Sunday, 24 April 2011

Why I went to church today

"Hallelujah, hallelujah, Christ the Lord is risen." These words ring in my ears and from my voice. Why am I singing them? Because I am in a church on Easter Sunday. Why am I singing them when I have no belief in Christ, the Lord or the resurrection? Because I am taking part in a cultural event that has been celebrated by my family for the whole of my life. And, indeed, much longer than that.

I was thirteen when I marched downstairs one Sunday morning and presented my mother with a list of reasons why I didn't believe in God. She read them, offered a few standard placations, and never forced me go to church again (though she often pleaded). A small pivot in my evolution from child to adult. After that, I went to church only for religious holidays and too many funerals, but stayed mute for anything other than the hymns, and even then my churlish teenage mind refused to sing any words relating to the Holy Trinity.

But now I'm back and I'm singing my heart out. The reasons are many but mainly this: I am precisely twice thirteen years old, but the amount I've matured has far more than doubled. I've considered my family's religion and I've realised that the worth in normal, everyday Christianity is community. Going to church and singing about God does not betray my atheist beliefs, it does not bring me closer to Him but it does bring me closer to my family.

St John's Church, Broadstone, Dorset
My parent's local church: St John's, Broadstone, Dorset. Real photo postcard by R & M Meatyard (date unknown). From alwyn_ladell on Flickr.

In a BHA survey last year, fewer than half the respondents who identified as Christian said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the son of God. Indeed my father, who goes to church every Sunday, confessed to me five years ago that he does not believe Jesus is the son of God. There are many similarly-minded people who go to church simply to meet other people, to enjoy a shared experience, or just as part of routine. We are creatures of habit, and sometimes the loss of something that has been with you all your life is too painful to bear. So Dad goes with Mum (who is less enlightened than he) every week to a beautiful building to sing and praise the wonders of life. The difference is Mum believes God made these bright and beautiful things; Dad thinks not. Does it really matter? Church brings them together, and today I'm together with them, and they're happy I'm there.

Last week, I even went to a church on my own, of my own volition. Four years ago my Catholic brother died. To mark this, I lit a candle in his memory and wrote him a song lyric in a book for prayers. Churches aren't just buildings of religion, they are anchors. I spent my grief there, rather than at home, or in an art gallery, or a pub, or anywhere else he identified with because there is a tradition of lighting candles in churches and it is comforting. A place to deposit my sadness and my loss, and then leave.

The words of Martin Rees on winning the Templeton Prize struck a chord with me: "[churchgoing is] a common traditional ritual which one participates in as part of one's culture." He hammers the nail right on the head.


  1. Did you see this piece by Rees?

    I sometimes think I miss something in the 'place to deposit sadness and loss' because as someone with no religious background such spaces feel alien to me.

    (Though I'm more culturally-Christian than I sometimes admit. The US is both oddly more and less Christian than the UK, and feel v odd about giving a lecture tomorrow.I've worked many East Mondays before, but it feels odd that a university would be running)

  2. p.s. I meant to add a 'place to deposit sadness and loss' is a brilliant way of expressing it by the way!

  3. Thanks Alice. I saw bits of that piece quoted on Twitter, good to read all of it now. "If teachers take the uncompromising line that God and Darwinism are irreconcilable, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stick with their religion and be lost to science" is a very important point, I think.

    Though I don't think I went to church today quite as "happily" as Rees - I did it grudgingly! I do enjoy singing the hymns and being within lovely architecture but I still feel very uncomfortable there. Reflecting what you said, I feel like an alien within a church (and I did keep joking to some friends that I would burst into flames, vampire-like, the moment I walked through the door).

  4. Lovely piece, Louise.

    I still go to mosque sometimes when I'm at home with my parents, particularly when it's around Eid. I take part, and pray, but I don't think it really brings me much, apart from time to reflect on the idiosyncrasies of one particular organised religion.

    If anything, it makes me feel guilty - for being an atheist, in spite of my family, and for fraudulently being in the mosque and going through the motions.

  5. I don't go to church any more because I no longer find any comfort in it. All of the people whose company I valued & sought out when I did go (and played guitar and sang my heart out for the love & joy of music, family & friends more than any feeling of faith)have either moved away or, like me, no longer believe.
    I do sometimes miss the singing, the candles and the smell of incense, fresh flowers and old hymnals, but felt like a terrible fraud the last time I went (Midnight mass, Christmas 1996).
    Thanks for writing this. It gave me an opportunity to remember some of the good things I associated with church attendance (none of which had anything to do with faith) and be reassured that I made the right decision for me.

  6. This is why I give my religion as 'church lady.'
    It's way easier to find a church I like than to find a religion I like!

  7. I'm sure we're all missing a lot at the personal level by feeling unable to attend church. There's another dimension to it as well though I think - that Christianity has a unique world-view, to do with forgiveness, brotherhood, compassion, downplaying money and possessions ... all things that maybe the western world could do with re-engaging with.

    Thanks for the post.


  8. Thank you everyone for your comments. It's interesting what you say about guilt, Imran, because to me guilt is so strongly associated with Christianity. That said I know very little about Islam. I don't feel guilty when I go to church, I am glad of the decisions I have made. I understand about feeling fraudulent (Jackie in particular), but it's important to note that the Christian religion accepts anyone into a church regardless of belief or denomination - if that helps next time you go to one (if you do).

    Ultimately I felt very frustrated in church on Sunday, and perhaps condescending towards the "believers" there. Many reasons but one in particular, that I have to participate in something I don't believe in to become close to my parents! And that my Dad can't carry through his thinking about Jesus to the point where he rejects Christianity as a whole (and convinces my Mum too).

    I think you make a very good point, Pete - there are many Christian values that should have a place in society. Most importantly: treat others as you would be treated. It's just frustrating that more people don't take these values into their own lives, regardless of religion. And that people need religion to have these values in their lives. Though of course some non-religious people (including me, I hope) do.