Atheism in the house of God

One thing that still befuddles me, years after leaving the church, is when to go back and what to do while I’m there. That is, when friends or family are involved in serious events — basically weddings and funerals — ceremonies that tend to be religious in execution, but human in nature. (On a side note, if you’d like to invite me to your confirmation or bar mitzvah, I’ll gladly and personally congratulate you on your coming of age at the reception. I hope you have cake.)

But anyway, at the happy or somber occasions I find myself in church, there’s a lot of group participation that I’m not sure if I should participate in, or how much. Having attended many funerals as an altar boy, I remember how the priest, at communion time, would explain that communion itself (taking what they hold to be the body and blood of Jesus) was strictly for the Catholics, but everyone else was free to come up for a blessing. That’s about all the priest had to do to cover a mixed audience…of Christians…who could easily pray their own prayers, too, if their personal theologies differed from Catholic verse and creed. And to a certain extent this works if you’re Jewish, or Hindu, or believe in at least one deity.

What does this atheist do, though? Typically it seems acceptable to listen attentively and respectfully, and bow my head when directed; I’ll even try to make use of those moments to reflect on philosophy or religion. I felt better about some of my non-participation when I embraced the joke that the Catholics don’t sing, either; and they tend to murmur the prayers, if at all. Mrmm, hmmnnmrghm, amen. You can’t hear my silence in their quietude. I maintain my inconspicuity at Catholic churches by knowing when to sit, stand, and kneel (I usually sit for that, these days), and in other churches, I’m just another befuddled outsider doing my best to follow along. Ho hum, that boy must be Presbyterian.

There are situations this doesn’t really work, though. About a month ago I was a groomsman to one of my friends, who married his wife in a Catholic church. So I wasn’t the focus, but definitely was up in front of a couple hundred people, and wracking my brain to mesh my quiet nonbelief with flowing with the ceremony. Time to bow my head, I can work with that. Sign of peace, this hippie is definitely down with that. Um, the priest is asking us to say amen. Do I say amen? How loud?

I mostly mumbled. Imagine that, Catholic after all! Heheh.

Some amens, of course, are different from others. An amen can mean “Yes, heavenly father,” or it can be more of a, “Hear, hear,” in which case I’m pretty okay with echoing the enrobed MC.

If I have any readers yet, I have to wonder if someone already has a methodology figured out for times like these: How do you handle attending a service at a church of another faith, or, if you’re atheist, what do you do at a religious service, period? Where do you compromise (where do you draw the line?) and how much do you participate?

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  • Comments (2)
    • Billp
    • October 17th, 2010

    I’ll tell you how I do it – I stand/sit there quietly and try not to yawn. I remind myself that I’m there for friends or family and that my respect belongs to them and not the service. I don’t bow my head; I do look around for other freethinkers who’ve been dragged there (they’re probably looking around too). Cheers from KY.

    • Christopher Jones
    • October 17th, 2010

    I don’t bow my head either, if anyone notices they were looking around too. I think the worst is a prayer before a meal. Catholics have memorized prayers but most others free form which leads to “Father I just want to thank you and we just are so grateful to be together.” Doesn’t sound so bad until you start noticing all the ‘just’s that get in there. Then it’s hard not to laugh because there will be at least one per phrase. I’m always hoping my nieces and nephews will notice I don’t pray and ask me about it. I think it is good for kids to realize not everyone believes what their family does.

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