Believers in Community

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By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007

Omar Latiri is an atheist. But the former Muslim has begun going to church and even decorated a Christmas tree, albeit a plastic one, this year.

"I don't believe," said Latiri, an Air Force reservist who is a member of a Unitarian Universalist church in Bethesda with his wife. "But that doesn't mean I don't see the benefit of something that is from the Bible in terms of humility, caring for other people, forgiveness, charity."

In a society filled with religious references -- the Pledge of Allegiance with its "one nation under God," weddings, funerals and other events -- some atheists such as Latiri attend houses of worship and enjoy the traditions and sense of community they provide, minus the sacred interpretations. Other atheists have adopted alternatives to rituals such as baptisms.

"I was looking for a place with a sense of community without any animosity toward people of other faiths," Latiri, 32, of Silver Spring said.

Latiri, and atheists like him, are choosing to personalize religion rather than abandon it. They like the congregations, the moral codes and the food and festivities that religious communities offer. They say that just because they can't accept the idea of God, they don't see the need to throw the rest away.

"Sometimes if the atheist looks upon what's going on as a cultural experience, it's more palatable,'' said Carole Rayburn, a psychologist in Silver Spring and former head of the American Psychological Association's division that researches the role of religion in people's lives. "Intellectually, one could disagree . . . but could say that emotionally, this has a certain appeal."

Brenda Platt, 44, a Takoma Park atheist of Jewish ancestry who was raised secular, is a member of Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, a nontheistic group that retains Jewish culture, education and celebrations.

The group, which she joined about seven years ago, has a cultural school, holds monthly Shabbat services and celebrates High Holidays, although a deity is never invoked.

Platt said she has found simple but meaningful benefits: "The food, the music, the dancing and the feeling that that's my heritage, that's my tribe, that's my blood."

Sara Schoen, 24, is a self-described atheist but considers herself a "practicing" Jew. She goes to synagogue about once a month, hosts Shabbat dinners and lit a menorah for Hanukkah.

She doesn't believe in a supreme being, however.

Schoen, who lives in Dupont Circle, said she realized that she is an atheist after concluding that religion is a cultural tendency, not a literal truth.

"For me, the involvement in the Jewish community was very social, very community-oriented. . . . I haven't found the need to sort of shun the community or ban all religious communities from my life," Schoen said. "I just don't believe in God."

Statistics suggest that many atheists find a role for religion in their lives. According to a survey released in July by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, 36 percent said they had prayed to God in the previous week even though they identified themselves as atheists. Five percent said they had read the Bible in the previous week.

The number of atheists remains low. According to last year's General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 2.1 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God.; 4.3 percent said they are agnostic -- that they are not sure whether God exists and don't think there was any way to find out.

Among those who say they do not believe, some have adopted traditional religious roles.

When Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition for America, which lobbies to keep religion out of government, and her husband were asked to be godparents of her nephews they accepted, seeing it as more of a caretaking responsibility than a religious obligation.

"I looked at it as, they trusted us to be the guardians," said Brown, who identifies herself as a nontheist, adding that she told her in-laws that she and her husband were not religious. "I think it's important to be honest with family members. . . . They wanted people they knew would take care of these kids . . . not so much religious leaders."

To help nonbelievers maintain tradition while preserving integrity, Margaret Downey, president of Atheist Alliance International, set up http://secular-celebrations.com a Web site outlining nonreligious ceremonies that mark marriage, death and the arrival of children.

Downey, who presides over the ceremonies for a fee as a certified secular humanist officiant, recently organized an atheists convention in Crystal City that drew more than 500 people. It featured a naming ceremony for young children as an alternative to baptism.

Such ceremonies include remarks on the significance of the child's name as well as vows taken by parents and "guideparents" to teach and nurture the child. In the text of a sample ceremony on Downey's site, parents vow to help their child "learn to love truth, even when it goes against" them.

"Celebrations and holidays and traditions serve dual purposes," Downey said. "Instead of godparent, [we say] guideparents or mentors, and that way we could participate honestly but under the terms of a secular participation. Now, that might not satisfy the religious component, but it certainly would offer a branch of unity when philosophical differences would tear people apart.''

"We are social animals," she said. "We need these occasions to bring family and friends together into our lives."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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