Friday, July 1, 2011

Why I Don't Attend Church, Part II

First off, thanks to everyone for commenting and for reading! The response from the Friendly Atheist community was overwhelming (the post garnered 80+ comments since the last time I checked!) and I was/am thrilled to hear all of the opinions aired. I had minimum expectations when I wrote the blog post; I'm happy that readers "got something" out of it.

Also, I feel that I should clarify one point that many FA commenters noted: these posts are a critique of the way the Christian church functions, not the validity or truth of the Christian faith. That is a can of worms that I would prefer not to open in this forum, nor do I feel qualified to address that issue. While I attended church for twenty years, I am not a theologian; that said, I will leave that argument to the many, many published thinkers and writers who have already expounded greatly on the subject. I will leave the burden to the individual reader to decide what is "true", but go bearing the knowledge that I expect a measured and rational decision after evaluating both sides.

Now, onto the slippery business of criticizing the sacrosanct:

3. The abuse of the power that pastors hold.

One part of my job as an ELA teacher, as I understand it, is to make difficult or previously unknown concepts comprehensible to my students. Allegedly, I know more about rhetorical tropes than a random sampling of 14-year-olds; I am responsible for explaining the relatively difficult idea of metonymy in a way that is understandable, meaningful, and that a student can then apply for herself.

Unfortunately, my experience with church taught me that the same expectations do not apply to pastors.

I have a very limited understanding of the Bible; I have not read every word (although I tried), and I do not have an expansive knowledge of the historical context in which the Bible was written (which greatly affects the meaning we derive from passages). If I were to apply the same principles that I require of a teacher, journalist, or scientist (etc), I would assume that a pastor would be required, essentially, to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and back up those assertions with evidence. A pastor should be able to confidently answer questions like: how do I know what you are saying is true? How do you know that for yourself? Are there conflicting opinions about your statement?

However, in my experience, pastors wield a great deal of influence as to the opinions of the congregation, but rarely deliver sermons that are evidence-based. At all. I racked my brain before beginning to write to try and remember a sermon that I remember being incredibly logical, that appealed to my (very human) sense of reason, but I came up empty. Generally speaking, in my "home church", the sermons followed this rough format:

  1. Attention getter. This could be a joke or an anecdote that will transition into the topic of the sermon. Popular themes for jokes are husband/wife relationships, funny crap your kids say/do, sports, religious experiences (like attending a conference), or pop culture references.
  2. Reading of the passage. Sometimes the sermon would center on as little as a single verse up to as much as a chapter. Here, the pastor might take the opportunity to highlight what individual words in the passage meant in the Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Usually, the sermon will only discuss the origin and/or meaning of a single word, not the entire verse or passage in context.
  3. Application. Here, the speaker will tell the audience what the verse means for their lives today, and, specifically, how their behavior should change. Mark 16:15 "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature," therefore it is the responsibility of the congregation to evangelize.
  4. Directive. The pastor may end the sermon by giving a direct order to the congregation that relates to the message. This is likely to be accompanied by another anecdote or joke to follow the emotional arc of the message (be lighthearted, get serious, get angry, then be lighthearted again). For a sermon on Mark 16:15, a pastor might instruct the congregation to drum up a conversation about faith during lunch at work, or for the high school students to not be afraid to pray in the cafeteria (all so that they create opportunities to evangelize).
There are several problems with this format, the first being that no one has an opportunity to ask questions or verify the validity of these statements. When I stand in front of a class, I have to be prepared to field questions from my students as to why my information is correct. It's not about having "absolute" truth, but about being able to solidly back your claims with evidence.

Which leads into my next idea: Biblical passages are understood to be parts of a whole, but are presented as seamless, unified ideas. I'm currently reading Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and my friends would think I was losing my mind if I pulled one sentence from the novel, applied the concept to my life, and then altered my behavior to suit that concept. The Bible is the ONLY book that I know of that can have its nits picked without nitpicking the whole thing. Essentially, pastors are given license to go to town on the interpretation of individual passages while the validity of the entire book is never called into question.

Which leads into my next idea: Congregations have a right to know about the dubious validity of the Bible. Christians use extremely tricky arguments to get around the fact that their religion is only based on certain parts of the Bible, yet accept, in general, that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I've never understood this. Even accepting the whole idea of the "new covenant" in the New Testament (why Christians are not obligated to live under OT laws), it still doesn't explain the entirely different character of God shown in the OT vs. NT. How can it be that your God, while exhibiting agape love for his creation, simultaneously request that Abraham kill Isaac with his own hands in order to test his faith? We would be horrified if modern society required any of this sort of nonsense.

There are zillions of contradictions in the Bible that Christians ought to know about. With any other piece of information, the believer is required to put forth evidence as to why they believe, but with Christianity, there are two cop-outs: because the Bible says so and God is a supreme being and I can't possibly understand everything there is to know about God. These arguments infuriate me because they absolve the arguer of the responsibility to have actually read the Bible or to convince me in a logical manner. Christians should know that the Gospels give three varying depictions of the crucifixion story, and that they were all written at least a decade after Christ died, but they don't know and they don't care. Seriously, as a Christian, how would you refute this guy's argument?

Which leads to my next idea (don't worry, sweet reader...eventually this post will end): there are wildly differing opinions on how to interpret the Bible, so who is correct? These disputes are responsible for the vast number of denominations that exist (all of whom are, ostensibly, "right" in their own mind) and also for a mind-bending amount of conflict within a single church.

Examples from TCBC*:

Around my freshmen/sophomore year of high school, my church's youth program (Word of Life) hosted a purely-for-fun lip-sync event to get everyone involved. I was rather shy in high school, and extremely so in my church, as I constantly felt excluded, but I fought what I saw as my own social shortcomings and got together with several girls to prepare for this lip-sync. We practiced in the basement of one our lip-syncers parents houses (they had built their own soundproof studio, which we used as a rehearsal space) for hours and debated over our "costumes". We decided to lip sync to a song by a band featuring the eldest son of a previous worship leader at TCBC; I wish I remembered the exact name of the song/band, but I do not.

Suffice to say that the kid was someone everyone knew; the band was explicitly Christian, and the record was full of Christian lyrics. The song we chose was a really silly, fluffy song that was simply fun to perform (that's why we picked it!), and although technically Godless, we figured that the event was for fun and it would be a cool way to insert music that I actually liked into church (bear in mind that Christian culture is always, like, ten years behind counter-culture movements; at the time I had just discovered pop-punk and thought I had discovered the cure for cancer).

Our youth pastor thought otherwise. On the day of the event, about a half hour before it was supposed to start, he told us (all girls) that we couldn't perform in the event because the lyrics did not mention God and, furthermore, that "that kind" of music was not glorifying to God in the first place. Crushed, we chose another (lamer) song and attempted to lip-sync to it without having practiced. It was stupid, we were unprepared, and we didn't have fun.

On top of this lunacy, two boys from the youth group were allowed to lip-sync to Mississippi Squirrel Revival by Ray Stevens, which is a freaking parody of church culture.

But their song didn't have drums in it, which I guess aren't very edifying. What horrid hypocrisy.

Another good example is a small quip that a newer pastor at TCBC said during the 2008 elections. I hadn't been to TCBC in a long time before this, and was unfamiliar with the new pastor, and was shocked to hear what he said. Before beginning his sermon (I forget the topic; it must not have appealed to my sense of reason ^_^), he used some sort of anecdote and pulled in pop culture/current events. He then informed the church that the congregation should pray for all political leaders to come to Christ instead of voting because there were "no candidates" that he supported.

My parents said they did not remember him mentioning this, which just goes to show what can happen to your brain if you presuppose something to be true or someone to be an authority without ever questioning. This pastor advocated that 300 people should forsake their right to the democratic process simply because he believes that if you are not a Christian you cannot be a good politician.

And no one is disturbed by this. To me, that is the most repugnant part of all.

Christians, turn on your brains when you sit in church. You HAVE THE RIGHT to ask questions. If what is being said is really true, you will have no problem finding evidence for it. Ask things like: "how do you know?" at all times! What's the point in believing in something if you don't know the information for yourself?

4. The problem of evangelism.

Evangelism is stupid. It really, really is. Under no other circumstances can you attempt to change a person's opinion on any singular topic with no knowledge of the person you are speaking to and no need for a relationship beforehand.

At TCBC, I was taught that evangelism was part and parcel of being a Christian; that to be a Christian you must share your faith (this is called "bearing fruit", referencing the fruits of the Spirit). However, we were also taught to insulate ourselves to the outside world and only interact with people like us, so evangelism was very difficult. In a sense, I felt that it was imperative for me to talk about Jesus everywhere I went, but was also deeply terrified and misinformed about anyone who wasn't a Christian. I had to convince people to become a Christian without knowing them and without having any leverage beyond "the Bible says so" and "I just know".

The Bible was presented as the be-all, end-all basis for walking people through the conversion process. I actually attended a youth event (I was in the 8th grade) where they sent us out in pairs and we went door to door, reading from a script and attempting to get people to commit to attending church. *headdesk* Of course this method didn't work! The last thing you expect to see when you open your door is a pair of 13-year-old girls, and you certainly wouldn't be terribly convinced of their passion for Jesus as they are shaking in their boots because they are trying to push an agenda on a perfect stranger.

Christians are also really in the dark as to the the actual effects of evangelism. When I read "Things Fall Apart" in college as part of a Post-Colonial Literature course, I was floored. It deeply troubled my sense of mission work, which I always considered to be an infallible and holy work that was ordained by God (this is largely due to the rhetoric that churches use; at many events and camps, male members are strongly encouraged to see if God is "calling you into ministry"). Later, when I read "The Poisonwood Bible", I was simply disturbed. I was disturbed, of course, at the actual fallout from the missionaries, but moreso at the idea that someone utterly convinced they were doing "God's work" could bring such horrible consequences. How is that possible? Well, since being "called by God" doesn't require you to actually connect with the person you are converting, who cares? It's not the physical or the day-to-day mundane that Christians care about; they need to focus on the condition of the soul at any cost so that they can add another notch onto their Bible.

To sum it all up, I would argue that I do not attend church because church advocates some things I find morally disgusting, insulates its members from new ideas or challenging philosophies (which I inherently seek out; I value new knowledge and different opinions so that I can see what I truly believe), its leaders are not held accountable for the things they say, and the emphasis on evangelism is absurd. Naturally, this is only the tip of the iceberg; people have miles and miles of printed work on why they find the church distasteful, but these are my opinions.

I also know lots of intelligent, knowledgeable Christians that would agree with many of the things I have stated; it's quite obvious to them that a Christian would need to be well-versed in counter-arguments in order to solidify their own beliefs, or that relationships need to come well before conversion. To them, let me say that I am not attacking you or your faith, but your churches, your buildings, your Institution, your Religion.

But you already know that. You don't worship your Church, you worship God, so what I have said is no surprise to you.

And thank you to everyone that will read this or has. I appreciate your opinion!


  1. "Christians, turn on your brains when you sit in church. You HAVE THE RIGHT to ask questions. If what is being said is really true, you will have no problem finding evidence for it. Ask things like: "how do you know?" at all times!"

    Yes, exactly. A belief which is true should be able to stand up to honest examination and questioning; conversely, a belief which can't stand up to scrutiny isn't worth holding. And if you're unwilling to subject your beliefs to that kind of examination, you probably already know, deep down, that they would not hold up.

  2. Yes, yes, #4, yes! The final church sermon that inspired me to find a new church (which inspired me to simply leave Christianity altogether) was all about how every moment we spend letting an evangelism opportunity slip past is a moment we've let Jesus down and are sinning. I was completely flabbergasted. We live in the U S of A! There is no way in hell [word choice intentional] that people in this nation haven't heard the gospel message. They do not need to hear it again (as though the 501st time will succeed where the 500th failed), and I definitely don't need a lecture and a guilt trip for refusing to harass random acquaintances.

  3. Very cogently put. Two thumbs up!

  4. you are more faithful and honest now than you ever were in church.

    i'm one of those intelligent, knowledgeable christians you mention at the end. i am a lutheran pastor. i have a master's degree in theology and make it my life's work to educate church-goers about the very human origins of the bible, doctrines, etc.

    i make no concessions to literalism, or any form of bigotry that "stands on the bible." no sweeping christian crimes under the rug. when students tell me they "just believe" something, i am the one pushing the questions Why and How.

    and i am incredibly lonely in church.

    i keep at it because my faith IS compatible with rational thinking and the practice of compassion, and it seems that this side of christianity has been hijacked by power-interested parties of christians since the beginning of the movement. i make no attempt to cover for this; i try to get christians to see why that history (and present reality) is a problem.

    all that said - thanks for acknowledging the existence of christians like me. the public discourse is often as closed to christians like me, as churches too often are to folks like you.


  5. When you realize the "very human origins" of the Bible and the contradictions therein, how do you know what part to believe? How do you know who "God" really is? This is what led me from not attending church to not believing any of it. This is why pastors don't want people to know more than they do.

  6. Thanks everyone for your thoughts!

    @johnsma: Absolutely. That's kind of the basic idea around truth, right? That it is universal and (ought to be) readily available.

    @TheNerd: that idea was definitely a big motivator for me to leave the church; I literally could not wrap my mind around how it was that, if a person had come to the conclusion that God did not exist or that Christianity was incorrect, the way to evangelize was just to beat the same dead horse. Many head-scratching and embarrassing moments in my teenage years came from awkward attempts to insert Jesus into conversations where he was definitely not invited.

    @marfita: *curtsies* Thank ya kindly.

    @caralyn: Wow. I admire your strength and passion immensely! I've found that you actually are NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, alone; merely in a minority. There are lots of people out there like you - they just get buried under all of the dogma and the wildly-popular identity of believing without reason.

    @empy: I think the previous commenter finds certain bits to be quite good advice, and I agree. I just reject the notion that the "good bits" have to be taken from the Bible in order to be "true" or good advice; loving your neighbor and being compassionate is just good business, not really wisdom. :)

  7. Another beautiful post -- well thought out and honest. The subject is touchy indeed, but you did very well in being fair.

    I don't know why I'm running into a lot of evangelical Christians (of many different sects) these days. A year or so ago I was only approached by one maybe once every few months. Now it's a few times a week. :oP It'd be more interesting if the evangelists are more knowledgeable about their faith's main concepts/assumptions and how their holy book came about, but as it is it always seems to end in 'God said this' and 'God said that' and 'if you have the holy spirit with you then you'd know or sense it, too'. :o( That gets pretty stale quite rapidly.

    Anyhow, thanks for the thought-provoking post! :o)

  8. @Smorg

    I find the evolution of the church really fascinating stuff, mostly because it was very political in nature and calculated. When you ask Christians about it, they speak vaguely of "the Holy Spirit moving through people" and "truth spreading" (as if it is a venereal disease or something). I remember being shocked, in high school, to learn about the Apocrypha because it distinctly contradicted my idea that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God (and therefore just came into being by divine intervention).

    If they only knew...