An atheist goes to church

I’ve got this book finally coming out in August, The Happy Atheist, and I thought I’d tease you with the opening paragraphs.

On any fine morning in rural Minnesota, I can step outside the door of my home and look a few blocks to the southwest and see the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Just out of sight behind nearby houses and a few blocks to the west lies the First Lutheran Church. About four blocks to the the east is the Federated Church, the ‘liberal’ church in town. Even closer is the Lutheran Campus Ministry, which serves the university at which I work, and the Newman Center, its Catholic counterpart. Since this is Minnesota, I’ve got fairly fine-grained sectarian choices within Lutheranism that I could make: the First Lutheran Church belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, but I could attend Faith Lutheran Church, which is another member of ELCA, or if I wanted something a bit more conservative, I could attend St Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran church, which belongs to the Wisconsin Synod, or Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church, of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. There’s also the Zion Lutheran Church nearby, which belongs to the Missouri Synod.

If I were really broad-minded, I also have a choice of the First Baptist Church, the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Apostolic Christian Church, or the Morris Community Church, which meets in the local high school. I count 15 churches within walking distance of my house; there are no synagogues or mosques, probably because the believers they would prey upon are too thinly populated here to be profitable.

You can see I’m taking a rather personal approach to this religion thing; I’m kind of surrounded. I’ve been to a few of these churches for special events — usually when they bring a creationist into town to harangue the congregation with lies about science, but I haven’t actually attended their regular services. Yet here I am mentioning them in this book (don’t worry, I don’t say rude things about them sight unseen — I only question the need for such excessive godliness), and I’ve been feeling like maybe I ought to do a little more research.

So I’ve decided to start attending church services, a different church each week, all of this summer while I’m in town.

I’m not going to be confrontational, I won’t be leaping up in the middle of a sermon and shouting, “HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?”, I won’t be sneering at the congregation…I’ll just be going to politely observe and take notes. And, of course, discussing the experience here. I’ll be taking an anthropological view, as neutral as I can be. Let’s find out what it’s actually like to be a church-going Christian in a small town in the upper midwest!

So stay tuned. Every Sunday I’ll talk about my local experience.


  1. carlie says

    Hey now, you’re stepping in on Hemant’s territory! ;)

    Good luck with it, though. After I became an atheist, it became progressively harder to sit and listen to the crap being preached, and that was with having been immersed in it and loving it for decades. I’m not sure if it would be easier to go in new on, or harder.

  2. foliage says

    Awesome I’ll buy one. I hope it makes you “real” famous as opposed to just internet famous.

  3. coragyps says

    You sure will screw up your Sunday mornings……
    Too bad you don’t appear to have true fundamentalists up there. Church with herpetology has always sort of fascinated me.

  4. says

    You remind me of an earlier experience.

    I was in the coffee room, where I asked “what do you call an atheist who attends church?”

    One of my colleagues replied “The organist”

    (Need I add that my colleague was an avid organist).

    There can be good reasons for attending church, which have nothing to do with theology.

  5. Pteryxx says

    Some brave souls down in Biblebeltistan could go to a few of the really out-there churches for you. <_<

    Or just listen to twenty minutes of hard-core Christian right-wing radio. They have the local NPR stations' frequencies surrounded.

  6. Shplane, Spess Alium says

    And you should be fine, as long as they don’t figure out that you have to behead AND stake AND burn AND shoot with silver bullets AND crucify AND lure into Tokyo Bay to disintegrate the oxygen atoms of atheists before they’ll die, you should come out fine!

  7. says

    @ OP

    book finally coming out in August

    I just can’t work out why it takes this damn long to get a book printed.

    We have a Sikh temple on the island, a short tram ride from our house. I now feel even more inspired to go and check it out. I’ll take a few pointers from your church visit writings and report back in like manner.

  8. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    So I’ve decided to start attending church services, a different church each week, all of this summer while I’m in town.

    You must have a much more boredom-proof brain than I do.

    Church services are among the most boring things I’ve ever been exposed to. I hated sundays as a child because I knew I’d be forced to attend one of those things. Admittedly, this was way before iPods, tablets and iPhones.

  9. says

    I’m wondering something, PZ: by the end of your experiment, will you have to do what Hemant Mehta does now and investigate the different groups by proxy?
    Editing, revisions, copy-editing, checking the proofs – it all takes time. You can get books printed faster, but then the error rate goes up.

  10. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    I just can’t work out why it takes this damn long to get a book printed.


    It’s a circular iterative process, and the number of iterations is proportional to the degree of perfectionism of the most demanding person involved.

    Also true for PhD theses. Which I would have written with a damn version management software had I known they existed at the time. Now I recommend one to all the grad students I work with.

  11. smhll says

    I’m not going to be confrontational, I won’t be leaping up in the middle of a sermon and shouting, “HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?”, I won’t be sneering at the congregation…I’ll just be going to politely observe and take notes. And, of course, discussing the experience here.

    At the risk of sounding like a church-hugger, if you want to experiment with listening and observing and figuring out what church offers people, then you might want to wait to talk back or rock the boat until the end of the summer. (I mean write down what you think, but hold off on starting a twitter war with your neighbors until you’ve done all the listening you plan to do.)

    Yes, I think your observations will go deeper if you embrace the “shutting up” part of shut up and listen, for the full duration of your attending and listening experiment this summer.

    (Yes, my brain has been obsessing about the shut up and listen meme. Of course my suggestion is not a gag order.)

  12. daveau says

    All those churches must be working; Morris hasn’t been hit by any tornadoes. It’s about time you got that book out.

  13. otrame says

    Sounds like fun, for us, not you. I spent a lot of time in church as a teenager–willingly, I was in the choir that served all the church services on an Air Force Base except the Catholics. The one thing I got out of it was that they are not really Christians, they are Paulists. Listen to the sermons. Jesus’ supposed words are rarely mentioned. Paul gets all the attention.

  14. Jack Krebs says

    That’s very interesting – an anthropological approach is good. I look forward to reading your reports.

  15. davidhuber says

    The last time I set foot in a church was about 5 years ago in Waseca Minnesota. We were visiting with my wife’s family, and against my better judgement, I agreed to attend church services with her brother and his family.

    Part of the service was dedicated to recognizing graduating seniors, so the minister gave a presentation that included references to historical figures and events at different points in those kids 18 or so years. At one point in the presentation, the minister made a sarcastic reference to the presidency of Bill Clinton, to which the entire congregation erupted in loud hisses and boos.

    I decided at that moment that I was no longer going to be respectful of these people’s delusions. Now when we visit and talk of attending church comes up, I just say no thanks and go back to whatever it was I was doing. I used to be concerned about how they might feel about me if I opted out of that type of stuff, but I no longer give a damn.

  16. magster2 says

    smhill has a point. If you publish immediately and word starts to get around, you may find yourself in the position of a restaurant critic who eventually has to disguise himself every time he goes out to dinner.

  17. raven says

    I’ll be taking an anthropological view, as neutral as I can be. Let’s find out what it’s actually like to be a church-going Christian in a small town in the upper midwest!

    PZ, be careful!!!

    Stanford’s Tanya Luhrmann tried the anthropological approach and look what happened to her.

    Next thing you know, you might end up funded by the Templeton foundation.

  18. says

    bad move PZ,you should of posted this after the event.knowing that you will be there and knowing who you are and what you look like will skew the event so much to make the results worthless.
    “and in the back row today is PZ Myers,i will discard the normal sermon so we can all pray he does/does not go to hell!!”

  19. A. R says

    Ummm, PZ, what are your plans to prevent instantaneous immolation once you step into the Church? Also, don’t forget to switch off your irony meter before going in, we don’t want any injuries due to shrapnel from overloads.

  20. says

    This is not hard.

    They’ll be music, which will vary quite a bit. Some you may like, some you won’t.
    They’ll be prayers which will also vary quite a bit but you’ll quickly note some recurring themes. If you to any one church more than a few times the prayers will start to get repetitive. There’ll be a mixture of “the people in Oklahoma” and “our elected officials” and varying portions of “unrepentant sinners.” (That’s you PZ.)
    There may or may not be an opportunity to approach the front and get prayed for. Watch this carefully, as it will be the most emotional and hence most convincing part of the service. It also says something if you get a church that doesn’t do it.
    They will pass the collection plate. There will be no pressure to pay, and many people will not. Ironically the big spenders won’t be paying now, so don’t feel anyone will care when you don’t pony up.
    Then there will be a sermon which will be some very basic platitudes about life interlaced with out-of-context quotes from the Bible. There may be some extra bits from other writers. Some churches will put a lot of emphasis on the supposed benefits of being in a state of supernatural ecstasy most of the time, others could be easily edited into a secular feel-good pep talk. You could certainly do the same thing with Beatles’ lyrics or Shakespeare.
    Everyone will be polite but superficial. If you have a real problem they will become less than effusive unless you want to go down the whole “God fixed me” route, in which case they will praise you highly. Never, ever, tell them you are still waiting for God to do his job unless you are in the mood to be shunned.
    You might get a few comments about abortion or homosexuality, but these will mostly be at the smaller churches where everyone knows everyone else. You are more likely to hear some vague references to “family values.”

    Personally I think it would be more interesting if you actually had a nice secular study Bible to follow along with. Few of these people have ever read the Bible or have any idea of its history or meaning in context.

  21. khms says

    Just as a contrast, this is where I live:

    Basic statistics
    Area 302.89 km2 (116.95 sq mi)
    Elevation 60 m (197 ft)
    Population 291,754 (31 December 2011)
    – Density 963 /km2 (2,495 /sq mi)
    Founded 793

    We’ve got a Dutch consulate and a Turkish general consulate.

    (In 2005) 55% roman catholic, 20.5% mainstream protestant, 3% protestant free churches (baptists, methodists, and so on), 3% Muslim, 0.3% Jewish.

    We’ve got a university with about 45000 students, and a catholic bishop.

    If I believe Wikipedia, and count correctly, that works out to 58 catholic churches, 1 old catholic (whatever that is), 21 mainstream protestant ones, 1 baptist, 1 “Freie evangelische Gemeinde” (some Hamburg thing), 2 new apostolic church (another Hamburg thing), 1 seventh day adventists, 2 Jehovah’s witnesses, 1 former British armed forces church, 1 synagogue, 2 mosques.

    That is 90 or 91 churches, or about one for every 32000 people. This counts as a lot – there is a local saying: in this city, either it rains, or the bells are ringing … or both, then it’s Sunday.

    As far as I know, I have two churches in walking distance, one of either main stream variant. They look at each other over a playground associated with the local shopping center. The local elementary schools are a bit further apart, approximately behind the churches. This part of the city is very rich in … I think the current official politically-correct phrasing is “humans with migratory background” (“Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund”) – mostly East European and Near East, I think.

    For a little color connecting to the British forces background alluded to above, I’m told that directly after WW II, this area was a bit of forest, and the street I’m living at was a tank road leading to some tank exercising area for the Brits, and pulling up the concrete was so hard that part of the street is still the original concrete, maybe half a century later. (And somewhat fitting, the radio was just playing that song where they “lurched across the church floor” …)

  22. steve b says

    I’m planning a similar experience myself. I need 9 credits in arts and humanities for my (2nd) degree, and thought about taking a class on Christianity to fulfill 3 credits of that requirement. From the description it seems like it will be more of the history of Christianity rather than being taught as FACTS ™ and TRUTH ™. Currently I have it slated for next spring. Should be fun.

  23. David Marjanović says

    AND lure into Tokyo Bay to disintegrate the oxygen atoms of atheists

    PZ as Godzilla. I like that.

    1 old catholic (whatever that is)

    Old Catholics don’t accept the First Vatican Council, the one with infallibility of the pope. Consequently, they don’t accept anything that has happend since, like the immaculate conception of Mary that was infallibly declared right afterwards. Although they don’t, of course, accept the Second Vatican Council, they’ve become a lot more protestant-like and have allowed women to be priests for decades now.

  24. unclefrogy says

    well that something I will not be doing any time soon. I went to a friend’s mother funeral mass. I went to support him but did nit want to be there it was too much make believe it is real or else. My mind kept wondering to how bad the sound system was set up it was a very long church and the reverberation was very distracting for me.
    uncle frogy

  25. Pen says

    If you were in my new neighbourhood, you’d be able to try just about every branch of every religion under the sun. In fact, that’s very nearly what the local schools do, since religious education is compulsory but it’s also non-denominational. Next year my daughter’s going to a Hindu temple, a Jewish museum (!) and studying Descartes (!!) in RE. It will be fun reading about your project and seeing what goes on inside American churches anyway..

  26. Nes says

    I won’t be leaping up in the middle of a sermon and shouting, “HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT?”

    Well, of course not. You’ll be leaping up in the middle of a sermon to shout, “WERE YOU THERE?” ;-)

    This reminds me a bit of something that my (fairly liberal) Lutheran church did. As part of our confirmation classes, we went around the state visiting churches of other sects. Big mistake on their part. Part of the reason I abandoned religion was seeing just how different the “same” religion could be.

  27. moarscienceplz says

    You’ll be leaping up in the middle of a sermon to shout, “WERE YOU THERE?” ;-)

    You win a sniny new internets!

  28. grumpyoldfart says

    @ davidgibson #19
    That’s exactly what I was thinking. The preachers will write a special (bland) “PZ Myers” sermon and keep it handy for day he visits their church. After his visit, they’ll revert to their usual nonsense.

  29. says

    I’m not going to announce ahead of time which church I’ll visit, and I really, really do not believe that they are going to be at all concerned about my visits — they won’t be writing special sermons for me.

    Also, if this first one is any example, they have all the hymns and verse selections printed up ahead of time. So no, let’s not exaggerate the significance of some guy with a blog stopping by.

  30. gmacs says

    PZ, aren’t the Apostolics in Morris rather insular? I’m not sure they will be as passive as the others.

  31. chakolate says

    Please be sure to let us know how full the churches are, okay? Fifteen churches seems a bit excessive and I wonder just how many butts are in the pews every Sunday.

  32. says

    Hmmmm if there’s a Nazarene church in your area, you should totally check them out! I would pay money to hear what you think about my childhood denomination! ;)