Church isn’t anything new to me. I grew up in a Christian family and attended a Romanian Pentecostal Church for the majority of my life. I went to a Christian private school and attended Church youth groups in both Romanian and American communities. The Christian church is something I’m very familiar with. I didn’t think I’d be surprised by much attending church now, but I was happily mistaken.

This winter marks a full year since I started going to church after having lost my faith. Ironically, I don’t think I’ve ever had such an appreciation for the Church as I do now. I feel like my perspective on it is more objective and I can more clearly see the effect it has on its members and local communities. I appreciate more fully the aspects of the Church that I either took for granted in the past or never noticed to begin with. Here are a few things I’ve learned while going to church as an atheist.

Note: The church I’ve been attending is a Non-denominational Church, but I think mostly everything I’ll be talking about can apply to the Christian Church in general. I have no experience in churches of other religions.

Who is church intended for?

The first realization I reached is that unbelievers are not the target audience. Church is not meant for people who don’t already subscribe to the teachings of the Church. This may seem obvious, but the more I attended the more it became apparent to me. Church is a place for believers to have their faith reinforced, be encouraged by likeminded thinking and to fellowship with like minded people.

One effect this has is that the entire structure doesn’t permit someone who is unconvinced by the claims of the Church to understand why people actually believe them to be true. God’s existence, the validity of the Bible and all the dogma of churches are presuppositions and never directly addressed or justified. If I’m correct about the target audience of churches, then this actually makes a lot of sense. When the target audience is comprised of those who already accept these things to be true, it wouldn’t make sense covering them either in sermons or small groups*.

*A small group within the context of a church is when a group of people get together under a common interest and do church related activities on some regular bases.

This also means that the growth of the Church tends to be more transference and internal based rather than conversion. Meaning churches grow by congregations that simply move from one church to another for whatever reason or by members growing their families. I found this to be the case the more I talked to folks and heard their reasons for attending and testimonies. Typically, people I spoke with were first introduced to their faith by parents and raised within a church. The few exceptions were those who became Christians because of a spouse or loved one. I’m sure there are people who get converted within church too, but I haven’t had the opportunity to meet anyone with that experience.

Another effect is that the internal community of the church tends to lack contrarians. Since the group is essentially formed around the common faith, there is never any challenge or alternate views expressed. The interesting aspect of this is that there actually are many different views on subjects by members within church. There seems to be no consensus on even the most core of Christian dogma such as the method(s) salvation is attained, if salvation can be lost, the call to proselytization, the existence of hell, predestination, prosperity preaching etc. People just either don’t feel a need to make their personal views on these subjects known, or they don’t have a platform for expressing them**. The views that are expressed are that of the pastor and church leaders.

**I also suspect that those who are more vocal about their disagreements usually move to a church that agrees more with their views or they stop attending all together. Given that the major schisms of the Christian church took place after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Christians have a wide range of selection when picking a preferred theological leaning.

It’s all about community

The aspect of church that I missed the most after I stopped attending was the community. I made it my goal when I started attending again to get to know as many people as I could. The result of this was that I was reminded of the community of people who support and deeply care for one another. I was humbled by the stories people would share with me: hardships, joys, triumphs and trials. This—to me—is the true strength and attraction of the Church. A group of people who come together in solidarity, empathy and material support for one another. A great Church is one that can apply those principles universally, especially to those outside of their direct Christian community.

I believe a church that is able to take hold and nurture the strength of community could create the medium for real positive change and support for those in need. The key to this is giving people an opportunity to invest themselves and have a stake in the institution. To help others both inside the Church as well as the local community they reside in. This also means giving people a voice, a sense of ownership and democratic purpose within the church which—unfortunately—is all too often lost in the traditional hierarchical structure of most churches.

Getting to know the people at my church also changed my tact on talking about religion and other difficult subjects. I’m a lot less interested in having a contentious debate with others. Instead, my focus is the conversation. Understanding where people are coming from and empathizing with their journey. Religion is a very personal belief system, and I’ve found that it’s not something people feel comfortable having challenged or asked to justify. That’s totally fine and understandable. I’ve learned to respect those boundaries and usually keep my thoughts on such subjects private unless asked directly.

I also try to focus attention and discussions on the things we have in common instead of exclusively our disagreements. In much the same way the Christian community finds common ground through religion, people with non-religious dispositions can find common ground in our humanity and care for one another. It’s this common interest of solidarity that can pull communities together that otherwise would never connect. It’s not to say that the controversial aspects of religion should never be discussed. Those discussions are important, but they need to be approached with sensitivity and humility.

I’ll never truly belong

Given the core beliefs that define church, I’ve come to terms with the reality that I’ll never belong to the Christian community in any meaningful way. It’s actually a very similar feeling to driving through an old neighborhood and seeing your old house. There’s a sense of warmth and familiarity accompanied by the deep emptiness you have knowing it’s a relic of the past. I’m a traveler there to listen, learn and grasp a better understanding of my Christian brothers and sisters. I think Nathan Schneider summarizes best what I take from the Christian church when he writes in his introduction to “On Anarchism”:

Its members[anarchists] might, for instance, study working examples of the mutual aid they long for—education, material support, free day care—in churches and megachurches across the country, which form both the social life and the power base of the right. Independent of the state, these citadels put into practice something anarchists have been saying all along: no form of politics is worth our time until it helps struggling people get what they need, sustainably and reliably. All the better if you can do so without patriarchy and fundamentalism.

This is the hope I get whenever I attend church. To me, it’s actually a reminder that our help won’t come from above. It won’t be given to us from a politician or political system. All we have is each other. Our families, our communities and our neighbors. The Church is a great example of these principles in action. When we take a more egalitarian view of each other, that’s when caring about one another and treating each other as brothers and sisters becomes natural. It’s our humanity that bind us together and it’s all we’ll ever have.

Should Atheists Attend Church?

This is actually a tough question and I may just take the easy way out and say “it depends”. I think there are huge benefits to getting involved in your community and a lot of the time that means getting involved in a local church to some extent. The hard part is finding a church that aligns at least somewhat with your own values and where the good they do in your community completely outweighs whatever disagreements you may have with the internal teachings. Some important questions to ask when learning about a church are:

  • What are their political affiliations, if any?
  • How do they view women and their role in the church?
  • What are their views of the LGBT community?
  • To what extent are they involved in their local community?
  • To what extent do they allow unbelievers to participate?
  • If you’re willing to contribute financially, how transparent are they in that area?

Lastly, one of the most important things I would ask unbelievers who are thinking about attending church is to be humble and respectful. People don’t go to church to get into arguments and it’s not a platform for you to use as a soapbox. I wouldn’t recommend lying about your lack of faith. Be honest, but don’t rub it in people’s faces in hopes of getting some sort of reaction out of them. Don’t denigrate people’s most intimate and personal beliefs. There’s a lot to be learned from the Christian community and I have found no better path in doing so than by love, respect and humility.

I’d love to continue this conversation. What do you think? Should unbelievers attend church? If you have any thoughts or experiences you’d like to share about church, I’d love to hear it.