December 23, 2018

Betraying Myself By Attending Church

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. Although I was still a Christian at the time, 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 had already heard countless times, interrupted by people who couldn't sing terribly well butchering a bunch of hymns I didn't like, seemed like punishment. Did the god in which I believed really 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, and 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 considerably: 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, and 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 had been hearing at church became something worse than boring. They became laughably 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. Attending church had become something that made me feel like I was betraying myself. This has always been hard to explain, and I think that's because it was always more about raw emotion than anything I arrived at through reason.

Once I realized that I no longer believed, sitting through church felt like I was betraying my values. I once compared it to being compelled to attend a Klan rally. It was as if I was supporting something I had come to see as both irrational and harmful by being present and going through the motions without objecting to what was taking place around me. It became emotionally painful, something I'd usually endure by dissociating. This became worse once my family demanded I continue to attend even after I did my best to explain what the experience now felt like. It was invalidating. If there were any gods, and I no longer thought there were, 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 still attend church and don't have any problem with doing so. 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 just hate to think about those out there who are still being forced to attend and who feel anything like I used to about it. It was an unpleasant experience that undoubtedly made me more hostile to religion than I'd otherwise be.

If 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, my message would be something like this:

You will get through this. As unpleasant as it now seems, you will only have to endure it for a couple more years. Then you will never have to go to church again unless you decide you want to. And 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, but 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 that Klan rally analogy really does capture the sense of self-betrayal. At least, I think it does. Since I have never attended a Klan rally, I may be wrong about what it would feel like. But I have to think that if I was forced to attend several Klan rallies, I'd end up feeling a lot like I did when I was forced to attend church after I realized that I no longer believed in gods and came to regard religion as harmful.