I've skipped church four Sundays in a row now and I'm feeling slightly guilty. It's freezing-ass cold here in Nebraska, and I just have been too lazy to scoop the driveway and drag myself and my children out in sub-zero temps. Considering that I stopped believing in God over two years ago, it seems rather weird that I still spend my Sunday mornings attending the local Salvation Army worship services. So why don't I just quit going?
I didn't leave Christianity because of any failure of the people. For the most part, I found the Christians I knew to be sincere, generous and supportive. Misguided and unrealistic, maybe - but hey, that was me too.
It was the Bible and Christian doctrine which I finally recognized as ridiculous and even abusive. Through the years, I had become more and more fundamentalist in my beliefs and practices. My diligent study of the scriptures led me to adopt the strict gender roles and patriarchal family model of the Quiverfull movement as God's perfect will for godly men and women. I accepted all the pregnancies which the Lord chose to bless me with, homeschooled my children and "dared to shelter" them from ungodly influences of the world, and for over a decade I obediently submitted to the "head" of our home: my controllling and abusive husband.
It was a stressful and unsustainable lifestyle which led to near breakdown for me - and a suicide attempt for my oldest daughter.
When I first deconverted, I continued to go to church because the pastor had been especially supportive during the ugly custody battle when I filed for divorce.
About six months after the divorce, the pastor was transferred and the church got a new husband / wife team ~ Salvation Army officers, Xavier and Heather. I had decided to continue going to church through the summer so that the kids could go to the camps (sports, music, and adventure camps) for free. But I decided to be upfront with Heather and let her know right away that I don't believe in Christianity anymore. (I knew I had to say something before they tried to recruit me to teach the kids' Sunday School - wouldn't that be a hoot!)
At first, she didn't believe that I really don't believe - but we really hit it off and became friends fairly quickly. We go out for coffee or lunch together at least once a week. We've been doing this for about a year and a half now and it didn't take long for me to say what I had to say about my unbelief and her to say what she had to say - and now it doesn't really come up much in our conversation. Not that we're avoiding it - just that we've kind of moved past that and just enjoy our friendship. We have a lot in common and so there's always plenty to talk about.
Heather is the sort of Christian whom, in my fundie days, I'd have considered a shallow, "feel good" believer. She loves Jesus and is committed to serving Him, yes - but she is not a fundamentalist and doesn't take every word of the Bible literally.
I asked Heather once what it means to her that, as Paul says, the man is the head of the home. Does that mean Xavier gets to make the final decision whenever you two can’t come to an agreement on a particular issue? “No,” she responded. She paused to think about it for a minute, and then told me, “I guess I don’t really know what it means.” I appreciate her honesty.
I also appreciate that as Salvation Army officers, my pastors are truly the "roll-up-their-sleeves-and-get-the-job-done" type of Christians. If they must say a prayer as they distribute, food, clothing, school supplies, etc. to the needy - so be it. If they give a little Bible study as they're opening up the mobile canteen - that does not offend me. Lt. Xavier will soon be leaving for Haiti to assist in doing what the Salvation Army does in emergency situations. Better he does that, than waste time writing up a sermon to explain all the whys and wherefores of the disaster as it relates to God and the Bible.
At first, continuing to go to church was sort of a confirmation for me that I really didn't believe any of it any more. All at once, it all seemed so crazy to me that I thought, "I must have misunderstood what they are teaching. Surely, no-one really believes this?" So I'd go to church and listen carefully, and sure enough - that's exactly what they're teaching. It helped me to feel confident that what I don't believe isn't just a straw man - some wacko God that only I believed in while other Christians have a more "balanced" view of the bible, Jesus, etc.
So initially church was still interesting enough - but now I'm to the point that it is literally physically and mentally painful for me to make it through the morning service. I can't "in good conscience" participate - which makes it a frustrating and awkward experience. The words to the songs are sick and mortifying. Praise and worship used to be my favorite thing because I love music, and praise just comes so easily for me. So I want to sing and dance - but I don't want to sing about what a worm I am or how thankful I am for Jesus' shed blood, etc. A lot of the Salvation Army songs include "battle" language which makes me cringe. So that's something to be endured. Prayer time is tricky too. They take prayer requests from the congregation and I never raise my hand. When it's time to pray, I don't bow my head or close my eyes.
Anyway, I'm still going to church because that's where my social life is (mostly). I love the people there - and I really like Heather. There's always lunch in the "Sally Ann" soup kitchen after church and that's when I have a truly fun and enjoyable time visiting with all my down-on-their-luck friends. There are also other activities that we do together which the children and I like: picnics, movie night, etc. It is getting more uncomfortable for me all the time. Xavier is certain that this is because I'm feeling the conviction of the Holy Spirit - which is truthfully, horseshit.
Lately though, I've been thinking that there's another reason why I still go to church and might continue for some time to come. As an ex-Christian, I sometimes feel like the lame, half-witted child which a nice respectable family might want to tuck quietly away in a distant care facility to avoid the embarrassment of having to explain how their well-bred DNA could result in such a deformed, mutated offspring.
On my No Longer Quivering blog, I have been fairly vocal about the family-destroying Quiverfull teachings - which, I maintain, is nothing more than basic Christian doctrine lived out to its logical conclusions. And it often seems to me that Christians would prefer that I would just quietly disappear - stay home on Sundays and pretend that it was all a bad dream.
But I haven't gone away. Which means they still have to think about me - have to explain me.
They see me, they know me - I am a real person - same as them.
For their part, Xavier and Heather have been thoughtful and gracious. Despite my "defects" of divorce, loss of faith, etc., they still claim me and do not dismiss my experience by arguing that I was never really a True Christian. They are careful that in their teachings, they do not promulgate the patriarchal set-up which has devastated countless marital relationships through the centuries (mine included) - even if it means they have to ignore or torturously "reinterpert" the bible verses which historically have been used to support such sexism.
Conversely, remaining in close contact with practicing Christians helps me to remember that they do what they're doing for all the same reasons that used to motivate me too: a sincere heart and genuine desire to love the Lord and to love their neighbors. This keeps me from building up a caricature of "Christian people" in my own mind whom I must fight against and expose as deluded and hypocritical.
I see them, I know them - they are real people - same as me.
So when I write or speak about the evils of Christian fundamentalism and biblical literalism, I'm talking about words, ideas, beliefs, thoughts which affect and influence the flesh-and-blood people who listen to these abstractions and take them to heart. The people themselves - they're just like me; eager to know the truth and to do right.
Does this make sense? Or am I, in true fundamentalist fashion, twisting my brain in knots in an effort to justify something obviously and utterly ridiculous? Perhaps what I need is an Atheist Churchgoers' 12-Step recovery group:
Hi. My name is Vyckie. I am an atheist and I go to church.