As I sit in the church pew with my family during Christmas Eve mass, singing songs I know off by heart and surrounded by the familiar faces of people I’ve known all my life, I wonder why attending church now, as an atheist, doesn’t feel much different than it did when I was a Catholic.
Sure, certain phrases in the prayers have changed and I now hear the Bible verses as interesting stories rather than a historic re-telling. But the feelings of excitement, safety and happiness remain the same.
I stopped practicing religion seven years ago but have continued attending mass on Christmas Eve every year since then — not because I have to, but because I want to.
I’m not alone. Nathan Geoffrey, a second-year biotechnology student at Algonquin, deals with a similar experience when visiting home.
“I still go to mass if I’m ever home and they’re going. I still enjoy being there once in a while. It’s kind of nice to just be there with family and in a community with people.”
This is never more clear to me than when mass ends. Instead of racing out the doors, eager to get home to food, fun and a single Christmas Eve gift as I did when I was a kid, I take my time to leave with the rest of my family and am approached by several people; my grade one teacher, my elementary school janitor and a few childhood friends to name a few. I almost feel like a celebrity. I feel accepted. I feel loved.
“Spirituality has different meanings for different people,” says Shelley Neilson, coordinator of the Spiritual Centre at Algonquin, “There are those who come to the Spiritual Centre to connect with others through their shared beliefs. Some people come to the Centre to learn more about their own faith and share it with others, while others come to learn about different religious and cultural practices.”
Spiritual connection: something that I realize I’ve really missed over the last seven years. Although my acceptance of science as a (sort of) religion was key in making me the person that I am today, there is also such a heavy loneliness associated with “not believing”. There’s nobody watching over you or listening to your prayers. There is no ethereal realm in which I can be with my loved ones when I die. There is only what has been proven.
“I think religion is a fantastic crutch for people who need or want a sense of purpose and belonging in the universe and for those the scientific explanation that it’s all random chance doesn’t appeal or ‘make sense’ to,” Geoffrey explains.
I wonder if it’s this human desire to belong or rather a love of the nostalgia that keeps me going to church once a year. Maybe it’s both. Regardless, there is no place I’d rather be on Christmas Eve than with the people I love, singing, laughing and being grateful for one another.