07 October 2008

What I Don't Miss About Attending Church

Not believing in God was easy, almost involuntary. It just happened. Knowledge once acquired isn't easily dispatched.

Leaving the institution of the Christian church was much harder. After I can clearly came to be a non-believer, and had the freedom as an adult to attend or not attend church, I spent about six out of the next nine years, on and off, attending a variety of churches, partially out of habit, partially out of desire to give Christianity a fair chance, partially out of social obligation. I was quite concerned at the time about how I would manage without the benefits that the church provided.

It has been more than a decade since I've regularly attended a church. I've been to weddings and funerals, I've attended Christmas services with family, here in Denver at the local Unitarian Church, and with my parents at the church I attended growing up. And, there have been a handful of other occasions when I've stepped into churches as something more than I tourist.

What surprises me, looking back, is how little I miss.

What I Don't Miss

I valued the time for quiet moral reflection that church services provided, but have found other times in my life, on my own schedule, for that kind of thinking.

I valued the role of the church of a patron of beautiful art, but have found that the secular world in a vibrant city like Denver (hell, even Grand Junction, Colorado) offers beauty enough. We've found way to foster our own art making needs at home and through secular routes.

I was worried about not having Sunday school to provide moral education to my children. But, I've been almost shocked at how considerate, well behaved and just my children have turned out to be without Bible tales or any formal instruction outside school to guide them. Apparently, good conduct and moral judgment are things that one learns by example and circumstances, not from formal instruction.

We also don't pray. We don't say grace at the table, we don't have bedtime prayers, and we don't pray in times of distress. We are present in prayers at major family occasions, weddings, funerals, Christmas, Thanksgiving, but it isn't part of our life. But, my children seem no more fearful of the future, no more afraid of death, no less capable of coping with grief, no more lonely.

I also have seen no ill effects from my children not having in instruction in Biblical folklore. They pick up a great deal by osmosis, and the references to the Bible and religious experience aren't as resonant for them as they are for me, but a wealth of literature from the library seems to provide them with no shortage of cultural landmarks.

I certainly don't miss having Sunday mornings booked. Indeed, the ease of Sunday mornings which are unstructured most of the time provides a vital safety valve for our manic modern lives.

While I had encountered neither secular funerals nor secular weddings when I stopped believing, I have encountered them now, and find that they can serve their purpose and come across even more heartfelt than their religious versions. I was greatly touched by my brother's wedding before a notary public on the Maine Coast, and by a secular reading he offered, from the letters of Richard Feynman to his wife, at my father's wedding.

The secular, home made, heart felt way that my wife and I coped with the grief of miscarriage, before our children were born, provided more healing and peace than a funeral liturgy every could have offered. For events that truly penetrate you heart and being, you can only get out of a ceremony what you put into it yourself from your very essence.

The closest we came to a baptism or bris for our children was a first birthday party with Korean elements (the Koreans place great importance on the first birthday), but we didn't miss that (although I know the lack of a baptism was a point of tension with my mother). I am not the least anxious about coming of age rites for my children either. We will have suitable parties and secular recognition of landmarks in their lives when the time comes.

What Do I Miss?

There are really only two things I miss, and not strongly.

First, it is easier to build up a community of friends within a religious institution. We have set down roots and have made friends, but it has come more slowly. Informal parties with secular friends organized through the Internet Infidels website, as well as the counsel I received there, also helped with managing this piece.

Second, while secular life provides ample opportunity to listen to beautiful music that is every bit the rival of its sacred counterparts (or to listen to sacred music -- I sang sacred songs in Latin to my children growing up, because that was what I knew, and I wasn't transmitting the lyrics to them), there is little opportunity to make music in secular life without going to a lot of trouble to do it.

Then again, even that has changed in churches as well. Even many traditional mainline denominations, like ELCA Lutherans, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Catholic Church have been overtaken by a charismatic leaning pop culture sensibility in which the music is more performer centered and no more sacred in character than what you hear on the radio. Even in healthy mainline and predominantly white Catholic Churches, themselves a rarity as aging congregations strip them of vitality, traditional services are withering away. At one of the churches I briefly attended after graduating from college, a church volunteer privately called the traditional service the "Q-tip service" for the dominance of gray haired parishioners who attended it.

Secular Institutions

There are organizations to serve the political and collective legal needs of freethinkers, but not more general social ones.

It would be nice to have more general purpose community building and self-nurturing secular institutions, and almost every book written on the subject of secular living suggests them as important to making our society more secular for those who, like I did, hang onto the institutions long after faith is gone. This hasn't really happened, despite burgeoning numbers of secular people. I even participated in the planning stages and initial meetings to create a "Church of Freethought" at one point. To hedge my bets, I am a member of the American Humanists Association, get their magazines, vote for the board of directors, and send them money. But, I don't participate actively in person in the AHA (in part, because it is too political, in part because I don't feel the need).

As time passes, I grow less and less convinced of the importance of "substitute churches" for secular people. Organizations which we, secular people, need, will evolve naturally without having to step into the unnatural shoes and examples of churches, mosques and synagogues. They will probably exist informally grouped around socially adept, like minded people long before they are acknowledged formally. I don't know what they will be called or how they will be run. They will probably be created by people in my children's generation to meet the needs that they feel that they must meet, rather than to respond to the expectations that people in my generation have based upon religious upbringings.

I'm confident that they are up to the task. They are smart, confident, and far more centered than I was growing up with community leaders trying to guide me to a God that wasn't there, and trying to convince me that I had problems of guilt and religious obligation and fundamental sin that needed to be addressed. Like Madison Avenue created "needs" one doesn't fret about fulfilling them if you don't know that you have these needs.

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