Going to Church

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.

At all.

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.

Going to Church

19 thoughts on “Going to Church

  1. 1

    I had a similar experience this weekend when I attended the funeral of a friend’s father at a black church. It was like a big party, but I couldn’t help but see it as an outsider. (More as an atheist than as someone who’s white, though I am.) I had the same dilemma, and what I decided was I was there guest, so I would at least go through the physical motions (standing, bowing, etc) but not join in the singing or praying.

  2. 2

    I went to Christmas Mass with my hubby the year that I became an atheist. It was an odd experience, mostly because I was raised Lutheran and those Catholics are weird what with their funny smells and shiny clothes. I went though, not defiantly, but with a strange sort of humility.
    I was extremely conscious that I was entering a place that was sacred–not with the ghostly imaginings of the ignorant, but with the love and community of a group of which I was not a part. I didn’t say the prayers or bow my head, but when it came time to sing and hold hands and greet our neighbors, I did so whole-heartedly.
    I think I did it mostly because I had a sort of church-envy of my own. More like… missing that sense of security and community–as well as a connection to my family. And the singing. Oh yes the singing. I’d never gone to church often, but when I did I felt something.
    That first mass after my deconversion, I think I learned pretty much the same thing. That I didn’t need it. It still moved me in a way, though it was mostly a familial sentimentality. I still argued with the preachy man in my head (we still had the 6000 year old earth). And after that I didn’t need to go back.
    Maybe we all need to know what it is we’re missing, and why it’s a good thing?

  3. 3

    “[…]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.”
    (de-lurks) I thought the “if nothing else…” part was *precisely* what the hard-line atheists meant. What am I missing here? Is there some additional avenue of extremism-enabling that the hard-line atheists are claiming?

  4. 4

    When I was in high school, my family went to a very similar-sounding Unitarian church. As part of our Sunday school activities, the youth group attended services at a bunch of different places of worship, from a Buddhist temple to a mosque to a Catholic church. I had always felt the self-conscious outsiderness that you’re talking about, and I was curious if there would be another building, another belief set, where I didn’t feel that way.
    Nope. I still felt like I didn’t belong, and that if I participated at all, I was lying to myself. And every time since then that I have set foot in a church, for weddings, funerals, etc., it has been the same.
    So really, the question of “if you weren’t an atheist, what would you be?” is about as meaningless, for me, as the question “if you didn’t hate Radiohead, which would be your favorite album?”

  5. 6

    Looks like you came around to basically the same position I arrived at in my meditations (click my name to see ’em) on your original “If you weren’t an atheist…” post. If I weren’t an atheist, I’d be a fundamentally different person.
    And Eldritch Anchovy, some secularists – and I’d count myself among them – think that religious moderates give aid and comfort to more extreme believers above and beyond their endorsement of the pernicious notion that faith is a virtue rather than a vice. There’s a great deal of social and political “cover” provided to religious extremists when more moderate religionists do the following:
    (1) When moderates use common social identifiers – calling themselves Muslims, Christians, etc., or even more specific labels like Evangelicals – they declare that what unites them with the extremists is more important than what divides them. In terms of public perception, this amounts to endorsement of and support for the extremists. Some moderate sects are more careful about this than others: Quakers call themselves Quakers first and foremost, and rarely do anything to promote or endorse group identity amongst all “Christians.” But most moderate-to-liberal sects are usually very ecumenical and open in their inclusiveness of all Christians and actively encourage the idea of a general “Christian” identity, which utterly fails to separate them from the hate-mongering jerks of the fundamentalist Christian right.
    (2) Religious moderates as a class regularly and spectacularly fail to speak out against religious extremists. While there are some exceptions, the overwhelming majority of moderate Christians – individually and institutionally – hardly ever speak out against the hate-mongers who ought to be (and often are) seen as giving Christianity a bad name. Oh sure – privately and internally – moderate Christians repudiate their extremist fellow travelers, saying things like “I’m a Christian, but not *that* kind of Christian,” or otherwise denying unity with extremists. But in public, in the press, in all the venues by which their views are shared with the wider world? Hardly a peep, really – especially when compared to the massive political/public relations machines which the American religious right uses to push their agenda.

  6. 7

    I became atheist back in high school, but I always loved to sing. I wasn’t anything more than average at it, and very self-conscious about my non-spectacularness. But I met a girl when I was a sophomore who sang in a Catholic church and convinced me to attend choir practice. So I did.
    I was invited to sing with them during practice and then invited to join them permanently. They didn’t care that I was atheist and I felt something *special* about participating in the song.
    I envied those their faith, that they had something to believe in that strongly that made them compose and sing such joyful songs. I envied their community, one that would welcome me with open arms even with my different belief system.
    I did not take communion and I did not recite any of the prayers and I *did* mentally argue with the priest. But I sang because it was a performance. Just like an actor or a band performs a role and is not that villain or that hearththrob or is not actually in love with anyone right now, I sang the songs because the power of song was so strong that I could play the role and contribute to the happiness of an entire congregation.
    15 years later, I cannot stomach the thought of performing a role I have such strong ethical issues about. I cannot accept contributing to the mass delusion of religion. And I no longer envy them their faith. I pity them for their faith.
    I have those elements that are often obtained through church and religion. I have a community of supportive people. I have music. I have the awe and wonderment of something greater than myself – the natural universe itself and the science to help me understand it. I do not want a church.

  7. 8

    This brought to mind something for me… Constantine, for those who have not seen it, is a very religious movie, makes heavy use of Christian symbols, is about heaven versus hell… and stars an atheist.
    Yep, you got it right – one of the more religious mainstream movies of recent times stars an atheist – Keanu Reeves.

  8. 9

    I really need to attend a Quaker meeting sometime. Because if I ever have church envy, it’s of Quakerism. Silence suits me.
    I wonder if I might have the same or different reaction, though.

  9. 11

    I’m probably one of the few atheists who still loves Christian music – both hymns and contemporary, although I’m not crazy about a lot of praise music (it was much more interesting when I played piano while I sang). But sometimes I’m singing along to Cindy Morgan or Rachael Lampa, or I’m saturating myself with Christmas songs during Christmas, and I feel weird. I feel like a fraud. I think, “What would God think if he saw a nonbeliever singing things she doesn’t mean?” That’s a patently ridiculous question for someone who doesn’t believe in God, but old habits die hard, and it really is weird.
    Whenever I go to church (because my parents either don’t know I’m an atheist because I haven’t told them or they suspect and are trying to get me to come back), I don’t do any of the typical Methodist spiels (we tend to do the same congregation prayers and speeches all the time), but I do sing hymns. I try not to become too argumentative in my head with the preacher’s sermon, especially since I like the preacher, even though I don’t agree with him most of the time. I zone out or look at the sanctuary (it’s a beautiful sanctuary).
    Overall, I just feel like I don’t belong there except on Christmas, which is one of the few forms of Christian celebration that I really dig even now, religious as well as secular. It makes me feel isolated and silenced. I’m torn. Part of me still wishes that I could find a way back to Christianity because it would make things that much simpler, but even that part of me knows that unless something cosmically amazing happens to me, I’m not going to do that. And I just need to get used to it and find my own areas of transcendence, a place where I can feel part of the group. I certainly don’t want that group to be religious, though.

  10. 12

    I did see Constantine, but I have a difficult time calling him an “atheist”, which means “someone who does not believe in the supernatural” or “someone who believes the supernatural doesn’t exist” (they are two different concepts).
    I think of him more as someone who has turned his back on god. I find it difficult to say he doesn’t believe (or he believes it’s not true) because he has *been* to hell and he has personally interacted with angels and demons. He *knows* they exist. He just keeps trying to avoid them.
    I see that more like denial, not so much atheism. In his universe, god really does exist and he knows it. He chooses to separate himself from it until he can no longer.

  11. 13

    I feel much the same way as you, Greta. The last time I attended a Unitarian church with my girlfriend, I had a good time; I enjoyed being there and there was an obvious and strong sense of community among the parishioners. I think they also mentioned God far less than your church – only once, in my memory, and that was to point out that it really doesn’t matter if he exists.
    Nevertheless, it’s just not something that I personally feel the need for. I wouldn’t mind going back, but I can’t see this ever becoming a regular part of my routine. Community and friendship are important things, but there are lots of places to find them that are at least as good as church, maybe better. Maybe I’m just an atheist because I’m a non-joiner at heart – or vice versa. 🙂
    But a lot of people do seem to feel that need, and if going to church is how they fill it, that’s fine with me. I may opt out, but it’s none of my concern if that’s how other people entertain themselves. If more churches were like your liberal church or my Unitarian one, I think we’d all have a lot fewer problems with religion. It’s just the people who use that social organization as a tool in support of evil ends that give all the other churchgoers a bad name.

  12. 14

    I’m a singer, and I’m perfectly happy to perform religious music – but mostly it’s in concert form rather than at a service.
    For the occasional service – a wedding, or a favour to my teacher, who is a musical director at her church – I feel much the same as you. They are a lovely church – totally gay friendly, have a lesbian deacon, and all the social justice things.
    But it’s just weird. All that feudal lord and master and shepherd/sheep stuff is still there. It gives me the creeps. I can’t see why anybody would want to be a sheep or a slave. Very odd.

  13. 15

    Cath, same thing for me. I’m a singer, and I do mostly classical stuff. If I cut out the bits about religion, I would have nothing left to sing. The fact that they are about religion in languages I usually do not speak helps (I do a lot of Italian), because it’s easier to ignore the content. But even when it’s patently about god or jesus, I try to remember that the music itself is beautiful and concentrate on that.
    I always found it uncomfortable singing in churches, which was a pretty regular part of choral singing. I hated having to listen to the sermon, sing, more sermon, sing. The best experience I ever had was when a staunchly Catholic friend refused to sit in on a Lutheran service we were singing for, so we snuck out the back and joined them for singing only.
    It’s too bad her Catholocism eventually turned her into a self-pitying, self-righteous bitch. But that’s going wildly off topic.

  14. 16

    I recently went into a Unitarian Universalist church, and expected to be “mentally arguing” with the preacher the whole time, the same way I always did at my parents independent Baptist church.
    I found myself quite unable to do so, as he didn’t talk about “god” at all! He simply talked about the wise way his mother and grandmother raised him (it was Mothers’ Day). He also briefly mentioned about how prayer has no meaning in itself, except the meaning he gives it.
    I really couldn’t find anything to argue about, and was very struck by the warm atmosphere (people had open discussion in the middle of the service, about the service!) and the free food.
    Church isn’t for everyone. I would never try to “guilt” anyone into joining a church. But if I had to choose one, I think this would be a suitable place for me.

  15. 17

    If there’s an opposite to striking a chord, that’s what they did.
    As one who often stops mid-sentence to say, “What’s the word I’m thinking of?”, I am commenting to offer help: how about “discordant” or “dissonant”? 😛

  16. 19

    A few years ago I had a somewhat similar experience. I was visiting an old friend with whom I had served in the Marines and she had recently re-discovered her Mormon faith. She invited me to a Sunday worship service and, being the supportive person I am, I gladly accepted. She did know that I was (and still am) an atheist, but this wasn’t about trying to convert me, but rather a chance to share something with me that was important to her. I even got to watch her give a presentation during the main service about strength and courage in the face of danger. Several times during the whole event I was approached by her friends who asked “are you a member of the church?” to which I politely replied, “no.” The whole event was generally pleasant, no harsh condemnations of people who didn’t believe exactly what the church said to be true or any other discriminatory rants. The thing that struck me, several times, was “why did I ever feel the need for any of this stuff?” (Religion in general, I was never a Mormon.) I suppose you could say that I know exactly what you mean when you said you no longer “envy religion.” I realized that, not only do I not believe in any of that stuff, I don’t feel like it was even necessary to begin with.

    Great post. Great blog. Please keep up the good work.

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