything they do, say, think.

Many atheists have been accosted by a variation of the question, "If you don't have god, how do you have any morals or meaning in your life?"

Religion, as we all know, doesn't corner the market on morals or meaning. We humans have the ability to attach meaning to anything we do. Atheists and secular humanists may need to be more creative to define our lives without the ready-made boxes and labels that belief in god and religion provides, and we have much more freedom without the confines of established dogma.

I have a young friend who is a new mother. She is faced with the dilemma of bringing her daughter up without belief in god, while still wanting to create meaning for her, specifically in connection with seasonal celebrations, and wanting to allow her daughter to make her own choice of religion when she is mature enough to think for herself.

Celebrations require neither belief in god, nor religion. While we are both essentially atheist, my husband and I find a great deal to celebrate in what Wiccans call the Wheel of the Year. Most religious holidays have a basis in ancient Pagan festivals which were anchored in the cycles of Nature. We live in the natural world. We experience the delights of nature on a daily basis and don't need to believe in any deity to celebrate. We do join in celebrating the Winter holiday most people refer to as Christmas, though I find it more and more difficult each year to use that word. I prefer Yule or Winter Solstice. One of the things I love the most about the holiday season is the carols, and I've started to substitute "Solstice" for "Christmas" because it makes it more meaningful to me as I feel no connection to the story of Christ and his birth.

But I do feel connected to the magic of millions of intricate snowflakes falling from the sky on a blustery Winter day, to hot chocolate after shoveling my long driveway. I also feel connected to the first green shoot of a crocus as the cold begins its slow retreat and the wheel turns from Winter to Spring and all its new life, Nature awakening in a thousand different glorious and colorful ways all around me. I feel connected to the lush life of camping on a Summer weekend, the dance of a million distant stars in the night sky, the jubilance of an evening storm pelting our tent with a few raindrops, the song of Lake Huron lapping at the shore nearby. I connect joyfully to the parade of windblown Autumn leaves through a chilly afternoon, the scent of wood smoke from someone's first fire of the season, the zest of a ripe apple picked fresh from a tree by my own hand, the pleasing glow of a jack-o-lantern on a dark evening, the dazzling array of pumpkins at the local market.

Creating celebrations can be as elaborate as hosting a Halloween costume party, or as simple as sipping cider by a bonfire with friends. We can celebrate moments privately by reciting a poem or lyric on the anniversary of someone's death, or we can celebrate publicly by singing the national anthem with a crowd of people before a 4th of July fireworks show. The options are endless, and none require that we hide our reason in a box.


Jim Aikin said...

A friend of mine (not a religious person, though perhaps not an atheist) celebrates the winter solstice every year with a huge party. About 7:30 in the evening the guests go out in the back yard for the "Howl-elujah chorus." Everyone has a candle, we stand in a circle, and each candle is lit from the next. Then my friend reads a poem about the returning light of spring. The main character in the poem is Wolf. After the poem, everyone howls!

MJ said...

Good post, I have the same issues. For social and intellectual reasons, my husband and I often go to a local Unitarian church where being an athiest is just fine - they "get" that you can find something sacred/spiritual/profound etc. in nature or simply want to discuss ethics or Buddhist approaches to aging and death etc. Though I still wonder, when some folks get VERY upset with the minister's "god talk" - what did they expect in a place that still does call itself a "church?" I have problems with the "church" part of it too but at least I think that I see the issue that hangs me up. And I recall a very challenging lecture a few years ago by a secular humanist writer who pushed us hard - if we really are athiests, why are we sitting in the "church" singing from hymnals and pretending that we are Christian while saying we aren't? He had an excellent point (maybe that is why my sacred time is now spent outdoors more, maybe capped off with a little bit of reading about Buddhism and some of the life-friendly wisdom that wasn't transmitted to me through Protestant relations and mainstream US thinking).

We are not alone, but it is scary for many to admit that they might be with us...