What I Learnt As A Stranger In A Pew

What wisdom theology still holds for the un-religious

I initially started spending time in churches during my lunchbreaks to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Churches are a great place to think in quiet when the weather outside is too inclement to sit on a park bench and, unlike a café, I don’t have to buy a coffee or a croissant to justify my presence in them. Whilst in a church one day, my mind inevitably turned to what value religion still holds in this day and age — and if it held any value for me?

As an atheist, I had not until this point, ever explored religion and theology in-depth and from a good faith perspective. I rejected (and feel equally rejected by) the religion I was born into (Islam). I find the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus, a historical figure for whom there is little evidence he existed in the way we are told he existed, completely inaccessible.

Yet, religion is a human universal. All cultures have created a framework of didactic story-telling with which to instil rules for life or a sense of morality by which to live on its population. But you can be moral without being religious. Many of the rules of most religions, reflect conclusions I had already come to, albeit for different reasons, and without their help. So if I can learn no moral lessons from religion — is there still any value in it for me?

It then occurred to me the happiness of religious people is something atheists should take more seriously and explore with more intellectual rigour. There are several studies that suggest religious people are happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious people. So I enrolled in theology lessons last year to challenge the ideas I had already become fixated on about religion and quietly explore my theories about happiness.

In one of these lessons, a priest said something that struck me as inherently wise:

“We are now a society that values self-actualisation over virtue.”

So focused are we on getting the things we want to have and getting to do the things we want to do, we no longer dedicate sufficient thought to what type of human beings we are and want to be.

We don’t ask ourselves questions like:

Am I a kind person?

Am I a virtuous person?

Am I a generous person?

Am I a disciplined person?

Am I a resilient person?

Am I a tolerant and accepting person?

Are my intentions realised in my deeds?

We ask kids what profession they want to do when they grow up — not what kind of person they want to be.

For me, being ‘good’ is not an active enough definition of a person’s character. You can be ‘good’ without doing anything. Just sitting in your room being totally passive, not hurting another soul, could mean you qualify for a shallow definition of being a ‘good’ person. But is that enough to be a virtuous person? Calling someone virtuous implies that they are active in their goodness. That they don’t just think good thoughts, they also do good deeds.

My theory is that religious people are happier than non-religious people because they focus on inward improvement and inward harmony rather than turning life into one big to-do list. I have so many friends who think they’re failures because they haven’t ticked off enough of this hypothetical to-do list by the time they’re XX-years-old. For me, that is no longer a sound enough basis for defining a good life.

Before now the religious used to follow the example of the saints. The trouble with modern life is those we now hold up as roles models for ‘good’ are celebrity activists, politicians, or worse — “influencers.” There’s rarely anything inward-looking about their motivations or behaviour. Rather, we fail to recognise the mundane goodness we see all around us in ordinary life. Those who have mastery of the small world within their control and use their power to change it for good.

What I’ve learnt about happiness is this: instead of turning your life into a giant to-do list, concentrate on your own virtue and on what you can control. That is usually just yourself, your immediate situation including your relationships and your intellectual or creative output. This is not the most revolutionary or original piece of advice, I know, but it is perhaps a lesson that isn’t imparted on my generation as much as it was imparted on previous generations. Relinquish all that isn’t in your control to a higher power (or no power at all), think virtuous thoughts, do virtuous deeds, put your own house in order and live.

Thank you for reading — I hope you found my thoughts interesting. Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Let me know either way: @Sayde_Scarlett

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