Four days ago, for the second time this year, I went to church. Some months ago an elderly friend died, through whose funeral – an Anglican affair, dusty and impersonal if dignified – I sat with family members; it was the first I ever attended, and on Saturday, also for the first time, two friends of mine got married.
Both knew me via interfaith exchanges and had wondered, I later learned, how likely my attendance was. Though I’d met them through a project which meant much to me, considered them good friends and was touched to be invited, despite our differences, to an event important to them, those differences remained: they were evangelicals, wed in Oxford’s most evangelical church, where I was an atheist hostile (and happily so) toward religion – moreover, a queer, polyamorous one of anti-marriage politics. It’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to my principles than a church wedding – but nonetheless, my friends’ was meaningful for them, and I was honoured to be invited.
With any luck, you’re beginning to sense cognitive dissonance. I attended this wedding to share in my friends’ happiness, not disparage its origins. Unliksie at my old friend’s funeral, or Christmas services through which atheists sit to please their parents, it wasn’t enough to put up with the ceremony – I wanted actively to enjoy it, and the point of my write-up here is to relate how it felt to attempt this. It’s one thing to let sermons fly over your head in secular passivity, putting aside the impulse to roll one’s eyes; it’s another, as a queer atheist marriagephobe in the pews, to grasp for a slice of the happy couple’s joy.
Without wishing to disappoint the groom, then, who asked that my account hold nothing back, this piece isn’t about what I found objectionable, but about my attempts to negotiate and ignore them while enjoying the proceedings and finding joy in them. I hope if you’re an atheist, or as uncomfortable at wedding services as I am, this post provides some thoughts on experiencing them with positivity, and that if you’re planning one as a serious believer, it helps you relate to your secular guests.
I doubt I’d succeed at either of these goals, though, if I didn’t outline what felt alien or uncomfortable.
To a great extent, all marriage involving the state makes my knuckles itch: to recognise some relationship structures as worthier than others (via the civil register or reference in law), or otherwise assume the state has anything to say about the legitimacy of our sexual and romantic choices, makes me uneasy. This goes for all state marriages (and civil partnerships), whether in churches or not, however secular or ‘progressive’. It’s a broad gripe, and not one overtly bugs me at weddings or stops me enjoying them, but a gripe I think bears mentioning nonetheless.
To a greater extent still, there are tropes and memes embedded in our marital traditions which I find unsettling, and which often appear around wholly secular nuptials. There is sexism, of course: in the idea of the bride’s white dress denoting virginity-therefore-purity (and, before that, wealth-therefore-beauty); in words like ‘husband’ and ‘groom’, suggestive more of an animal-keeper than a lover or partner; in the general heteronormative asymmetry of the bride and groom’s gendered roles; in the clichéd proffering of an engagement ring during proposals, as if to purchase love with shiny items of jewellery; in the possessive notion its presence will discourage unwanted suitors; in the ‘giving away’ of its wearer by her father, and his traditional payment for festivities, the relics of a time when daughters were commodities for trade.
There’s monogamy-worship too – the implicit treatment of lifelong, two-partner exclusivity as the only valid way to live and love – in our customs of congratulating the recently engaged and of applauding their marriage’s pronouncement, as if forming such a relationship were a greater achievement than forming a different kind; in our reference to friends’ wedding days as ‘the happiest of their life’, as if no one ever married more than once; in our statements the couple will be together ‘for the rest of their lives’, when half of marriages end in divorce. Our kidding ourselves about this suggests the dissolution of a marriage is shameful or humiliating, rather than a natural, often faultless development, and contributes to the idea relationships which don’t last till we die are worthless failures.
And it’s true, as well, that the religious elements at this wedding – the references to existential sin and shame, the implicitly homophobic, transphobic descriptions of marital relationships depending on ‘male’ and ‘female’ anatomy, the assertion of divine insistence that wives submit to husbands, and the direct instruction of the bride to speak to hers in a soft voice – made relating to it hard for me. There was the statement no married or loving relationship could succeed without God, the readings from scripture, the hymns involving blood and sacrifice; the question, directed at the congregation, will you pray for and support them in their marriage?
For all but the wateriest non-realists, prayer requires spiritual beliefs, of which I hold none – I wouldn’t be capable of it even if the idea appealed. While I hope my friends’ time together is filled with joy, and to be there for them if ever they should need me, I’m an atheist, and any claim I planned to pray for them would be a lie. I could no more join the collective We will in good conscience than the hymns or actual prayers of the ceremony, for which I remained quietly seated, head unbowed.
My instant urge is to defend myself from accusations of disrespect or spitefulness. I’ve witnessed discussions among atheists on how to conduct oneself in church for loved ones’ funerals or weddings, many of which inspired this post, and some of which involved the instruction to sing along, avoid making a scene and not be a dick. On entering the church, in fact, I sat discreetly in a small pew toward the back corner so as not to draw attention or seem hostile, curmudgeonly or insincere; the ceremony, after all, wasn’t about me.
Still, there are two things I’d ask here.
Firstly: why is atheists’ partial non-participation in rituals like these interpreted as spiteful, aggressive, insensitive and generally typical of negative atheist stereotypes – why did I fear I’d be perceived this way on selecting my seat, and why have I seen this characterisation of it elsewhere – when identical behaviour by non-Christian believers is viewed as peaceful, pious and worthy of respect? If I’d refrained from worshipping Christ because I was a devout Muslim or Jew, I can’t help feeling no one would doubt this showed my principles’ integrity, not disdain for the Christian couple or congregation; as an atheist, I worried I might give the latter impression. I don’t think all beliefs are equally valid (the contradictory ones couldn’t be), or claim to respect ones I think are false (the acid test for respecting beliefs, one can’t help feeling, is adopting them), but why is the conscientious value I attach to secular convictions deemed less legitimate than that which any believer attaches to their faith?
Secondly: given my friends knew on inviting me that I was an unbeliever; given they’ve heard me speak at length about why this is, and how little love I have for Christianity’s claims, surely to stand praisin’ Jesus among the crowd would be an insult? Surely it would ignore the reality of our friendship, which centres around our conflicting beliefs and has grown because of, not in spite of them? Surely the person they invited to witness their marriage was someone they knew to be secular in the ‘aggressive’, tabloid-paper sense – surely they wanted me there, and not a pretence? That ceremony was important to them. While I don’t share their belief in the ceremony’s sacredness, at least in a theistic sense, I can acknowledge it; and to lie to my friends on a day sacrosanct to them, behaving with no integrity, seems like a desecration – a transgression almost akin to blasphemy. (Almost.)
As it turned out, there was much about this wedding which I enjoyed, and which I focused on appreciating. One half of the couple was American, the other South African, and the service mixed national customs intriguingly: the wearing of dinner jackets to weddings, a U.S. habit which continues to mystify me, was dispensed with in favour of traditional morning dress (albeit it outfitted with a large, rather striking white rose instead of a carnation), but the maid-of-honour’s distinctive procession – bobbing recognisably down the aisle before, not after, the bride – remained in place. Brooke Fraser’s ‘Love is Waiting’ was sung, deftly, in place of Mendelssohn or Handel, as novel and interesting a departure from tradition as the playing of James Brown to close the service, and on standing for the entrance of the bride I was aware the church was unusually bright and airy for one of its age.
Of all the spaces I might have been in, this was a good one, and I blocked out the Jesus-songs to concentrate on appreciating that, besides the pleasant music and the happiness of my friends. (While I abstained from all the hymns, some were better than others; I should probably admit a soft spot for ‘Be Thou My Vision’.) Afterward, undulating through buffet tables laden with cakes and appetising, unusually plentiful soft drinks, which spread end to end across a tennis court sized room, I thanked the musicians for performing as well as they had, wished the newlyweds the best of times together and socialised with mutual friends, bumping occasionally into their family members.
To focus on drawing enjoyment from all of the above and not the elements which troubled me, so as to share a portion of my friends’ happiness, took a certain amount of cognitive effort. It was, after all, a situational compromise. When I attend religious events, as I did last summer, it’s usually to provide secular commentary and criticism, and I think in general that preachers who teach existential shame to children (several were present) and advocate poor gender politics deserve to be challenged. But this wasn’t for my presence on Saturday, and would have come between me and what I was there to do – namely, sharing an important moment non-judgementally with people I like. Dwelling on the less comfortable aspects was an intuitive but undesirable temptation, an itch not to be scratched, and devoting concentration to the positives meant assuming a perspective very unfamiliar to me, like squinting or tilting one’s to the side in a museum so as to appreciate a work of art’s hidden details. Squinting mentally for the best part of an hour, especially when bombarded with things you’re used to scrutinising with a burning stare, is difficult: it required a degree of self-awareness and mindset-control rarely asked of me.
And this is why, when the person in the next seat began to evangelise, my temper frayed.
As I waited for things to start, he had asked if the place was free, and we exchanged the usual pleasantries. When my hometown came up, so did his attendance of its annual evangelical convention, and to stem any awkwardness should he assume I was a Christian, I casually volunteered my atheism. Beyond being told he was an atheist but became a Christian, there was little follow-through until after the service, when he asked if I was secular-minded for any particular reason. My response – that in the absence of a God-shaped hole inside me, I simply don’t find religions’ claims convincing – seemed not to satisfy him, and he took to asking which churches in Oxford I’d attended and how many times, before inviting me to the weekly Christianity Explored discussion group. (I shan’t be going. He might be glad of this.)
In other contexts, I wouldn’t mind so much. I’m a believer, on the whole, in defending the beliefs by which we live, and not against arguing about who’s right. In the meetings from which I knew the bride and groom, I was hotseated more often than anyone, and I didn’t resent this – I enjoyed it, in fact. But isn’t there a time and a place for this? My statement I didn’t believe wasn’t an invitation to grill me, but a heads-up, a (perhaps too) subtle message not to engage me in prayer or worship should the time come, an attempt to have my partial non-participation read as an act of sincerity, not spite. If he’d really been desperate to take me to task, I’d have happily supplied my e-mail address or directed him to this blog, but as it was, I attended this wedding to honour my friends, not defend my worldview or interrogate theirs, and the energy it took not to breathe fire on him for doorstepping me this way was energy I needed to focus on mental squinting; on forgetting about worldviews and enjoying my surroundings.
If you should find yourself the believer in this scenario, non-atheist readers, don’t interpret your neighbour’s statement of atheism as summons to interrogate them; it’s likely that at this moment, beliefs are the last thing they want to discuss. Don’t raise the standard of your former non-belief as a smug, I-used-to-be-an-atheist standard – just because you changed your mind doesn’t mean you should have – and don’t imply you therefore understand their perspective while acting in a way that shows you don’t. And don’t assume, without a shade of self-awareness, that your interlocutor was never a believer or knows nothing about your religion, inviting them to come and think about what Bible says.
In any case, I’m glad I attended – whatever the cause, two thoroughly happy friends was a pleasing sight on my last weekend in Oxford. All that remains is to say what I would have said, if asked to offer a secular prayer for the ceremony.
As an atheist, I don’t think love can last forever. As a skeptic, I don’t believe in any ultimate design for our relationships – whether God’s, the fates’ or the aligning planets’ – and I recognise it’s significantly likely any marriage will end in divorce.
I know: you’re glad I didn’t say this there and then. But there’s a serious point to be made about our mysticism around partnering: when people are forthright and realistic about relationships, we deem them unromantic and cold-hearted. This is what the atheist comedian Tim Minchin discusses in his song ‘If I Didn’t Have You’; we imagine that the only proper way to acknowledge love is with grandiose, wildly improbable declarations about destiny or everlasting emotional bonds. I think, conversely, that acknowledging love’s own wild improbability is a promising means by which to celebrate it.
The odds of live on earth in the first place are wicked slim; add to that the challenge of being born, and the startling unlikelihood of matter, memory and experience assembling into you, and individual selfhood for a start is a thing uncanny. It seems at least doubly unlikely, then, to meet another individual so well suited to you that you want to share large portions of your life with them – and yet it happens, again and again.
No, these kinds of partnerships don’t last forever, and most don’t last for life, but meeting partners with whom we want to form them is itself phenomenal. I’ve practiced polyamory in great part because I’m not the best fit for many people, but am a good fit for plenty, and have shared parts of my existence joyously with them. For however long their marriage lasts, and whatever its passage entails, it’s pretty extraordinary that my friends should find one another as complementary as they seem to. This kind of total, permanent monogamy is a comparative erotic neologism – it flies in the face of our species’ history and our brains’ evolution, wired on the whole for something broader and more various. Love like this is always star-crossed, in a sense, ignoring its own improbability in human flesh and an indifferent universe, occurring nonetheless. That, one might say, is almost miraculous. Almost.