Yesterday I went to my niece’s christening. As an atheist, I have little to do with churches, and generally only for some time of ceremony: weddings, funerals, and now a baptism. While the ‘spiritual’ aspects of these events are lost on me, I find the aesthetics of them interesting.
I should point out that I wasn’t raised as an atheist. My brother and I were both raised as Christians, in the Anglican church (for American readers, that’s the same as Episcopalian). I have attended services in Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, Mormon and other churches over the years. I moved from being a believer, through agnosticism to my current atheism gradually, over the span of a few years, in my 20s. My reasons were mostly philosophical, and I’m not going to deal with them here.
The best way to describe Anglicanism is more protestant than Catholicism, more Catholic than Protestantism. Similar to other most protestant churches, there is no requirement for personal confession, for example. On the other hand, as with Catholicism there are a number of ritual sacraments, including baptism, confirmation, communion, marriage and funerary rites. Some of these, even to non-believers, can be quite beautiful. (The same can be said for many Catholic and Orthodox rituals, and for some very protestant ones, too. Think of High Mass, or a revivalist baptism in a river. The rituals and ceremonies of other religions, from what little I know of them, can be equally moving.)
In general, what I find impressive about any religion is its aesthetic. I remember attending a friend’s wedding, many years ago, in a Ukrainian Orthodox church. The beauty of the architecture, of the liturgy, the singing of the cantor, the dramatic symbolism used in the ceremony, were fascinating. They didn’t make me feel the presence of a supernatural being, but I can understand how they might reinforce someone’s belief.
To me, this is where Protestantism often takes a wrong turn. In their rush to democratize religion, protestants often remove much of the beauty that makes ritual work. You can see it in the utilitarian design of many of their churches, which can just as easily be a big box retail outlet in some cases, or a shotgun shack in others. Their ideological suspicion of the aesthetic has stripped their liturgy and many of their hymns of metaphor. Even those metaphors they retain, they prefer to understand as literal. Where Catholicism is rife with symbolism and metaphor, Protestantism does its best to strip them out.
I have to admit that in this respect, if not in all others, I find Catholicism preferable. It is, perhaps, a remnant of my Anglican upbringing. Although I despised the dour Victorian hymns, and often thought that aspects of the liturgy sound like their promoting cannibalism, the poetic rhythms of the mass, the creed, and some of the scripted prayers, especially when sung, have a quality that is rarely equaled in more plain-Jane services.
I am by no means an expert on religion, or religions. While the beauty of rituals doesn’t, for me, create a longing to be part of a church, or instill in me any suspicion that I’m wrong about the (non)existence of gods, your experience, and your interpretations, may be entirely different, and I respect that. Moreover, while the poetry, drama, music and architecture aren’t what create ex nihilo the belief that is the raison d’etre of any church, temple, cathedral, synagogue or mosque, it likely can, for many people, reinforce their belief, in part by instilling a sense of awe. Others may feel this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary. To me, though, with my outsider’s view, religion without ritual and beauty, is a diminished thing.