Monday, May 30, 2011

Why I Don't Attend Church

Yes, I know, this is quite a heavy topic for blog post No. 2, but I believe that this is something that family and friends have been curious about for a while and deserve to understand. I have many close friends and family that are very devoted Christians, and I'm sure my absenteeism is perplexing.

In the interest of space, I will be brief, so please understand that parts of this might be better suited to a frank discussion over a cup of coffee. Which I would gladly oblige, should you require more information from me.

First, a few disclaimers:

I don't hate Christians.

There is a massive distinction that needs to be made concerning the difference between Christianity as a religion and Christianity as a spiritual guide. My main gripes concern how the church at large operates, and not with its individual participants.

I realize that there are exceptions to the rule.

I know that not all churches are the same; it would be ignorant to assume such a thing. However, I do think that there are overriding concerns with the church, especially given that it is so pervasive in American culture. When I speak of "the church", I will be speaking very, very broadly of Christian culture and citing evidence from my personal experience and current events. Obviously, this is a blog and not a venue for academic research and interpretation; therefore, I reserve the right to my own opinions without having to cite every jot and tittle.

I'm not a bitter person.

Many people who know me well may be quick to point out that my experience with Christian culture in my "home church" has not been a very positive one (which I will address in more detail later) and that I shouldn't judge based on that alone. This is fair, and to that end I would respond that I don't, in fact, base my decisions on this singular factor, but on a variety of experiences. It's no secret that my experience in the church I grew up in was quite negative at times, but I hold no bitterness towards that church in general or to its members (some of whom are more responsible than others for my negative experience).

Ok! With all that being said, here are a few of the reasons I don't attend church and Anne Rice'd it out of there:

1. I find church to be a place where intolerance is condoned and tolerance is considered sinful.

I've always been considered to be a bit of a rebel (although I am, undoubtedly, one of the lamest "rebels" in the history of rebellion), and I struggled to find my place within church culture. In high school, while attending my home church, "rebelling" meant that I liked loud, non-mainstream music, non-mainstream fashion, and, my most heinous crime, had doubts about my faith. Instead of being accepted for my differences (which, in another light may have been viewed as a very unique "in" for witnessing), I was ostracized from my youth group, which eventually led me to seek other church options.

I attended this church from elementary school all the way through high school on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights; I am still amazed that after the countless hours spent investing in this youth group (and many, many trips and activities) that I did not make a single friend. I fully admit that part of this was my social anxiety and desire to be accepted (hello, teenage years!), but I also believe that there is something deeply flawed in a culture which encourages this degree of exclusivity.

Even though it states in, arguably, the most-quoted Bible verse ever that "God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son..." I have seen, over and over again, that the Christian church only seems to "love" members within the church, and individuals outside of Christian culture are exempt from this "love". Bryan and I both remember a specific object lesson, taught in both our separate youth groups, that illustrated the danger of having secular friends; ask one person to stand on a chair, and then see which task is easier: pulling someone onto the chair with you, or being pulled off the chair. Naturally, it's much easier to pull someone off the chair (something called gravity), but this was supposed to show us that we should have Christian friends to fellowship with and to be cautious of secular influences.

I understand the premise. I really do. However, this relegated me to a very uncomfortable position: I couldn't even make friends within my church group, and "secular people" were only in existence so that I could witness to them, so what was I to do? I made secular friends. Friends from other churches. Friends more radically "Christian" than my fellow youth-group goers. This divisive nature, this "Christians vs. non-Christians" attitude is deeply troubling. Although witnessing is a key part of Christian culture, this is an entirely ineffective strategy. How are Christians to influence other people (and lead them to Christ), while condemning their lifestyle or clothes or language or situation or...?

At least consider this: look around when you're in church. Who is in your congregation? Does it reflect that witnessing is reaching a diverse group of people? Are there people in the pews with different colored skin? Piercings? Tattoos? Rich, poor and in-between? People with different interests, ideas, and beliefs? Or does church just reinforce your own identity and way of being?

When was the last time you sought out a relationship with someone of differing opinion?

2. Christian culture refuses to grapple with the hate in its past (and current hate).

One of the pillars of Christianity is that, ostensibly, God never changes. However, this Christian God, who remains the same throughout the ages, is also responsible for the moral imperative behind witch hunts, the Crusades, anti-Semitism, and, more recently, Islamaphobia. History is a very, very good reminder of the abuses of the church, yet Christians seems content in a blissful ignorance of the hurt they have caused in Christ's name. When taken to task for these abuses, Christians are willing to admit that these events are the result of misinterpretations of God's word, but no one is presently guilty of the same behavior.

During the Civil Rights movement, Christians used the Bible as evidence that interracial marriage was an abomination (today we would find this rather preposterous), yet some modern theologians deny these similarities to the Gay Rights movement. Whatever banner the Church is currently flying is assumed to be undeniably correct and God-ordained, while past grievances are quickly swept under the rug. To be effective, I would contend that the Christian church needs to air these grievances and think critically about what these incidents say about Christian culture and mans' fallibility.

*As this post has grown rather lengthy, I will expand this to separate entries. More to come in the future! I hope readers will recognize that I have attempted to take a stab at this topic with dignity and caution; if I have offended, I apologize in advance.

**Also, it bears noting that many of these ideas were inspired by a recent read by Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist fame called "I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes". Although all of the above is my own opinion, I have been wanting to air them in a public space after reading his provocative and insightful book (which is a great read for all Christian churchgoers).


  1. Wowwy!! I want to respond but definitely want to ponder your post before doing so :)

  2. But of course, darling! I would totally value your opinion. P.S. What have you been up to recently? Bryan and I were reminiscing about the New Years party a while back. :)

  3. Ah, I'm quite glad you read Hemant's book. He is an awesome dude. Plus he is a math teacher which makes him clearly even more awesome!

  4. I believe he lives in Chicago, doesn't he? I feel like I saw that somewhere...

  5. Very interesting read. Totally agree with point #1. Think we could have a nice multi coffee cup conversation about that. : ).

    As for #2, we must be in completely different churches. I am not seeing that at all. Not saying it isn't there...just saying, not my experience. We do attend a kinda hippy church. : )

    I look forward to reading more about this. This was a very well thought out and insightful post.

  6. Sean: I guess there isn't a really concise way to talk about it (because everything is tied up in everything else, so it gets complicated). But let me see if I can say it in a different way...

    So! I think that "the church" needs to at least acknowledge its own fallibility (and therefore adopt some humility). History shows us that there have been "mistakes" made in Christian culture's past that have resulted in millions upon millions of people dying heinous deaths in the name of Christ. (One way to torture a woman into admitting she was a witch was to put a container of rats upside down onto the woman's torso. They only had one way to the rats would eat their way out.)

    Knowing things like that (I could go on and on about the atrocities that the church has committed) I'd like to see "church" admit that the people instructing others on how to live their lives, what to wear, what to say, how to witness are simply mortal men interpreting the Bible (sometimes with their own agendas in mind). I think it's important that congregations know this; people should be as informed of an organizations hangups as they are of its strengths.

  7. I thought of you as I was in church on Sunday (yes, I'm the oddball kid that still goes to church to meditate...residual Catholic guilt, I guess)...anyway, the sermon was rather discriminatory against other faiths (he was ragging on Muslims). It was the first time I got up and left in the middle of Mass...ever. Probably won't go there anymore. I'm proud of you for voicing your beliefs/opinions on the whole matter. More of you need to speak up! :)

  8. I just saw your post from a link on Hemant's blog, Friendly Atheist. I recognize my own 'de-conversion' process in some of what you write. I just wanted to point out that you don't actually owe anybody anything. You don't owe it to them to explain yourself. You haven't done anything wrong or even all that radical. You've made a personal change in your life that is just that: Personal.

    I'm not saying you shouldn't explain where you're coming from to the people you love and care about -- by all means, have the coffee! :) I'm just saying, you don't owe them anything. Going into it feeling like you do starts the conversation from an unequal position, as if you've done something wrong. And you haven't. If your experience is anything like mine was, you suspect (probably correctly) that they may be hurt from your actions; but really, you haven't done anything hurtful. If they are feeling hurt, that is on them to figure out.

  9. Hi, Amanda! Like Charlie, I see much of my own experience in this post -- the blog I wrote during my experience was even called, "Oh, for the love of GOD..." (Once I realized I'd stopped believing entirely, I had to change the name. D'oh.) Anyway, examining your thoughts and feelings honestly is the best thing you can do for yourself, no matter what conclusion you reach. It may strengthen your faith or end your faith, but regardless, it will strengthen your relationship with yourself!

    Best wishes to you.

  10. PQ: You have my express permission to do whatever you damn well please, so long as it brings no harm to others. (Because I know you were totally looking for MY permission to do that!) Regardless, I know you as an intellectual, justice-loving worm-hunter, and that you personally don't prescribe to the more hate-filled parts of the doctrine, so if you get something out of attending Mass (for residual guilt reasons or otherwise), then you get it, girl. :)

    Charlie: it's SO true that I haven't done anything radical at all! I don't consider myself to really have anything out of the ordinary to say, but my family's perspective on the matter is quite the opposite.

    I totally agree with you in theory, but when dealing with the occasionally convoluted faith-train that is the entirety of my extended family, I DO feel that I owe them an explanation. I don't need to devote my life to defending myself and my choices, family ties run deep, and religious ties run even deeper. I suppose I would think that I wasn't doing right by them to hide it under the proverbial bushel basket.

    meander: Ha ha...that made me laugh a little. Thanks for the kind words! :)

  11. Having been raised in a Baptist household and church myself, the parallels with your experience are uncanny.

    I predict that your reasons for leaving the church are echoed by many, many people today. If you listen to pastors nowadays, you will certainly hear them bemoaning the fact that church attendance is at an all-time low, especially among young people. What you won't hear is an honest discussion of why that is, and how to fix it. Pastors, take note, *this* is why we're leaving!

  12. Very nice post. I'll look forward to your next one.

  13. If you want to protect a child from disease, there are two basic approaches: 1) keep her in a bubble where she'll never be exposed to germs, or 2) give her antibodies and give her a strong immune system so that when she goes outside, she can fight off the diseases she runs across.

    The insular attitude you describe above sounds like the "bubble" approach, and as such, I think it constitutes a tacit admission of defeat: if the church in question had good answers to outsiders' questions and were able to teach these answers to their members in such a way that they could explain this to outsiders, then it wouldn't need to tell its members to hide in the bubble.

  14. Excellent post. There are so many others who have been through and felt what you have. Thank you.

  15. I find myself torn between the Catholic I was told I should be and the Catholic that I aspire to be. Some days, I feel like the concept of church is archaic and mindless... other days I find myself compelled to go and worship because it cleanses me. I'm always at odds with what I feel the bible actually teaches and how our religious leaders have interpreted them. Your entry is a well worded culmination of that which I have struggled with most of my adult life but have been unable to put to words.

    I once heard someone refer to Catholics as "the Lazy Christians" because we read the bible the least (in comparison to other forms of Christianity) and yet try to tell others how to live and evangelize.

    Your entry makes me wish that I could help Catholicism to evolve (like any creature that survives), although I suppose that phrase within itself is probably considered blasphemous.

    So much I want to say, but I can't find a way to properly express them. Sigh.

  16. Hi Amanda. Pointed here by Hemant. Good on you for taking a look at the church and finding your own path. I found what you wrote here in the comments interesting:

    "the people instructing others on how to live their lives, what to wear, what to say, how to witness are simply mortal men interpreting the Bible (sometimes with their own agendas in mind)"

    Have you ever considered taking that conclusion to the next logical step? The men who told the stories that were written down decades or even centuries later were simply mortal men with their own agendas. The men who wrote the texts collected in the bible were simply mortals with their own agendas. The men who decided what books to include were men with their own agendas. The men who translated, copied, edited, and interpreted those texts across the centuries.... well, you get the idea.

  17. When I wrote this post, I wasn't considering the validity of the religion itself so much as the way it does its business. My opinion of the "truthiness" of Christianity is really irrelevant to this particular critique of what arensb aptly calls the "bubble approach" of the Christian church.

    I find that many parts of Biblical teaching are quite worthy (especially many of the teachings of Jesus), although I can't say I've benefitted personally or developed spiritually as a result of being a Christian. I find great comfort in the fact that the Christians in my life who adopt very humanist viewpoints (although they wouldn't call them that) have the same reservations and anger at some of these tenants of the church.

    Also, I find it really interesting that some people from the FA crowd are really sweating the worth of this post because of doubt as to whether or not I'm an atheist. There have been a few comments (on FA) that actually seem to be thinly veiled contempt at the idea that I might still be a Christian. Seems to me that these ideas are simply that...ideas. Colorless, odorless, religiousless ideas. I wonder if they would be taken more seriously if I came out as an atheist (or less if I came out as a Christian?).

    At any rate, that information, in my three-year-old voice, if for me to know and you to find out when I'm ready. After all, it's me who's fending off the phone calls and emails desperate to convert me or "bring me back on the straight and narrow", not them. So, ever so politely, please go suck it. :)

  18. Following the ideals of Jesus doesn't make you a Christian, interestingly. Christianity made that quite clear in the Nicene Creed for example. And evangelicals constantly stress that you absolutely have to accept Jesus as your savior. There is no way to be a Christian without buying into the supernatural. That alone shows how wrong the whole thing went - and rather quickly in the span of maybe 300 years.

    Jesus's teachings are nice in part, but they are hardly complex and revolutionary. They are some simple rules that can be found in many other cultures. Just about every major religion has its own version of the golden rule for example.

    Anyways, don't be offended by those comments. Atheists will respect you for breaking away from organized religion too. Personal spirituality isn't that much a problem. Especially if it's of a somewhat undefined variety. Some may think it's wrong, but it's harmless. The threat to individuals and mankind in general comes from organized religion and churches.

  19. I really appreciate your story, and I can see many parallels to things I've gone through. Thank you.

  20. Very good points from StefS; I might devote a future post to the difference between living a life inspired by Jesus' teachings and living life as a Christian. One is a rather noble pursuit (the best examples of Christian individuals in my life have the kindest, most gentle people who are willing to admit when hate leaks into the doctrine; I'm not saying those characteristics are exclusively Christian, by any stretch of the imagination, but I HAVE seen excellent examples of lives led by Jesus' teachings) while the other is poisonous, ignorant, and political.

    But you're absolutely right. :)

    And to those who have had similar stories, I'd love to hear how they were the same or different. I've heard of so many escape routes from the church! And I'm glad that some people have found some sort of comfort in my sharing.

  21. Amanda, you are right. Ignorance has lead many groups of people through history into decisions that now seem barbaric.

    My hope is your negative experiences won't cloud your judgement and you will be able to evaluate all religious world views with the same weight and respect as you go through your quest for truth and insight.

    I totally agree. Christians do tend to not know much / want to acknowledge the dirty truth about the actions of those who have come before us.
    I look forward to reading more posts. : )

  22. Reminds me of how I had to point out to a Mormon friend that his church had set up a no-lose set of rules for god: If someone claims to have divine guidance for their actions and all goes right, hooray for god. If the plan fails, the person was just misinterpreting god's message. All failures go to humans, all success to god.