Secular Alternatives To Living A Religious Life

As the child of Baptist missionaries, I spent a multitude of hours in hundreds of churches throughout the United States. Now comfortably unaffiliated, (but spiritual in a sense that Sarah McLachlan would approve of) I don’t want to become the enlightened-former-believer who mocks their strict upbringing upon seeing the secular light. Religion added a lot to my life! (For example. I didn’t take SAT prep classes. I read the King James version of the Bible growing up and miraculously scored a 700 on the reading section. Holla-lujah.)

But, as I grew older, it became clearer that everything I thought I’d miss about being a church-going Evangelical could be replicated in a secular context. In some ways, replicated in an even more satisfying way. Here are a few examples of cherished characteristics of the Christian life one might miss when they leave the flock and ways to fill that hole in your soul.

A moral conscious and inescapable guilt

Watched a “Rated R” movie? Cue guilt. Tried your first beer? Cue guilt. Voted for Obama? Cue guilt. Guilt is one of the defining qualities of being a Christian. As it is written, If you’re a Christian and you pulled the metaphorical lever for the Democratic party, you might have felt a deep pressure in your chest. That’s good. This guilt, Christians argue, is the sign you know you are in good standing with God.

Secular alternative: Volunteering.

Working with underprivileged youth, the poor, the disabled instantly conjures hard questions. Why am I healthy? Why did I have a loving family? It’s hard. Luckily, we can use this guilt as a way for motivation to do something to help someone else. Misplaced guilt doesn’t do anyone any good. And it doesn’t take a spiritual foundation to feel compassion for others.

Now, you might respond that Christians are avid volunteer workers. You’re right. Between raising money for the Boy Scout troop, the new gymnasium, or Deacon Bob’s colonoscopy, Christians are constantly searching for ways to spread the good news. Except, sometimes, their volunteering is a sneaky cover for a more everlasting mission. Want a sandwich, poor person? Take this ham and cheese AND this pamphlet to learn how you can never be hungry. Ever. Again. Which makes it less selfless volunteering and more experiential marketing.

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Music: the soundtrack of faith

It doesn’t matter if you profess to be the most fervent disciple of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins or Pontius Pilate, one cannot hear How Great Thou Art and not be moved. In a congregational setting, it’s pure magic. Whether you prefer the classics of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, modern day worship anthems, or a great gospel choir, music is fundamental to the experience of being in church.

Secular alternative: Go to a concert (ideally a Coldplay or Passion Pit concert)

Coldplay’s concerts are meticulously produced to give attendees all the tears, unity, and inspiration of a worship service without asking you to determine the fate of your eternal soul afterward. Speaking in tongues will take new meaning during Viva la Vida, as you chant with thousands mesmerized by your charismatic leader, Chris Martin. Additionally, Passion Pit concerts are the greatest form of pop rave, where hooking up and dancing are about celebrating life and humanity. It’s beautiful. But if you still miss hearing How Great Thou Art, watch the Country Music Awards.

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Referencing the word of God

The Bible is a very quotable book. The apostle Paul wrote to his pupil Timothy that the Scripture is useful for doctrine, correction, and understanding. Regardless of whether you believe that the Bible is recalling actual historical events or simply moderately convincing myths, the versatility of the Bible is undeniable. If you’re facing instances where you feel pressured by your wife to procreate with your slave? There’s a verse for that. Find yourself having a dinner party of say, 5,000, and have nothing to serve them? There’s a verse for that too. This ability for the Bible to fit almost every situation makes it an essential addition to hotel rooms, United States court houses, and bookshelves everywhere.

Secular solution: Watch Glee

In many ways, the Glee Club at McKinley High is very much like a local church youth group. Intergroup dating? Check. Life lessons on the dangers of drinking and sex? Check. Singing? Uh, maybe some singing. And ask yourself this. Does the Bible have a verse on the dangers of texting while driving? Maybe in the Gnostic gospels. But we Baptists don’t count those.

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Finger Food Fellowships and other casual dining

One of the most passionately followed passages of Scripture is “Thou preparest a table before me.” Between pot-luck dinners, pre-service donuts and coffee, barbeques, church picnics, food is abundant. As it is written, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there shall be a pizza in their midst.” (RWT) If you hunger and thirst for a great meal as much as you do righteousness, Christianity might be hard to leave.

Secular alternative: None

This is hard. For secularists and non-believers, typically we congregate over coffee, a beer or glass of wine. Maybe wing-night at the local pub. As satisfying as this can be, I’ll be honest. Nothing can beat a great meal with seconds and thirds of Ziti, macaroni and cheese, and Sprite-spiked punch. St. Peter, you win this round.

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Fellowship

Perhaps the most important thing people miss upon leaving their church is the sense of community that comes with your. Having someone to call, check on your ailing mother, or someone to pray with, church provides a support system that is invaluable.

Secular alternative: Make a friend

I grew up being taught that there were two kinds of people in the world: people of the “kingdom of light” and people in the “kingdom of darkness”. These people were slaves to Satan. They were sick and in need of saving. Looking at my fellow fifth graders threw such a prism didn’t make me want to invite them to shoot hoops after school. I didn’t know how to make a friend without Jesus making the introduction. And I missed out.

So I understand there is something special about having a prepackaged way to have friends and people to care about. But with a little effort and a more open perspective on the possibilities all people can bring to your life, people to care about can come from any corner of life. Because I now determine the things in life I value, I look for people to share those values too. I don’t need a preordained fraternity to join. Just the choice to share life with one or a few. TC mark

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  • Robert L.

    You threw your fellow fifth-graders THROUGH a prism because they were slaves of Satan?

    • http://twitter.com/mnguyen My Nguyen

      Let he among us without grammatical sin be the first to condemn. 

      • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

        No greater feeling than realizing you’ve spent hours and hours trying to perfect a humorous piece and a commenter beats it all. Kudos.

      • Michaelwg

        My Nguyen wins the internet. “It is finished”

  • Saikia

    I think what’s most important regarding Christianity is not abiding by every single rule and regulation in the Bible, but instead following in Christ’s footsteps and being a loving example. Many of the rules on the Old Testament were laws of the land that needed to be abidded by in the old days, such as not eating pork, or cutting the hair on your face. If we remember who Christ was and be examples of love and acceptance toward everyone, that’s one big step in the right direction. We shouldn’t have to give up what makes us happy, such as our music. I think drinking has it’s own issues, which is why I don’t drink. Not to mention I’m am alcoholic and just can’t handle it lol, but we should want to honor our God by doing what we should and feeling conviction when we do something wrong isn’t a bad thing. 

    It’s not our influences and decisions that form us, but instead, what we choose to do with them. 

  • http://www.about.me/tanyasalyers Tanya Salyers

    I grew up a “Back-Row” Baptist and am now not religious…this was nice, I related to a lot of it.

  • McKenzie

    My childhood resonates alot this article. I grew up in a very conservative household where 99% of my friends were also ‘christians’ if indeed we knew enough about actually ‘being’ a christian to actually call ourselves that – looking back it was more a title bestowed on us by our parents and community. Spending too much time with non believing friends was frowned upon and even watching a PG movie that contained crude humor would cause my dad to stand in front of the tv and make condescending utterances. 

    In the past year, I’ve completely broken with my religious upbringing and have never been happier. Practically every point you made is something that has crossed my mind once or twice and I love that you were able to paint all this in a humorous light. Thanks for the good read. 

    • http://twitter.com/robwoh Robert Wohner

      I’m all out of religious puns to say, “You are preaching to the choir, sister.” But I know sentiment all too well. I just hated feeling like a phony. Anyway, great comment and good luck!

    • just me

      Did you also turn your back on your family while you were running from “jesus.”

  • BD

    Instead of the Coldplay concert, I’d suggest Radiohead. I went to one and it was like church – everyone was screaming at the top of their lungs. And singing off-key but nobody cared. Definitely idol worship, but whatever. 

  • Michaelwg

    I love Jesus for all the work he did regarding democracy, women’s suffrage, ending slavery, scientific discovery, abolishing apartheid, child labor, human rights abuses…oh wait, i’m thinking of other people. n/m

  • Kelsey

    Have you ever read Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller? It’s “nonreligious thoughts on christian spirituality.” I’ve never read a book that better articulates what a vibrant life in love with Jesus should look like. It doesn’t have to be like some people in the church make it out to be. I struggled hard with finding what role I wanted God to take in my life, and I turned my back on him for a long time, I just wasn’t interested in the picture of him that the church I was raised in had painted. But then one day it felt like God caught me in a moment and showed me who he really was, and that he really wanted good for me, fulfillment, joy, peace. And I began to want to know him so bad. So I began reading and praying and learning who Jesus is. I’m in school right now doing my bachelor of theology and if I’ve learned one thing about Jesus, it’s that he is God, and that he came here to live among us to affirm that God desperately wants to walk beside us in life, he loves us in the sense that he wants to free us to be all that he intended humanity to be.

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