In 2019, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half of Americans considered religion 'very important' in their lives. Those without any religious affiliation reached 21 percent of Americans, representing about as much of the country as Catholics do. I doubt any of these figures come as a surprise to you. I am part of the rising 21 percent, but have conflicting views on these trends.
By any reasonable definition, I am an atheist. Half of my ancestry is Ashkenazi Jewish but I do not consider this integral to my identity. Many remark on my stereotypically Jewish curly hair, and I love Middle Eastern/Israeli food, but those facts hardly make me Jewish in any meaningful way. Some non-religious Jews I know still accept the label 'culturally Jewish.' Regardless, I am irreligious and don't consider myself Jewish.
I have many problems with religion. I distrust any system of belief that discourages critical examination of certain ideas and practices. This structure too often breeds social stagnation. Each additional religion also adds another 'us' and 'them' distinction in a world overflowing with such exclusive identities. Furthermore, many of the most popular religions in the world hold as sacred texts that encourage such tribalism. Religious claims also tend to be unfalsifiable, and rely on arguments from authority.
Deep trust in unaccountable religious institutions creates potential for manipulation and predation. Six months ago, this headline appeared in the New York Times: "Pope Francis Abolishes Secrecy Policy in Sexual Abuse Cases (article link)." Prior to this policy change, any sexual abuse by ministers had been officially considered a high secret within the church, forbidden to be divulged to secular authorities.
Prepare to be further disappointed. The new policy merely made it "acceptable -- but not required -- to turn information about abuse claims over to the police, prosecutors, and judges." Try to imagine an explicit cover-up of child abuse on this scale in any other kind of institution, like a school or daycare center. Then imagine this school or daycare center receiving no seriously punitive legal penalty. This would be inconceivable.
So why is it that the Catholic Church can operate in this way with relative criminal and legal impunity? I believe the key to answering this question is understanding the perspectives of the most devout Catholics.
Imagine being a captain of a ship before modern technology. When in the open sea, you rely on your trusty compass to know where you are headed. During storms and times of uncertainty, your compass guides you and reassures you. Imagine that, three months into a critical voyage, you discover that your compass was broken and had led you far off course. Imagine the one thing that you thought you could always trust in turbulent times was actually quite fallible. Then, add decades of emotional attachment and trust to the situation. This is the predicament of devoted Catholics learning of child abuse in the church.
An institution like the Catholic Church cannot be understood strictly as the human enterprise that it is. It is also the accumulated trust, memories, and broader psychological imprint it has left on millions of people. To be a devoted Catholic and learn of child abuse in the church is to have the rug abruptly tugged out from under you. It is utterly destabilizing. This level of uncritical trust and devotion to a human enterprise, in my view, affords certain ideas, people, and organizations an unjustifiable immunity to criticism.
Critical thinking needs to be a tool we always feel comfortable employing, including and especially regarding the people and institutions with which we identify. Without this principle, we lose an important mechanism for correcting mistakes and learning from perspectives in conflict with our own.
But despite the problems I have with religion and religious institutions, different problems arise in their absence. For one, religious organizations afford adherents a strong sense of community. Disaffiliation with religion can result in an absence of such community ties. I find physical communal gathering more important than ever in an age of technology that diminishes traditional in-person social interactions (obviously I don't recommend congregating in the midst of COVID-19, but rather later when gathering becomes safe again).
Religion also offers a framework to discuss ideas regarding community solidarity, Platonic love, human obligations, and consciousness. I worry that religiously unaffiliated people have no forum in which to discuss these concepts.
Additionally, I think that non-religious people can gain great ethical wisdom and life perspective by employing religious methods. The best example of this for me is listening to music. I find certain songs incredibly meaningful and powerful, and listening to them can bring me into a radically different mental state that adds wisdom and perspective. One such song for me is The Long and Winding Road by The Beatles. Any song that fuses an ambiance with meaningful lyrics can do this.
The same kind of intense attention and experience can pair with other forms of art as well, like movies, books, and paintings. When a devout Christian reads the Bible, the experience isn't quite comparable to opening any ordinary book. A devout Christian reads the Bible with the presumption that each word and detail can contain profound wisdom. I believe that the same principle can do many non-believers a great deal of good in a secular context.
Many of my problems with religion are not unique to religion, but rather common to any institutional or codified authority. And although I may not always like how religion manifests in the world, I think that there is great utility and wisdom in its methods: purposeful communal gathering, shared powerful experiences, and reverential observation of great art.