How to Find Meaning in Religion

without Believing in God

Matt Young

Free Inquiry, Summer, 2002, pp. 44-46.

Copyright © 2002 by Matt Young. All rights reserved.

Matt Young is Adjunct Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, retired Physicist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Fellow of the Optical Society of America.  He is the author of No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe.

Matt Young's home page

An editor of this journal, with flattering overstatement, assured me that my recent article in Skeptical Inquirer(1) had "masterfully dismantled any traditional justification for religion." Why, then, had I "brought its [religion's] body back onstage and attached it to the emotion of awe"? Why, since I am a nonbeliever, do I espouse religious humanism rather than secular humanism?

In that article, I noted my belief that empiricism was the only way to establish reliable knowledge about the universe (a contention that I tried to establish in considerable detail in my recent book(2)). I noted further that the hypotheses of religion were precisely that: hypotheses.

Hypotheses need to be tested: it is inappropriate for people who generally support their beliefs with evidence to believe in God without evidence. I therefore sought the evidence. My study led me into philosophy, Biblical criticism, evolution, cosmology, mathematical physics, and the science of the brain. I studied all the popular, scientific, philosophical, and theological arguments I could find: anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking; Biblical literalism; philosophical arguments such as the Ontological Argument and the Argument from First Cause; the Argument from Design; mysticism and the Argument from Religious Experience.

I found all of those arguments wanting and concluded that the evidence in favor of a purposeful Creator is so weak as to be nonexistent. The evidence is further weakened if the Creator is assumed to be benevolent. I therefore strongly doubt the existence of God or of anything transcendental, that is, outside the physical universe.

Why Religious Humanism?

The line between my brand of religious humanism and secular humanism is a fine one. Indeed, I used to wish that religion would just go away. It is, however, 300 years since the Enlightenment, and religion has not gone away: it has, to the contrary, grown considerably in influence in the last generation or so, especially in the United States. Like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, religion has resisted the assault of rationalists and maybe even embraced literalism as a direct response. We may have to learn to live with religion as with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria we once thought were on the road to extinction.

Rationalists are thus mistaken if we think that we are just a few generations ahead of our time and can influence people to toss out religion entirely. What we can do, however, is to encourage liberal religion and religious humanism, in contrast to dogmatic religion and religious (or antireligious) intolerance.

In my own case, I used to be a nonpracticing Jew; now I am a sort-of-practicing Reform Jew. Reading the influential rabbi Mordecai Kaplan(3)convinced me you didn't have to believe in God to be Jewish (or religious, in a generalized sense of that word). To Kaplan, a Reconstructionist rabbi, Judaism is not a religion but rather an "evolving religious civilization," where the key word is "evolving." I would say instead that Judaism is a subculture of Western culture.

Transvaluing Religious Language

Among the dimensions of a culture are its songs, rituals, poems, prayers, costumes, language, history. Kaplan borrowed the word sancta to describe these dimensions. According to Kaplan, you can choose those Jewish sancta that are meaningful to you and transvalue them so as to make them relevant to you today. That is, you reevaluate or reinterpret according to contemporary standards those sancta that you decide to keep, and you adapt the traditional vocabulary to conform to contemporary meaning. The past, as Kaplan said, has a vote but not a veto; one of the sancta that Kaplan rejected was the concept of the Chosen People. Reform Jews additionally replace the phrase "gives life to the dead" with "gives life to everything."

Kaplan transvalued the concept of salvation: it is something you strive for in this world, by being the best artist or flutist or physicist you can be or by fighting for peace or civil rights, for example, and is not something you attain after death. We may also transvalue the religious concept of spirituality, stripping it of its transcendental or supernatural meanings. Thus, spirituality is the emotion you feel when skiing through a quiet woods, seeing a whale break water, or, as Whitman put it, looking up in perfect silence at the stars. For Einstein, it was the awe he felt observing and understanding the majesty of the universe.

What meaning would anyone find in transvaluing old religious rituals and adapting old religious vocabulary?

I cannot answer for anyone else, but only for myself. I was brought up in a secular-Jewish household, and I find a lot that is meaningful in that culture. Obviously, we often have more in common with people who share our background than with others. One way to associate with fellow Jews is to read the books, sing the songs, watch the plays, and generally take part in the sancta of that subculture. Religious ritual is an inherent part of the culture, but it has for me no deeper meaning than fireworks on the Fourth of July. I found myself able to recite "Blessed are you, Lord our God ..." only when I stopped understanding the words literally. Instead, I transvalue them into a way of expressing my belonging to a community and taking part in that community's rituals, as well as my pleasure at being alive and well adapted to the universe in which I find myself.

I do not, however, change or rationalize my beliefs according to the beliefs of my forebears: my beliefs are entirely naturalistic. Only some of my practices derive from the tradition, and they have nothing to do with belief.

Why not some other culture? You can of course adopt a culture or religion other than your own. People who intermarry or immigrate often do so. But your own culture also has a strong claim on your loyalty, and there may be no contingency that requires you to give it up. When Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel, was asked why the Jewish homeland had to be in Palestine rather than, say, Uganda, he responded by asking why you travel many miles to visit your mother when there are lots of other old ladies closer at hand. My subculture is the one that helped shape my values, beliefs, and outlook. It is already close at hand. Why disown it and adopt another?

Universalism and Tribalism

Many universalists oppose ethnic and religious groups because they consider such groups divisive. I am a not-so-doctrinaire universalist who recognizes that we are not only citizens of the world but also - and equally importantly - tribal animals. I feel a connection with Jews and Judaism just as many Irish- or Italian-Americans feel a loyalty to the Irish or the Italians. This connection is only partly forced on us by the way the outside world perceives us (and perhaps discriminates against us).

Try to write down the names of all the people whose deaths will truly devastate you. You'll probably get no more than 10 to 15.(4) Your closest associates probably number no more than 150. The misfortunes of people emotionally more and more distant from you, though as meaningful to you in the abstract, affect you less than of those closest to you: your family more than your friends; your friends more than your acquaintances; your acquaintances more than Americans in general; and so on. It is almost impossible, for example, not to be disturbed more by an earthquake in San Francisco than by a far more devastating earthquake in Armenia, in part because you have more in common with Americans. Jews have the additional, if overworked, connection forced on them by anti-Semites.

Would we be better off if we were not tribal? In some ways, yes, but we are tribal whether you and I like it or not. We can perhaps set a good example by transcending our tribalism, but tribalism is innate, and we will probably be more successful if we try to moderate it than to eradicate it.

Nothing But-ism

In addition, modern, liberal religion is not "nothing but" an ancient superstition, as some would put it. Judaism, for example, is a subculture that has contributed greatly to American and Western culture as a whole. In the United States, science, music, theater, and literature have been dominated by Jews for at least a half-century. Indeed, you could probably argue that we need minority groups, since many of our new ideas originate among members of minority groups. If the members of those groups fully assimilate and give up the minority subculture, then their descendants will not carry forward that subculture and its contributions to the majority culture. A joke that used to go around may be instructive: What do you call the grandchildren of a nonpracticing Jew? Christians. Nonpracticing Jews are a dead end, in terms of transmitting the culture to future generations.

Thus, writing off Judaism in particular or religion in general because of its antiquity is like writing off American democracy because the Declaration of Independence referred to white, male property owners only. It did indeed, but the country and the interpretations of the source documents have evolved considerably since 1776. So have Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism and other liberal religions since the Enlightenment, and this evolution is reflected in our liturgy and our writings.

Before going on, let me make an important distinction between irrational and nonrational. Something that is nonrational is neither rational nor irrational. Emotions, for example, are nonrational. A belief in God, though in my opinion objectively wrong, is not necessarily irrational but rather may be nonrational. What is irrational is the flat assertion that your group's view of God is the only right view, whether your group is rigidly fundamentalist or rigidly atheist. But a tentative belief in God - the hypothesis that there is a higher power - is no more irrational than the tentative belief - the hypothesis - that there is no God. Since a great many people apparently cannot and will not get along without a belief in God, our job as skeptics may be to encourage freethinkers and liberals such as Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and Unitarian-Universalists rather than to fight religion as if it were wholly incompatible with enlightened thinking.

Do I find Meaning (with a capital M) in liberal religion? No. The universe itself seems without purpose. I do not believe in anything transcendent, or outside the physical universe. I transvalue God and use that concept as an allegory for what is good in the world, for our striving to make the world tomorrow a little better than it was yesterday. I observe a few religious rituals because they draw me closer to my friends and relatives, to my history, and to my subculture. These things are all meaningful on a small scale: meaning with a lowercase m. For me, that is the only kind of meaning there is.

I thank William Safran, Tom Flynn, and Deanna Young for their comments and suggestions.


1. Matt Young, "Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe," Skeptical Inquirer, 25 (2001), 57-60.

2. Matt Young, No Sense of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe (Bloomington, Indiana: 1stBooks Library, 2001;

3. Mordecai M. Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization (New York: Schocken, 1967).

4. Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000).