Odd experience. Neat, but odd.
Quick explanation. A friend of ours was being installed as senior minister in a local Bay Area church, and we went to the installation ceremony. A very lefty, groovy church, of course: completely gay-positive, sex-positive, feminist, very ecumenical, very inclusive, no smiting or hell or judgment talk, a major focus on compassion and social justice. And a nice place, too: warm, friendly, welcoming, with a great capacity for joy and a surprising sense of humor about itself.
I was surprised, though, at how God-dy it was. I hadn’t been expecting that. Somehow, I’d assumed that leftist, gay-positive, ecumenical, etc. churches didn’t really talk about God that much. Like the Unitarians. But the belief in God was very much present in the service, to a surprising degree. And so the churchiness and religious aspect of it was much more up in my face than it would have been in a less God-focused service.
It was a long ceremony. Over two hours. And while it wasn’t boring — quite the contrary, I found it a fascinating experience, and often a very pleasant one — it gave me a lot of time to contemplate religious belief up close… as well as my own reactions to it.
But the arguing wasn’t fun, the way it is in the atheosphere. In fact, it made me feel like kind of a jerk. Not a fair or accurate feeling, I don’t think, but a feeling nonetheless. Even though I wasn’t saying anything out loud (except the occasional sotto voce comment to my companions when I just couldn’t stand it), it reminded me of the unpleasant fact that, in our society, the role of the skeptic/ vocal atheist/ critic of religion and spirituality is often the role of the buzz-kill, the party pooper, the Great Rain God On Everyone’s Parade. And it reminded me, quite viscerally, of just how much of an outsider I was in this place. Even in the grooviest, friendliest, leftiest, most inclusive church I could hope for, I still felt like an alien.
Plus, because of how God-dy the service was, I was having a near-constant struggle with myself about how much I was and was not willing to participate. One the one hand, I didn’t want to be rudely conspicuous about my lack of assent to the proceedings. After all, as Miss Manners would say, if I’d felt such strong disapproval of the event that my only honorable response would be conspicuous defiance, the proper thing to do would have been to not attend at all. And I didn’t feel that way, at all. But at the same time, I was absolutely unwilling to say or do anything — and I mean anything — that expressed, or even symbolized, agreement and assent with what was being said or sung.
But on the flip side of all that, something else occurred to me, and occurred to me very strongly:
If this were what all religious belief and practice was like, I wouldn’t really care about it.
All religions aren’t like this one, of course. Religions like this one seem to be in the minority, and not a very large minority at that. And so my ongoing critique of religion will continue. Furthermore, while I don’t 100% agree with certain hard-line atheists that moderate religions give credibility to extremist and intolerant ones, I do think there’s a valid point in there somewhere. If nothing else, moderate religions give credibility to the idea that believing in things that don’t make sense and that you have absolutely no good evidence for is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. And that is a big problem for me — especially since most religion isn’t groovy and tolerant and ecumenical.
It was good to have a reminder, though, that while I still don’t agree with churches like this one and still have serious problems with them, they really aren’t the enemy. These are good people, likable people, people I’m thrilled to have in the world.
But here’s the main thing, the final thing, the surprising and surprisingly large thing that I took away from this church service that I hadn’t even remotely expected:
I no longer have church envy.
But at no point during this church service did I think, “This is something I would like to have, and don’t.”
Ingrid said something after the service that struck me strongly. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but as soon as she said it, I realized it was true for me as well. The night before the church service, we had gone to Perverts Put Out, a semi-regular reading series by local sex writers. (I was one of the readers, in fact.) Now, Perverts Put Out is always a high-quality event… but this night was exceptional, even by PPO standards. One of those nights that you remember for years. And what Ingrid said is that, at that Perverts Put Out, she felt more transcendence, more joy, more sense of meaning and connection and community, than she even came close to feeling at the church service.
Now, it’s not like this is a question of “either/or”. It’s not like you can have a porn reading or you can have church, but you can’t have both. Especially with this church. In fact, we weren’t the only people who went to both: we ran into a couple of people at the church service that we recognized from the porn reading the night before. I’m not trying to draw a contrast in that way.
I’m just trying to say:
There is nothing here that I want or need.
If any church — certainly any actively God-dy Christian church — was going to fill me with church envy, it would have been this one: this gay-positive, sex-positive, warm, loving, ecumenical, inclusive, progressive, social-justice church. And it didn’t.
And that’s an amazing realization. Even when you take away all the icky stuff from religion — even when you take away the conformist indoctrination and the fucked-up politics, the hatred of women and the fear of sex, the intolerance of other religions and the insidious terrorism of the concept of hell — I still don’t want it. It’s not just the obviously fucked-up trappings that I don’t want. It’s the religion itself.
A while back, I wrote a post asking, If You Weren’t An Atheist, What Would You Be? In it, I pondered this very issue: the yearning I had for the things religion seemed to offer, the search I’d been on in my past for a religious organization that I could be part of. I looked at religions that I had a fondness for, and asked: If I weren’t an atheist, what would I be? Would I be a Quaker? A pagan? A Bahai? A Jew?
But now I have my answer to that question.
If I weren’t an atheist, I’d be an atheist.