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.