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!