[T]here is clear evidence that nondepressed people distort reality in a self-serving direction and depressed people tend to see reality accurately. -- psychologist Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, p. 111.)
Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right. -- Henry Ford
Setting aside the question of whether God exists, is it beneficial to believe that he does? If any of the gods of the major monotheistic religions is true, it's clear that believing in Him is beneficial (assuming that we've picked the right one!) However, what if us atheists are right? Could it still be that you're better off believing wrongly than disbelieving correctly?
Regardless of whether theists are correct or not, there is some evidence that being religious is beneficial in a number of ways.
1) Religious attendance is correlated with longevity. A search on Google Scholar reveals a wealth of studies showing that people who attend religious services can expect to live five to seven years longer!
2) Religious belief has been associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms. (Religious belief, depression, and ambulation status in elderly women with broken hips.)
3) Religious beliefs may help with addiction.
The most well-known treatment for addiction are the 12 step programs related to Alcoholics Anonymous, which is often religious, but sometimes not. (Many atheists in recovery manage to accept "God as we understood him" without becoming theists.)
4) Religious attendance is correlated with lower blood pressure. (Frequency of church attendance and blood pressure elevation.)
So What's an Atheist to Do?
It certainly seems like there are benefits to believing. But I can't just flip a switch and believe in God even if I decide believing is in my best interest. What are my other options?
Take Advantage of Modern Psychology
In psychologist Martin Seligman's book Authentic Happiness, he refers to a study by one of his students which shows that "the more fundamentalist the religion, the more optimistic are its adherents. Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians and Muslims are markedly more optimistic than Reform Jews and Unitarians, who are more depressive on average. Probing more deeply, she separated the amount of hope found in the sermons, liturgy, and stories from other factors like social support. She found that the increase in optimism which increasing religiousness brings is entirely accounted for by greater hope." (60.)
There are of course secular sources of hope we may turn to, such as the promise of scientific, political, and humanistic progress. Perhaps more importantly, we can train ourselves to be more optimistic, possibly without even decreasing our realism. David Burns, in Feeling Good : The New Mood Therapy, offers a number of scientifically proven techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to fight "anxiety, guilt, pessimism, procrastination, low self-esteem, and other 'black holes' of depression." (Similarly CBT has been shown to be among the most effective treatments for alcohol dependence -- Cognitive-Behavioral Coping Skills Therapy for Alcohol Dependence.) Although most psychological research has been focused on treating problems like alcoholism and depression rather than on improving "normal" people's lives, Seligman's Positive Psychology Center is trying to change that by "seek[ing] to understand and build the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive."
Find a Community
""You want to go where everybody knows your name." -- Cheers
Losing the tight-knit community was the hardest part of leaving Orthodox for me. I wasn't used to needing to proactively seek friends and activities; they always just sort of fell into my lap when I was Orthodox. Finding a secular community like a small town, a club, a sports team, a meditation group, or just a great group of friends and family might provide an adequate substitute. Still, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to recapture the sense of belongingness I felt as an Orthodox Jewish kid. Obviously, that sense of belonging sharply diminished as my beliefs changed and I fit in less and less, and I wasn't willing to pay the required price of silence and implied agreement with points of view I strongly disagree with.
Bowling Alone makes the claim that the lack of community is a recent American problem: "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." Others have suggested that Americans need more third places, "the place[s] where citizens of a community or neighborhood meet to develop friendships, discuss issues, and interact with others," like the cafes, taverns, and corner stores of the old days. Somehow, Starbucks and 7-11 don't fill their forefathers' shoes.
Find or Create Meaning
Most religions provide a ready-made meaning to life, but those of us without religion can have meaning, too. Victor Frankl's Man's Search For Meaning is perhaps the most-well known book about finding meaning, but there are other sources as well. Or, we can turn to philosophers like Camus, who said, "If, after all, men cannot always make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one." He also said, "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."
Be "Spiritual But Not Religious"
Spiritual traditions contain great wisdom which doesn't dissipate if you read "spiritual" metaphorically. Many Western atheists find that Buddhism translates well to their worldviews. I blogged about my own relationship with Buddhism here. One also can't help but learn great things from the dominant religions of the Western world by osmosis if not by intention. In fact, one of my favorite books is Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates, who is a Christian and a Yoga instructor.
Understand "God" Metaphorically
Finally, there seem to have been a number of great men (and presumably, women) who have found deep meaning in a God that doesn't seem much different from the Universe itself, or from "nothingness," "Nature," "emptiness," "love," or some other abstraction. Einstein, for example, said "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." The ex-communicated Jew Spinoza wrote, "We are part of Nature as a whole whose order we follow." I don't know if he was a great man, but Gorbechev said, "I believe in the cosmos. All of us are linked to the cosmos. So nature is my god. To me, nature is sacred. Trees are my temples and forests are my cathedrals." Indeed, some atheist members of AA* go one further and interpret "GOD" as "Group of Drunks," i.e. the AA community itself.
I myself have some sense of this metaphorical God. Sometimes I'm running in the woods at twilight and everything just feels perfect, and I think, "There it is." Sometimes I meditate, or do yoga, or just relax, and there comes a stillness that is what I think the Buddhists are talking about when they talk about spirit or the great nothingness or God.
* The Alcoholics Anonymous movement is a great ongoing exploration of the boundaries between believing, trying to believe, and creatively interpreting words and concepts to mean what you already believe. For a fascinating if incredibly long and dense book that deals in part with these themes, I highly recommend one of my favorite books, Infinite Jest.