Atheists in the Pews and "Good News"

Last weekend, I went to church. Twice.

It had been a while since I’d stepped foot in a church. The first service was a wedding for two of my best friends from college; one is a Rhodes scholar and chemist and the other is studying at a seminary to become a Lutheran minister. The sermon focused on this distinction (that many might see as a contradiction) – the scientist and the theologian. It was a beautiful service and I was thrilled to be there for it, and since the sermon was primarily a celebration of their relationship, I was able to appreciate it.

The next morning, after a late night out celebrating their wedding, I joined my family for the baptism of my first nephew. The sermon was an amalgamation of cheesy images and Bible verses guided by PowerPoint. Listening to the preacher wax on about Jesus, I felt like I was at a megachurch listening to Ted Haggard. Needless to say, I sat there with a bit of a self-satisfied (and very sleepy) smirk on my face. Is he serious? I asked myself, happily thinking about how much “more enlightened” I was. Of course, I kept such thoughts to myself.

In both instances, I could’ve been an asshole. “No,” I might’ve said, “I refuse to go to church. Sorry guys, but I just can’t be there for these important landmarks in your lives because I don’t agree with your religion.” But because I am an engaged individual who has religious people in my life, I could not. Still, just because I was there didn’t mean I had to listen, right?

A couple days later my mom called to talk. At one point in our conversation, she brought up the sermon. She admitted that it wasn’t exactly compelling for her – she thought the presentation of bolded Bible verses and stock images of praying hands was somewhat over-the-top. That said, she also said that she had continued to ruminate on his message of giving back to the community and being a caring citizen in the days following. Though she didn’t buy a substantial amount of what he had preached, she still found a lot in what he said that was worth considering. I’ll never find a church that affirms exactly what I believe, she said, but the community and the practice of taking a few hours every Sunday morning to listen and reflect is important to me.

When she said that, I realized I could hardly remember what the sermon had been about. I was there, but I wasn’t present. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t listening. The moment I saw the first PowerPoint slide and heard the praise and worship music, I tuned out.

I feel bad now for being so arrogant while listening to the Sunday morning sermon, because it is entirely possible that I missed out on the nuggets of insight that my mom, because of her open mind, had been able to absorb. As someone who believes that one can still learn a lot from the teachings of religion without following religious dogma, I wasn’t doing a good job of practicing what I preach.

After my mom finished talking about the sermon our conversation shifted, as it often does, to my work as a secular activist. I don’t know how you do it, she continued. I don’t think I could be a Secular Humanist because I just don’t ever hear Atheists having anything positive to say. Every time I hear Atheists in the news, they just seem so negative. I’m not so sure about Christianity, but at least it’s uplifting.

She’s right: we have a lot of work to do. So often, we engage in mean-spirited criticism when we encounter those with different opinions. In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.

On the other hand, we’re a young movement and we are already doing amazing things. There are secular folks doing important work all over the place, and it needs to be heard about. This is why we need more public, positive secular stories.

Still it is true that many people, like my mom, continue to go to church even when they don’t agree with a lot of the church’s fundamental beliefs. Let’s face it: my church attendance last weekend wasn’t a fluke. Atheists sit quietly in church pews every day throughout the world. Many do so because they feel they have no choice, and that is a true shame. It’s a major problem and I hope that the more public some of us become about our secular identity, the more comfortable others will feel doing the same.

But many others do it for less obvious reasons. As far as I can tell, there are three big reasons some Atheists go to church (aside from those who continue to go because they fear “coming out”). These are:

1. In solidarity with the religious (as I did twice last weekend),

2. To learn from the insights of various religions (as I have done for much of my life), and

3. Because organized Atheism lacks a robust community and is too negative (as my mom suggested).

I’d like to see our community find ways to not only be open to the religiosity of our friends and loved ones – so that we do not miss opportunities to learn by not listening, as I did last weekend – but I also hope that we will focus less on what sets up apart and more on articulating our positive values. Maybe if we do that, fewer Atheists will feel the need to go to church to find community and positive ethics. Where Atheism is lacking, religion will continue to thrive.

I have a friend coming to visit this weekend. I’m sure we’ll have a late night out Saturday. But who knows – maybe we’ll drop by a church Sunday morning in hopes of learning a thing or two. If we do, I’ll try to be a better listener this time.

Atheists in the pews may not buy the “Good News,” but maybe, with an open mind, we can make good on shifting some of our hostile views.

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