Yesterday I did something uncharacteristic for an atheist - I attended church. This was the first time I’ve ever gone to church either by myself, or of my own accord, in my life. Motivated by anthropological curiosity, slight cynicism and boredom I decided to delve into the beast’s belly. And while I was bemused, finding many curiosities, I also found warmth, sincerity, and more common ground than I thought I would. I wont be going back anytime soon, but it was a generally pleasant experience that I’ll be more careful to begrudge anyone in the future.
When the service began we were prompted to greet each other. The projection screen above the altar showed on it a picture of elderly people shaking hands among the pews. The elderly people around me followed suit, shaking each others' hands, then mine. The least elderly lady in my vicinity made her way down our aisle shaking hands, reaching past me to get to everyone, then arriving at me as the pastor thanked everyone she gave a startled smile in my direction and went back to her seat without extending a hand.
Everyone sat down as the pastor updated us on an unfortunate soul - Hugh - who had recently been admitted to hospice care in the last stage of terminal cancer. This was followed by a brief hymn 'O How He Loves You And Me', in contrast to how He apparently felt about Hugh. The pastor offered his appraisal of The Lord, that He is good and faithful. He admitted that in times like these, such as coping with Hugh's illness, it is hard to know how to pray - what to say, how to feel - avoiding the admission of the obvious thing to say, 'Hey Dickhead, stop killing Hugh' and the obvious feelings of anger and dissonance that are elicited by God's more confusing acts that are difficult to characterize as 'good' or 'faithful'.
He urged the congregation to spread God's word throughout the small village we occupy; to the schools, the courthouse and the gas stations, the three main employers in descending order. Then it was time for an intercessory prayer, where we were to lift names of those who could not pray for themselves up to Heaven presumably so that God could mark them down in his planner. "Bruce," an elderly lady offered. "Linda," a young boy followed. "Odetta, Trog..." it went on, devolving into people offering howls, and then only things similar to sounds.
Then the collection plates were passed around as the screen projected the passage "Seek first His Kingdom and these thing will be given to you" superimposed over a picture of a bowl full of money, as though a slide from the secret power-point shared amongst the Church-Conspirators was accidentally slipped into the one meant for general consumption. The pastor collected the plates of money and held them up toward the projector screen thanking it or Jesus for the bounty.
The pastor tucked away the cash and then instructed to the children of the congregation "In the words of The Price Is Right, 'Come on down'!" They gathered on the steps of the alter, and the pastor retrieved his props. This was the 'Children's Message' the projection screen explained. He held up two sticks. "I am holding up two sticks" he said to effect. He then asked the children what they thought he was going to do with them. "Beat us," one child said jokingly, at least by half. The church and I laughed. The pastor strained a chuckle and added the offputting rejoinder, "if I did it'd be through Christian love." Yikes.
He went on to break the sticks individually to show how susceptible the individual child was to evil, but when buffered by the members of their church their piety could not be so easily snapped as demonstrated by the pastor attempting unsuccessfully to break a bundle of sticks. He then led them in prayer, forcing the children to thank God for letting them be part of His church, and impliedly, Christian love.
The pastor began his sermon with an anecdote about 'Little Johnny' who thought God was in his bathroom because his pathologically angry father yelled "Good Lord, are you done in there?!" every morning through the bathroom door. Then the pastor told of his friend from out of town that asked him where his church was. The pastor gave him directions to the church. But this was folly, he said. It turns out that God is in Heaven, and in our hearts, not in our bathrooms or on Google Maps. Unless of course you and your heart are using the toilet, or you type ‘Heaven’ into Google Maps (which by the way will get you directions to a gay bar on 6th Ave. in New York).
The ‘incredible and amazing’ thing is, we were then instructed, that the ‘God of The Universe’ has chosen to live inside our hearts. I found this compelling - the Rosetta Stone for atheist and theist thought. The religious have anthropomorphized and personalized what the ‘God of The Universe’ is but it is also incredible and amazing to me that I am manifested with life. I am unable to project meaning onto the orchestrated force of DNA replication that propels and controls all life but I am no less susceptible to its awesome purpose.
We search for patterns of meaning because it is evolutionarily beneficial to do so, so much so that we often find them even when they’re not really there. But oftentimes they are there, we observe and test cause and effect through science, and while we can only say things happen in the observable world in a merely correlative fashion and that it is possible that all ’reality’ is only within the margin of error, even we atheists can see what seems to be the grand purpose of existence without knowing or purporting to know why it is, or thinking anything that comes of it is bad or good.
Even though we differ on value judgments, atheists and theists are both limited to that purpose. Without God we can only do what our basic chemical make up has in store for us vis-à-vis everything that preceded it and everything that influences it while we're alive. With God we can only do anything within His Plan. We can do anything but whatever we do is only a mammoth confluence of cause and effect toward an unknown purpose, or it is the unknowable will of God. The distinction to me is growing more and more negligible.
It hasn’t gotten to the point however where I’m ready to ‘crawl up into God’s lap and embrace His love’ as was suggested at the end of the church service. But I think I will make more of a conscious effort to embrace love wherever I may find it despite its inherent emptiness. Even though I can find amusement in the absurdities of the bizarre attempt to grope for meaning that is organized religion, I can relate to, love and feel camaraderie with its participants while I engage in a bizarre groping attempt at meaning of my own.