Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Atheist among the faithful: My latest church experience
The circumstances on Sunday last week, were entirely different. There was no overriding sentiment to cause me to go. It all came out of a brief discussion I had with friend of mine from Ghana. She asked me out of the blue, whether going to church is something I do. I said I didn't go to church and she immediately asked me why. I told her plainly, that I didn't believe that any gods exist and didn't see what would be the sense of going to church to worship a being that I didn't believe was there.
" You don't believe in God?" was her startled reply. "We have to do something about that," she added. I revealed that I used to believe, but that things had changed.
"What happened?" she asked. I can't remember my exact words in reply but it would amount to something along the lines of 'thinking happened.' I could see she was convinced that she needed to fix me and fast. It was as if she was a nurse in 'Accident and Emergency' and I had just arrived with blood oozing from a bullet wound on my chest. All her other patients had to be put aside and she had to get me straight on to the operating table. According to her diagnosis, what I needed was to have something 'experiential.' I have heard this talk from theists before and I can never understand what they mean by it . I have experiences everyday. I can't for the life of me figure out what it means to have an experiential experience. Anyway that's what I was missing. She asked me if I had ever been a Pentecostal. I told her I was never one but I had visited all types of churches. She was convinced that hers was different. If I visited her church my mind would be changed.
She was in a hurry but it was clear she was perturbed. Still in "Accident and Emergency" mode she said to me,
"I will pick you up on Sunday morning and I will show you what my church is like, after that we can have a conversation, something will happen, either I will win you or you will win me, but I think that I will win you."
I just smiled, this was desperation. She did not even know where I lived at that point , but she had my number and promised to call. She was determined to get me from wherever I was into the house of the Lord so that Jesus could operate and give me that brand new experiential feeling. I didn't say much, but I did indicate that I would have no problem visiting her church 'one of these days.' After all, it is not that I ever made a pact that I would never enter a church again and I was not averse to going somewhere where I could perhaps learn something new about faith and how people experience it and express it. This blog is of course about faith and atheism and in order to adequately critique and discuss the subject of faith you have to sometimes go out of the way to observe it.
Yet, I was not sure I wanted to take her up on her offer right away, but I thought of it some more during the week and concluded that perhaps I should just bite the bullet and go on Sunday. There were a number of things that convinced me. Firstly, I reflected that it had been a long time since I went to church. May 2011, meant 15 months without and kind of exposure to faith. Since, in the interim I hadn't gone to any weddings or funerals either, it really had been a complete removal from any semblance of superstitious ritual.
In the time intervening, a lot had happened in respect to my life as an atheist. I had been to New York and hung out with the New York City Atheists and some members of the Black Atheists of America and met some Caribbean atheists in person. I had many discussions about atheism with friends and strangers alike from places as diverse as in flight cabins, university corridors, restaurants, computer work stations and more. I had been to a Darwin Day party and sang a carol dedicated to fossils and finches. I had celebrated Christmas by going to a bar with fellow heathens, toasting to celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens. I had been to talks and heard the likes of James Randi, Daniel Dennett and Lawrence Krauss. To top it all off, I had been to my first ever atheist conference, the Imagine No Religion 2 where I spent the weekend with nearly 300 fellow non believers.
If all that was not enough, I have had continuing exchanges over the internet in one form or another trying to explain and defend the atheist position to all types of theists out there. I had even called into a Christian TV broadcast to tell them about my atheism and why I didn't believe like them. I have also continued to meet atheist contacts that have kept me challenged . I have also remained dedicated to trying to make something come out of the Caribbean atheists' attempt to make secularism happen in the islands.
Of course in all this I have remained in the blogging world, anxious to add my voice to the growing secular choir out there. These activities have shown me , that I am so much more than just a passing atheist these days. The last time I went to church, being an atheist, at least an open atheist was still raw. I still felt a degree of discomfort, a kind of a wince inside when I mentioned to people that I was an atheist or that I didn't believe in God.
Fast forward a year down the road and things are far different. The experiences I have had since have definitely ' toughened me up' so to speak. I no longer have that level of unease in expressing myself as an atheist, in fact it is something I express now with a great deal of pride. I have no longer any worries about who finds out and what they will think about it. It really is a feeling of complete freedom in that sense.
So, I realised I was a different atheist from the one that last entered a church, one far more confident, and far more committed to the cause than even just a year ago. I thought it would therefore be well worth seeing how my emotions would be now compared to before. I became excited about doing this as an experiment. A kind of ethnographic, active participant research. Because as much as I had an idea of how I would feel and what I would think, I really couldn't be sure. Would the irrationality make me angry? Would I feel sad to see the delusion? Would the nostalgia of the past still be there?
The scientist in me took over. I just had to do this, I needed this data so I could write up a robust case study that would have the weight of empiricism behind it. So when, my Ghanian friend called me on Saturday to ask if I was up to going to Sunday morning church, I agreed without hesitation.
It was a little awkward on the drive to church, in that there were two other people in the car who were travelling with the one who had invited me. I had no idea what she had told them about me and the reasons why she had invited me to church, I did not have a clue whether they knew I was a non believer or not. We exchanged pleasantries and it wasn't long before the conversation between them got animated and they began to speak in twi (pronounced chee). Twi is one of the main languages spoken in Ghana. Of course once they switched to their mother tongue, I had no idea what they were saying,. I supposed it was almost psychological for them to fall into their natural language. I did after all look like them and I think that made it easy for them to actually forget that my heritage and origin was quite different. Occasionally one of them would realise that they slipped out of English and they would apologise to me and try to fill me in on what I had missed. I told them that I didn't mind them speaking in their language, and that they should just speak in the way they felt comfortable. I am sure they thought I was just trying to be nice to them by not complaining, but I was actually being truthful.
It's not easy to admit it, but I really wasn't interested in talking much that morning. I wanted to be able to just sit and reflect on the experience and the emotions. This was a fact finding mission. For me today was all about observation and taking mental notes. It was not about engaging and interacting, not about socialising or making friends. I went in to this with a specific game plan and I knew I had to stick to it. I had given the lady who had invited me my word that I would go to church, to observe her worship so that when I spoke to her later about her beliefs I would have a context to refer to. I was trying to make sure there were no 'strawmen' in any of our future debates. I told myself over and over again that I was there only to take in things, that was all. This was difficult, because I am by nature someone who likes to chat with people and engage in discussion and share with others. But, I knew that was a strategy fraught with danger on this particular day.
Dealing with religious people, especially in their own habitat takes careful planning. I look at as a game of chess, one where you must always be aware what they are thinking and what their strategy will be even as you are crafting out your own. Sure, I had made it clear that this was just one Sunday that I was going to go to church and that I was interested only in terms of seeing what their service was like, but that was not how the church people would see it. For them. it would be the old 'foot in the door' technique that marketers know so well.
Once I was among the faithful, they would use all the emotional pulling and tugging to try to convince me that I needed to come back 'home' and continue worshipping with them. The fact that I was at church, would be evidence that they would use to convince themselves they were winning. This was their chance to show me that God was calling me back and the fact that I had agreed to come that one day was proof that I knew it too and it would be ridiculous of me to deny the obvious. I knew that the more I talked to people and got to know them, the more I would feel comfortable being among them. The more I would feel inclined to come back another day to get to know them better, or just say hello. Similarly, they would want to see me again too and would invariably invite me to be a part of things, then it would be back to a situation where I would be torn because I appreciated the people but despised their doctrine. I would have to either cut off the people by virtue of the rejection of their core beliefs, which would seem cold and heartless or I would be forced to continue to engage with them through the church in order to preserve friendships and not come across as anti social. There was no way I was ever going to do the latter. I had been down that road in the past and was not going to repeat that mistake.
No, I knew there was no way I was going to be getting myself involved in any kind of faith group again. I had gone through too much to find my fulfilling life of reason to just toss it away because of a little' feel good in my soul.' I knew that but of course, they didn't. I just didn't want to lead them on by seeming as though I wanted to be a great friend and then disappoint them or make them angry by telling them I wasn't interested in their God. For people like this, to love them is to love their God, simple as that. I know it sounds strange, but my reasons for being a bit aloof that morning was to protect them as much as it was to protect me. So when Twi, became the language of choice, it was like a 'God send' for me, I could sit in silence and mull things over in my mind without making those around me think I was giving them the cold shoulder.
The church itself was more modest than I expected. Not even a separate building. It was filled with people though, ladies in extravagant multi coloured dresses with vibrant reds, yellows, greens, purples and blues. Some of the men were also full of colour and in traditional African dress. I had forgotten how when it comes to African and Caribbean culture, church is so much about fashion. Doesn't matter if you are nineteen or ninety, Sunday is the dress to the 'nines' day. I walked in, once again sticking to my game plan of not saying much. Still, I was determined not to be unfriendly to anyone. I smiled at everyone I met and said "Hello" or "Good morning" with all the zeal I could muster. But I kept the time of interaction short and to the point.
"My name is David, pleased to meet you!" If they said " God Bless you." I thanked them and then went on my way.
When we arrived the service was going on but people were still mulling around outside. It really was a bit like being at a party 'liming.' That's what it would have felt like too, if it wasn't that the sun was blazing down in all its glory. We were a bit late and that meant we could take our seats at the back of the church. I was happy for this too. It meant I could watch and listen and not be conspicuous. If I had cause to roll my eyes or shake my head I would be somewhat out of view and hopefully would be able to disguise things successfully.
As I took my seat a group of three took the stage. I say stage, because that is what it was. There was nothing particularly to tell you that you were in a church. No cross, no altar, no fancy floral arrangements, they weren't even any windows stained or otherwise, the place was quite bare, but the colour and vibrancy of the people seemed to make up for this so much that you hardly even noticed it. What the hall did have was a projector in the roof and a power point presentation which was obviously loaded and ready to run. The song on the screen was showing so we could sing along
" Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh, He shall reign, He shall reign, for ever he shall reign."
This was on the projection and I almost wondered why it was necessary. That was all the song had by way of lyrics. It was just repeat and recycle after that. Some people raised their hands in the air as they sang, apparently pleading with Yahweh to come down and make an appearance. " We worship you, we thank you!", they uttered along as they sang. They were obviously overcome with all that their Yahweh had done and clearly happy that he was their king. I, on the other hand was disturbed. Nowadays I can understand why you may want to worship God. The generic higher power that provides for you and that you think protects you. I can even understand how you might want to worship Jesus. But Yahweh? Worship Yahweh? How on earth can you stand up with a straight face and say that we should be grateful to the love of Yahweh? Yahweh, is specifically the God of the Old Testament. Yahweh is not just another name for God as Christians like to say. This is the Yahweh, that likes the smell of burning flesh and demands it from his followers, the one that flooded the earth, destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, had Abraham on the verge of killing his son, and massacred with abandon.
His record is so bad, that most Christians today have given up trying to defend him now, merely saying that they have upgraded to the New Covenant and all that barbarism is null and void now. Yet, still this group at least, consider it is still appropriate today to lift up the name of that Old Testament God. It caused me to remember that just a couple weeks back I had a similar reaction when I heard a singer in Barbados taking part in the local Party Monarch competition with a song called " Worship Yahweh!" The commentator on the radio referred to it as a song with a very important message. I wanted to push my hand down through the wifi signal and shake him. I tell you, Yahweh is alive and well in 2012.
The song continued, I am always worried at services where choruses are being sung and lyrics are few. A hymn with five or six versus may seem daunting at first, but at least you know when it's done it's done. But these choruses, not so. What these songs lack for in length, they make up for in repetitions. The Africans I find are especially skilled at drawing these kind of choruses out. Runners from Ethiopia and Kenya are known for their ability to just keep running and running. It seems that the entire continent has similar stamina when it comes to these marathon choruses. I remember three years ago playing keyboard for an African church service where one particular two line song went on for 45 minutes unbroken.
So, I had to find a way to pass the time as others around m me were feeling the spirit . Suddenly, I thought of the Yahweh form the Non Stamp Collector and Dark Matter videos. The one who bumbles around incompetently as he tries to make something of his creations. The deity who cries like a petulant child when he doesn't get what he wants. If you are not familiar with these two gentlemen's videos, I highly recommend them. The humour is just great. And thinking of them just kept me smiling right through that chorus. I am sure my christian friends around me thought I was already feeling the Spirit.
Stay away from foolish non believers
Yes, these type of people were unwise associations. He told us that WE believers were to make sure that we stayed away from people like that. We had to avoid them because they were fools. "What is the definition of a fool?" The pastor put this rhetorical question to the congregation. Then he provided his own answer. " A fool is anyone who does not live in fear of the Lord." He repeated this for emphasis, as the congregation resonated with Amens. No prizes for guessing what were the next words out of the pastor's mouth. That passage that all of us atheists know so well, " The fool says in his heart there is no God!" I was so sure that this verse was coming, that without even thinking I said the words out loud along with him, smiling ruefully while shaking my head in disbelief. I don't know if anyone saw me doing this, but I didn't really care at that point.
Well, well, well. I couldn't have scripted it any better. Less than ten minutes into the talk by the priest and I had already been told that I needed to separate myself from people like myself. I wondered how I could pull off something like that. Would probably need to ask Jesus, he was the one who separated himself from himself in order to sacrifice himself to himself. Well at least I was in the right place to get help with this, I thought to myself.
After I finished laughing at the irony, I began to think of many of my atheists friends who would not have found any of this funny at all. I believe there are a few who if they had been there would simply have got up from their seat, turned and walked out never to look back. I suppose you could understand that sort of reaction. But I wasn't about any of that kind of drama that morning. As I said, the gameplan was just to watch, listen and observe, so I settled back down and continued to follow what was going on.
Pastors come fourth in stress
The sermon for the day was about how to deal with stress. We were informed that Christians suffered from a lot of stress, maybe more so than the non believers out there. The pastor started by quoting from a study he said he saw on CNN where they said that 'Pastor' was the fourth on the list of the most stressful jobs in the world. Only behind country presidents, heads of universities and sports coaches of elite teams. He seemed to revel in being compared in this class. I think it was also his way of telling the congregation that they needed to take special care of him, because of his huge burden. I am sure they will oblige.
After that the pastor went into a lesson that would not have been out of place at a university. He spoke of the chemicals the body releases as a result of stress and how that affected the brain chemistry. He spoke of adrenaline and cortisol and the role that these play in the body. He spoke of the good stress and the bad stress. The way that good stress could actually motivate action and help us to perform at our ultimate level. That type of stress was what was at work in the starting blocks of the Olympics 100m final and led people like Usain Bolt to break records.
To be honest, I was quite impressed with this aspect of the talk, it was filled with good science, it was factual and educational and I am sure that many would have learnt from it. I did, myself. He went on to speak of practical ways that one could reduce this level of stress. By resting more, delegating things to others and trying to be positive and have a 'merry heart.' His advice was simply that when you are happy your body doesn't produce the chemicals that will stress you out. Again nothing wrong with that message either. These are good things for you to remember regardless of your religious perspective. That was the whole point I was thinking during this. This is all true and useful, but what in the world did it have to do with God, or Jesus or salvation or anything in Christian doctrine?
Well, the pastor knew that would be what his congregation would be asking and tied back things to the bible through some arbitrary verses. He picked a passage that said that Christians needed to have a merry heart to suggest that what science had figured out was merely a carry on from what the bible said. Of course the congregation lapped it up. We have to be happy and the only way to be happy is to be happy in Jesus. So,
more Jesus= more happy
more happy= less stress
Therefore more Jesus= less stress
The equation was as simple as that.
Open ye gates!
Soon after, the pastor wrapped up the sermon and I have to say that by and large I enjoyed it. He then said the words, " Now it is time for prayer." With that, a total transformation seemed to come over the building. What was minutes before a very cerebral lecture on cortisol, neurons and brain chemistry changed into an all out appeal to the supernatural. It was like when you are in a plane and the pilot tells you to put away everything in preparation for landing. Here, when the pastor said it was time to pray, it was as if he was telling all passengers to turn off all intellect and thinking devices in preparation for an abrupt descent into dogma.
People suddenly started mumbling and groaning, hands became outstretched in front of bodies and the pastor asked the congregation to speak to Jesus now, so he could transform the body. It was so incongruous to me. Where had all the science reasoning and evidence gone? The body that depended solely on the chemical balance to perform its functions. Suddenly none of that was relevant, all that was needed was for you to appeal to Jesus and he would come down and heal you. No questions asked.
It got more intense, one lady I saw actually went to the wall and pressed her entire body up against it, burying here head in the concrete, hands outstretched like if the police had her under arrest and told her to " spread it!" I have to admit I was a bit alarmed to see this and almost wondered if she was unwell, but then I remembered the context of where I was and breathed a bit more easily.
I just stood there as the volume in the church increased. Everybody was talking at the same time, completely independent of one another. Some of it was recognisable. English expressions like "Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! Praise your name on high!" Some of it I think was in the local twi language and then there was that other language. The one that sounds like gibberish to most of us, but which believers of certain stripes refer to as speaking in tongues. Yes, that was definitely in there and becoming more and more prominent with each passing second. I wondered how any of these people could hear themselves think above such a cacophony, but what they were doing seemed to come naturally. I also wondered where this spiritual build up had come from. It's not as if the pastor had spent the last hour talking about the love of Jesus. He had basically just given a biology class. This was quite an extraordinary reaction. It would be like if after a lecture at university people suddenly got up and started walking around and mumbling in a trance with their eyes closed.
And through all this, I just stood there, staring blankly, there was nothing I could do but just wait this one out. In the midst of this melee I was the only one that appeared to be silent. It was an eerie feeling indeed. At the end of this the pastor asked if there was anyone who wanted to come forward for a special anointing or blessing. Surprisingly, no one went forward. Perhaps they were all already filled with the spirit enough for one morning.
Then came my moment of truth. The pastor asked if there were any visitors to service. Of course as chance would have it, I was the only one. I stood up and introduced myself and told him who had invited me. He welcomed me with the words ,
" David, remember you must always make yourself useful and available to the Lord."
I gave a half nod and sat back down quickly. I had to, before things got any worse. Apart from imagining the amount of coffee that would have been spurting out of noses if any of my atheists friends were there, I remember thinking that he was quite bold to tell me what he did. He knew nothing about my beliefs, background or views on such things. How could he just presume to tell me the philosophy I needed to live by? Of course, I was in his domain and was obliged to just listen to it and take it without a hint of dissent. Just as I had to sit down earlier and listen to the congregation being told they should stay away from people like me. This is the type of privilege that church and religious organisations enjoy in our society. When you are in their territory, you have to be quiet, let them say whatever they want to. You have to endure. Any reply or remark to challenge anything they say would be considered rude and terribly out of place. But there is no other institution which enjoys such protection.
Religious people have turned up to secular events we have put on at Centre for Inquiry (CFI) many times. They listen to what we have to say, but they can get up at the appropriate time and state their disagreement. They can proclaim their God as much as they want. I am not saying they won't be ridiculed if they say something ludicrous, but they always get the chance to be heard and it often adds to the presentation because the audience gets to hear opposing perspectives and judge for themselves which side has the stronger argument. But church is not like that. No church I have ever been to is like that. It was interesting that only on this day did it occur to me so clearly what a huge problem this was. In a sense, that lack of dialogue is even worse than the irrationality of the beliefs being promoted. Irrational or absurd ideas can be weeded out by having a good system for evaluating them. But in an institution where dissent is synonymous with disrespect, all bad ideas will take root and it won't be long before they become impossible to dislodge.
I don't know when it happened exactly, but when I sat down I found a pen in my right hand and a membership card in my left. It was either stealth work by an usher, or a miracle from God. I looked at it and decided to leave my contact information, nothing wrong with that. I noticed that there was a question asking whether I wanted to become a member of the church. Curiously there was a box labelled 'Yes' but I looked up, down, back and front but could not find a box with 'No.' Don't think I had ever seen that before. A questionnaire with 'YES' and no 'NO.' I laughed once again, no need to guess what your answer is supposed to be. I just left that part blank and handed it back to the usher.
My Barbadian readers will understand me when I say I didn't quite see any 6:30s but there was definitely 'pooching back.' I actually moved a bit to the music myself. It was fun, and I didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb. The pastor by this time was leading the band like a Machel Montano or Lil Rick. He was in Party Monarch mode now. Signalling to the masses to move to the left or the right, finger pointing to the sky as he gyrated.When I saw him it reminded me of the calypso competitions we have in the Caribbean, where the contestant normally has two songs. The serious social commentary to make people sit and listen and then the second half uptempo offering to work the audience into a frenzy and start the bacchanal. This was what the pastor had going for him here. He would have scored highly in both halves of the competition.
I realised the service had basically ended. No special benediction, just basically dancing your way out happily leaving your collection in the offering plate on the way. I have often said I have been to churches where many parts of the liturgy are omitted. However, I have never been to a church where they left out collection. This morning was no exception. When the room was about half full, the pastor went up and said.
"So great to see you all enjoying yourself to the fullest, making full use of these LAST days." That sentence really made me jump. What a way to kill a party.
Anyway, I had made it to the end of the service, that was a relief in itself. All in all it really wasn't that painful. I got many enthusiastic responses from people who were happy I was there. I told them I had enjoyed the service. I really had. All in all there was more positive than negative, albeit that the few negatives were still quite hard to look beyond. What was clear though was that they wanted me to be back. One guy introduced himself and said,
" You will be coming here every Sunday morning from now on. I am not asking you, I am telling you. And next time you will be bringing your whole family as well."
I was speechless, this was the general sentiment I was getting, but just as I had done earlier, I kept the conversations brief. Sometimes I let it slip and said I didn't expect to be back. This seem to shock them a bit. They couldn't reconcile the fact that I enjoyed myself and yet was so averse to returning. This is the thing that I think is hard for some believes to understand. Enjoying an event and subscribing to the belief being propagated at that event are too entirely different things. I had no intention of going into the details of why I would be unable to join them long term. I just hoped that they would understand, but I don't think they did.
On my way out of the church, the person who invited me to the church introduced me to the pastor, as the congregation was still milling around. Then she unleashed a comment that I was definitely not prepared for at that moment.
"This is my friend from university, I invited him to church because he says he doesn't believe in God!"
Wow! What a time to come clean with her motive. The pastor seemed a bit taken aback too. He took out his smart phone to type, looking like he was going to write me a prescription. It was as if I was back in " Accident and Emergency" again and he was once again hoping to give me a dose of that elusive 'experiential' thing. I tried to look down and not make eye contact with others around in the aftermath of the comment about me not believing in God. I am sure many of them must have heard what was said.
The pastor eventually found his voice and said to my friend "Oh, we have a lot of work to do."
I said nothing. The pastor asked me for my details and promised that he would invite me to his house for dinner one day and we will sit down and have a discussion about faith and belief. That would be great, then I would be on fairer turf and could say the things that I wanted. He seemed also to be relishing the thought of a one on one with me.
" The first thing you will have to do is give me reasons for why you think there is no God, you must give evidence for for why you don't believe!"
I hung my head trying desperately not to facepalm, and resisting the urge to give him the burden of proof argument right then and there. However, somehow I was able to stop myself from bringing up Zeus, Mohammad or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I shook his hand and told him politely, that I thought this was neither the time nor the place to carry on a conversation like this. I was in a bit of shock though,couldn't believe we hadn't even started to talk yet and he had already notched up his first logical fallacy.
What was even more amazing was that I was sure that the pastor thought he had me stumped with that sentence. Believing, I would now be scared of the other master arguments he would come with next time we met. There was no doubt in his mind that he would bring me back into the fold. He assured the one who took me to church that he would take it from here. He would lead me to truth. The truth of Jesus Christ. This is what being in the religion bubble does to you. It gives you a level of confidence that is totally unfounded, all stemming from the fact that you are operating in an institution where what you deliver is never ever challenged.
Christians see no problem with the 'no challenge' model when it comes to their faith. No need for discussion or debate, because their faith is clearly the truth. Yes, for a devout believer, truth is that which can't be challenged. In my view they have it quite wrong. Anything which can't be challenged, almost certainly can't be truth.