A personal dilemma about attending church


#1

Hey guys, I think I may be getting a little bit too personal here, since I’ll be mainly talking about personal problems, but since they are related in some sense to my relationship with religion, I think I could get some useful advice from you guys, especially the ones who have been part of religious communities longer than I. Here we go.

I have been raised in a family where my father was an atheist and my mother sort of a non-practicing christian (she does believe in the existence of a personal God, but very little in the bible or in any “formal” religion), and we really didn’t attend church a lot, in fact, I got bored very quickly when I was I child and eventually just stopped going at all, the same goes for my family since they basically went there because of me. By the age of twelve I started thinking seriously about these religious issues and basically became an atheist after some time. It was only last year, at twenty-five (halfway through my PhD) that I started reading material about the science and religion debate, and I noticed that many of my personal reasons for not believing in God didn’t make much sense (I’m not saying all arguments against God don’t make sense, It just turned out that most of mine were flawed), and I eventually started considering the possibility of the existence of God more plausible than not (I can detail the exact reasons elsewhere, but it is not the focus of this topic).

Well, after this introduction I can finally go straight to the point. It’s been about an year since I started my new faith, but I never really saw any need to go to the church at all, nor did I have the habit to do so. However, after talking about my change of mind with some of my close atheist friends, they started to tell me sort of “half-joking” that since I was a theist know, I should really start going to church, because I would probably fit in very nicely there (I’ve had already told them many times how I have always felt bored in most social situations because I’m “too much of a nerd” in the sense of really not seeing much appeal in partying and the likes of that, and always had to pretend that I was having fun). I took their words and thought “well, why not? I can try”. I started going trying to go to church, meeting with religious groups, etc., and my friends were right, I fitted in perfectly. I never thought that there would be such a huge difference between church-attending people and (most of, I was an exception myself) non-practicing religious people or atheists, but this do raise several moral problems for me:

  • Is it okay for me to go to the church if my main reason for doing so is not religious in itself?
  • Do these people’s worldview fit so nicely with mine only because they have been “indoctrinated” with these beliefs or because they fear divine punishment?
  • Most of these people probably believe in God for reasons that are very distinct from my own.
  • Even if I ultimately decide to do so, how can I integrate in that new community?

Can you guys give me some feedback on your personal experiences with going to the church and how to deal with these issues? Comments from atheists who identify with these problems would be very helpful as well (how do you deal with the fact that in more secular communities people tend to be more liberal in these issues of drugs, alcohol, casual sex, etc. when you’re not in that mindset yourself? I’m not talking about judging them as “morally wrong” for doing these things, but rather how you end up not fitting in very well because you don’t feel comfortable in participating). I hope my topic is not too outside the scope of this forum. Thank you very much!


(Phil) #2

Absolutely. While church is a way to express your faith , we also need community to keep us on track and enrich our lives… The group here is a part of that community of believers, but we still enjoy and benefit from flesh and blood relationships. I suspect we all have somewhat different reasons for belief, so don’t worry about that (and in my opinion fearing divine punishment is a really bad reason to believe, so there is that.)
As to integration, the best way is to serve others along side your brothers and sisters. Service projects, etc. are good. Share life, break bread together. Most churches are set up to have small groups, which is really where you get to know people, not the big worship services.


#3

The divine punishment concern is more motivated by the fact that the vast majority of people I know which do not take religion seriously seem to be very enthusiastic about these things like partying, using drugs, casual sex, etc. I do know that it is possible not being into these things without religion, since I’ve been an atheist myself most of my life. But it really makes you think “if fear of divine punishment is not motivating this mindset, why is it mostly the people who believe in concepts such as sin and divine punishment which feel uncomfortable with them?”. Well, maybe It is just the social bubble I’m currently in which is too much into that, but I don’t know.


#4

Yeah, but the way it goes most of the time is just that people get in there to hear the priest speaking and leave as soon as he finishes, and the churches nearby don’t really have many other activities like the church in my hometown has (integrating there is much easier, but I don’t visit it that frequently). I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that I’m a Catholic, maybe things are different in other denominations, but it would seem even more morally dubious to me to change denomination just for the sake of convenience.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

I think there is something commendable about loyalty to denomination and even to local church fellowship. That said there also has to be an important process of choosing that we all go through before we commit. If it really just isn’t working out and there doesn’t appear like you ever will get the fellowship you need, then I don’t think you should feel bad for visiting other fellowships. But be careful that you aren’t going to church looking for only for entertainment. Have you thought of trying to start an activity or small group in the Catholic church where you are? Maybe you could make a bit of noise or let the priest and others know about your interest or even willingness to help start something. Maybe there are others there you don’t know about who share in some of your interests. What Phil said is spot-on. Serving beside and breaking bread with others is essential.

I’m not a Catholic myself, but I’ve long admired Bishop Robert Barron’s youtube offerings, and in a recent video of his he mentions that wanting to be a Christian but deciding you don’t like church (or other Christians) is about like telling your friend “you know, I really like you, but I just can’t stand your body.” I.e. he thinks it is ultimately impossible to maintain Christian life apart from the church which is Christ’s body, after all. This is a long way of commending your quest to plug back into church. Christianity is never an individualistic pursuit.


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #6

This is a fair question. I’ll take a stab at answering, even though answers likely differ between Catholics and Protestants like me. There are many different reasons people have for not engaging in these sorts of behaviors. Some people may focus on one of these reasons or may have multiple reasons. I bold main ideas below for ease of skimming.

For some, you may be right: it may be fear of divine punishment. This actually falls into two subcategories. It may be fear of divine punishment in the hereafter, or it may also include fear of divine punishment in the here and now. This second subcategory breaks down even further into extrinsic punishments (think karma) and intrinsic punishments, like a loss of the wonderful sense of the nearness of God’s presence.

But divine punishment is not the only rationale. There is fear of the intrinsic consequences of such behavior. For instance I think many are phobic of STDs, having come to associate promiscuity with a near-certainty of contracting something horrible. In Protestant circles with a focus on sexual purity, there is also a belief that sexual activity forms a bond with another person and that that God designed that bond to glue together husband and wife. Sometimes this is compared to tape that can lose its stickiness after repeated application, as in this awkward, rambling skit (start about 2/3 down the page for the tape metaphor). (Of course, this approach has its detractors, too, like this blogger.) As to drugs, many of us have been taught about the addictive nature of drugs, or we have known people whose lives were ravaged by drug addiction (or both), and we don’t want to go anywhere near the stuff, for fear we might wind up throwing our lives down the tubes. There may also be a sense that the purchase of drugs, which are usually expensive (I gather), constitutes a failure in stewarding the financial resources God has entrusted us with.

Intrinsic consequences are there whether you’re a Christian or not, but some of them are perhaps talked about more in Christian social circles and in Christian child-rearing, so they become insurmountable barriers for Christians to engage in these behaviors whereas people outside the church may find that these barriers are not actually prohibitive for them.

Then there is the social barrier and identity-related barriers to these behaviors. Social, as in, fearing shame or rejection from church peers. Identity-related, as in, “I’m just not that kind of guy / gal.” This identity barrier makes it so that a Christian in a hard-core party may really feel uncomfortable and want to leave because it’s not congruent with their basic sense of who they are. They may be unable to enjoy it because it just doesn’t feel right to them at a gut level. There may even an access barrier: Many Christians don’t even know drug dealers or partiers to be able to go to one if (in a moment of weakness) they decided they wanted to.

Does this help you understand some possible dynamics that might explain the overlap between “Christian folks” and “folks who don’t engage in casual sex, partying and drugs”? I think it’s more complex than just “divine punishment.”


(Jay Johnson) #7

As @AMWolfe pointed out, some people are motivated to avoid “sin” not because of religious reasons, but because of the intrinsic consequences of sinful behavior. What I would like to add is that people have many motives for behavior – some positive, some negative. The Bible’s primary means of motivation is actually the carrot. We obey out of love and loyalty to God, not fear. The stick exists only for those who are not motivated by carrots. The Lord trains us as his children, and as with any training, positive reinforcement is more effective than threats. Threats only become necessary when the children stop listening.

EDIT: I should give a concrete example. If you don’t cheat on your spouse, is it because you love her and are loyal to her, or because you are afraid of the consequences of getting caught? 99% of the time, it should be the former, but if the latter keeps you faithful in the remaining 1% of circumstances, then the “threat” has served its purpose.


#8

Yeah, I think it makes sense! I hadn’t looked at things from this point of view. Another possible reason a friend of mine came up with is the fact that people which are inserted in a religious community may feel less of a need to fit in other groups, since they already feel as part of a group. And according to him, many people (himself included in the past) end up doing these things in order to fit in in a group and feel accepted.


#9

That is an interesting point of view, I used to disagree with that, but I’ve been seeing more and more value in the role of the community in christian faith. I’m seeing some of the videos of this Bishop Robert Barron on youtube and really enjoying it so far!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

Yeah – I don’t know if he knows about Biologos, but I think he would be a big fan if he did. Just google up: “youtube Robert Barron scientism” … (or science and faith) or words like that and you’ll get a taste if you haven’t already of his stand on science and faith. Spoiler alert: he sees no problem between them! I really appreciate all his deep scholarship that he exercises in concert with his steadfast faith commitment, and his ecumenical spirit on top of it all.

He would say (did say I think) that the body of Christ shows Christ’s power in its members’ weaknesses, warts and all. We are made richer for being plugged into it, putting up with each other, and beyond that learning to support each other.


#11

I really liked this one. He is very clear in his ideas, I must confess I was a little bit frustrated on how most theologians I found interesting/reasonalbe were mostly non-catholic.


(Wayne Dawson) #12

I understand that church can seem boring sometimes. This last Sunday was beautiful a sunny day, and here in Japan the cherry trees are blossoming and many flowers are starting to bloom. It would be so nice to just go look. Oh, but I have to go to church. …

I don’t know how it works with the Catholic church, but I would look for a place where you can become involved in some way. Because I play keyboard, I found a way to become involved in music very quickly here in Japan. For me, outside of science, I am a driven musician, so I found a place where they appreciate my sort of jazzy ad-lib style of playing. Even those old hymns can rock sometimes, others can swing, you just have to find the soul of the song. So if you have some talent, look for somewhere or some church where you can become involved.

I would say that the purpose of a church is to connect yourself with the community of believers and to help you to get some structure into your practice. I found the hard way that daily prayer, bible reading, and regular fellowship is very important. The reason we do this is that we need to prepare for the times that we need God’s wisdom. When I did the crash study for a particular problem, it was rather late. It is better to have the word of God written on your heart for the times you are tested than to have to improvise – even though I improvise very well in music, I don’t improvise well on social matters.

Maybe part of what can help you find your way is to get to know some mentors or fellow believers who share enough in common with your views that you can find meaningful fellowship with them. Then the time you spend in a church will become less troublesome and even enjoyable. … you can complain about the lousy sermon … :grin:

– by Grace we proceed,


#13

Hahaha, thanks! The “boring” factor is not really a problem now, it was a problem when I was 10-11 years old. My main problem is some kind of moral guilt for knowing that I’ve never felt the need to go to church until I noticed I liked the community itself, in other words, I started to feel like I was going more to socialize than for religion itself, you know?


(Mervin Bitikofer) #14

“Fake it till you make it” I’ve heard some people say. Sometimes forcing yourself to smile even if you don’t feel like smiling may actually cheer you up a bit for real. People who seem to be “naturally so kind and caring” are probably those who practiced being kind and caring even when they didn’t feel the motivation, and pretty soon as they cultivate the habit, they begin to have that motivation in place too.

So I don’t care if you’re going to church just for the potlucks (something not so far-fetched especially in my college student days) --the end result is that you’re developing a great habit whatever the dubious motivation is that’s getting you there.


(Wayne Dawson) #15

I remember reading a book by Guy Consolmagno (now director of the Vatican Observatory) …

In one of the chapters, he asks various church goers why they go to church, and a good percentage of them said the same thing as you. I actually contacted him about that and a few other things, he also said that he was surprised by this point,

I think it was Charles Murray who quoted some statistics that indicate that, on retirement, about 70% of the males said their wives were their closest friend and the females said 30% for their husband. An extrapolation of that – posed perhaps as humor – followed that whereas the work environment offers a social life, when the work ends, if the person hasn’t developed a genuine and constructive social life outside, it is likely that the burden will fall on the spouse. At any rate, it is important to make friends all your life.


(John Dalton) #16

My humble suggestion is to read Paul’s letters again BB. When I first seriously did (long, long after my Catholic education lol) I got a strong sense of how important the idea of community was in the early church. I think your problem may be totally besides the point, so to speak.


(Christy Hemphill) #17

If it’s a good church they will welcome you no matter what your reasons are for showing up.

Personally, I don’t fear divine punishment and my lifestyle choices have nothing to do with wanting to avoid God’s wrath. That may not be the case for all Christians but many live the way they do because they are convinced that God has dictated some things because they are truly best for human flourishing not because he is a vindictive killjoy.

In my experience, just showing up is the main thing. Again, if it is a good church, (and you have base level social skills, which it appears you do :wink: ) it shouldn’t be hard to form relationships. If it is, find a different church that is more open and accepting.

Some Catholic churches have more active “body life” than others, but don’t Catholics just normally attend the parish church they live in? When I was in college I volunteered with a Catholic ministry that did faith discussion groups at a local juvenile prison. I met some really great people by participating in that, even though I wasn’t Catholic myself. So maybe Catholics are used to doing more of their bonding over community service, whereas Baptists build in “fellowship” by serving donuts and coffee at every service. Anglican churches are very similar to Catholic churches liturgically but may have a difference in the typical church culture. Some of them host Alpha courses, which are kind of “introduction to Christianity” groups specifically designed for people checking out what the church has to offer and involve a social aspect like a meal with other people attending before the sessions start.

You are totally allowed to just show up and visit churches even if you have no intention of being a regular attender. No one would think that is weird. So you could shop around and find a group of people you connect with. You can tell a lot about a church sometimes by looking at it’s website. That will usually give you an idea of the kinds of things they prioritize and focus on and may send up some red flags that rule some out as no-gos from the beginning.


#18

Even among atheists there are many who frown upon casual relationships, drug abuse, and addiction. These can be destructive human behaviors that even atheists can recognize. Whether you are a Christian or atheist, it is always better to find friends who share your basic attitudes towards life and behavior. I can understand how putting up with a bunch of drunk friends at a dance club would be a major burden, so maybe try to find activities where you can all enjoy each other’s company.

As for the congregation you have joined, I would view it as an extended family. I certainly don’t agree with many of the things my family members believe in, but I love them anyway. There are also certain family members who I get along with very well and we agree on most things, and I tend to spend more time with them. Perhaps the same approach might work for you in this new congregation.


#19

There may be many of us who joined church for reason of friendship and belonging while at the same time learing more about the confession of faith the church takes. A naturalistic view of the world is not enough and I hope you will find in the person of Jesus, and in the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit a greater reason to live and be the best person that you can be.

Don’t feel pressurised into believing everything at once, but explore what you find attractive and most helpful for your understanding of the world. Don’t feel troubled if you have doubts. These things unfold slowly. God wants so share eternity with you and you will have the whole of eternity to find and know all the answers to things you have always and ever asked.


(Robin) #20

Boltzman…It sounds like you are on an interesting journey. I began to believe in religion/Christianity about 3 years before I darkened the doorway of a church. Even then, for the first two or three years I did not attend that often. The music was too loud and it was so much different from what I had remembered in the churches of my younger years. I was also unsure of what I believed in a number of areas and wanted to settle that issue on my own…

I would say that church definitely has its own culture. Some people grew up in it and others found church later on. It is wrong to think most are there because they have been indoctrinated – as fi they were zombies with no ability to think for themselves. And yes, of course, the reasons why people have come to faith differ from person to person. You will always find that to be true. This is one reason why thinking of them as having been “indoctrinated” is difficult. People who have been indoctrinated do not have the varying reasons for faith that you think they do — although maybe you should actually ask some of those at the church you attend!! As for “fearing divine punishment” — the Bible does say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But maybe it is better to say love than fear. That is a topic for another time.