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.

An atheist goes to church: The Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Oh, gob. I’m beginning to crack. This whole series was a ghastly mistake. As I was sitting there in the pews (unpadded this time!), it began to sink in that I was bored, excruciatingly deeply terribly bored, that these people were saying nothing of any interest to me and never would, and that the whole affair was a dreadful waste of time. It was all coming back to me, the dreary tedium of church, and I wondered how all these people can bear it, going to this same ritual week after week after week.

I’m trying to make a sincere effort to learn what the religious folk in town are getting out of this tedious affair of going to church, but it’s evading me.

But there must be something to it — guilt, a sense of obligation, inertia? — because this was the biggest one so far. Over 150 people were in attendance on a beautiful summer day…another reason it was such a waste. It didn’t help that the Catholic service was so much more coldly formal than the protestant churches we attended in the last two weeks, either. There was lots of bouncing up and down, stand, sit, kneel, but I suspect it was all part of a plan to keep people from falling asleep during the service.

Let’s see…anything good I can say about it?

Well, the music was much nicer. The hymns were a little bit more sophisticated with more complex melodies then we got elsewhere. Part of that might have been that they were all led by a woman who had a most excellent singing voice. Usually, church congregations singing a hymn is an example of regression to the mean — the song averages out to a mumbly drone. With this woman in charge, though, I could actually listen to the music, and it was good.

The sermon wasn’t the informal punditry we usually get. Instead, they led up to it with three bible readings, all on the theme of sin and forgiveness, and then the priest gave a short discussion interpreting and explaining the meaning of those verses. It was much more universal (hey! Catholic!) than a rant about the latest news or candidate or Americanism. So I actually kind of appreciated that it was a more philosophical discussion, even though I fundamentally disagree with the whole premise of original sin and redemption through belief.

We got to see a baptism! It was preceded by a litany of belief (Do you renounce Satan? “Yes, we do,” replies the congregation. Do you believe in Jesus, the Resurrection, etc.? “Yeah, yeah, you betcha” (or words to that effect) intone all the people (except me)), and then the priest dumped a whole pitcher of water over the kid’s head.

And finally, “Behold the Lamb of God,” said the priest, and he waved a cracker and a cup at us. It didn’t look like mutton to me. Everybody filed up to get their mouthful of Jesus, again except for me. I refrained since I knew that if I was recognized, there might be an unruly spectacle, and also because I’ve had enough of Jesus’ meat in my mouth for my entire lifetime.

Another concern is that they all share the same wine cup. How unsanitary. I mentioned to my wife on the way home that if ever the zombie apocalypse starts, the vector is probably going to point right back to a Catholic church somewhere. I get the cruds at the beginning of every school year just from being in the same room with mobs of students, I can’t imagine sharing spit with ’em all.

So we escaped right after that. One noteworthy thing that did save me from terminal boredom: all of the church services we’ve attended so far have been impeccably timed. Every one begin precisely at the stated hour, and exactly one hour later, we’re being sent on our way. I’ve been impressed so far.

But still, an hour is an hour too long. I feel obligated to go to another one next week. I may need to pray for strength.

An atheist goes to church: First Baptist

This is Minnesota, where all the Scandihoovians are Lutheran and all the Germans are Catholic, and there ain’t no one else. Well, at least that’s the stereotype. Since we went to the liberal Lutheran church last week, because that’s what I grew up in, my wife suggested that for parity’s sake we attend a church like the one she was brought up in. She was Baptist, once upon a time. Would there be any Baptist churches here?

Yes, there’s one. So we dropped in this morning, and Mary introduced me to Baptist culture.

First shock: Baptists sleep in. The service didn’t start until 11am. I know! They’re stealing an atheist advantage there! Mary said that was typical, though. There were also more Baptists in town than I expected, with about 60 in attendance.

The second mild surprise was that the whole service is practically non-stop hymn singing, and that they had a pianist, an organist, and a violinist up front to accompany us. I was used to liturgies & chants & recitatives breaking up the occasional hymn, but no, we opened up the hymnal as soon as the service started (promptly at 11, and again, it ended promptly at noon) and worked our way through a series of hymns with one interruption for the offering collection and one for the sermon. And we sang every verse of every hymn! Of course, every song had the same structure: two line verse, followed by two line chorus, then repeat and repeat and repeat.

The music did nothing for me, but then I wasn’t brought up in it. Mary got caught up in the rhythms, which I found interesting — early childhood experiences seem to program us to respond to particular patterns, and I could tell that I’m a Lutheran atheist and she’s a Baptist atheist. Irreconcilable differences, I guess we’ll have to divorce.

Wait, no, I think the atheism cleared those conflicts away. Whew!

Then, the sermon. Scratch that, the “message”. It started off well.

It was built around Psalm 147, and the pastor was telling us about the things God is not impressed by…and the first one was by show of force. Was this going to be a pacifist message? I might like this guy after all.

Alas, it was to be that only certain shows of force fail to delight the Lord. God is not impressed with North Korea’s parades of tanks and missiles, and they keep shooting missiles at us (Really? Where?) and they keep missing. And hey, Napolean invaded Russia with 600,000 men, and nearly all of them died to God’s winter, and the same for Hitler’s army. Ditto for Pharoah’s army, which chased Moses across the Red Sea, and then God made their chariot wheels fall off. They’ve found those chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea, too. (No, they haven’t. This is more propaganda from wacky Ron Wyatt, who made that claim — I can tell what kind of literature the good Reverend is reading!)

God is also not impressed with snobbery — he’s all about the little people. Somehow this was illustrated by the example of our president traveling overseas to visit terrorists and communists, but being unable to find time for the funeral of the great Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t quite get the connection, but OK, he was rambling on at this point.

The third thing God does not find delightful is…secular thinking. Modern people are all bowing down to the god of medical science, and engineering science, and geological science, and did you know that George Washington almost died because the doctors kept bleeding him? But William Harvey, a Christian scientist, discovered that the heart was a pump, and showed them all to be wrong. I was feeling rather confused at this point, since a) the doctors who were bleeding Washington would have been Christian, too, and b) William Harvey discredited the practice of bloodletting in 1628, and can’t really be credited with saving George Washington in the 18th century.

Then my favorite part: Evolution is only a theory, not a proven fact, and did you know that intelligent people don’t believe that theory? He actually said it. I guess I won’t be joining his church, then.

Then the sermon got really incoherent, and not pacifistic at all.

This guy was really obsessed with Israel. He told us a story about how as a boy delivering newspapers he read about the Six Day War in 1967, and how Israel with God’s favor whipped all of its enemies until the United Nations forced them to stop, and now the UN is trying to force Israel to turn over most of Jerusalem to Arab Terrorists. Israel good, UN bad.

He also told us how the US had the North Koreans beat and chased them all the way to the Chinese border, and then the Chinese started massing troops, and General MacArthur asked to use nukes on them, and got turned down by Truman. I got the distinct impression that this servant of a god who is not impressed with shows of force thinks we should have nuked the Chinese.

America has become more concerned with its own house rather than God’s house, and is in moral decline, what with all this homosexuality. We must pray for America to humble herself so that God will heal her — if we don’t pray, we’ll find ourselves in the midst of a Nazi-Communist America! We have forsaken the Chosen People of Israel! God has made a covenant with one nation, Israel — not America, not Germany, not France, only Israel, and Israel is a monument to God and a witness to show that the End Times of the book of Revelation will come to pass!

You get the idea. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I would have been curious to learn if the majority of the congregation were as rabidly pro-Israel as their minister, but then it ended abruptly, the minister announced that we were dismissed, and we left.

I was impressed that it started precisely at 11am and stopped exactly at noon. So far these services have been remarkably well-timed. Otherwise…no, I’m not tempted by any of them.

By the way, this particular church is a member of the New Testament Association, which has a few rules.

Q. What is the NTA position on sexual practices?
A. Each local church sets its own standards, but we commonly hold to these practices. We believe in monogamy and sex only within the bond of marriage (between a man and a woman). We do not accept homosexuality, abortion, and other conduct that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.

Q. What does the NTA believe regarding dietary practices?
A. We believe it is improper for believers to use alcoholic beverage in any form, tobacco in any form, or illicit drugs of any kind. A balanced diet (consisting of meat, vegetables, and fruits) should be maintained conducive to good health.

So, no gay vegans allowed in this congregation? I can’t even wash out the taste of the sermon with a beer afterwards?

There are other people who aren’t welcome.

Affiliated churches of this Association: 1) Shall be composed entirely of immersed believers. 2) Shall have declared by vote their agreement without mental reservation with the Statement of Faith and the Preamble of this Association. 3) Shall not be in affiliation with any other national association of churches. 4) Shall not be in affiliation and/or fellowship with any organization which condones the presence of religious liberals or liberalism.

Darn. I guess I shouldn’t go back then.

P.S. Padded pews again! What is it with these decadent modern folks and their pampered butts?

An atheist goes to church — 1stLC

For my first foray back into the fold, I made a conservative choice. I was brought up in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) branch of Lutheranism — that is, the liberal branch of that sect. Of course, I haven’t attended a service since I was 20, so it’s been 36 years since I’ve gone through the motions. It seemed most likely to be rustily familiar, and a relatively painless reintroduction to the church life, so we attended the First Lutheran Church of Morris this morning.

First good news: the souls of the damned did not wail a warning as I crossed the threshold, nor did I burst into hellfire or get sundered by lightning from the skies, so we’re off to a great start.

The striking thing about the whole process was how familiar it all was — almost nothing has changed from what I experienced way back when I was an adolescent. Three things jumped out at me as having changed:

  • Padded cushions on the pews! Arr, this generation has gone soft in the fundament.

  • I was an acolyte myself, and we had much fancier dresses: white silky gowns with layered vestments and embossed velvet geegaws all over the place. These poor kids were wearing peasant gowns.

  • The rituals were much the same, but the pastor sang the chants here. He had a nice voice, but it was jarring: I expected spoken chants and spoken responses. Maybe my old pastor just couldn’t carry a tune.

Those are trivial differences. Otherwise, it could have been the same service I heard in Kent Lutheran Church in 1970, right down to the light Minnesööta accent in the pastor’s voice. It was kind of sweet and kind of weird at the same time.

I also observed a number of good things which help me understand why people keep attending church.

The first notable phenomenon is the congregation. Somewhere around 70-80 people attended, and they looked like a highly representative slice of the local population: all ages, from children to the very old, and an equal mix of men and women. There were several people who needed help getting to the pews, and there were ushers waiting who would help them. I noticed one developmentally disabled individual in the congregation, too: there was no segregation at all, everyone was treated as a full and equal participant. I have to give a big thumbs up to the inclusiveness of the group.

Sociability was high, too. Everyone was greeted and welcomed, people everywhere were saying hello to each other. Even us odd strangers got handshakes and hellos. The pastor, of course, was all over the room, personally greeting everyone and having a few word of conversation. He had a little chat with us, too, introducing himself, asking where we were from, clearly curious about these strangers. I noticed a little bit of a startle when we told him our names — I got the impression he suddenly realized who the heck we were — and he rather quickly left us, but that may have just been because he had to greet everyone.

We sat in our comfy cushioned pews (decadence!) and read the announcements that were displayed on a screen in front of the room. It’s a busy organization. Everyone gets acknowledged, the ushers, the greeters, the musicians, everyone by name right up front in a big display. You will not volunteer to help this church and not get gratitude. There’s the usual local events — confirmation classes, a picnic today, people who need prayers — and also a request for donations to the church mission in Senegal. They’re also very open about finances: there was an announcement that said that their operating budget was about $313,000 per year, and that they needed about $78,000 more.

Keep that in mind, atheist groups: a mid-sized local church, one of over a dozen in town, is bringing in somewhere around $300K per year. What’s your budget like?

Then the service began. I was impressed: it began right on time, and ran exactly one hour. This is a well-practiced, smooth-running ritual, I’ll say that for it.

And now, of course, is when my objections begin. As an efficient and rewarding social organization, the church is really, really good. I wish atheists could be this open and welcoming and egalitarian. It’s just that, well, the content gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Like my childhood church, this is not a hellfire kind of church — I noticed in the hymnal a word subsitution with a footnote explaining that some versions of a hymn used the phrase “land of Hell” but this one preferred the phrase “land of dead”, for instance. Liberal Lutherans were never very big on threats and extortion.

Instead, it’s very Jesusy. Lots of songs about “praise to the Lord” and begging Jesus for mercy and “we are captive to sin” — we are all really bad people but we can be salvaged if only we beg the Lord to have mercy. The Bible verse readings were a little daunting, too: 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, which encourages us to help foreigners “know [god’s] name and fear [god]” and Galatians 1:1-12, which tells us helpfully that anyone who teaches any other gospel than Jesus’ is “accursed”.

Obviously, I reject all that.

The sermon was based around Luke 7:1-10, the story of a Roman centurion who had a sick slave and asked Jesus to heal him. I’ll confess, I was very confused by the story: it was all about how the centurion had “power and authority” and showed respect to Jesus. I had trouble getting beyond the fact that he had a slave, and everyone was very matter-of-fact about it, and seemed to think it was perfectly reasonable for someone to have that kind of power over another. There was also this odd children’s message: the kids were asked to come up, and the pastor asked them questions directly. He asked them who is the authority in their house, and the kids are all saying “my parents”, and the pastor asks “But which one?”, and they reply “Both”, and the pastor then says that was very PC of them, but it’s natural for one to have authority and power.

The sermon itself (short! 10 minutes! Yay!) started off with a nice story about the pastor’s family’s dog, which they found abandoned on a highway and rescued, but then segued into a bit about training animals, and how dogs need an “alpha male,” (I resisted the temptation to raise my hand and explain that the alpha male is an outdated and over-simplified caricature) and how he is the alpha male in his house. This was somehow tied back to the confusing story about the centurion and his slave, and how they were supposed to have faith and hope because of Jesus. I was totally lost, but the whole thing was mercifully short. I think now I’m supposed to roll over and expose my belly to Jesus, anyway. Or at the very least recognize that having a man head the household is the natural order.

At this point I’m neither enthused nor persuaded, but then, I’m actually listening to the content of this service, which is probably not the best thing to do.

It’s all wrapped up with some more hymns, more prayers, a very nice “peace handshake” were everyone shakes hands with their neighbors, the communion (no, I didn’t get in line for a wafer and grape juice), and a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that testimonies of belief aren’t a significant part of religious practice — this is a ritual that spells out precisely what you must believe to be part of this community.

There was an offering plate. We threw in a few dollars because it was the thing to do, and we left. We shook the pastor’s hand on the way out and wished him a good day.

I think the social part of the morning was very pleasant and I’d like to see more of that, but the belief part of the event was…unbelievable. So I haven’t yet seen a reason why people wouldn’t pare away the religious fluff and just have a friendly social hour and barbecue.

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.