Should Atheists Attend Church Functions to Please Family and Friends?

Should Atheists Attend Church Functions to Please Family and Friends? June 6, 2014

Bored-In-ChurchThis morning I’m writing surrounded by the clamor of a hundred separate groups of kids and adults executing the well-oiled machine that is Vacation Bible School.  At my family’s church, VBS is a major production.  Hundreds of volunteers and likely hundreds of thousands of dollars come together to make this happen each year, and my girls love it.  Two of them are up on stage right now helping lead hundreds of kids in group worship, complete with smiles, hand motions, and buckets full of youthful enthusiasm.  My home church does everything big, just as you might expect from any organization with an operating budget upwards of $10 million.  This is the world I grew up in, and now my girls are growing up in it as well.

“But wait a second!  Aren’t you an atheist?  Why on earth would you let your kids be involved in stuff like that?”  It’s worse than that, folks.  I actually got them up and dressed and drove them here myself.  I’ll likely hang out around here until they get done and then take them home only to turn around and do it again tomorrow.  It’s summer, so I also see a swimming pool and the new X-Men movie in their near future, but VBS and church camps and trips are a big part of my children’s summer every year.  How on earth can that be if I am a non-believer, you ask?  Make no mistake:  I have strongly negative opinions about some of the prejudices which these experiences are weaving into my children toward critical thinking, same-sex relationships, gender identity, body shame, and general self-image.  Trust me, these things are difficult, and I have my work cut out for me.  But life is complicated, and it’s even more complicated for deconverts like me whose families didn’t follow us into our apostasy from the faith of our upbringing.

I continue to cooperate with my girls’ mother on things like this because it’s in everyone’s best interests to do what we can to maintain good relationships, even to the point of making painful compromises when necessary.  I’ve discovered there will never be a shortage of people ready to tell you they know better than you how to parent your own children, but these are my children and I can decide for myself what is best for them in their particular situation, thankyouverymuch!  Sometimes people have helpful things to say, but often what they have to say only shows how little they know about the intricate details of my life.

People in a position like mine have to make a lot of compromises.  In all honesty, because the social privilege is overwhelmingly on the other side from where I am, my “compromises” are usually more like capitulations, accommodating the needs of others in order to keep the peace.  I’ll be the first to admit that I probably do that too often.  But you have to understand that as an atheist in the Deep South, I am greatly out of sync with my surrounding culture, and because of that I have to choose my battles very carefully.  Keeping my girls from something they enjoy just doesn’t fall into that category for me.  One day I will have a lot of work to do in translating what I think and believe into terms that my girls can understand.  I’ve already begun that project here on this blog through writing them letters to share with them at some point in the future.  In the meantime, I’m doing what little things I can to maintain a good relationship with my girls until such a time comes that we will have to tackle these emotionally challenging differences.  Long story short, though, I’m simply doing what I have to do right now to make this work.

Should We Give In to Their Requests?

I recently received a question from a virtual friend who is similarly stuck between his own atheism and the faith of the rest of his family.  I’ll post his question here, followed by my reply below:

If you are the only non-Christian member of your family, how do you handle things like Christmas celebrations, baptisms, and other major family functions that center around church and Christian beliefs that the rest of the family embraces? As a personal example, every year on Christmas Eve our family (including extended family from out of town) attends services together. I hate being “that guy” who refuses to participate, so I go, knowing that it’s as much for family bonding as it is for worship. But the family also sings Christmas carols, decorates a tree, exchanges gifts, etc…, all practices that I gave up years ago with everyone except my family. The family basically engages in two full days of Christian-based festivities that are very alienating to me. (I know decorating a Christmas tree isn’t Christian, per se, but it is in the way that my family does it).

I have a baptism coming up that the family has been invited to. Is it appropriate for me to show up and support the family, or hold true to my principles and effectively just join them for lunch afterwards? How do you handle these situations?

That’s a tough one. My short response, though, is that obviously that each person will have to feel out his or her own level of comfortability. I tend to err on the side of swallowing my own needs in favor of accommodating those around me. And in certain circumstances, that seems like the easiest path to take. For example, when my extended family gathers to pray before eating big meals, I don’t stand off by myself in protest; I join them and hold hands and even bow my head a little so as not to distract them. I don’t close my eyes, because for some reason that crosses a line for me, plus I’m entertained by watching how the little kids act during this ritual.

But events that require attending a ceremony are asking more from me, and I have to factor into my decision variables like the following:

  • How close to me is the person who’s asking?
  • Is this a once in a lifetime thing, or something that happens very frequently?
  • Just how much will it upset them if I stay behind on this one?
  • Just how much will it upset me if I have to endure it?

All that has to be weighed in to see what the best decision should be. Personally, I have no principle keeping me away from things other than a desire to maintain a good relationship with people, which you might think would usually entail going instead of not going.  But there was a time a few years back when I had to choose to stop going to church because it was upsetting me to the point that it was affecting my closest relationships. It’s all well and good to be a sacrificial, accommodating person; but if it’s building resentment inside, you might wanna watch that. Choosing to stuff your own feelings only works for so long, and eventually this has to be openly addressed.

My friend Captain Cassidy over at Roll to Disbelieve wrote a post that I wish I had seen back when I was still married. She writes about learning to feel at home in your own life, and how sometimes that requires making sure that others around you learn to take your needs into consideration just as much as their own. Now, that gets tricky, because they have been taught that they know your needs better than you do. They have been taught that no one needs to be an atheist. Everyone needs to be what they themselves are. So they feel they are only loving you when they pressure you into participating in all that they do. But at some point, if they love you, they must learn to recognize that this is not what you want. If they love you, they shouldn’t always ask you to do all the accommodating to their preferences.  That may not match their definition of love (“I’m just afraid for your soul”), but perhaps their definition of love needs to be challenged.  Perhaps it’s time they learned to love you better.

So you see there isn’t a good, short answer to this question.  Each person will have to weigh out all of the factors playing into his or her specific circumstance.  I lean toward accommodation in order to maintain a good relationship with the people I love.  But a person’s ability to do that depends on a number of variables like how emotionally manipulative their specific variety of religion happens to be, or how burnt out on that tradition the person being asked has become.  For some people, so much emotional loss and pain (or even abuse, either subtle or overt) has accompanied their church experience that returning there sets off “triggers” that make it an extremely painful thing.  For those people, my main advice is to encourage them to take up advocating for themselves and their own needs.  It doesn’t help anyone for you to put yourself into a situation that will hurt you or cause you to lose a piece of yourself  just to make others happy.  But if that’s not where you are, and if you can endure what’s being asked of you without it really costing you much of anything, why not just go?  In that case, what harm will it bring?

How about you folks?  What say you?  For those of you stuck in my friend’s situation, how do you handle these requests?  I’d like to hear from you.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I hear “The Chicken Dance Song” being sung, and that’s my cue to move farther away from the auditorium.  And on that note, I leave you with one of my favorite Mr. Bean segments:



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