An Atheist Went To Church (And Free Photo of the Day)

Wilson Chapel
Free Photo! Wilson Chapel, taken 10/8/2008 at Andover-Newton Theological School. Nikdon D40: 18mm; 1/400 sec; f/10; ISO 200.

This past Sunday, I did something rather out of character. Controversial. An impetuous act that might even cost me a few friends.

I went to church.

Now, it’s no big secret that I’m a former seminarian and minister (I served a small church in Connecticut for about two years) turned atheist. There’s no need for a lot of explanations on a blog intended to be as positive and light as this one. I’ll spare you a discussion of the Epicurean riddle and theodicy. I’ll save the long story of my six eye-opening years at Andover-Newton and Harvard Divinity School. There’s no need to make much hay about the difficulty making ends meet as a clergy person. (Though, if these things interest you, do let me know. Perhaps one day I’ll find a publisher for my autobiographical manuscript, Tales of a Seminary Nothing.) Here, I will simply say that seminary and church made an atheist out of me, and that’s that.

So what in the name of our pale blue dot was I doing at church?

Well it wasn’t just any church for a start. It was the church I grew up attending right here in Willimantic, a place with many memories and a legacy of friendships long-lasting. Recently, as I’ve been moving, that church has been extraordinarily helpful and generous. Connecting with old acquaintances in a time of need got me to thinking that it might not be such a horrible thing to become involved with a community of nice people who share a common commitment to compassion and generosity. (Of course, atheist and humanist communities of this sort do exist, but not in my area.) Moreover, as a single dad I struggle to find social activities for River. Attending the church gave River a chance to meet other children and have some fun. As it happened, the Sunday I attended there was a chili cook-off and ice cream social and River had a great time.

As churches go, the denomination my childhood church is affiliated with – the UCC – is progressive: fully supportive of women’s reproductive rights, welcoming of same-sex couples and LGBTQ pastors, active in social justice issues like the green and anti-war movements. They embrace the scientific evidence for the origin of the universe and the reality of evolution as a fundamental pillar of the life sciences.

An example will set the right tone: I remember in a high school youth group many years ago, once of the boys called another a “homo” and the minister at the time – a really compassionate and thoughtful man – stood up and announced that all people have the right to choose whom they love, and to use derogatory language of that sort was un-Christian. In many years of being involved with that denomination, I have heard almost no discussion of theology – the divinity of Jesus, the nature of the Trinity, these things don’t seem to really matter much to the folks in the pews. What I’ve witnessed instead is a group of people who take an active interest in helping one another and their communities. And heck, how bad can a church that welcomes this song in a Sunday service be:

I’m quite certain I won’t ever believe in a god or gods again, and I have to confess the hymns and prayers held no interest for me. Is it wrong, then, that I enjoyed spending time with a community at church? Believers and non-believers will probably think so. I’ve put myself at being called a “faithiest” by my secular and humanist friends, and of being deemed an apostate by Christians.

I’m not sure that any attempt to ground my actions in empiricism or ethics will satisfy either camp, or that it’s really necessary. The only gesture I’m willing to make to a broader context is this: maybe it’s not so awful that people with different views find common ground from time to time in order to help one another out.

Feel free to leave comments and feedback in the comments. Stay positive, friends!

8 thoughts on “An Atheist Went To Church (And Free Photo of the Day)

  1. I’m an atheist and I think you should do what’s right for you. The church sounds forward thinking and lots of atheists go to church for social interaction. I can’t imagine why anyone should take you to task for wanting to immerse yourself in your community. I don’t think it’s awful to find common ground. After all, at the end of the day, we all have more in common than we do differences.

    1. Thank you Godless. There are some in our non-believing community who see any cooperation with religion as being “soft.” Fortunately I think that’s the minority.

      1. I hope that’s the minority. We’re the minority so if we refuse to work with the majority, not much is going to get done. Sometimes you have to put aside your theological differences for the greater good. As a social worker, I wotk with religious charities at times. I don’t agree with their god belief but I agree thst certain causes are important enough to put those aside for a while. There will be plenty of time for debate afterwards.

  2. I struggle with my own level of hypocrisy going to church. I don’t really know if I believe, but I like the community. I like the work I do helping with the food pantry. I like the community it gave me to raise the boys in. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being true to yourself, knowing your beliefs & being involved in your community. Spend time with River there, take what you need, give what you can.

      1. I had a whole pile of doubts when my boys decided to take Confirmation class & be confirmed last year. I was like “If I am 43 years old & have no idea about this, how can my 13 & 14 year old?” In the end, I discovered they are very much like I am. They are part of a community, but they have doubts, too. I think there are a lot of us out there.
        Tyler (now 14) really struggles. He is very vocal about it with me.
        Devin (now 15) I think goes more (when soccer does not interfere), but I believe it is mostly community based & being with friends. He has been going to the youth led “church services” at the campground we have out spring seasonal at. I think that is because he hangs out with the youth that run the activities all the time and this is just one more activity.

  3. The church you attend has fond memories for you and for us as a family. It is only natural that you want to be a part of that community again and share that with your daughter. Looking forward to church services at the camp with you both on the 22nd!

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