Secular devotionals, or the equivalent

Question from Ashley:
Can you direct me to any atheist — or, more likely, secular humanist — devotionals or inspiring readings? I have been asked to do a (3-5 minute) devotional at one of the monthly meetings of parents at my daughter’s Christian school and I would really like to do it — not to rub anyone’s face in my atheism or challenge their beliefs, but just to show them that atheists can provide thought-provoking and inspirational ideas without including references to God, religion, Christ, etc. I can probably come up with something on my own, but I’d love some resources to consult. Any suggestions?

By the way, I am grateful to you for all the resources you supply and for your suggestion, years ago, that I consult Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief regarding raising my children without religion. Thank you!

Answer by SmartLX:
I think I’ve found the earlier exchange here, and if so the book wasn’t our idea. Still, glad you found what you were after at the time.

I won’t lie, it was hard to get started on this question. Atheist and secular humanist devotionals are rare, because a devotional is just a (short) prayer by another name. When there isn’t someone to pray to, it seems a bit pointless to devote oneself to, and beg things from, an empty space.

So I started from scratch and simply looked for inspiring and thought-provoking short-form writing. I realised that there’s a common word for that: poetry. I found some great classical poems, and then was shown up when I found most of the best-known ones on a single two-page list here.

Not everything on the list is secular, so to be specific I recommend If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking by Emily Dickinson, The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, and In Spite of War by Angela Morgan. They are respectively about living one’s life for others, finding one’s true identity, and finding joy in the midst of adversity and suffering. These are three things that religious people often think are impossible without religion, but a non-religious person could say any one of these poems and absolutely mean it (and therefore the religious beliefs of the poets themselves, if any, are irrelevant).

Depending on your allotted time, you could string the three of them together into one short speech. If any of them is not to your taste, that’s a whole site full o’ poems ya got there, so rummage around to your heart’s content.

Poetry connoisseur I am not, honestly, so everyone’s welcome to add their own favourite secular writings (use links if possible, to save space) in the comments. What could be read aloud in a church or other religious environment and make everyone think or feel something significant, while forgetting about God for a few moments?

4 thoughts on “Secular devotionals, or the equivalent”

  1. I still don’t see how any of those poems could possibly hold more than a semblance of happiness. In spite of war seems like madness. The ecstasy fades as soon as it arrives. Death is sobering, and death of a relative can easily tear what shreds of happiness, or sanity you have left… Maybe the author was having a manic episode? In “The invitation” the author somehow seems to think that that someone is more trustworthy because they are faithless, but my understanding is that being faithful is being loyal, and being loyal is being trustworthy. And the questions she’s asking are ones you’d probably be asking when you were trying to find joy, but were unsuccessful. As for “if I can stop one heart from breaking” It seems noble enough, but what’s the point? She hasn’t actually stopped a heart from breaking, and I assure you it will break. Overall… I just don’t understand. How can you all seem to believe what you do? why can you stare facts in the face but delude yourself into thinking that it’s false. How can you believe a fact, but deny it at the same time? How can you believe in science, but not thermodynamics? How? What am I missing? How is it even possible, to be as bright as you, but to not see what is in front of you.

    As much as I want to… I just don’t understand. The scientific equations practically write God’s name in bold. At the very least thermodynamics, underlines and highlights the existence of a deity. I mean, there isn’t even a chance that anything else could be true. It’s been decided. You can solve for it, and test it! Unless the laws of thermodynamics aren’t true. Read a physics text book, do analysis. There is one solution! God is real! Why can’t anyone here seem to see that?

    1. I think the reason you can’t understand the atheist point of view is that what you imagine is actually a Christian view with a God-shaped hole in the middle. In this view, God is still the only possible source of matter, order, goodness, purpose and love in the universe, but there’s no God so the existence of these things is impossible. No wonder you think it doesn’t make sense.

      To apply this idea to the topic at hand (which is not thermodynamics; please keep that topic to a relevant page), you look at these poems from this perspective and without God it all seems pointless and futile because whatever the poems say, we’re still stuck in a world with no God.

      By contrast, we look at the poems and we find real inspiration to do and to think things we haven’t before, or haven’t done or thought enough, because we are open to finding purpose, goodness and joy wherever it may turn up. If we have something we know we must do, that’s purpose. If everyone is happier because of something we’ve done, it’s for the common good. If our brains are affected in the right way, that can be enough happiness to be going on with. Poetry and other literature can directly benefit our lives by encouraging us to seek these things.

      1. I absolutely love your explanation (first paragraph). What a wonderful framing of the Christian/religious mind. It helps me understand how they cannot understand atheists. The comment to which you replied does the very thing that baffles me – a person points to something (thermodynamics) and calls it evidence of a god. They cannot explain why it is proof, but it FEELS like proof (example from above: “I mean, there isn’t even a chance that anything else could be true. It’s been decided. You can solve for it, and test it!” – what does this mean? You can solve and test for lots of things, how does that make it a proof for a god? ) It doesn’t really matter to them if they are trying to fill a hole. The filling of the hole is the important thing. Thank you.

    2. Phys – We have discussed thermodynamics in other discussion threads previously. There is nothing about thermodynamics that even hints at the existence of divine creatures.

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