September 8, 2019

What Was So Bad About Church?

church pews

I did not enjoy attending church even when I was a Christian. Still, it was far more tolerable then than it was when I was forced to attend even after losing my belief in gods. That was the point when it turned from something I didn't like to something that felt like a betrayal of much of what I valued. For this post, I thought I'd go back before that time and try to answer the question of why I did not like church back when I still believed in gods and identified as a Christian.

If we were to ask others what they didn't like about church, I suspect we'd hear a great deal about the hypocrisy they observed. I can certainly relate to that. I remember being disgusted by it, first as a Christian and then as an atheist. But I can't say that was ever my primary complaint about church. I'd also expect that many ex-Christian atheists would say something about the nonsensical or hate-filled sermons to which they were subjected. My experience here was a bit different, though. I often enjoyed the sermons, and I did not perceive them as either nonsensical (most of the time) or hateful. This probably has something to do with the fact that the church I attended was a mainline Protestant church and had little in common with evangelical fundamentalist churches. Perhaps this isn't saying much, but the sermons were usually my favorite part.

There were many fairly trivial things I did not like about church (e.g., having to wear uncomfortable clothes and give up precious time to appease Jesus). Considered together, they had an impact but not a big one. There were two things that contributed the most to my dislike of the church experience and persuaded me to abandon it as soon as I was permitted to do so: Sunday School and the singing. I know both of these will strike most readers as trivial, so I will explain.

Sunday School

In the church I was forced to attend, Sunday School was what the children did during most of the service. Everyone started the service together, and the children were dismissed after 15 minutes or so for Sunday School. I disliked too many things about Sunday School to list them all, but my main complaint was that it was age-inappropriate. This church was small enough that it was not feasible to divide the children into multiple Sunday School classes by age, and that meant that those running it were going to cater to the youngest children. I was already too old to have any interest in doing kid stuff, which always seemed to involve glue and scissors. None of my school friends attended this church, and most of those who were there were younger or people I had no interest in hanging out with.

The whole experience was insulting. The Sunday School teachers talked down to us like we were morons. It didn't matter that I would have been in the 3rd or 4th grade at this time; they approached me like one would expect a teacher to approach a Kindergarten class. I know this would have been a difficult job, as it would have been almost impossible to do anything that would have been age-appropriate for as diverse a range as they had. But I wanted no part of it.

Initially, I thought that we were supposed to be learning something in Sunday School because it had "school" in the name. I asked questions when things didn't make sense. I quickly learned that this was frowned upon. Not only did I not receive clear answers, I rarely received what seemed like genuine attempts to provide answers. The subject would quickly be changed to something like why I was having so much trouble cutting a piece of construction paper (because all your scissors are right-handed, and I'm not). That was when I figured out that the purpose of Sunday School was to occupy young children who could not behave themselves during a church service.

Since I could behave myself during a church service, I finally managed to persuade my parents to let me sit through the service instead of joining the other (mostly younger) children in Sunday School. It seems strange to think of it this way as I look back on it, but this was a major victory at the time. The church service had its own share of problems, but at least I'd be treated more like an adult.

Those Awful Hymns

I have never cared for religious music, but I can appreciate some of it when performed by a gifted choir or musicians who know how to play their instruments. As for when it is sung by people who generally can't carry a tune or read music and don't know most of the words, not so much. Why anyone would willingly subject themselves to a large room full of people singing bad songs poorly, much less participate in it, has always eluded me. As much as I preferred the adult church service to Sunday School, the singing was more than I could stand.

Every service would have several episodes of singing. For each, the entire congregation would stand, crack open moldy hymnals, and belt out horrid renditions of unappealing songs. The first verse of whatever hymn it was would be the best, but the quality would rapidly deteriorate after that because nobody knew the words of the remaining verses. The people who couldn't sing seemed to compensate by singing more loudly. The horrid spectacle rises to the top of any list I'd have of my least favorite things about church.

I remember asking my family to explain why the frequent singing was necessary. I was told that singing was a form of worship and that they enjoyed doing it. I didn't understand that at all. Can you not hear how it sounds? Wouldn't any god find it insulting? I was told that our god doesn't care whether one can sing, only that one is trying. I still didn't understand. What does singing poorly have to do with worship, and what sort of a god would see any of this as desirable? Of course, all it took to shut me up was threatening to make me return to Sunday School.

Church Was Pointless

Over time, I came to view church as pointless. I was still a Christian, but I was only at church because I was forced to attend against my will. Hanging out with children and doing crafts had no relevance to gods that I could understand, and neither did repeatedly standing up to sing badly. None of this brought me any closer to gods. None of this solidified my faith. If anything, it slowly undermined it. I had not yet given serious consideration to the possibility that gods did not exist, but I was unable to discern any connection between what I experienced at church and anything divine.