So I went to church last week.
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.
Here’s the first thing I noticed: The reflex to argue with religious beliefs has become very deeply ingrained in me. Throughout the ceremony, I found myself mentally quarreling with the content of the sermons and the songs. “Oh, God is not your creator — no perfect conscious being would have cobbled together these ad hoc, Rube Goldberg systems of biological life.” “If you’re going to give God the credit for all this wonderful love and bounty and happiness, doesn’t he also deserve the blame for all the suffering and starvation and selfishness?” Etc.
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.
I did reach an internal compromise that I was ultimately okay with. I went along with the basic physical proceedings, standing and sitting and holding hands when everyone else did… but I declined to say, or even sing, anything that I didn’t agree with or assent to. Which, given how God-dy this ceremony was, meant pretty much not saying or singing anything at all. And I wouldn’t make gestures that I considered gestures of assent, either, such as bowing my head during prayer, or putting money in the collection plate. It was a compromise that I was completely fine with in theory… but in practice, it meant that I was hyper -self- consciously parsing my actions, pretty much constantly, throughout the service.
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.
I’d still not believe it. I’d still disagree with it. I definitely wouldn’t participate in it, except for special occasions such as this one. And if asked my opinion about it, I’d still offer it. But it just wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. The world is full of mistaken beliefs — urban legends, folk etymologies, etc. — and while I’ll happily discuss them if they come up in conversation, I don’t get all that worked up about them. I certainly don’t devote the bulk of my writing career to pointing out the mistakes and offering alternatives. And if all religions were like this church — woman-positive, queer-positive, sex-positive, genuinely accepting of other religions, genuinely accepting of people with no religion at all, respectful and indeed enthusiastic about separation between church and state, etc. — then that’s probably how I’d feel about religion, too. Mistaken belief, sure, but people seem to get something they need out of it, so who am I to judge, and what business is it of mine anyway.
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.
For many years, I’ve had a certain creeping envy of people who belonged to religious groups. The whole idea of having a place to go once a week to seek ecstasy and transcendence and meaning and share it with others, as a link in a chain going back hundreds or even thousands of years… it was something I felt a curious longing for. During my woo years, I even sought out, in a half-assed way, a religious group that I might be able to join up with. It was kind of like that Onion article: Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit. (Especially the line where the pastor says, “Perhaps our abiding faith in Jesus and love for our fellow man will, at the very least, inspire him to quit living in his head all the time.”)
But at no point during this church service did I think, “This is something I would like to have, and don’t.”
There were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really — the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.
And the things I didn’t like… well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don’t want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn’t make sense to me — not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way. (Or, obviously, in a “beautiful holy mystery” way.) They weren’t unpleasant, exactly. They just completely failed to strike any chord in me whatsoever. If there’s an opposite to striking a chord, that’s what they did.
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:
I no longer envy people who have religion.
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.