An atheist in the pews (part 1?)

I have not been to church in many years, at least outside of weddings and such.  I often think about dropping in for a sermon to see what people are hearing from the pulpit. But a few days ago my girlfriend, who has just recently become rather distant from the Christian message and theology from which she was raised, suggested that we go to the church at which she is still a member in order to get a closer look.  So, while I prefer to do other things of Sunday mornings. I agreed and we planned to attend the 11:00 service at a church in downtown Philadelphia.

I must say it was rather odd to walk into the building with the organ playing and people singing (we got there just a few minutes after the service started–parking issues).  I felt a bit like an ethnologist trying to blend in and not be noticed.  This necessitated no identifying atheist clothing as well as using her car to get there, as mine has a few bumper stickers that would give me away.

My goal was to observe quietly and not to draw attention to myself or disrupt their services.  I won’t name the church, but I will say that it is a Presbyterian church, a denomination which I had never previously attended services for.  Calvinists.  In other words had I talked to some of the people, they might have concluded that I was not one of the predestined to be saved.  Poor me.  Created to be absent from God in Hell for eternity.

I didn’t want to stand out, but I couldn’t exactly participate either.  I sat, quietly, while others stood and sang (nobody wants to hear me sing anyway) and watched as others bowed their heads in prayer.  I ended up making eye contact with a few people who were doing something similar, even if they very quickly snapped back to praying at being caught looking around.  There was a little girl next to me whom was playing the whole time, and she gave me a curious look once or twice as I sat and took notes.

JephthahMeetsHisDaughterThe sermon finally came.  The reading was from Hebrews, chapter 11:32-38.  The subject; strength through weakness; strength through faith.  Now, these verses mention such luminaries of faith and weakness as David and Jephthah.  The David of mass murdering, rape, and destruction and the Jephthah whom killed his own daughter, as attested to in Judges chapter 11.  These were given, among other similar characters, as people who found strength in weakness.

I’m must disagree. These were not men who knew weakness as much as they knew power and destruction, except the kind of weakness which allows one to commit mass murder.  This is usually the weakness of insecurity and fear that one uses to fuel the need to inflict their will upon the powerless.  The kind of insecurity that religion has often used for millennia to conquer its enemies.

The minister who gave the sermon said that faith is “not thinking you can” but rather “believing God can.”   He continued by saying that “this is not a gathering of strong people,” but of the weak and needy, those suffering in hard times and who need God.  When I heard this, I felt despair rise inside me.  I imagine I was not the only one.  But my dispair was one of feeling sickened at seeing open (if unconscious) emotional manipulation in front of me.

Marketing 101: Make your audience feel a lack of something in their lives.  Then present something to fill that gap. This will lead you to sell your product better.

He continued by saying that “this is not all that there is.”  Heaven.  This life is but a small step before eternity.  It does not matter as much, “now is a preparation,” so suffer through this struggle of life in faith and heaven awaits you.

But that wasn’t the worst.  The worst was when he pulled out the “enemy.”  This enemy was not named, but the enemy asks questions like “what has your faith gotten you?” and “why believe in God?” I’m sure that many in the congregation have a family member, a co-worker, or even a neighbor who is skeptical, an atheist, etc.  This part of the sermon is supposed to address the doubts that people have, the temptation of the enemy to become skeptical.  Those questioners are the enemy.  I am the enemy.

He went on to criticize the “despicable heroes of Western culture” who are interested in material things, money, and this life.  These are the “anti-heroes” not worthy of the respect we give them.  Instead, this minister holds up the aforementioned David and Jephthah as the heroes of faith we should look up to.  What a reversal! Nietzsche would have smiled before he scrawled something beautiful and corrosive in response.

Now, I’m not all about material wealth and status.  I agree, as I have discussed elsewhere, that there is a problem with our culture that needs addressing.  However this sermon creates a false dichotomy between faith and materialism.  This sermon overlooks people like myself who abhors faith and yet is critical of the petty materialism of our culture as well.  From the minister’s point of view, if one lacks faith one becomes subject to the fashions and tides of the world, it seems.

Faith and struggle.  These times, for many (including myself), are times of struggle.  And I will give credit for the sermon addressing and condemning the so-called prosperity gospels (there was an article about this in the New York Times a couple of days ago), as they only seek to feed off of people for the church’s prosperity.  But I think that the message of this church I attended is not that much better.  It tells people to not be too concerned with this life, because there is something better coming.  Slave mentality. Instead of robbing the congregation of its money (although they did ask for donations with the trays being passed around), the sermon robbed the people of their confidence, self-worth, and enjoyment of the now.

There was a teasing that came next.  “What does faith guarantee you?” he asked, pausing and making commentary before answering.  The anticipation mounted, the mind reeled in trying to anticipate an answer (heaven, happiness, love, what?), and for it to lead to the answer of “God” was akin to absurdities my mind could not be so self-destructive to think up without imploding in a fit of paradox.

“Faith guarantees you God.” guarantees? How? This is one of the most absurd things I could think of, although I should not have been surprised.  There is a sort of moment in the mind at the presentation of absurdities where the mind reaches a sort of impasse that can be beautiful.  I imagine that for many people this is not unlike the presence of God, lost in the mystery of the end of ones mind and seeking the abyss that lies beyond.  Yes, there is a certain beauty in paradox and absurdities, but this beauty is manipulated for the needs of a God-message here.

Now, the good minister was not kind enough to define faith, so I can only refer to the same book and chapter from which he drew his sermon (Hebrews 11, in case the absurdities above have wiped your memory):

1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.

So, belief in God which we hope for but cannot see gives us God? This is a very good example of epistemologically immature thinking.  This is what I addressed earlier in talking about the false hope of faith.  This faith does not guarantee anyone God, but it might guarantee the delusion of God.  Hope, “because God is.”  Faith attaches us to God.  This is the message that was left at the end of the sermon.  The hope of faith gives you God because faith guarantees you God.

This is what is wrong with much of the Christian community; circular thinking.  As a non-believer in the pews, all I could do was look around me with my figurative jaw gaping with disbelief as to how people can hear this message and not have fallacy-alarms blaring in their heads. Instead, many nodded, I heard a few amens, and there were hopeful smiles.

It is only a message of slave morality, of slave mentality, that could orient oneself to the unseen as the gift of believing in it.  It is philosophically no different than me believing I can fly like Superman because I believe that I can.  I simply cannot understand how this sermon does not cause people to walk out and never return.

But they will return, getting up on Sunday to come back for more.  I don’t know if I will, but I might.  I am perpetually fascinated by this thing called faith and what behavior it causes.  I find it despicable, pathetic, and sad overall, but fascinating nonetheless.

This was supposed to be a congregation of more educated and intelligent people.  And yet I find sophomoric platitudes that a freshman taking philosophy should be able to flatten. I find nothing challenging or inspiring.  I find nothing even beautiful in this (although the hymns are closer to this).  I find only ugliness called hope, as if the faith that this message is hopeful and beautiful makes it so.

It doesn’t.