How to love going to church: a guide for atheists

October 20, 2006 | By | 13 Replies More

The Bible version of God doesn’t ring true to me. I don’t believe in any traditional sort of God.  I am not that sort of person who finds any purpose in worshipping or asking favors from invisible Beings.  I don’t ascribe any emotions or sentience (certainly, no vindictiveness) to any Person or Thing that might have created our universe.  How the universe came into being is beyond what I can know. 

I do cherish my universe, though, and I realize that I am an incredibly tiny and incredibly ignorant part of it. Many fervent believers (though not all) would characterize my beliefs as “atheism” although that word, as commonly construed, would characterize me in a misleadingly cartoonish way.  

Given my beliefs, most people would be surprised to hear that I sometimes go to church to be inspired and energized. What’s my secret?  I go to church when no one else is there—I like to go to empty churches.  When nothing else is going on other than one’s own breathing, meditating, thinking and writing, going to church can even be exhilarating.

With a pad of paper and a pen in my hands, in search of solitude, I walked to church twice this week.  I had previously noticed a huge church a few blocks from a courthouse where I sometimes work.  Only after walking to this church on Monday did I learn that it was called “Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Cathedral” in Belleville, Illinois.  Here’s a photo I took on Wednesday (yes, a dreary looking day), just prior to my second “visit.”

Belleville cathedral - exterior.JPG

The majestic interior of the church is also a treat to the eyes.  The thick stone walls morph into the peak of the ceiling as they rise to meet each other 70 feet in the air. 

                Belleville cathedral - inside.JPG
Even on a dreary day, the natural light works its way into every pew.  Every tiny noise launches up into that vast inner-space like a dissipating butterfly. This incredible space, and the solitude it allows, more than make up for the musty church smell and the uncomfortable pews.  We mustn’t complain about uncomfortable pews, we were told as children.  After all, Jesus had nails driven through his hands for us.

When a church is empty, the overly-pious stained-glass images do not antagonize me.  That’s because there are no real-life glassed-eyed adults standing over me to insist that the events depicted are historically accurate.  When a church is empty, no one tells you to stand, then kneel, then stand again, then kneel again.  No one tells you to chant out loud that a virgin had a baby.  No one insists that chewing on a wafer is literally chewing on a man’s flesh–a man that was dead for three days but then supposedly wasn’t.  No one is there to remind you that Christian beliefs are proven by an old book whose biggest fans are much more likely to clench it than read it. Or, if they actually read it, they cherry-pick it, ignoring anything inconvenient.  Whether the Bible contains the actual words of God (as opposed to manipulative human beings), that is a topic best not appropriate to raise during church services.

As a boy, I rebelled against going to church services for all of these reasons. I always felt betrayed and confused by the things I was told to believe.  Church-goers were temporary insane, it seemed. How could they say those things!  Now, I work hard to restrain my frustration and suspicions.  I now acknowledge that people attend church services to satisfy deep and ineffable cravings.  Many of my writings at this site are attempts to better explore those cravings.

Not that all nonbelievers are repelled by Sunday morning liturgies.  For example, Daniel Bennett writes the following in Breaking the Spell (page 318):

[S]ome people seem impervious to religious ritual and all other manifestations of religion, whereas others-like me-are deeply moved by the ceremonies, the music, and the art-but utterly unpersuaded by the doctrines.

Despite my frustrating childhood experiences at church, a big empty church can still feel like “home” to me.  Sitting in an empty church brings back some happy memories.  I was an altar boy for three years while attending Catholic grade school.  (No, I was never molested by a priest, although at least one of the priests for whom I served Mass was–many years later—sent off to prison).  Whenever I sit in an empty church, it brings back memories of those many quiet times that I was alone in church, waiting for the priest to arrive, often at 5:45 in the morning.  I passed the time by thinking and meditating. These are natural things to do in majestic quiet places like empty churches.

An empty church is welcoming, patient, forgiving and energizing, the opposite of the scripted, threatening and tedious services usually conducted there.  In an empty church one is not urged to obscure one’s undeniable mortality with fancy words or ostentatious rituals. As it turns out, an empty church is a perfect place to write about the benefits of empty churches.  It is a place to notice one’s own breathing and to hear one’s own simple questions, questions that (in my experience) haven’t been seriously understood or addressed by any member of any clergy for a half-century.  In an empty church, the quiet causes one to remember all those things one does not know.  In an empty church, no one is filling the place with incense or any sort of intellectual smoke. 

Most people who go to church go there to attend scheduled services, not to scribble ideas on pads of paper. Nonetheless, traditional churchgoers also receive many of these same benefits I enjoy, at least while they wait for their church services to begin.  Those quiet moments might be among the few moments each week when many people don’t have access to TV’s, radios and iPods.  The quietude, thus unleashed, emerges to gently but inexorably compel thoughts regarding deep simple questions.  I suspect that, for most believers, the pre-service silence is actually the most powerful part of being in a church.  One is reminded of this great power of silence whenever a speaker inserts a long moment of silence into a crowded public event.  The air becomes heavy and solemn in the absence of chatter.  During moments of silence, even the rustling of a program or a cough is a blasphemy.

As I sat in the big empty cathedral, it occurred to me that going to organized church services offers great benefits to believers, even if God did not exist, and even during the service.  Sitting in such a big building among people singing and chanting in unison can be compelling and mesmerizing.  Being a part of a group that speaks and sings in together causes an invisible wave to well up and wash over the congregation.  Acting together in unison, then, allows one to visualize the knitting the social fabric. It is a place where one can feel bonded with hundreds of people one does not really know.  Spiritual instant-messaging.

During church services, individual needs and wants are somehow channeled into the potential for coordinated group action.  Under various threats, regular attendance at church services is compelled; people show up week after week to pray along with other church members, even those with whom they are not well acquainted.  Being together hits deep triggers in human animals.  It creates emotional bonds that are sometimes strong enough to compel strangers to run to each other’s assistance when they are in need. When people pray together, they become brothers and sisters.  I can’t help but compare the dedication that church members often show to each other to the lack of personal commitment among those who share ideas (even lofty humanitarian ideas), but don’t regularly and physically spend time together. 

Taking the time to dress up and give up one’s Sunday morning is a powerful display of loyalty.  As Zahavi wrote, expensive signals are reliable.  Giving up one’s Sunday morning to go to an uninspiring and repetitive recital of confusing claims is a very expensive signal indeed. It is also socially expensive to publicly advocate absurd positions, but there is a payback. Advocating that invisible beings care may not be true, but saying it out loud is an important signal of loyalty and dedication to all of those other church-goers who hear you. 

Thus, when one looks around at others who have given up their Sundays to make similar fantastic claims, one can see one’s allies, regardless of the inner doubts that most of these people harbor.  I know that those doubts are there.  Just ask any Catholic after church is over: “Did you just engage in cannibalism?”  But there is a huge potential payback for vetoing one’s doubts, even if a church-goer doesn’t really believe in God. Church is a place where individuals use symbols to attempt to mold themselves into a super-organism capable of coordinated group action.  And it often works.  Dedicated church communities can often move mountains.

I, on the other hand, simply can’t get past the many absurdities embedded in church liturgies.  I cannot say that “X is not-X.”  I am not constitutionally able to assert that false, vague or self-contradictory things are true.  No friendship is worth that to me.  No sense of community is worth that to me.  The most shameful ending I could imagine to my life is to die with “He lied to us” or “He said absurd things” on my tombstone.

Going to church with other is not the only way to bond with others.  There are other ways to bond with each other, but they require more work. 

I prefer to bond with those who put the pursuit of truth above everything else.  It is sometimes a lonely existence.  It sometimes requires a different kind church service.    It sometimes requires a one-person congregation seeking connection with real human beings through the use of ideas scribbled on a pad of paper, while sitting on an uncomfortable pew in a spacious, humbling, haunting, and provocatively silent church.

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Category: Meaning of Life, music, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Writing

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Deb says:

    The articles and comments on this site are generally very thought provoking, but I found this particular article to be especially powerful. I have toured and/or worshipped in many famous and not so famous churches, cathedrals, and abbeys. I've been to mass at Westminster cathedral, toured the cathedral where Charlemagne was crowned more than 1,200 years ago (he's also buried there), and so forth. I've resented that the focus of the large cathedrals seemed to be an effort to make people seem insignificant and powerless, and for that reason, always felt more connected to the earth and creation in places man has not built, like mountains, and rivers, and the sea. I like this new way of looking at what I previously thought to be impersonal and morbid places. I may still continue to deplore the dripping blood on stained glass and statutes, but there is a new facet to it now. Thanks, Erich.

  2. Heather says:

    I love your article. I love to find forgotten (but beautiful) old churches to sit and meditate in (usually in Europe, the ones here lack the same sense of connection to history, and well, soul).

    Thank you for writing something I can whole-heartedly identify with.

    Its nice to not feel so alone in my beliefs and perspective on the world.

  3. londonderry says:

    A little late to the party, but I love Church architectures. My favorite churches are old french ones, and since I don't understand french, I don't mind at all if others are there, chanting sonorously in French. Imagine being inside an Enigma music video… et voila!

    American churches for the large part are quite drab and utilitarian. But there are gems to be found everywhere. I like the Lutheran ones up in Minneapolis. Old+stone=my kind of church! As far as meditation goes, Bahai temples are not bad either.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Hogiemo contacted me to advise me the word "numinous" applies to the feeling I experience in large empty churches. According to Hogiemo, "numinous" was a term he learned from reading Contact, by Carl Sagan. Here are the definitions from the Merriam Webster online Dictionary

    1. SUPERNATURAL, MYSTERIOUS

    2 : filled with a sense of the presence of divinity : HOLY

    3 : appealing to the higher emotions or to the aesthetic sense : SPIRITUAL

  5. gatomjp says:

    It is remarkable how similar are our early experiences in church! I too felt betrayed by the absurdity and the hypocrisy of the credos we were forced to chant but exhilerated by the magnificent space! I loved and still love good architecture and what it can do for the human spirit.

    Those of us who cannot swallow the myths of the bible miss out on that communal experience you describe. It is powerful and ancient. How I long for a "Church of the Intelligent"! Maybe that is what you are doing with this blog – creating a place where we can get a small feeling of what it is like to commune with like minds.

  6. Van Robison says:

    Hi Erich,

    I stumbled onto your website and read your thought provoking article "How to love going to church: a guide for atheists". Not being an atheist, I still enjoyed reading your thoughts. There can hardly be any doubt that great church buildings are awe inspiring, and the architecture is splendid. Amazing how human beings can be overwhelmed and awed by physical space and material objects.

    When my wife had her five babies (one at a time) at home by natural childbirth, this thankful dad, was present for each of those little miracles. I found that to be one of the most profound experiences of my life. I was a teenager, when Erich Vieth was born, and my date of entry into this world was 1942.

    My experience in life, is that virtually 100% of all human religions, including what is termed "Christianity" does not represent the Creator of the universe. What is termed "Christian" as viewed by the world, in my thinking, is really "churchianity"—a man-made "clergy/laity" system invented to control others.

    I have found that placing faith in men because of flattering titles, position, or supposed "authority" is what causes many in life to lose faith in man's ability to lead others. Human governments think they are God, and they only exist by causing fear, by force, and by violence. Churches and religion also induce fear, sometimes resort to violence (middle ages), and generally grip the minds of countless human beings with an almost magical, unseen power over the hearts and minds of the populace.

    To see God, through the man-made filters of church and religion, is to not see God at all. Is it any wonder that some ex-church goers become atheists? The Creator is not defined by religion, by churches, by "professional clergy", or by stained glass windows and steeples. Not even the universe can contain the Almighty, much less, physical architecture, or men and women in silly robes. Even all the human governments of this world are nothing more than a drop (spit) in a bucket, to the Eternal, Living Creator. Men are very vain, and needlessly so, since eventually they all turn back to dirt. Unless there is eternal life in the future for humanity, then men lose. A one hundred year lifespan is nothing more than the blinking of an eye, and this physical existence comes to an abrupt conclusion—unless, there really is something beyond the capacity of the natural mind of man to comprehend.

    When my sons and daughters were born, and I was there to witness their entry into this physical life, I did not see science, technology, or evolution, but I saw God Almighty, the Creator of all.

    Best Regards,

    Van

  7. Ben says:

    Okay, I'm a softie when it comes to history, and that includes churches. I was lucky enough to do some travelling in Europe. The buildings are much older than what you find in the USA. Notre Dame cathedral in France is a must see, gargoyles and all. The leaning tower of Piza in Italy is neat, and while certainly a peculiar photo, its actually less impressive than the huge "domo" churches right next to it. The ancient blue stained glass is especially beautiful and rare, and to this day, I don't think anyone has been able to replicate the stunning hue. The Tower of London is more like a dungeon than a church and the unimaginable torture devices are the biggest attraction other than the crown jewels.

    Visit New York, Washington, Charleston, or just about any city, town, or hamlet in America and you will find plenty of Churches to explore. As long as you don't wear your Darwin t-shirt and FSM cap, in which case you may end up in the dungeon.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    A minor point of fact: the Tower of London was not a church; its primary function was a fortress, a royal palace, and a prison.

    Also, concerning Van's comment about the awe-inspiring architecture of great churches: those buildings were deliberately designed on a non-human scale so that their occupants would feel puny and insignificant, thus enhancing Church power. That was arguably their primary function, just as the White Tower (the core building inside the Tower of London and built by William the Conqueror soon after his 1066 invasion) was designed to impress upon the local people the futility of creating an insurgency.

  9. Ben says:

    About the Tower of London, it is indeed more like a fortress with high walls and dikes. I imagine there was quite a bit of praying going on in the dungeon, though. I remember seeing all sorts of artifacts like armor and weapons. The odd thing was that many of the suits of armor were small. The average suit of armor was probably about 5 feet high. The chain mail on display was too heavy for me to lift comfortably.

    Also of interest are the hundreds of castles which dot the English countryside, some huge and impressive, some ancient and decrepit. Leeds castle was especially beautiful, and the queens gardens.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a collection of spectacular photographs of incredibly beautiful temples from around the world. What a terrific excuse for a long trip it would be to visit each of these. http://www.neatorama.com/2007/09/19/10-most-amazi

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Garrison Keillor has written a moving piece about going to church and enjoying it, even as an outsider. http://www.salon.com/opinion/keillor/2007/10/17/b

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