After Boston: Can You Have Faith Without God?

04/19/2013 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013
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Americans invoke faith in God whenever big events occur, whether a national tragedy like the Boston bombings or any solemn or even celebratory occasion, from weddings to sports games. At these moments, ritual and rhetoric -- cassocks and caps and collars, along with talk of faith and grace and redemption -- are everywhere, giving comfort and inspiration to those who've come to be known as "people of faith," while leaving the growing number of atheists and agnostics out in the cold. Don't we need comfort and inspiration too, especially when processing events like terrorism designed to shatter the lives and hopes and routines of us all? Should we have to adopt a belief we don't really hold in order to feel part of the larger American family who were collectively targeted on Monday, and who are grieving and searching for answers as part of one people?

We do. And we shouldn't. And that's why President Obama's remarks at yesterday's memorial were so brilliant. Obama, like Governor Deval Patrick who spoke just before him, began his remarks with a line from scripture, around which he built his whole talk. "Scripture tells us," began the president, "to run with endurance the race that is set before us." It was obviously an apt theme to encapsulate both the horror and the resolve involved in the marathon bombing -- the absolute worst and best of humanity, operating in the race of life.

Scripture can be a wise and inspiring text even to those who don't believe it's the word of God. And Obama should be free to invoke his own religious beliefs, even when others don't share them. But the arc of his talk yesterday -- which wove together the personal and the collective, the divine and the mundane, the poetic and the prosaic -- allowed the president to remind all of us, not just the religious, of the role faith necessarily plays in our lives at moments like these, whether or not we believe in God.

We've already heard much about the need to focus on human goodness when confronted with its basest impulses, on hope when staring at despair, including from Obama, who praised Boston for showing that, "in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what's good." That's an old but time-tested notion reflected in all sorts of positive psychology traditions that, through religion or therapy or daily mantras, try to help people convert a brain focused on "no" to a brain focused on "yes" by choosing to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

But what's interesting to an atheist like me is what role faith and human will might play in dealing with a terrorist attack designed to erode trust in our institutions and each other. Can those of us without God still deploy tools that help us make sense of human evil, that help us continue to trust in humanity when seeing it at its worst? Is faith one of those tools, and can a person will herself to have it?

Making sense of this complicated world without reference to an omnipotent being who absorbs all that seems senseless can be tough -- and so atheists often must bear the burden of living in a world that just doesn't make much sense.

But having faith is another matter, and is, I think, a genuine option whether people belief in God or not. All too often when we hear "faith" we think of organized religion, belief in something supernatural or ill-advised leaps away from reason toward something unlikely, something not grounded in evidence.

But then again, isn't America -- isn't humanity -- among the most unlikely forces of all? Who ever would have thought we'd have evolved to where we are today? Indeed, responding to something like terrorism can be an ideal moment to contemplate all the ways that faith in the unlikely is necessary for our health and happiness, to remember that it's not always ill-advised to have faith, but can be noble and beautiful and right. No, this piece is not turning into a garden-variety effort to encourage religious faith because studies show it can improve people's well-being. For those who just don't believe in God and who pride ourselves on the "truth-value" -- rather than the pragmatic value -- of our beliefs, that appeal will never be persuasive (nor could it ever move us to believe something we just don't believe).

But faith is not just a reference to God. In fact, I think the term, "people of faith," should be retired. Why can't we go back to the term "religious"? We all know what's meant by that, even if it describes a very broad range of things. Don't take "faith" and apply it only to God. As an atheist, I have a tremendous amount of faith: that the sun will rise tomorrow; that my friends and family love me; that a federal highway I'm speeding along won't suddenly end at a cliff; that my boyfriend isn't cheating and won't leave me tomorrow; that that backpack in the corner of my view is not a bomb, and that my lower Manhattan office space won't explode any minute. I have faith in my fellow human beings -- despite the knowledge that they could let me down. My faith in all these things could end up having been misplaced. But doubt is okay. Indeed, that's why faith is essential, and can be -- when we determine it's warranted -- a courageous act, to muster faith in the face of doubt. There's no other way to go on.

Mustering this sort of faith is an act of will. And it doesn't have to mean choosing a positive belief when a negative one is more logical. You could choose to never leave your house because you could get hit by a bus. You could decide to spend all day contemplating the horrid sound of nails on a chalkboard, or wallowing in the meaninglessness of existence. You could insist after suffering the death or break-up of a loved one that there's no reason to ever love again. And then you'd be an agoraphobic, a nihilist or a depressive. Insane people and paranoid people assume the worst is most likely at any time. That's not logic; it's illness.

That's why when someone has suffered a terrible break-up, the hardest -- but strongest -- thing to do is to learn to love again despite how tough it is. Indeed, the harder it is to believe, the more necessary and more noble it is to keep faith.

And so, even as an atheist, I'm inspired by Obama's appeal to redouble my effort (yes, effort -- this is where the roll of human will comes into play) to have faith when what you may feel is doubt.

"In the face of cruelty," said Obama, "we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocents, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal. We'll choose friendship. We'll choose love." In such moments -- perhaps a little bit each day, "we summon the strength that maybe we didn't even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race. We finish the race."