Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral

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I’m an atheist in the fullest sense. Anything that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, heard, tasted, studied or measured I do not believe in.

I really wish that wasn’t the case. No, I’m not asking you to convert me. Let me save you the trouble, it’s impossible.

But Being Religious is Awesome

In a survey of Americans between 1972 and 2008, 26% of those who never attend religious services reported being “very happy.” On the other hand, 48% of those who attend services more than weekly reported being “very happy.”1

That’s almost double. That is a huge huge difference. Personality factors, income, and demographics don’t even come close.


  1. The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.
  2. Spirituality is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.
  3. Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.

Each of the elements identified above are in turn highly correlated with well-being and happiness. That is why, in all honesty, I am in some ways jealous of my spiritual and religious friends. But enough complaining.

There has to be something for those of us that are not that religious that can create those benefits.

The social support provided by a religious community is unmatched by all other modern institutions.

And it is likely to stay that way for decades, centuries, or more.

At a high level, the four components which make religious communities social capital generators are: trust (e.g. “being in a cathedral builds up my sense of trust in other people”), bonding (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to make friends”), bridging (e.g. “being in the cathedral helps me to meet new people and contribute to community life”), and linking (e.g. “I have met important people through my involvement in the cathedral).2

Each of those individual components can be found elsewhere, but never as strong.

  • The level of trust you have of others in your congregation will be much stronger than your trust of those at your book club or dinner parties.
  • Bonding opportunities at your workplace may exist, but the primary function of work is to work, not bond.
  • Volunteering can help you meet new people and contribute to community life, but in my experience religious groups get more done, have more enthusiasm for their cause, and form stronger relationships with one another and those whom they meet.
  • It’s possible to network with community leaders or powerful bankers, but the interaction just isn’t the same as when it’s between two equals in church, under the eyes of God.
There have been many attempts by secular organizations to adopt some of these elements. To my knowledge, failure or partial success have been the only outcomes. Please tell me if I’m wrong.

Spirituality is highly correlated with increased feelings of gratitude, respect, and optimism.

On this component, I have hope.

  1. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude through secular practice generates increasing feelings of respect and optimism.3
  2. Cultivating an attitude of optimism through secular practice generates increased feelings of gratitude and respect.
  3. Cultivating self-respect by actively changing your behavior and social assets to be worthy of your respect generates increased feelings of gratitude and optimism.
It’s a fantastic positive feedback loop.

The ordering is intentional – it is easier to cultivate an attitude of gratitude than one of optimism, which in turn is easier than cultivating authentic self-respect.

Yes, church and God make cultivating each of those components much easier, but even without them it can be done.

By me, it will be done.

Religion provides purpose and meaning in life.

It really does. But there are other ways. They are more difficult, but science is starting to identify the elements that give rise to vital engagement, passion, purpose, and meaning.4

The four criteria I’ve identified so far, which apply to work and hobbies alike, are:

  • Frequent opportunities to enter into a state of flow.
  • Frequent opportunities to use and develop your strengths.
  • Frequent opportunities to develop social connections.
  • Frequent opportunities to act in alignment with your values and beliefs.

Some hobbies and jobs won’t contain those opportunities. There is a reason only half of lawyers report being satisfied with their jobs.5 Working long hours doing menial work in defense of causes they don’t believe in is no recipe for finding meaning in work.

For those of us not looking to change jobs or find a new hobby, there are ways to increase our exposure to those opportunities.

Two out of three is better than zero. 

This is post  19 of the Month of Happiness. Check out the rest!

Day 1: Psychostimulants: They might give you happiness; they might give you a heart attack
Day 2: How to Harness the Power of Laughter: An Easy, Effective, and Infinite Source of Joy
Day 3:  Three Good Things, A Small Gratitude Exercise for a Large Boost of Happiness
Day 4: The Right Way to Fake a Smile For Health and Happiness
Day 5: Emotional Contagion: 5 Ways to Get Your Environment to Work for You
Day 6: Ditch Porn – It’s Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids
Day 7: Why I “Remain” an Introvert, Though the Science Suggests Extroverts are Happier
Day 8: Yoga – It Isn’t Just for Female Hipsters
Day 9: Watch More TV; It Makes You Happy!
Day 10: Kaizen: Accomplishing Big Goals with Tiny Steps
Day 11: Omega-3 Supplementation – Good For The Heart & Vitamin Shoppe’s Bottom Line
Day 12: Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance
Day 13: One Tab at a Time: 7 Tips to Browse the Web More Mindfully
Day 14: Optimism, The Blind Man’s Gamble
Day 15: A Story of Change, The 5 Willpower Techniques That Create Action
Day 16: Zest, The Spice of Life… or is it?
Day 17: Exercise: Better than Zoloft
Day 18: Relaxation: The Magic Tonic That Cures Headaches & Relieves Indigestion
Day 19: Spirituality for the Irreligious – Getting the Benefits Outside the Cathedral
Day 20: Meditation – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly Beautiful





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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Jo Martin

I’m impressed with the work you put into this website! Even though you’re not religious you did a great job of analyzing the benefits of joining a religious group. I especially like (and appreciate) your suggestions for finding similar benefits in the secular world. Gratitude, optimism, and self-respect go a long way toward creating a mindset of happiness. Optimism comes from gratitude and self-respect… well it seems like all three qualities are inter-dependent. I tend to have a happy and optimistic attitude most of the time, and I feel a lot of gratitude for life itself.


Amit Amin

Thank you Linda, I appreciate your kind words 🙂

It’s great isn’t it? Gratitude, optimism, and self-respect are all positively inter-dependent; increase one and generally you increase all three. I’m not naturally happy, optimistic, or grateful – but I’ve found that incorporating small acts of gratitude throughout my day have had a huge impact on all 3 – I find myself more happy and optimistic.

Just today, I cried for the first time in more than a year. They were tears of gratitude, and wow did they feel good.



This post is very timely for me… Though non religious, I’ve been attending church for the past few weeks (for family). It’s been an interesting experience, and I can see why the rates of happiness are so much higher for religious folks. But I’m glad to see there’s still hope for me. 😉


Amit Amin

Yes ma’am, there is still hope for us both!

My initial line of curiosity developed for the same reason – I was in china for four months and somehow ended up friends with a bunch of highly religious folks (Americans). The dynamics of their relationships was just beautiful, and there were just so nice! I’m still friends with a few of them.

I hope some day that I have a strong community behind me like that. I think the major differences will be that rather than one large community, it will a set of disparate groups, with only a few common links. Also, they won’t be as awesome. Ah well.


William Veasley

Amit: I think you pretty much summed it up at the end. Develop your strengths, social connections, and act in line with your beliefs and values. I think it is all about having a strong faith in what you believe.

Personally, I have believe in God and whenever I have problems I put my faith in Him. I do not go to Church, but just study on my own and with others.



i agree with you
spirituality and religions can put the person in a better state of mind and help him cope with life problems in a better way, thanks for the post



Interesting post Amit, I agree to a certain extent but the times have changed since religion has been the central focus point of communities. There are many community organisations and ways for communities to bond and connect. We are in a new phase of evolution where religion no longer is the focal point of togetherness and trust. It’s time the people who are not religious stood up and admitted their lack of belief too many people depend on the structures of the church or continue to abide by the rituals and routines whether it be through fear or respect for tradition and culture. In my opinion, the church (in my culture in particular) represents too many negative things and I would love for people to have the courage to step outside and admit their true beliefs. When this finally happens human beings can evolve to the next level of spirituality.


Amit Amin

Perhaps you are right. Just because secular institutions have continued to fail in this regard doesn’t mean that they always will. What I refer to is more than just bond and connect – from what I’ve seen through personal experience and here-say is that the level of bonding and connectedness is much higher in religious groups.

Where I live, there is no lack of numbers – enough people have stood up and admitted their lack of belief. The problem is that the secular institutions we belong to lack the draw, rituals, routines, and power that made the church such a powerfully bonding (but also dividing) institution. The other problem is that there are too many – unlike the church, which is a singular entity, most people belong to many secular institutions. Their focus is divided, which reduces the sense of community. But enough complaining. I hope you are right.


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There is an ‘atheist church’ that started in Britain in 2013. http://www.sundayassembly.com/story



Hi and thanks for the rigorous research of this site :).

I wonder if going to Quaker meetings might be the ‘solution’ for atheists.

I’ve gone to meetings reasonably consistently and there’s no mention of necessary belief to attend and the silent hour can be used for (empirically beneficial) meditation and acts as a good group for meditation to get you to commit without any discussion of, as you said, ‘the evils of attachment’.

Despite the traditional Christian links, there are people from all religious backgrounds and a special non-theist group accepted within them. Then there’s 30 minutes or so of chatting for the benefits of socialising and the unique benefits of a spiritual community.

Maybe not having all the same beliefs like other communities might reduce some of the benefits by comparison, but some kind of shared decency, spiritual practice and community should be enough to help quite a bit and when all it need involve is meditation and socialising, there’s not really any opportunity cost.

Just anecdotally, I nearly always feel better for going.

All the best.


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