Leaving church is hard. Several months ago, I turned fifty, having attended church regularly throughout my life. Though my church is extremely liberal, it wasn’t until I was watching a video of Michael Shermer discussing Freud during a Wednesday night group study that I realized atheists existed and I was one of them. Over the next year, I began to talk excitedly to church friends about my revelation. A few of them agreed with me and immediately stopped coming to church. I begged them to stay and form a humanist community within our congregation, but they weren’t interested. Since then, I have tried to stay connected to my church, even though people there know I am an atheist. It’s hard. In fact, it’s so hard that I am about to give up.
I think one of the most difficult aspects of being an atheist at church is constantly being reminded that people there still believe in God. (This sounds ridiculous, of course, but other churchgoing atheists will understand.) My church had already given up talking much about the Bible, so I didn’t think it would be difficult for me to stay. Still, once you realize God is imaginary, you lose interest in hearing what God thinks about things. As a humanist, I suddenly wanted to talk about history, nature, other cultures—anything real or scientific. It seemed unimaginable that people wanted to continue to waste time listening to each other define God. It was equivalent to listening to someone ramble on about the dream he or she had had the night before. I began to think about all the time that gets wasted in church in this way. I tried telling myself that such talk is a form of bonding and community-building. Still, couldn’t we be doing this while learning something useful?
As it turns out, people who believe in God tend to look down on nonbelievers, and being the recipient of this disdain is no fun. I remember being that way myself. As a Christian, I knew that people who weren’t going to church were missing out. I felt that even though the world didn’t always make sense to me, it wasn’t my job to understand God. It would all work out in the end in some way. In my mind, I was reaping the benefit of being on a higher plane of understanding than the non-churchgoers. Unlike them, I was able to “let go and let God.” It never occurred to me that the church-skippers might have had no interest in listening to people wonder aloud about an imaginary being.
Another difficult aspect of hanging around church as an atheist is realizing that most people simply enjoy believing in God and have no interest in thinking about it in depth. A friend of mine who declined to borrow my Julia Sweeney CD said, “I like believing in God … and I’m afraid if I listen to this, I’ll stop believing.” As a person who loves new ideas, I found this a huge eye-opener.
I attend a liberal United Church of Christ (UCC); members there see themselves as real thinkers. Just like members of every other religious group, they believe they have the most reasonable view of God. Other denominations may hold silly beliefs about women, gays, or heaven and hell, but this UCC knows that God is everywhere and in everything. God is love. Incredibly, they will assure me that their God is not supernatural and that they require nothing of him when they pray/meditate. “Then in what way is he God?” I ask. They just smile knowingly. It is a smile meant to put me in my place, to inform me that there shall be no conversation involving either definitions of words or a sharing of actual ideas on this topic.
People at my church get a kick out of saying that they have an atheist in their midst. I guess this makes them feel more “open and affirming,” which is a big theme in the UCC. Truthfully, I would prefer to keep attending church; my friends are there and I understand the benefits of belonging to a loving community. But for the above-mentioned reasons, I am not really one of them anymore. It can be deceptively easy for an atheist such as me to imagine that, deep down, my church friends don’t believe in God either. But they really do. And as it turns out, that constitutes a huge difference between us. They may not be able to put their beliefs into words, but they are quick to point out that they are nothing like me. One friend even told me she felt sad that I couldn’t see the beauty in the world anymore. Comments such as this can wear a person down. It’s amazing that even progressive Christianity can divide and dehumanize in this way.
In their defense, and having been one of them for so long, I also understand them. What people at my church are saying to me is this: “There may be some kind of God-ness out there. I can’t define it, but wouldn’t that be the coolest? I’m going to have faith and believe that it’s there because our collective believing might make it appear. When you say ‘Show me a mechanism,’ that’s a real buzzkill. Why are you trying to ruin all our fun?” And unfortunately, I get that.
Losing your people is tough. For all those years, it was fun feeling that my friends and I had magical knowledge. These days I much prefer living in reality, but I would warn others that thinking too deeply about the concept of God, much less coming out as an atheist at church, will forever change your relationship with those around you. Still, I hope that you do profess it, so there will be more of us. Afterward, could you come to my house for coffee on Sunday morning? We could share our ideas about the world and how to make it better.