Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Atheist in the pew: The return to my church in Barbados

It was always going to be the real test. How would I handle the return to my home church in Barbados? Over the last two years in Canada I wondered how it would be. I had some friends who had told me that my atheism was culture dependent. They were convinced that my focus on reason and critical thinking was just because I was in Canada and had found a community of like minded people. Once back in Barbados with friends and family showing me the love of the Lord, I would revert  immediately to my old ways.

I knew that I could not avoid going to church on coming back to Barbados. In fact I was quite happy to go back to the place I once used to call my 'Jerusalem.' The question was when to go, I wasn't exactly in a hurry. In the end it turned out that it was not a decision I had to make . In the greatest of ironies, only minutes after making that  huge decision  to declare my atheism to the world that I talked about in my last blog post, I received a call from a close friend in Barbados who had heard I was coming into the island. She asked if I would play a solo for them on Sunday for the youth service. It was a strange feeling to say the least. She was talking to the 2009 version of me. The one that would give his time to play music to any organisation that had the spreading of the "good news" as its mandate. Her excitement on my return was palpable and I just could not say "no." In a way, I was happy that she asked me because it took away the uncertainty of when to return to church and it would be good to take part in the service like I had done so many times over the years.

The joy of being a part of it

I have reflected since my deconversion that the reason that so many people remain in their faith is because
they have things that they do in the church that keep them busy. Singing in the choir, serving at the altar, sitting on the church council, all require time, effort and commitment. Once you are doing these things there is little time to think about the philosophy or doctrine. There is satisfaction in church from simply taking on a task, doing it well and being recognised for it. It is very much like how we are at work. We often follow what we are assigned to do with little thought as to even whether we ought to have been given the project in the first place. So, as a church musician I just wanted to give my best every time and make those people listening to me happy. When I succeeded there were few feelings more satisfying.

So there it was, I would be playing at church on my first Sunday back in Barbados.On the morning in question I felt more nervous than I had ever felt before on entering the church, perhaps with the exception of my wedding day. I suppose it was due to the fact that I had anticipated this moment so much. Some nerves went away when there were so many embraces of welcome I got from people that I had known years before.The warm greetings from brothers and sisters in the faith. The next thing that hit me as the 8:00 am starting hour came closer was the numbers. This was the usual 150 odd members that I had played in front of many times but it felt like so many more. I guess it was because it had been  a couple of years since I had performed solo in front of such a large number of people, yet it was just church, regular church. Much as people talk about the 'feel good' draw of religion so much of the strength is in the raw numbers. Just being part of a community like that can lift a person.

I looked around the church as it filled up and I couldn't help smiling. I realised how much I had visualised these images and sounds over the last year. Quite a few of the posts on this blog were written while I had this place firmly in mind. Indeed, the stories of one or two in the congregation were actually the basis for some of the writings. I wondered how they would feel if they knew that the story of their lives was being used to encourage people away from the faith.

Hopscotch through the pages

Well, before I knew it, the service was under way and the liturgy  proceeded just as I remembered. It was a weird feeling recognising that the familiar was now so unfamiliar. Those who grew up in Anglicanism know that one of the most challenging parts of the service is following in the book with the liturgy. It's a nightmare if you don't know your way around. Sometimes you are required to go from something like page 50 to120 then back to  page 76. However, today I just didn't bother to even open the book. It was not in protest or a demonstration of a lack of interest. I just wanted to listen to what was being said and take it in. It struck me that making following the service like a hopscotch game was another way to make the congregation not pay attention to what is on the page. It's difficult to think about what you are reading when you are trying to figure out what page to turn to next.

Robotic Liturgy

The first thing that caught my attention as the liturgy started was how dead and dreary everything seemed. The drone of the monotonous voices was like that of my refrigerator that I am hearing as I write this. I wondered  how I had managed to survive this every Sunday morning for so many years. I thought about that common christian apologetic that says God gave us free will because he doesn't want to create us to be like robots. But " Data" from the old Star Trek series would have been decidedly animated compared to what I was seeing here. In fact the first excitement I heard in the service was an exclamation from a parishioner after the recitation of the words " hallelujah, hallelujah" . " No!" she protested audibly under her breath. " We shouldn't be saying hallelujah during Lent!" I thought " Wow!" to myself. Apart from the lack of critical thinking that religion promotes it creates worry over things that are just so trivial.

Anyway all was not lost. We still had hymns, surely at least I could enjoy those. Yes, there were a couple of my favourites in there. Nice reflective tunes that I had sung many times before and always enjoyed. But again, today was different. No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't bring myself to say that " He is the Potter I am the clay" or " all other ground is sinking sand."I now recognised that so many of these hymns were songs of total submission. You are basically saying to God, " Please do all my thinking for me." So in order to enjoy the tunes and not say something against my beliefs, I just sang the hymns to "la-la" right through. Must have really confused the congregation around me. Too bad though, it was really the best that I could do.

Was the  sermon meant for me?

Well, the sermon was the next thing on the cards. It was a long time since I had heard one of these. I wondered if it would resonate with me at all. The theme was escaping from 'inside the box'. The pastor's point  was that  so many of us think or behave in certain ways because society or cultures pressure us to be like that. He challenged the congregation to not let society put them 'in boxes' and confine their way of thinking. My jaw dropped. Could this message have been any more applicable to me? I was just given in the first twenty minutes of his sermon a synopsis of exactly what I had done. I had made that decision to not let my culture or background confine what I thought or believed. How great to have such a ringing endorsement this Sunday morning. Hey, I felt like shouting " Hallelujah!" myself.

Unfortunately the message didn't end there. Yes, there is always a catch in Christianity. According to the reverend, God was the only one capable of taking you 'out of the box.' No, he didn't say God can help us escape our boxes, he said God was the only one that could move us. God had all the power and we could only get out of boxes if it was His will to take us out. If he wanted to, he could miraculously change us regardless of our internal attitudes or mindset. He could give us the strength. In summary, we need to take responsibility for improving ourselves but at the same time God is the only one who is capable of making us better people. I think this is the core contradiction that appears in almost all religions. The message that tells us that we CAN do it and we CAN'T do it at the same time.

Anyway, I had to cut my analysis short because the moment of truth was at hand. It was my turn to face the congregation. My role in the service was to play the song for " reflection." Something that would put the congregation in the mood to prayerfully consider the message they had just heard. It was a very poignant moment when I walked up to the front to render the " Ave Maria." Caught up in the emotion of the moment I began to play. I had only arrived in Barbados days earlier so there was no chance to arrange any accompaniment so the sound of my clarinet was the only sound breaking the silence. I took my time and really tried to put out of my mind thoughts of what I believed or didn't believe  now. I reminisced on how often I had played this song for these very people and was still happy that in spite of moving away from them on a spiritual level I could still connect with them personally through the music. The tone of a clarinet note after all does not come combined with doctrine or dogma.
The note that changed the way I played

It seemed that a sea of these thoughts and reflections were going through my mind while I was playing, then something happened that just broke the flow of everything. Out of nowhere, a shrill high pitch squeak came out of my instrument. It was a bit of a shock to the system for me, I can't remember  ever playing a note over the twenty plus years I performed in that church that went awry so badly. Anyway, that immediately got me to put all the thoughts of the enormity of the occasion out of my head and just concentrate on playing the music,  getting my technique right and making sure I finished the piece with no further flaws. So from that moment on it was all about getting the notes right. I am delighted to say that it all went beautifully after that point and the mistake I made earlier in the piece was probably the wake up that I needed. The congregation it seemed were quite happy with what they had seen and heard. Interestingly no-one seemed to react to the mistake at all. Maybe they didn't hear it or perhaps they just didn't think it was a big deal. I sat back down after doing my bit in the service and was still thinking about THAT  note. Maybe I just got carried away and pushed it too hard. I could have taken a bit more time to warm up, perhaps it was partly the change in weather conditions from Canada and not taking enough time to assess the reed I was using.

It struck me as I kept thinking, that what happened during the song I just rendered was not unlike what had happened over my life coming out of faith. The piece I had just played had two parts divided by that screeching note. Similarly in my faith journey I had been brought to a screeching halt when I realised the disharmony between faith and reason. The realisation that God was not real was truly the note that had broken the peace back then.

Before I came to that monumental moment of disbelief I was, just like I did this morning, playing on the emotion of it all. I was simply feeling the music. After the dissonance came during the music I had just played,  I changed my priorities and concentrated on getting the technical details right. That was the same thing that happened when I realised that something was wrong in my belief system, I changed to concentrate on what technically made sense rather than getting taken up by emotion. That is not to say that concentrating on technical details meant throwing emotion out of the window. Indeed, this morning when I started to focus on the notes themselves, it was with a view of using them to create emotion. In determining what notes to lengthen and by how much, how long to to play in the lower register or when to bring in the diminuendos I was consciously creating the emotion of the music for the enjoyment of the listener rather than just playing by feel without thinking. The music, I hope, was beautiful both at the beginning and the end. And so it is when we compare living by faith with living without it. The output at the end of the day is just as sweet when we switch the melody and allow the mind to lead the heart.

Happy to play along

Later in the service I decided to play along with some of the hymns with the organist.  It gave me the chance not to have to sing the songs , the lyrics of most of them were now problematic for me. It gave me also the opportunity  to enjoy my playing and make up for the earlier error and finally it gave me a chance to be doing something during the communion so that my lack of participation  in the sacrament was not conspicuous. This was a relief, because I really thought I would not be being true to myself if I went up to partake of the 'body and blood 'of Jesus. At the same time I didn't want to create any controversy by refusing to go up to the altar when ushered to do so.

All in all things went well in the service after that, not withstanding the final hymn being the very famous but doctrinally disturbing, ' Onward Christian Soldiers Marching as to War.' Still an exciting tune to play though, and of course very stirring as so many songs written for the military are. I did feel a bit guilty for enjoying playing it so much, but there is little we can do to curb our bodies natural response to music. Well at least when it comes to us people of  Caribbean descent.

Final Thoughts

So, that was the story. It wasn't so bad being an atheist in the pew after all. And for those people who were skeptical about my skepticism in the face of my home religion and church community, I am happy to report that I have passed that test. Absolutely no desire to return to 'faithland.' My abiding image of the morning will be the looks on the faces of the congregation during the sermon. People really looked like there were just bodies in pews. No smiles on faces, no nodding of agreement  if they liked a  point being made or concerned looks on faces if they couldn't follow the line of argument, no notes being kept in order to ask questions after the talk was over.  That is the kind of listener behaviour I am used to now when I hear speakers in Canada. There was none of that here today. It was as if the congregation were in some sort of adult detention.  Being forced to listen to and recite lines now in order be allowed to play in heaven later. It just seems so sad  to spend so many hours of a life so short doing something that is  giving you neither entertainment nor enlightenment.

There was one other moment in that service that will stay with me forever. It happened when I looked up at the cross which hangs high up on the wall in front of the church. Over the years, I had looked upon it regularly. It was something I used to ' lift up mine eyes'  to, for encouragement. Today, I almost  fell out of my chair observing a lady staring intensely at it while earnestly belting out one of  the hymns.

"Oh my God !" I thought to myself, " That woman is singing to a piece of wood!"


  1. Wow, David, once again you've reflected so much of my journey of what I call "losing God" ... so much I could say here; I think I'll go away and think a while before adding some more cogent thoughts. But, in brief: I reckon I'll take a somewhat Freudian view of your squeaking clarinet - your body itself was protesting! :)

  2. You may well be right. Perhaps my body was protesting and maybe the clarinet is
    an atheist too :-).