Missing the Sacred: Why This Atheist Came Back to Faith

A woman deep in thought sitting by the sea. Prayer.
A woman deep in thought sitting by the sea. Prayer.

As I sat in church this Sunday, I was struck with the ritual aspects of worship: the set prayers of the communion, the ritual dress of officiators, the songs sung, the architecture of the building itself, the division of men and women, the silence, the images of Christ displayed prominently, even the box of tissues placed at the pulpit for those speaking who were overcome by emotion. I found myself feeling part of something ancient and sacred. Though I tend to think more practically about what religion does for those who are in need, in this moment, I thought only of the beauty of experiencing the divine through repetition and ritual.

If you are an atheist or used to be one, like me, ritual can seem silly. Or a waste of time. People who believe in God are still going to need to eat, to sleep, to get health care if they are ill, to work a job to earn money, and to manage relationships with their loved ones. How does a sacred ritual experience matter to them? Maybe taking a nap would be more useful. Or working another day so they're not scraping by as desperately. Or just relaxing and reading a book or watching a TV show to help deal with stress.

But I missed the sacred when I was an atheist. It was one of the main reasons that I made the scary decision to try to make my way back to faith. I became an atheist because it seemed more rational and because I grew tired of hearing religious platitudes. But as the years wore on, I began to feel an emptiness. (I don't mean to imply here that all atheists feel this--they don't.)

I was never completely happy. I talked to other atheists about it, this sense of loneliness and fragility that I had. Without the belief in a God who watched over me at the least, I was plagued by fears that random horrible events could happen at any time (which they do) and that my loved ones could be struck down again.

But more than that, I missed the experience of the sacred. I missed the sense of communicating with a higher power. I missed the way in which I could lose time in worship and lose track of myself and my quotidian concerns. I missed the experience of the divine, the thing larger and greater than we are. I missed feeling connected to a history of worship, the sense that this same prayer had been said this same way generation after generation. I missed feeling awe at the sight of a sunset, at a sheer cliff drop, at the beauty of a church or a temple, at the love in the eyes of those who are at worship. I missed feeling that overwhelmingly emotional sense of "Presence." I missed being one with God and with others.

And so I tried to pray again. If you are an atheist, this will make you laugh. It would be an impossibility, right? There is no God to pray to, so how could you speak to someone that other people made up who doesn't exist? What would be the point? How would you communicate with nothingness?

Well, I did it anyway. It wasn't easy. And I by no means mean to suggest that all atheists should do this, that it will make their own lives better. This was simply what I chose to do for my own life. It was what I needed personally, and perhaps it makes me a little less judgmental about people who do things that make no sense to me in the name of worshiping God.

For the first ten months of my attempt to pray to God again, what happened was--nothing. I would try to kneel down and seek for the God I had once been so sure was there, listening intently to me. But I felt--nothing. And when I tried to think of any words to pray, the only ones that came to my lips were, "I don't believe you exist." That was all I had to offer. As the months went on, it was the same prayer every night. "I still don't believe in you." So long as I did not think there was someone listening on the other side, I had no words to offer. But I kept trying.

And one day, I felt--something. For the first time in a long time. I won't call it an answer. It wasn't words. It wasn't a voice. It was just--a sense of something beyond myself. Maybe I made it up out of desperation. That's certainly what I would have told myself in my earlier years as an atheist. But since I'd started this with the desire to believe in God again, I kept at it.

Eventually, I began to feel that "Presence" of the divine more often. I won't say it always happens when I pray. It doesn't. I won't say that I never doubt God. I do. I suspect my default is still an atheist one. But I push it aside and keep reaching for the infinite, for that sacred sense of awe in the world around me, in ritual worship, in connection to other human beings.

While prayer used to seem matter-of-fact to me, a recitation of words to someone I believed heard me but wasn't necessarily going to heed, it has become for me a silent moment of letting go of time and my body and the sense of my life and needs. I reach for God and am free of myself, which turns out to matter more than any of the lists of things that I was going to ask for anyway. Church is often people preaching with a lot of words, but what I love most about church now is the silence. I love letting go and just feeling free, unattached to the world, undemanding.