When the Atheist Went to Church
I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.
We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. I have no idea why. It certainly wasn’t simply for being inside a church building; when I sang with Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, we rehearsed every week in a church, and that was no problem for me. And it wasn’t because I feared what the congregation might think of me, as the United Church of Christ is famously open and accepting of “diversity.” In retrospect, I think it was simply about missing something that was once part of my life and is no more.
That was, I think, what drew me to Christianity way back when I was 10 years old. The church offered structure and order and rhythm to life, and I had known nothing but chaos. My father suffered from antisocial personality disorder, and as a result, the rest of my family and I suffered just as much if not more so. There was, of course, also, the promise of love and friendship, but it took me a long time to learn that, for many Christians, this love and friendship was contingent on my being someone I wasn’t, whether in terms of orientation or personality or ability.
In time, I discovered new sources both for stability and acceptance. I joined a Meetup.com group for those who had left conservative Christianity, and some of the members of that group would go on to found a Sunday Assembly in the Twin Cities. In these groups I found all I had lost — only to uproot to Fairbanks, Alaska for graduate school. To be sure, school provides me with much structure and order, which contributes greatly to both my academic success and my personal well-being. And I am fortunate to find myself in a group of classmates and instructors who genuinely like me and what I am doing. Still, I miss the kinship of my Sunday Assembly folks.
I got to reconnect with these friends on the first leg of my vacation. I was a reader for the wedding of a couple from the group. And it was so joyous to once more be with people so dear to me, and to know that, no matter the distance, I will be in their hearts and they in mine.
The first service let out, and Jason and I proceeded to a pew at about the midpoint of the sanctuary. Allen proceeded to the stage, as he was performing in the choir. There were some quirks to the day — it was Trinity Sunday, and the confirmation class was taking its first communion — but beyond that, it was a typical church service. I knew nearly all the hymns, and even the harmonies to a few of them. But I simply hummed along; I will not sing lyrics I do not believe in unless I am performing a role on stage. And I did not stand when they stood, because doing so would imply that I agreed with their recitations and suchlike.
To me, had I followed suit, had I stood and sung and performed whatever else was indicated in the bulletin, I would have been saying that I believe what I in fact do not, thus making a mockery of those around me. I try to be respectful to others, so I respected them by giving them space for their religious practice.
This was not unlike my experience on Memorial Day, when I was with some friends at the Twins baseball game in Minneapolis, another part of the first leg of my vacation. A baseball game in the United States entails the singing of the national anthem, for which the crowd stands, removes their hats, and places their right hands over their hearts. But on Memorial Day, the nationalist tendencies increase tenfold, as the nation honors those soldiers and sailors who lost their lives in combat.
The entire affair is hugely problematic for me. First, I do not believe in the elevation of one nation-state over others. In my eyes, such practice produces the lie that some people — those born in one’s own country — are superior to others. And I have a huge problem with the military in general and the American military in particular. Mind you, I don’t fault anyone for joining the military, and on that count I do not want to discount their sacrifices. But I do fault an economic system that positions certain classes and other social groups such that joining the military is about the only way they can hope to rise out of the lower classes. And I fault a military system, and, indeed, an entire culture, hopelessly addicted to warfare and violence.
And so, during the game, I sat as those around me sang and stood and honored a country I have for a long time not believed in. If anyone had confronted me, I might have simply lied and said I was Canadian to avoid a fight. I do not like to fight. But I will stand for what I believe. Of course, the ultimate irony is that the freedoms the United States ostensibly affords also includes the freedom not to stand up for the United States. I daresay such dissent is necessary for the stability of a democracy — a righting force, a critical eye, a collective self-examination.
After the service, Jason and Allen introduced me to a couple of their friends, and then we drove to a pub for lunch. On the way, I thought through my experiences of the morning. It struck me that much of the service, in its most fundamental elements, looked much the same as a Christian service regardless of the denomination. There was singing; there was a sermon; there was communion. The hymns would be familiar to a broad swath of Christians. The sermon pertained to John Chapter 3, including perhaps the most famous verse in all Christendom: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
But then I reflected on the many points of conflict Christians of other stripes might find with the service. There was no “altar call” to afford attendees the opportunity to convert to Christ. Indeed, the sermon itself argued against the practice, maintaining that being “born again” is not a one-time act, but an ongoing practice of daily renewal and recommitment. Communion offered the option of both wine and grape juice, the former an affront to the church of my childhood, the latter an egregious sin for many other Christians. The service included musical instruments, which some Christians consider sinful. The list goes on and on.
And I remember a time in my life when all these concerns carried great import. I knew backwards and forwards the arguments of my particular denomination, and could go toe to toe with anyone who disagreed, with the appropriate Bible verses at hand. I knew so many whose lives were vested in defending their particular stance, their peculiar flavor of Christianity.
But now that I no longer have a stake in the fight, these arguments look so petty, childish, meaningless. As so many starve and thirst and freeze, they truly are meaningless.