Ask Richard: How Was Church on Sunday, Richard?

I went to church yesterday.

Don’t worry, I’m still your friendly neighborhood atheist, and “neighborhood” is the operative term here. I’m literally the friendly neighborhood atheist because back in February two families right on my street were in the audience when I first spoke publicly as an atheist at the Master’s College. Everyone on the block knows, and so far, things are still friendly, but now I must do more in the wider neighborhood of my home town:

Since starting the “Ask Richard” column three years ago, I’ve received hundreds of letters from atheists facing difficult conflicts with their religious co-workers, friends, and most often their families. Some of their stories are sad, frustrating, or infuriating, and some are downright appalling. They can be heartbreaking because the strife and suffering is so often unnecessary. The particular issues and situations in the letters vary, but one overriding theme hovers above almost all of them: The co-workers, friends, and families react to the atheist with fear, anger, hurt, and rejection because they believe the stereotypes, misconceptions, and outright lies about atheists that are heard and repeated, heard and repeated, with no one to challenge them, no one to say, “Hey, that is not actually true about atheists.”

Well, I’m tired of only responding to these letters, only being reactive, trying to fix messes that could have been prevented. I want to get out ahead of the letters, be proactive, and bring accurate information about atheists to the religious public before these families explode, before so much love is needlessly thrown away.

I already was a “real live atheist” last month at a local church with a very liberal minister and a very small congregation, just fifteen members plus the band. The reverend, whom I know from my work on the local interfaith council, has a series of talks called “My Neighbor’s Faith,” where guest speakers of different religious backgrounds and views come to explain who they are and what they’re about to promote better understanding in the community. I asked if she would consider me, and she eagerly welcomed me to come and talk about atheism at their Sunday service. (I video recorded it, but the audio was very poor, so I’m slowly working on subtitling the better parts of it, and I’ll post it when it’s ready.)

It went very well. They were genuinely warm and hospitable, and they seemed to accept that my motive is not to change their beliefs about God, but only to change harmful beliefs they might have about atheists. I explained that it’s in their personal interest to understand us because our numbers are growing, especially among the young. As time passes, they’re more likely to find they have an atheist within the circle of people they care about, their co-workers, friends and families. If they have an accurate understanding of what atheism is and is not, they can avoid reacting with panic or loathing, and respond in ways that preserve the loving relationships. I debunked the common stereotypes and misconceptions, clarified basic terms, answered their questions, and I humanized our image.

That talk was very easily arranged, but now I need to start making “cold calls” and introducing myself to larger churches with perhaps not quite so readily welcoming ministers and congregations. So I found a local non-denominational one that seemed suitable and might be open to the idea of some kind of guest presentation and group dialogue with an atheist. I went to “case the place” by attending their Sunday service.

It’s a big, impressive place inside, at least for my limited experience. I think it holds well over a thousand in three levels of stadium seating, and it was full. There’s a large stage replete with colored spotlights and video screens. The sermon was positive, encouraging, easy to understand, and lightly sprinkled with humor. The music was well performed, and I enjoyed the songs. Again, my experience is limited in this.

Being very clear in my lack of belief in deities gave me an interesting vantage point where I could notice with a detached part of my mind how the music, the sentiments expressed, and the group momentum was stirring my emotions, sometimes even close to tears. (I’m very sentimental, crying easily at weddings, over old romantic songs, or anything about love, loyalty, or longing.) Yet the spell did not work. Without an intellectual basis for belief in a god, I was unmoved. My feelings give my life color, vitality, and impetus, but they’re not a basis for making important decisions. I’m not cold, not callous; I’m just not convinced. That takes evidence.

So it seems like this church might be worth a try. I’ll figure out how to propose the idea to the ministers, and then if they are open to it, I’ll have to build some trust with them. That might take a while.

Your experiences and advice besides “Don’t go! It’s a trap!” will be greatly appreciated.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Ben Leedom

    I think it’s a fantastic idea, and it sounds like you have the right approach–don’t try to change their minds about their own beliefs, but address their misconceptions about atheists. I’d be really curious what kind of reception you get outside of the liberal and non-denominational crowd. It takes a pretty open-minded pastor and congregation to allow that sort of thing for a Sunday, and not every pastor or congregation is that open-minded. Specifically, any church that builds its identity or following around “othering” or excluding people is probably not going to take the bait.

  • Interested Observor

    In my city, there is a progressive atheist group that sets up a booth at a major park with a sign that says “Ask an Atheist”. It’s their way of doing outreach to a wider audience. Might be worth organizing in your area.

    • Keyra

      Sound like a cry for help if you ask me. But why even bother? What would you gain by trying to de-convert people? You don’t believe in God, fine, that’s your view, your opinion, what should it matter to you what people believe?

      • Carmelita Spats

        I only care to the extent that your delusion is codified into public policy which hurts and discriminates against others. Other than that, it’s a free country and you can certainly open wide on Sundays for a mouthful of Savior. The more interesting question is why WOULDN’T you want your beliefs openly challenged? If they can’t withstand scrutiny, it might be time to reevaluate them.

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        You have missed the point of most “ask an atheist” public events. It’s not about “deconverting” religious people; that’s not very likely to happen. It’s about answering anyone’s questions, and hopefully clearing away the common misconceptions and disinformation about atheism and atheists that cause so much unnecessary enmity and the resultant mistreatment of atheists. Blessed are the peacemakers. Accurate information can be an important path to peace.

        • NateW

          Richard – I can’t commend what you’re doing enough. As a Christian, I would love to do the same thing in an atheist context. “Blessed are the peacemakers” indeed. Thank you!

        • Blueblogger

          Hi Richard. This is Pam formerly known as BeachWoman stopping by to say hello and tell you how proud I am of your work. You have come a long way babe. Congrats

          • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

            Thank you Pam for your compliment. It has been an honor and a pleasure to know you and to call you friend all these years. I wish you well, Beach Woman. May your dreams always include beaches, and may your beaches always include dreams.

      • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

        jeez Keyra how many times do we have to tell you why it matters before it sinks into your thick skull?

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        Sound like a cry for help if you ask me.

        Which just shows how removed you are from understanding atheists’ point of view. I’d have hoped that after the time you’ve spent on this blog you would know better.

      • Mario Strada

        Who is trying to de-convert whom? “Ask an Atheist” and similar events are what is commonly called an “outreach”. The purpose is not to convert or convert anyone. It’s to make religious people understand and be more acceptable of atheists. Especially when those atheists are sons, daughters, other family members and so on.

        They don’t do it to score souls or fill a quota or for self-aggrandizing. They do it to help other atheists living in religious families and reach out to closeted atheists so that they know they are not alone and bridge the chasm between theist and atheists.

        I am not sure what kind of “cry for help” it would be. It doesn’t even make sense if one tries to view things from your own viewpoint, which must be a very scary place.

      • EvolutionKills

        It sounds like you need to ask an atheist, because your preconceptions and biases are all wrong. This is needed because of people like you.

      • DavidMHart

        Say you were gay, and you were part of a group in a relatively intolerant neighbourhood that was trying to dispell myths about gay people. Or a member of a racial minority doing a similar thing. Even if you are not trying to convert straight people to being gay, or white people to being black, or such, it would still be a worthwhile project for everyone involved because
        a) the members of the distrusted minority stand to get to live with a little less prejudice against them and
        b) the members of the majority get the opportunity to realise that they don’t have to worry about the mistaken fears they had about the minority group.

        Of course, you can’t meaningfully do those sorts of conversions that are about in-build preferences and phenotypes, whereas you can do that with religion and non-religion, which are not immutable characteristics but simply ideas that anyone can change their mind about, but that wasn’t even the point of the author’s post.

      • Tainda

        As everyone around here as said many times, the point of “Ask an Atheist” is to destroy the notion that we are all angry and evil people.

        We come in every type the same as religious people do. We have our rude and angry people and we have kind people, cocky people, friendly people, overly happy people, mean people, perky people, etc.

      • Edmond

        Did you read the whole article above? Did you read how Richard frequently hears stories from atheists that are “sad, frustrating, or infuriating, and some are downright appalling”? Did you see where he pointed out that the reaction of loved ones and family is often “fear, anger, hurt, and rejection”? Did you see that believers often “believe the stereotypes, misconceptions, and outright lies about atheists”?
        Wouldn’t it be OKAY if some of this outreach WAS a cry for help? Does it MATTER to you that some people go through this ostracization just because they aren’t convinced by stories about magic? Don’t you think these lies and misconceptions should be addressed and corrected?
        It matters to us because theists are often WRONG in their beliefs about atheists, and that often makes life harder for us. It’s CERTAINLY harder for YOUNG people who are trying to reconcile their beliefs with their families. We think this is important.

      • Blueblogger

        Keyra, why the attitude? If that is all you have to say why bother.

  • niico100

    Rule 1 for making video – buy a mic – doesn’t have to be expensive (lav mics can be < $30) – just make sure the mic is close to the person speaking (if possible) – or buy multiple ones where you can.

    • A3Kr0n

      I agree about the mic., it really make a big difference. Also, I was thinking of getting a small digital audio recorder for those times I don’t want to string a mic 50′ (because my cable is only 20′). It’s easy to sync up with the video in an editor.

  • niico100

    Good idea – the only problem is that if Churches let you in, you’ll probably convert half the non-fanatics in the audience to atheism – by letting these people know it’s OK – and it is possible to be an atheist.

    So many may not – because they know they’re selling a huge lie (god).

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Do they really know? Because just today I saw several youtube clips with titles like “you can’t watch this and still be an atheist”. I watched. Still no belief. Most theists never encounter anyone who admits they don’t believe and think their strawman and other fallacious arguments hold up as a result.

      • niico100

        Most preachers know on some level they’re preaching bullshit. Some have buried it in their subconscious – some are just out and out con artists.

        You can’t be intelligent and religious without burying the obviousness of the lie.

        • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

          Humans are capable of a great deal of self-delusion. I know there are preachers, pastors and priests who know it’s BS and do it anyway, but I think most have pushed those doubt out of their conscious thoughts.

          • niico100

            that’s exactly what I said yes.

          • Renshia

            I knew quite a few less scrupulous people who became evangelists. When I was a christian, I was amazed at how god could bring them in. After I decided to quit religion and was able to take a more objective view of things, it started to make more sense. It was not that they were converted, they just saw a way better, easier and legal scam. It’s a natural fit.

            • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

              That reminds me of the Academy Award winning documentary about Marjoe Gortner. I suspect that most if not all of the evangelists and televangelists are frauds. It’s a very profitable not-for-profit business.

              • Renshia

                The church I went to, around the time of my coming back to reality, had an evangelist as it’s main pastor and visitors were brought in to cover when he was on the road. Part of my de-conversion was because I became very suspect when it always seemed like the only miracles that happened always happened when he was out of town.

                Deconstructing it later, convinced me the guy had it down to an art form. He went from a broke robber to well off evangelist.

                • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

                  I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the majority of clergy are not paid all that well and spend many hours on projects to help the poor, provide disaster relief and counseling people in crisis. I have many disagreements with them but many of them are acting out of good intentions. My objection above was in labeling all preachers as being frauds because many in their actions reveal that they are not. If I’m happy to point out people like Oral Roberts and Benny Hinn who are nothing but con artists I should also point out that many local ministers, rabbis, etc. are trying to be a positive force in their communities.

                • Renshia

                  I agree, in the money dept. most pastors lose out. But the traveling sales men of the faith, their commissions tend to be higher.

                  I don’t think the pay is all that great but I am not sure all that much time isn’t spent doing much more than listening to members whine. I do realize the demands in different locations would be a huge factor and how interconnected the church was with its community. But I think most time is spent on getting recruits and maintaining the current membership. I guess it all depends on how big the church is and how much is invested in recruitment.

        • Keyra

          “the only problem is that if Churches let you in, you’ll probably convert half the non-fanatics in the audience to atheism”, “because they know they’re selling a huge lie (god)”, “You can’t be intelligent and religious without burying the obviousness of the lie.”, what made you think that?

          • niico100

            Because religion is so ridiculous. Spend 30 seconds thinking about the practicality oh Nohas Ark storing 10 billion species, from around the globe.

            Look at the age of the earth vs the 6000 years the bible states. Evolution – you name it.

            The bible is FULL of things we can easily prove false – so why on EARTH would an intelligent person believe any of it – even not literally. You have to bury the insanity of it inside yourself.

        • Mario Strada

          I have met plenty of very bright theists that truly believed. Or at least they made a very good impression of a deluded believer.

          At that point, whether they believe or not is inconsequential. They are who they decide to be.

          To be sure, there are people like you mention as well. My father in law has gone to church all his life. Even some pretty backward churches.
          A few years back he married a very devout Filipina woman and he converted to catholicism. He goes to church with her every Sunday.

          Yet, more than once he admitted to me he doesn’t believe in god. Not that he doesn’t believe in religion or some aspects of the religion. He is an atheist. His wife knows too.

          Apparently she thinks that if she can drag him to church every sunday and he makes the right noises and the right genuflections, they are both going to end up in heaven anyway.

          • niico100

            My point is – they know deep down it’s not true. Spend 30 seconds thinking about the practicality oh Nohas Ark storing 10 billion species, from around the globe.

            Look at the age of the earth vs the 6000 years the bible states. Evolution – you name it.

            The bible is FULL of things we can easily disprove – so why on EARTH would an intelligent person believe any of it – even not literally. You have to bury the insanity of it inside yourself.

            Your father in law needs to grow some balls – like more atheists, and stand up for their beliefs. Propagating extremely dangerous superstition that is ravaging Africa with aids, spreading paedophiles amongst communities as religious trojan horses, propagating crazy lies that are against science – and generally spreading socially accepted ‘stupid’ is highly damaging to society.

            It wont stop until atheism becomes more widespread, and more socially normal, specially in the US.

  • Crystal Bandy Thomas

    That sounds like a fine idea! I applaud your bravery and really hope it goes well. I’ve read many of your “Ask Richard” posts and have enjoyed your calm, logical assessments and suggestions for those who have written to you about their situations.

  • Emanuel Hoogeveen

    I wonder if it’s helpful to make a distinction between ‘atheist’ and the narrower subset of ‘anti-theists’ or ‘naytheists’. I’m not very confrontational, but I fall into the latter category – I have a very hard time respecting a world view based around religious beliefs, and will say so if pressed. But on the other hand, I don’t think I’m any less ethically inclined or ‘friendly’ than the average atheist living in a religious environment. I’m just not very likely to gain religious friends, since we would disagree on a fairly fundamental level. So is it a good distinction to make, or does it just muddle this issue?

    • allein

      “naytheist”? Haven’t heard of that one..

      • Emanuel Hoogeveen

        Yeah, I heard it recently – sounds a bit less sterile ;)

        • Noelle

          more equine

  • Christine

    One thing you’re going to need to discuss to successfully make your pitch is a reason why they should have you come in instead of a parent/spouse/child of a churchmember. The most obvious one I that I can see is that you have more of a detachment, so it’s more comfortable for everyone involved, but make sure you mention at least one.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    I go to church almost every Sunday. I get paid to be the section leader in a church choir. It’s not my favorite place to be but honestly I’ve been in worse places (like investment banks) for less money per hour.

    • Willy Occam

      …or in line at the DMV. To me, that’s the only place worse than being in a church.

      • Mario Strada

        I heard hell was the inspiration for the DMV.

        • Ateu, e dai?

          I heard DMV was the inspiration for hell.

    • TCC

      Let me guess…are you a baritone?

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        At 8 am on Sunday morning? sometimes. ;-)

        • Mario Strada

          Some days I am a countertenor.

    • Renshia

      We need to do, what we need to do, to survive. The most important thing, do you enjoy it? If you don’t I hope you can fix it. if you do, then who cares about the rest.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        It’s not something I would do if I didn’t need the money. but they are nice people and their focus is on their food pantry and similar community work. It’s certainly not the sexist, homophobic church I grew up in. I regularly turn down work in such churches (especially Catholic). For me, it’s just a job. I don’t believe in what they are doing, but then I didn’t believe in what my employers were doing when I had day jobs on Wall Street either. LOL I have one more year of grad school and then I won’t be taking on work like this any more hopefully.

        • Renshia

          Funny how choirs and churches go together. You would almost think, only religious people have something to sing about. LOL

          • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

            There’s plenty else to sing about, but rarely in four part harmony. ;-)

            • Renshia

              Amen!

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m getting church smell flashbacks. Red velvet pew pads, with a rack on the back of the pew with hymnals. Hymnal smell flashback whoaboy! Tempra paints, powdered hand soap, cookies, coffee, old lady perfume.

  • A3Kr0n

    I’m sure everyone here has seen this, but since I’m deep into my church flashbacks right now, why not? It’s funny, and I actually like it compared to Rebecca Black’s “Saturday”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npgdw5Zb7TY

    • Renshia

      That’s F**K**G horrible.
      Shame on you.

  • Nichelle Wrenn

    I went to The Moody Church here in Chicago on a school assignment not too long ago and told the university age Bible study after the service I was an atheist here on assignment. My tools consisted of disarming politeness, a quick smile, and a firm grasp of Christian apologetics and atheist thought. I also dressed the part by wearing a long dress so as to show respect, and to cover up my atheist/evolution tattoo. I cannot emphasize the phrase ‘kill ‘um with kindness’ enough, simple politeness goes a long way in dismantling their stereotypes of atheists.Demonstrate that you are happy as an atheist, actions convince much better than words. Go but don’t go trying to convince them, the ones that may be on the fence (if there are even any there) don’t need “atheist apologetics” they need to make up their own minds, just as many of us did. So be good for goodness sake, expect to learn more from them than they learn from you and be engaged in their conversations. As someone who grew up a secular freethinker I had a good time learning about them: it was a great anthropology lesson.

  • Renshia

    ” I debunked the common stereotypes and misconceptions, clarified basic
    terms, answered their questions, and I humanized our image.”

    Way to go Richard!!!

    (added:)
    It’s people like you who make up for people like me.

    • Tainda

      Off Topic: Am I the only one that sees a panda bear when looking at your avi?

      • Renshia

        Probably… LOL it is actually a screen shot of a moment in a TV show when trillion, (I think that was her name,) is showing her true heart and it turned out, it was a star. It was a very powerful moment in the show.

        But I like that. Panda bears are cuddly.

        • Tainda

          Trillion from Hitchhiker’s Guide? That sounds cool though! When I looked harder I saw they were hands but it looks like nose and mouth bottom left and one eye top right :)

          I’m sure a psychiatrist would have a ball with me and an ink blot test :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Many churches would only have you talk not as a way to better understand atheists to increase harmony in the world but to better understand the un-churched to better develop evangelical strategies to spread their message. You will need to make the decision whether you want to play that card to get in the door. A shrewd pastor may also jump at the opportunity because it might be somewhat sensational for some churches and attendance might increase because people are curious about what might be said and if there will be any fireworks.
    I can think of no better person than you, Richard, when you mildly just say that you are not yet convinced of the religious arguments for the supernatural and that you don’t consider scripture as evidence. If asked about ultimate causes of the universe and things, you can simply and humbly say that you don’t know and are comfortable with not knowing certain things. Just by saying these things, you are not arguing with anyone and you completely disarm their main weapons of bible quoting and assuming everyone needs a neat tidy answers for everything. Perhaps they can come way realizing that atheists are not people to fear. They are not agents of Satan. They are not looking to drag people to Hell with them. They are just people trying to live their life and understand the world and find love like everybody else.

    • R Bonwell parker

      Whenever I talk to theists in an organized event, the only thing I say that might be construed as aggressive or confrontational are (A) “I’m an atheist,” which some theists find offensive in their own right, and (B) “this is a complicated issue that can require complicated answers; if your desire is just to talk over me when I answer questions, I’m here as your guest, but you won’t get anything out of me being here that lasts longer than ten seconds of catharsis for chewing out an atheist.”

      The latter statement has irked a few people, because I’m suggesting that they’re not capable of having a human discussion; the ones who are irked are almost always the same ones who aren’t capable of having a human discussion. Many of them are grateful that I say that in advance because they too have been annoyed at their fellow Christians not letting people talk.

      I should add, of course, that this only works if you NEVER talk over one of the members of the church, no matter what the discussion.

  • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

    The truth is not threatened by walking into a building or talking to people in a gentle, loving way. I’m not worried about you, Richard. No advice, just thanks for helping spread the word about the reality of non-belief.


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