Occasionally, I Think I’m an Alien

Nathan Salo Tumberg, a friend and fellow atheist blogger at Occasionally, I think, doesn’t understand me (he also deeply loves his wife, and his thoughtful account is charming to read). Specifically, he doesn’t understand my ecstatic reaction to my visit to B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue. While I found it uplifting and inspiring he, he thinks, would find unpleasant, “cultish and melodramatic”:

when I try to imagine the experience of being at the BJ community’s service, the word “suffocating” is what comes to mind, rather than any positive emotion just looking for expression. It reminds me of the images of smiling cults that one sees on TV, yes, and it sounds over-the-top, true, but it also sounds like a lot of people and noise pressing in on me, making it hard to breath.

This is not uncommon: the difference in reaction between Nathan and I exemplifies a disjunction I feel between myself and many other atheists I know. Occasionally, speaking with other atheists and skeptics at major conventions, I think I’m some sort of alien. My responses to religious spaces, rituals, and ceremonies are often very different to other atheists’. One example: while co-leading a workshop at Skepticon V I described my response to St Peter’s Basilica, which I visited as a teenager on a choir trip of Europe. Although already a staunch atheist at the time, the grandeur and magnificence of the space so overwhelmed me that I felt the need to kneel in the knave and gaze up, awestruck, at the spectacle. One participant, seated in the front row, thought this rather absurb, and suggested that as a child I must have been a big sucker for Santa Claus and other nonsense if this was my reaction to St. Peters’.

For the record, I was not easily fooled by Santa. Indeed, my brother and I once decided to test the proposition that Santa was, in fact, our parents by laying out, instead of the traditional minced pies and mulled wine, luncheon meat sandwiches, cheese and onion crisps (chips in American lingo), and glasses of Diet Coke – all things we were well aware our parents hated. If, we reasoned, that food had been eaten when we awoke on Christmas Day, then we could be reasonably confident that it was not our parents who had eaten it. I’m quite proud of our youthful skepticism!

However, in general, it does seem fair to state that I am significantly more enthusiastic about the communal, ritualistic, and aesthetic aspects of religion than most American atheists I know. By and large, religion actually doesn’t give me the creeps, and I’ve even found myself enjoying religious services even if I find the explicit theological message ridiculous and the moral message outrageous. Many atheists I speak with see choirs singing, swaying, and waving their hand in the air and say “Cultish!” I see the same and say “Awesome!”.

Why so? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of temperament or taste, and there’s not much to say on the matter. But, as Nathan suggests in his post, temperament and taste both are impacted by history, and here’s where some clues might reside.

  1. I’m a choirboy. I grew up going to a religious school (the diffident, non-imposing Church of England sort of religion) and I sung in the school choir for years. I have sung my way through countless masses and services and psalms.  I have become familiar, and therefore mostly comfortable with that sort of religious spaces. I love to sing, and so I have lots of positive memories associated with those spaces which have enabled me to do what I love. I haven’t had any significantly bad experiences with religion in my past
  2. I’m a drama geek. My parents raised me on theatre, taking me to see plays and musicals very frequently. I spent my teenage years appearing in countless theatrical productions (this is not an exaggeration: my performance CV for my high school and college years is ridiculously long. I wonder how I found time for anything else!). I like to perform, and I have an appreciation for the dramatic – even the melodramatic. I tend to view religious services as pieces of theatre, and I’m attuned to the production values in and of themselves, regardless of theological content. I therefore find religious services interesting as exercises in dramatic production.
  3. I am attuned to the emotional “vibe” of a space. I am not saying here that I am particularly sensitive in a one-on-one sense, but rather that I tend to get a “feeling” for the energy of the place when I walk in. I’m not talking about anything supernatural or woo-ish. I’m talking of that sense of comfort and ease you get when you enter a safe space, the sense of excitement you get arriving in a packed sports stadium or concert hall. Perhaps this is related to my many hours on the stage: I think you have to develop an acute sensitivity to space and to emotional tone if you are going to act effectively, and I remember spending hours on minute changes in set design and spatial organization when I was directing shows.
  4. I get swept up in things. I am emotionally very open and allow myself to be emotionally affected by those around me. I cry buckets through movies, can’t help but sing a tuneful song, always find myself tapping my feet to music. I’ve even found myself waving my hands in the air during religious services! To me, this is perfectly natural – I find it hard not to do it. But I do understand that other people react differently.

Now, I’m not sure what to make of these differences. I don’t think my positive response to these sorts of religious ceremonies and rituals is necessarily problematic, and it certainly doesn’t represent any softening of my atheism. But it may carry dangers: I may be less astute to the dangers of communal activity like ritual and ceremony than others simply because I enjoy it, for instance. There’s the opposite potential problem too, though: that one’s dislike for such experiences encourages rejection of them when they might in fact have value. It’s hard for me to see what’s “cultish” about BJ Synagogue, for instance, even if I agree it might be “melodramatic”.

But there’s no doubt – I think! – that my position is the minority position among atheist activists. Most don’t think like me – and perhaps they don’t feel like me either! If anyone’s the alien in this equation, I am!

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • ImRike

    Ha! I was raised catholic in Germany, and last time I visited around Christmas time I had made a list of things to “must visit”; one of them was a Christmas Midnight Mass in the Latin language. I am a convinced atheist and I never miss church in the US since church buildings here are not impressive. But when I visit Europe, I always enjoy the art and beauty of the old churches and cathedrals. And some of my favorite music even now are Gregorian Chants.
    So, there’s at least two of us :-)

  • Rachel

    Well, as an atheist who is a religious historian, I completely understand where you’re coming from. (Actually, one of the contributing factors to my atheism is the fact that I’m a religious historian — it’s hard to believe in any one religion when you know how most of them were constructed & developed over time). But it is important for me to understand the stance of faith, especially as it pertains to saints’ relics, to fully understand and convey the role they played in medieval life. So I’ve attended plenty of masses, been in a lot of churches, and gotten really, really excited about bones, mummified body parts, and (my favorite) a bit of cloth purported to be Christ’s diaper. Do I believe that these relics are “real”? No. But are they significant, important, and valuable artifacts? You bet. And so are the beliefs people had, and have about them. And if I can get inside those beliefs a little bit, I will be a better historian, and a better scholar because of it.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Ha! Love the title of this post! I’ve got some initial thoughts after reading this, but give me a few days to flesh them out.

  • Mrs Salo Tumberg

    I like this post. I’ll elaborate later when I have more time. As my husband mentioned in his blog, I don’t think in words so it takes time for me to “translate” my thoughts into the written word. Bear with me, folks.

    • Mrs Salo Tumberg

      This post made me smile. Singing, theatre, emotional “vibes,” these are things that strike a chord with me. I, too, grew up with a lot of music and theatre. Bursting randomly into song is normal for my family, and at work, music is what helps me get through my day. In junior high and high school, no one spent more time in the school auditorium than I did. As an adult, I volunteer at the same theatre my sister works for.

      Unlike you, however, I seem to have gotten the short end of the proverbial stick when it came to religion. I was raised Roman Catholic, and from what I’ve come to understand, Catholic mass is far from lacking in ritual and fanfare. I don’t disagree with this assessment, but the church my parents attended for much of my life was severely lacking in positive attitude. Everything, the priest, the congregation, even the music, was dreary and soul-sucking. Going to church was a chore, and singing was the only thing that made it bearable.

      This is not why I eventually left the Church, but it gave me no reason to stay either. Years after declaring my non-Christian status, but still having to attend mass due to a deal made with my mother, a friend tried to talk me into officially rejoining (since physically I was still stuck there). “It’s never too late,” she told me. She was proud to be Catholic, and even waved over a visiting priest from Ireland. He was a nice man that had given the only optimistic sermon I could remember hearing before that day. I felt horrible for telling them it would never happen.

      They rejoiced in their faith, reveled in it, and I couldn’t fathom why. I thought back to when I believed, really believed. I was miserable, and the more I tried to follow the tenets of my faith, the worse I felt about myself. Returning to the Church would mean spending the rest of my life beating myself up internally while spending every Sunday morning in a church full of people that mourned their faith instead of rejoicing it. In the interest of my health and happiness, I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t get them to understand why.

      Cutting away from that part of my life was a series of negative experiences as well. I told my mother first, and I could tell she was disappointed. I love and respect my mother. We may not agree on a lot of things, but I still do my best to keep from truly disappointing her, and this truly disappointed her. My “saving grace” in her mind is that I’m not an atheist. As far as my peers were concerned, however, not being Christian was a sure sign that I must be. It was either that or a Satanist, or a witch, or a variety of other words that were used with a negative connotation. It was yet another reason for them to ostracize me.

      I’m not a fan of religion, and I doubt there would be many that would blame me. I feel it breeds a sense of superiority and a lack of individual thought. But as an art student, I know the amazing things that religion has brought into this world. I’ve seen and heard for myself some of the most beautiful things come from religious inspiration. My “guilty” pleasure is listening to Gregorian chants while at work. I can appreciate the sense of awe and wonder as one enters a cathedral. I, myself have been to the Cathedral of St Paul in Minnesota, and it was amazing, nothing like the cold, stark church I was used to.

      My experience with theatre, especially shows that encourage participation (like a melodrama), has allowed me to feel how the energy of a crowd can invigorate the performers. It is an amazing rush to have an audience laugh and cry with you on stage. So despite my personal experience with religion, I can understand where you’re coming from in this and the post Nathan was responding to. However, I can understand where my husband is coming from as well.

      I am an introvert, not so much as he is, but much more of one than a lot of people I know. Enjoying the vitality of a crowd is something I can only do while performing. Being part of a crowd, like at a party, is draining. Even if I’m enjoying myself, I prefer to sit on the side and watch others, and if I’m already tired, I just want to leave. To socialize takes energy. I may like to vent frustration about work to my sister at the end of a long week, but it’s the sleeping in and spending the next day quietly alone that allows me to face people again.

      I spent much of my time while growing up hiding emotions, being apathetic as a survival skill. The reason I love theatre as much as I do is because it allowed me to step outside myself. It was a way I could laugh and cry without repercussions. I used to be like my husband, finding the idea of getting swept up in a religious service to be dangerous to one’s individuality. But the older I get, the more joy, acceptance, and confidence I get, the more I want to express myself, my emotions. I’m becoming more like you if this post is any indication.

      You’re not an alien, and neither is my husband. You’re just in two different places as I’m in a third spot. As Nathan pointed out in his blogged response to this post, having different perspectives is a valuable thing, and that’s something I hope your fellow atheists appreciate about you.

  • machintelligence

    Everyone’s personality is multidimensional, and there is no accounting for taste. There are certainly broad correlations, but there is plenty of room for individual quirks. I am pretty much a classic liberal, but I love firearms. I’m more of a paper puncher than a hunter, though.
    I am also left cold by most ceremonies, but I was charmed at my daughter’s graduation ceremony from New Mexico Tech when all of the engineering graduates marched in wearing academic gowns and hard hats.

  • baal

    I like architecture and my wife can’t tell the difference between a building I want to run screaming out of and another where I’d like to stay all day. (she wants lots of windows but other than that is completely blind to the aesthetics of a place. I tend to think that most of us have incongruous quirks. A deep love of group religious activity is a bit unusual for avowed atheists but very in line with being a human.

  • smrnda

    I notice that my own reactions to ritual are hardly even or consistent. Some feel fine or even comforting, some feel threatening as if I’m in a cult and will be forced to conform or run out of town, and some can just feel ridiculous even when I’m trying to be polite, and some totally creep me out. Some if it’s an issue of familiarity, or just that I perceive some groups to be less threatening than others.

    All said, I sometimes have to admire the great old cathedrals and have to think, in a world with no technology and limited entertainment, going into a cathedral with it’s architecture and stained glass windows music, candles and incense had to be an incredible aesthetic experience.

  • Kodie

    Architecture is a form of art and you are meant to feel something when you enter the space. I feel that too, so you’re not the only one. It may be because I wasn’t brought up in religion that I don’t confuse what is actually still beautiful. It was meant to be beautiful. Like you said, you know how you feel when you’re in a stadium for example. This year, I went to my very first baseball game. I don’t follow baseball, but I decided to buy myself a ticket and go see a game in Fenway Park. I have only lived here a few years and the fanaticism annoyed me. There is sort of a way a stadium has to be built but also the experience of being there is part of the architecture. Anticipating an experience and being served that way of experiencing it is architecture, such as coming in a gate, being in sort of a food tunnel and coming up the ramp and seeing the grass and how big it is, and how many seats there really are – anything can happen and I – am – here. The cathedral of baseball. Super corny, but I had a good time, and did all the rituals.

    Churches are not shopping malls or hospitals or office parks. Sometimes they are, but the ones that are awesome were built to awe you. To make you feel small. To stun you with detail, symbolism, beauty – take you out of the hustle-bustle world and tell you that you are in a very important place, and remove your sense of ego so you listen to the sermon. Liking that stuff as an atheist is not the wrong way to be an atheist. Someone that remarked about Santa Claus to you honestly is a stupid nobody. Falling to your knees doesn’t mean you’ve been taken over by mind control. Well, a little, like I said, due to design of the space, but it doesn’t cause conversion.

    I like you anyway. I liked this article, I was nodding the whole time. I am just like that too, but I am unfiltered, reactive, and unabashedly enthusiastic – some say dramatic – about what I really like. You get one life, why hold back?