After Religion: What Leaves, What Remains? A Look at the Humanist Spectrum

I was very nervous when I gave my talk at Oasis about Spiritual Humanism. I wasn’t sure “coming out” as spiritual was the safest thing to do in that environment. Many at Oasis had abusive and negative relationships with religion and therefore, spirituality, its cousin, was suspect as well. I understood this and I truly understood why. Religion was something I had turned my back on. But even after I’d given up the myths, the “history” and the exclusivity, something stayed with me. When I came out in the open with it, I found a number of people at Oasis felt the same way.

“We still pray at dinner,” he said to me as he looked over his meal.

“Are you serious?” I gasped.

“Yes, we encourage all of our children to give thanks to the Earth and acknowledge that this came from somewhere and we have to be thankful. We aren’t talking to God. We are taking time to be gracious.”

“Hmmmmm…,” I thought. I never thought I’d hear an atheist say they prayed at dinner. Over the next few weeks, after my talk, I received texts, messages and emails from people who had left religion, but still retained behaviors and beliefs.

“Oh, I have an altar in my house, and every morning I light a candle and sit with my altar for about 20 minutes or so.” This was in response to me being so giddy about the seasons and how I liked to mark the change of season with some meditations for the Earth. I was stunned to hear a former Baptist now agnostic say these words. So these were Oasis people, right? Like, the people who didn’t like religion. So what did they leave, and then what chose to remain with them?

Almost all of the people I have met over the last few years have many things in common, but one thing that strikes me is the amount of people who say they learned morality in religion, but they don’t think you need religion to have morality. In addition, they explain that there are certain rituals they have either carried over or reinvented to suit their new beliefs. For example, prayer. It’s far more common than you think in Oasis circles. It is devoid of a deity, but plump with the contemplative. Something left, something remained.

Pew research shows that despite the decline of religion, three areas that continue to be of importance to people are ritual, the contemplative and community. Are these base underpinnings, behind the dressing of religion, a natural human instinct? I’m sure no one at Oasis would say, “No,” to community. Are ritual and contemplation spiritual aspects of life that are compatible with a secular lifestyle? I was surprised at the number of people who felt they were. It literally left me dumbfounded.

So I’m not the only one? I can truly mark the bubble, “Spiritual, but not religious,” on a questionnaire and not feel it’s just some non-committal answer? There are others out there who find value in something “other,” but not nameable. The more open I became about how I experienced the world as a spiritual person, who also identified as a humanist, the more I learned how many of us out there see ourselves on some sort of spectrum of what atheist/agnostic/etc. means. I learned about “Atheist Awe,” and “Humanist Wonderment.” There were ways of connecting to something we felt inside of us that we could talk about, but refused to organize into a being or belief. It’s just this thing out there that I feel from time to time. That’s how I describe it, anyway.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the natural and logical trajectory of “Awe” and “Wonderment” would lead us to nature. Many of the people I began conversations with about this phenomenon referenced sunsets, fishing trips, the ocean, sunrises, the mountains, wildlife, etc. One man told me about how he wept when he needlessly cut down a tree, having wrongfully been told it had a disease. “Oh, how I cried for that tree,” he said, with his hand to his heart. What is it about nature that brings about this sense of “Greater Than,” and “Awe Inspiring?” What are those things? And why do we associate them with spirituality?

Over the last year, I am convinced that the further away we move from religion, the more authentic our encounter with the feelings of “other-worldly” and “no words, just an overwhelming sense of unity,” or “it was a sense of oneness, a unity I cannot describe,” will be experienced without all the baggage of history and ancient civilizations, or patriarchy, for that matter. I know, that even though I don’t believe in any classic god or goddess, I can’t shake the feeling that I have a heightened sense of “aliveness” and “mystery” at times in my life. It is greater than me. But it isn’t beyond me, it’s in me, and it’s in the trees. The pulse in my heart is the waves hitting the shore and the seed sprouting through the soil. Whatever is in them is in me. I haven’t a clue what that is. I’m fine not knowing. What I am happy to know, is that I’m not the only one in a secular community who ditches religion but keeps the awe.

Carrah Quigley is an international speaker and emerging thought leader. For the last 19 years she has studied the world’s religions, become a highly sought after meditation and yoga instructor in the Kansas City area and given voice to the dark world of school shooters. She lectures on a wide range of topics including religion, spirituality, American culture, feminism, storytelling, earth-centered living, beauty, modern life, school shootings, art, music, history and the future of Humanism. Carrah stands by methods of mindfulness and breathing for managing many forms of mental illness and believes firmly that learning to breathe properly will not only save your life, but transform it. She is proud to be a featured speaker at the 2018 Parliament of World’s Religions in Toronto.

Carrah has a BA in Religious Studies from University of Arizona and a Master’s in Philosophy Ecumenics, with distinction, from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She was trained in Yoga and Vedanta by Eric Paskel of Electric Soul Yoga. She is also a certified Meditation Instructor and certified Life Coach from CTA.