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Jun 23 2013

An atheist goes to church: Federated Church of Morris

Today I attended the Federated Church of Morris. I’ve actually been here many times before in a different capacity — it’s where my district goes to vote (but that’s a different bag of worms to complain about). It also has a reputation as the most liberal church in Morris, so this is where a lot of the believing faculty go, and I suspect most of the registered Democrats in town.

So I was not at all surprised at all of the effete decadence I saw going down in there.

First, the service starts at the odd hour of 9:30 — they just have to be out of phase with the rest of the town. One of the notable things I saw at the other churches was their remarkable punctiliousness, with every service starting precisely on the hour, and ending exactly one hour later. Not the Federated Church; they were a little more casual with their time, starting 5 minutes late, and the service went on for an hour and a quarter. I know, you’re already shocked, but the worst is yet to come.

Unlike the other churches, we were asked to stand once at the beginning (and then, only “if you are able”) and once at the end. I could spend the whole dang hour and a quarter with my butt firmly pressed against my seat (And, of course, the pews were padded, but then that seems to be par for the course here in degenerate Morris). My knees did not get a workout in this place at all.

The pastor is a woman, and the opening hymn even included a line about “Mother God”. The church isn’t even organized traditionally. There was a central altar, and the pews were arranged in the round around it. Or, should I say, since there were 5 banks of pews, they were arranged rather pentagonally…or perhaps [duh-duh-DUUUUHH!!] pentagrammatically.

So, anyway, so far it seems to be my kind of place. Thumbs up on ambience and clientele and hosts. What about the content?

And that, alas, was all too typical. Hymns, prayers, and invocations of some dude named Jesus all over the place; readings from some stodgy old book; a list of prayer recipients we were supposed to remember. Somebody has been giving the pastor lessons in good pedagogy, because rather than lecturing at us, she called for active participation from the audience. If only the interactions had been interesting! We had a blank page in the papers we were handed at the beginning, and she asked us to come up for names for their god — and so people were offering up happy pablum, like “love” and “service” and “parent” and so forth. I was coming up with names that I would not have wanted to utter in the respectful atmosphere of a church, so it’s a good thing she didn’t call on me. I think the nicest things floating around in my head were “nothing”, “ghost”, and “nonsense”, and even those would have been disruptive to use. So I kept silent.

Don’t ever say I don’t know how to be polite!

Unfortunately, despite the well-meaning attitudes of this congregation, all I heard was a lot of mumbo-jumbo. I’m afraid that even the mildest of Christian habits, praising a non-existent god, is as nonsensical to me as going to a charismatic church and seeing people twitching on the ground, chanting “FALAFA DOOBA SHADA BAKA LAKA ZALA FA NA”. It left me cold, bored, and wondering what the heck people got out of this repetitive fantasy. It’s sad. I think they were all good people, but they have this need to dress up humanitarian good-heartedness with goofy old legends, and for some, I’m sure, the goofiness is the point. But I can’t share that view.

So I’m hanging this project up. The Federated church would have been the high point of my experience, I’m sure — these are my kind of people, except for the religion thing — and it would all be downhill from here. There was still our local biblical literalists, the Apostolic Christian Church, and the Morris Assembly of God, and the Kingdom Hall, but those folks be batboinking nuts, and I think I could only get a worse opinion of religion by visiting those. So that’s enough. I’ve had a charitable sampling of local faith.

Also, I’ve got to tell you — church services are goddamned boring. I think that’s how the tediously dull game of football got to be such a big sport in this country — they only had to be less boring than church.

49 comments

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  1. 1
    Sili

    So I’m hanging this project up.

    Quitter.

    Dance, Monkeyboy! Dance!

    You’re here to entertain us!

  2. 2
    duce7999

    Please consider one more, I was raised A of G (PK even) and I would love to hear your take on it.

  3. 3
    Neil Rickert

    Also, I’ve got to tell you — church services are goddamned boring.

    That’s already a good argument for atheism.

  4. 4
    wpjoe

    I agree with duce, you should consider going to one of the more charismatic, evangelical places. I haven’t been in years, and only in rural GA, but the ones I visited were far from boring. There was dancing in the spirit, speaking in tongues, and the most interesting thing was the preacher’s way of preaching. He kind of yelled at us for an hour and a half. He “whooped” at the end of each sentence because he had used all his air each time. It can be entertaining.

  5. 5
    David Marjanović

    Oh, I agree on the boredom. Years and years and years of weekly boredom…

    You’re here to entertain us!

    “We love to entertain you”, however, is © RTL.

    I think that’s how the tediously dull game of football got to be such a big sport in this country — they only had to be less boring than church.

    I’m ROTFL, because it’s true!

    and I would love to hear your take on it.

    You already did: “those folks be batboinking nuts”. :-)

  6. 6
    kevinalexander

    “FALAFA DOOBA SHADA BAKA LAKA ZALA FA NA”.

    Are you kidding!?!!
    You just summoned Boringu, the meanest demon from the bottom circle of Hell!
    When he gets heere he’ll suck out yo brayne an make you Believe! in Jesus!!

  7. 7
    inflection

    Would have been kind of interesting to hear PZ’s report of the one craziest church in town, whichever one is the most fundy… but no, I’d never make someone go to church just to see fireworks.

  8. 8
    Artor

    Aww, so soon? I was hoping you’d try some of the non-Xtian services around there. What is your impression of a visit to a mosque? A synagogue? A pagan service? You just missed the summer solstice; I’m sure there was a nice big gathering you could have checked out. I totally support abandoning the Xian churches, since most of your readers will already be familiar with those, but please investigate further afield.

  9. 9
    Draken

    I was looking forward to PZ undergoing auditing until level OT VIII.

  10. 10
    Sastra

    Since the Federated Church of Morris sounds exactly like the sort of church gnu atheists are supposed to be ‘ignoring’ in our critiques, then it’s probably the most important church for PZ to attend. He’s suppose to hand them the Atheist Seal of Approval and wax eloquent over how all his objections about religion and faith just melt away now.

    We had a blank page in the papers we were handed at the beginning, and she asked us to come up for names for their god — and so people were offering up happy pablum, like “love” and “service” and “parent” and so forth.

    This is one of the popular ways to make it seem like ‘humanism’ is one of the options for religion. Pretend “God” is just a metaphor or symbol for something which makes sense. Then pretend it doesn’t matter whether you reify the abstraction or not.

    …And then pretend that it’s really, really important to reify that abstraction and make it into some sort of mystical spiritual essence. But only after PZ leaves.

  11. 11
    PZ Myers

    There is no non-christian church in town.

  12. 12
    Holms

    So I’m hanging this project up.

    Not sure why you started it, to be honest – none of what you ‘found out’ was all that surprising.

  13. 13
    grumpyoldfart

    How much money do you reckon the preacher scores in the collection plate during services?

  14. 14
    bodie425

    I sort of agree with Holms, don’t waste another hour, not including prep time, in such a fruitless endeavor.

  15. 15
    coragyps

    Ooh, PZed, you are depriving yourself terribly by not going to a speaking-in-tongues sort of place. I got talked into that once by a coworker. My young bride spent an hour looking for her dress that reached nearest her knees and elbows before she would go. When the little old lady immediately behind us started imitating a hen that had just laid an egg, we left.

  16. 16
    Sastra

    Holms #12 wrote:

    Not sure why you started it, to be honest – none of what you ‘found out’ was all that surprising.

    PZ gave several reasons when he began . It was “research.”

    Keep in mind that one of the major criticisms of gnu atheism is that the gnu atheists focus too much on the theology and not enough on the practice (this is in addition of course to the major criticism which complains that the gnu atheists focus too much on the practice and not enough on the theology.) The beauty and majesty of religion lies in the ritual, the ceremony, the Sunday service which uplifts and inspires. It’s like art or music –and like personal therapy and group hugs — combined. Really. Those damn atheists wouldn’t be so critical if they only saw what it was really like. Worship in groups is moving in a way that atheism can never move. But atheists hate religion so much they won’t even think of finding this out.

    Okay; so PZ gave it a fair shot.

    Trouble is, the magic only happens if you are expecting magic, anticipating magic, experiencing magic, and/or willing to find magic in very small things. That’s called the ‘faith attitude.’

  17. 17
    Dick the Damned

    I couldn’t attend a church service under any (realistic) circumstances. I think that PZ should be congratulated for his perseverance & tolerance, & we should find a new leader.

    Okay, maybe that was a tad too hasty.

  18. 18
    Duth Olec

    I… thought… the point of this was to get a worse opinion of religion?

  19. 19
    evodevo

    I agree with Duce – you haven’t been unless you’ve been to an A of G service. No particular starting time – could go a couple hours, could go all day. No organization here ! Our son was a convert in his teens (to our endless chagrin) and they had a rock band, so we went to show solidarity (?). People wandering in and out, while the elders were up front emotionally bullying some poor adolescent male to accept Jeebus (it went on for over half an hour), someone moaning in a corner of the sanctuary – no one seemed to think this was out of place. Luckily, no one approached us. PZ may not have been so lucky. It’s certainly NOT boring.
    On the other hand, having observed a few of their services, it is quite apparent that they cherry-pick scripture to “analyze”, they go after the emotionally fragile and desperate, people with health issues are a big fraction of their congregations – the very same demographic who converted in the highest numbers 2000 years ago.

  20. 20
    Nemo

    Yeah, I was thinking the nuts might be less boring.

  21. 21
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Not sure what you were hoping to learn here.

  22. 22
    davidgentile

    2 of my cousins, a brother and sister both about 60, BELIEVE in GOD, as do their spice and children.

    The brother’s wife is beautiful, smart, kind, charming and unpretentious. She chatted me up at a family gathering when she told me I seemed unhappy (I was contemplating divorce). We were on a long hike so she had my ear for nearly an hour and she almost flipped me. It took a few hours or maybe days to wear off.

  23. 23
    =8)-DX

    I’ve got to tell you — church services are goddamned boring

    Yes. This Friday I went to funeral service for my great-aunt. Having been previously church-indoctrinated, the hour we waited for the second pastor to arrive (his car broke down) was spent in sweaty, pious, horrible contemplation of how boring it is to sit in a Church. Then came the service and between the sweaty, pious boring Jeebus-worship, I really had a hard time connecting with the few moments dedicated to the deceased.

    I wished for a horrible, impious uncle, who would pull me out during any part of the service or waiting to light up and get a few drinks at the local 24h bar. Sadly. I have no such uncle. Happily, I will have to fulfill this role for my nieces and nephews at many occasions in the future myself. Religion still provides some few things to look forward to.. after all it’s supposed to be about hope?

  24. 24
    whheydt

    I don’t know if you have them in or near Morris, but I was kind of looking forward to your take on the Quakers and the Unitarians…both of which are “Christian” by loose definitions of same. While a Quaker “service” may be “dull”, it’s also pretty peaceful. or–at least–the very few I’ve been to were. The old joke about Unitarians is “Catholics pray to Mary, Protestants pray to God, Unitarians pray ‘to whom it may concern’”.

    On the “speaking in tongues” thing… About 50 years ago when my wife was a graduate student in Linguistics, she attended a revivalist service which featured that. What she found interesting (as a Linguist) was that, while the words were utter nonsense, the phonemes were all from the English lexicon.

  25. 25
    Steve Caldwell

    PZ,

    I did look at the Morris Federated Church web site — the word “Federated” tells one that the congregation belongs to two different denominations. In this case, this church belongs to the United Methodist Church (UMC) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). The UMC is pretty typical mainline Protestant church but the UCC is a bit different.

    The UCC traces its history back to the Congregationalists in New England and they share this heritage with the modern-day Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The Unitarians went off to explore transcendentalism and humanism while the Congregationalists stayed closer to their Christian historical roots.

    The UCC is one of the few denominations that supports marriage equality for same-sex couples. They also do a lot of good work with reproductive justice issues and (in partnership with the UUA and secular experts like Planned Parenthood) have developed an excellent lifespan sexuality-positive comprehensive sexuality education program for children, adolescents, and adults. This curriculum is called “Our Whole Lives” or OWL:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Whole_Lives

    Given this liberal background for the UCC, it’s not surprising that your local Democrats and university faculty go to church at Morris Federated Church.

  26. 26
    Godric von Falkenrath

    The church where I play has probably done either than hymn, or something similar, because I recall elements of the congregation getting pissy over “strong mother God”. But I…there was a verse that went something like “Scientist God, setting each equation”, and I almost choked to death and lost it.

  27. 27
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    Scientologists don’t do church, do they? Shame. I can imagine PZ being in a house ofvworship like that.

  28. 28
    CSB

    . I think that’s how the tediously dull game of football got to be such a big sport in this country — they only had to be less boring than church.

    You know, there’s being an aggressive critic of religion and religious belief, and then there’s going out of your way to piss off half the country.

  29. 29
    Furr-a-Bruin

    I think that’s how the tediously dull game of football got to be such a big sport in this country — they only had to be less boring than church.

    Thank you! I’ve gotten looked at warily for saying I don’t follow football – but when a fan of the sport inquires why I don’t and I say that I find it boring – often, you’d think I’d slapped the guy’s* mother from the reaction.
     
    The only professional team sport I’ve ever found interesting to watch is Australian Rules Football. US Football and Soccer bore me and I find Rugby completely incomprehensible.

    * – I’ve only very rarely encountered a female football fan; or maybe it’s just that the male football fans I’ve encountered have been so much more likely to take the fact I don’t share their interest as some kind of personal affront.

  30. 30
    consciousness razor

    You know, there’s being an aggressive critic of religion and religious belief, and then there’s going out of your way to piss off half the country.

    The number of goddists in this country is way more than the number of football fans. It might be more than half, but it’s nowhere near 80-90% (or more). And even if they were roughly the same, I’d still have a hard time believing most of the fans would take it so personally.

  31. 31
    jacobbasson

    I’ve never been to an actual church service and was interested in this series, PZ. If I recall correctly, however, you began it to try to get a better sense of the appeal of the whole thing, and an experience I just had yesterday speaks to that in a way your series of Sunday masses would have missed. I attended a theatrical performance (basically staged, costumed, choreographed karaoke with a paper thin narrative — Doctor Who time travels with Merlin the Wizard of the Round Table showing him musical styles from various times…yeah — tying the various songs together) at a church in St. Louis.
    The show won’t win any emmys but it was a very enjoyable evening anyway. One thing in particular that caught my attention about it as appealing in a way that few things in my life are…the age diversity. There were maybe 150 people there, with everything from infants to grandparents pretty well represented, most of whom knew each other. And it served multiple purposes…some people could get their exhibitionism on, others could be proud of their children/siblings/parents, others may have been there just to socialize with familiar folk. There was food, too…even beer.
    Obviously such a thing is not impossible without god and other bullshit, and similar opportunities to exist already. But, these people knew each other through church and it’s fair to say that it’s not obvious to me what kind of multi-generational group I might belong to for which such a thing would happen (happen incidentally that is, it’s not as though I want to join a theater group in particular. One got the sense that next week was an equally poorly performed softball game for these people, etc.). While Sunday services may be boring, they are the glue that hold these groups together.
    All of which is to say, if one was interested in trying to replace church with something less full of shit but still appealing to people, you’d want something sufficiently non-specific to get a diverse group of people with diverse interests (and, again, ages) in a room…but sufficiently compelling that they go regularly enough to really know each other and want to participate wit each other in random things like this karaoke show. I hold out real hope that there are and/or can be good alternatives, but it would be a mistake to conclude that church is boring without acknowledging its role in facilitating less boring activities amongst a community that it helps tie together.

  32. 32
    Sastra

    Steve Caldwell #25 wrote:

    The UCC traces its history back to the Congregationalists in New England and they share this heritage with the modern-day Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The Unitarians went off to explore transcendentalism and humanism while the Congregationalists stayed closer to their Christian historical roots.

    Back in my days in chatroom religious debates some of the more ‘traditional’ (fundamentalist) Christians used to sneer at UCC by saying it stood for ‘Unitarians Considering Christ.’ I found this a handy mnemonic device for remembering the United Church of Christ’s position among the many denominations.

    I attended the UU for a while but found that the combination of transcendentalism and humanism was too problematic for me.

    jacobbasson #31 wrote:

    I hold out real hope that there are and/or can be good alternatives, but it would be a mistake to conclude that church is boring without acknowledging its role in facilitating less boring activities amongst a community that it helps tie together.

    As far as I can tell the only parts of church which PZ found “boring” was anything which had to do with religion.

  33. 33
    diatreme

    Even my city that has the university with a picture of Jesus worshipping the football stadium has a mosque, synagogue, and an Unitarian church, along with several flavors of christianity. Even that uni has events to celebrate Chinese New Year and other non christian holidays.

  34. 34
    rowanvt

    The boring is not surprising. Mom likes to, every now and then, trot out the tale of how one day we went to church and the sunday school teacher was sick, so she had to take me into the main service. About 15 minutes in, I started saying REALLY loudly “Mommy? Mommy this is boring. Can we go? It’s boring!” She kept trying to hush me, saying that I needed to sit quietly since we were at church, and we’d leave when it was over. “But why? This is boring! Boring, boring BORING!” … and I kept yelling it was boring as Mom dragged me out of the building.

    I’m quite proud of my younger self.

  35. 35
    lowspark13

    Am I the only one who remembers service as being two hours long? Are 1 hour services some new decadence along with padded pews? Granted, I think the last time I went to the kingdom hall I was 8, so I’m referencing a 16 year old memory. Also being JWs I wouldn’t be surprised if it differed vastly from other churches.

  36. 36
    Paul K

    diatreme, at 33:

    Even my city that has the university with a picture of Jesus worshipping the football stadium has a mosque, synagogue, and an Unitarian church, along with several flavors of christianity. Even that uni has events to celebrate Chinese New Year and other non christian holidays.

    I’m not sure if this is a comment on the lack of other religious congregations in Morris. If it is, keep in mind that Morris is a quite small town, with a population of only a bit more than 5,000. It’s also not near any large cities, which might supply some diversity. When I attended the small, excellent branch of the University of Minnesota there in the 1980s, before PZ’s time, the town was even smaller.

  37. 37
    Azuma Hazuki

    @PZ: Can I steal “batboinking nuts,” even thought it’s scary and ableist and rude and meeeeean? *puppy eyes* Because for all that it is hilarious.

    Also a little disappointed you gave up before you went to the really hardcore types. I wouldn’t ask you to go to the snake-handlers (unless to tell them all of Mark after 16:9 is pseudepigraphia…). Would love to hear your experiences on the JWs though, especially if you ask them why they’re Annihilationists rather than believers in eternal flaming torture.

  38. 38
    Holms

    Okay; so PZ gave it a fair shot.

    Trouble is, the magic only happens if you are expecting magic, anticipating magic, experiencing magic, and/or willing to find magic in very small things. That’s called the ‘faith attitude.’

    All of which was known ahead of time, rendering the exercise pointless. Which was my point.

  39. 39
    teejaykay

    I know the feeling, PZ. Two weeks ago I was invited to my wife’s nephew’s (Lutheran) confirmation, and seeing as he’s a good guy and hell of a lot smarter than I am (and resenting the entire ordeal to begin with), I promised him I’d be there.

    My wife and I placed our little foxhole just next to one of the side doors just in case my agoraphobia acts up, and after twenty minutes of waiting, we watched the procession go by. I smiled and waved to the nephew, waited for the first hymn to end and then went outside to read Harry Turtledove. My wife stayed inside the church reading the second Fifty Shades of Grey. According to her, it was just as ridiculous as the entire ritual.

    Also, if anyone’s interested, the church became a worldwide sensation for some architects. I find it ugly and pretentious, but google “Kuokkala church” if you want. There was an upside to this trip, and that is that the church… is next to a couple bars. Literally next to it.

  40. 40
    TonyJ

    Aww, so soon? I was hoping you’d try some of the non-Xtian services around there. What is your impression of a visit to a mosque? A synagogue? A pagan service?

    I went to my sister’s pagan wedding a few years ago, and I can tell you that it’s just as goofy as Christianity. Way too many goateed guys wearing utili-kilts, and lots of women with fairy wings. It was kind of fun though.

  41. 41
    gussnarp

    Oh come on, you could have tested their liberality by proposing names for god such as Satan and Lucifer….

  42. 42
    DLC

    While I tend to disagree about Football in general and American Football in particular, I am not angry or surprised at anyone who disagrees with me. Everyone has their own likes and dislikes, and I’m not one who thinks less of others because of that. Some people even like Baseball !
    The Church Mom dragged me to as a child was quite conservative politically and stuffed to the rafters with people who were wondrous Christians on Sunday and who would cut your throat in business on Monday.
    Screw them.

  43. 43
    Azuma Hazuki

    @42/DLC

    Cynical mini-me was taught this by her father years ago:

    Mr. Business went to church
    He never missed a Sunday
    Mr. Business went to hell
    For what he did on Monday

  44. 44
    Matrim

    Ok, disliking football is understandable. I get that. But singling it out for being boring is ludicrous when you have the hours-long drag that is baseball available to criticize.

  45. 45
    Uncle Ebeneezer

    And that, alas, was all too typical. Hymns, prayers, and invocations of some dude named Jesus all over the place; readings from some stodgy old book; a list of prayer recipients we were supposed to remember.

    Yup. For all the talk of the good messages one can find in Christianity, the bigger message is always in the self-interest of the church. Worship me, and nobody else. PS- give money!

    Even at my mom’s funeral (we were a pretty secular family but my dad insisted on having some sort of priest or deacon say a few words at the burial) I was stricken by how much attention was paid to the greatness of Jesus, rather than on my mother and our grieving. The deacon was a very nice man and was very comforting in conversation and had a superb bed-side manner, which made it all the more noticeable when he had to keep inserting the sales-pitch here and there. Like a tv commercial or the incessant banner “reminding” you which channel you’re watching during your favorite show. It’s no different than AmWay, Landmark Forum or any other organization that depends heavily on the hard-sell and brand loyalty. It’s bizarre that so many of the faithful are blind to it.

  46. 46
    Howard Bannister

    I went to my sister’s pagan wedding a few years ago, and I can tell you that it’s just as goofy as Christianity. Way too many goateed guys wearing utili-kilts, and lots of women with fairy wings. It was kind of fun though.

    Goatees and utili-kilts are just plain comfortable in the climate I live in, so I feel like this is one that extends just fine.

    I am a little disturbed that nobody thought to mix and match and wear the kilt with fairy wings. That sounds positively fun.

    (the actual beliefs, of course, that’s a whole nother kettle of fish)

  47. 47
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    @PZ: Can I steal “batboinking nuts,” even thought it’s scary and ableist and rude and meeeeean? *puppy eyes* Because for all that it is hilarious.

    Is there any phrasing to connote disconnection of a person’s ideas from any combination of reality, logic, ethics, or each other that isn’t either allegedly ableist or brain-bleedingly dry and cumbersome? Any at all?

  48. 48
    Azuma Hazuki

    @47/Azkyroth

    No. No there is not. But try telling that to the SJWs who pounced on me with righteous fury, yea, and unquenchable wrath, and the opprobium thereof, when I called someone else like this “batshit skullfucking insane.” Same thing, if a little more profane, yet PZ gets a pass. Hrrrrrm…

  49. 49
    Nemo

    @jacobbasson #31:

    Doctor Who time travels with Merlin

    But, but, it was clearly established in Battlefield (original series, season 26, 1989) that The Doctor is Merlin. Now how can I trust anything else these people have to say?

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