Attending Church as an Atheist Felt Like I Was Betraying Myself

church window

"Do I have to?" The question, delivered in my best whine, was one to which I already knew the answer. Yes, I'd have to go to church with the family on Christmas Eve just like I had for every previous Christmas Eve.

I was still a Christian at the time, but that did not mean I enjoyed church. It was cold outside, and the house was warm. It was getting late, and I was sleepy. The thought of putting on uncomfortable clothes and listening to the same story I'd heard countless times wasn't appealing. Listening to hymns sung by people who couldn't sing seemed like punishment. Did the god in which I believed care whether I did this? Wasn't how I had behaved all year more important? Or was I confusing it with Santa again?

I decided not to throw a tantrum. That hadn't worked the year before. I'd gotten an earful afterward about how it upset Grandma to learn that I might not be thrilled at the opportunity to go to church. What I wanted did not matter. I needed to suck it up and go find that scratchy sweater.

As I got dressed, one thought helped. No matter how unpleasant I found this ordeal, I had it pretty good. Many people were enduring far worse. I'd be home in an hour and a half. Then I'd be able to sleep in a bed with a roof over my head. I'd even get presents tomorrow.

It wasn't that I forgot how good I had it over the next few years, but something did change. Once I realized that I no longer believed in gods, the stories I'd been hearing at church became something worse than boring. They became absurd, and I recognized how manipulative many of them were. It wasn't just that I no longer believed they were true; I came to recognize some of them as harmful.

That was a turning point. Attending church made me feel like I was betraying myself. This has always been hard to explain. It still is hard to explain. I think that's because so much raw emotion is tied up in it. It wasn't anything I arrived at through reason.

Once I realized I no longer believed in gods, sitting through church felt like I was betraying my values. I once compared it to being compelled to attend a Klan rally. It seemed like I was supporting something I had come to see as both irrational and harmful. My presence was wrong. Going through the motions without objecting to what was taking place around me was wrong.

It became painful, and I'd endure by dissociating. This became worse once my family demanded I continue to attend after I explained what the experience felt like. It was invalidating. If there were any gods, they'd be aware that I didn't believe in them. It made no sense that they would want me in church. Why should my family be any different?

I am always glad to hear that some atheists can attend church without any problem. As long as they do so because they enjoy it or because they are choosing to appease others, I have no problem with it. I hate to think about those out there who are still being forced to attend. I hope it isn't as bad for them as it was for me. It made me more hostile to religion than I'd otherwise be.

I wish I could travel back in time with a message for younger me standing in front of the bathroom mirror adjusting his scratchy sweater on Christmas Eve. It would be something like this:

You will get through this. As unpleasant as it seems, you will only have to endure it for a couple more years. Then you will never have to go to church again. You are right that your parents will regret forcing this on you. It will take them a few years to admit it, but they will admit it. It is okay not to like church, and it is also okay that you don't believe in gods. You are going to encounter plenty of people who will tell you otherwise. Be true to yourself, and do not bow to those who would pressure you to be something other than who you are.

The more I think about it, the more the Klan rally analogy works. It captures the sense of self-betrayal. Since I have never attended a Klan rally, I may be wrong about what it would feel like. But I suspect being forced to attend several would be unpleasant. I imagine I'd feel a lot like I did when I was forced to attend church after I realized that I no longer believed in gods.

Forcing a child to attend church is not something any parent should do.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2018. It was revised in 2022 to improve clarity.

Image by NoName_13 from Pixabay