I’m in way over my head. There have only been a handful of times in my life when I’ve said to myself, “How the hell did I get myself here?” Shivering in the dark with no car on a Cree Indian reservation in northern Quebec. Stopped at a military checkpoint in Nepal with drugs (not mine) in the car. Standing on top of a spikey, iron stockade fence, trying to untangle my pants, so I could escape a graveyard. Yes, that about sums up the most adventuresome moments of my life.
But here’s an honorable mention: church this week. I realized that I have no idea what I’m doing on this project. It seems simple enough. Just visit a church each week. And it is that simple, and I plan to continue doing it, but this week was the first time when I just thought, “What the hell am I doing?” I thought this during the few seconds it took the pastor to walk down the aisle and hand me a microphone, as 200 African American faces turned around to look at the white atheist in the back row explain why he’d sat down in their church. The pastor had asked if there were any visitors. What was I going to do, blend in? Hope nobody had noticed me? So I had raised my hand and stood up.
Perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic. It was just a church like thousands of others. But toward the end of the service, as I sat and watched people falling on the ground in hysterical shrieking prayer, I realized that I just don’t know shit about religion. My upbringing, my religious study, my book-learning, my self-indulgent Churchgoing Atheist project—it is all dwarfed by everything I don’t know.
So let’s get the easy things I do know out of the way first. First, people look ridiculous when they are screaming and crying about God in a wild frenzy. Most observers would laugh if they were not wide-eyed with incredulity. Second, I am a voyeur who deceived good people in order to write about how they are delusional.
But when I stood up I didn’t say that, of course. I was partially truthful. I told them my name, and that I had seen their church on the news when they donated all the collection money to Haiti earthquake relief, and that their church had looked like a joyful, interesting place and I wanted to visit. Everyone said “Welcome”—and a few said “Praise God!”—and I took my seat.
Now on to the tough stuff. I’m not going to criticize these churchgoers for their worship style. To do so would be a failure to recognize the dramatic difference in culture. To expect them to act “normal” according to my white-middle-class norms would be narrow-minded and ignorant. It would be arrogant at best and racist at worst. Besides, I already decided I don’t know shit. But all this is beside the point, because I don’t want to criticize the service anyway. I loved it. (Well, some of it.)
My experience with religion has been narrow. Even for this blog, I’ve gone to a fairly similar group of churches. Never had I seen anything like this. This church was genuinely uplifting. People had passion! There was a raw, naked, honest quality to impassioned worship that I have never seen before. The music was deeply moving. I don’t believe in God, I don’t think Jesus is listening, I don’t think there’s an invisible holy spirit in the room with me, and even I was nearly moved to tears. It was joyous, infectious.
There’s something about a specific organ sound that gets me. Not a church pipe organ, but a jazz organ, a gospel organ. That vibrating sound that warms the bones. It’s a living thing. And the jazz organ played for nearly the whole two hours. It sang during the hymns, riffed during the prayers, and conversed with the pastor during the sermon. It pumps life into the soul, even of an unbeliever.
Please don’t get the idea that I’m converting. Still pretty confident there’s no god. But I have to say, if gospel churches dropped Jesus and just started worshipping the gospel organ, I’d consider it.
The atheist worldview, however, dilutes all of those good feelings. The joy one feels is cheapened when one recognizes what’s actually going on, even if only imperfectly. The bottom line is this: all the passionate worship, the hysterical prayer, the uplifting message—it’s all a mistake. Once we begin with the premise that there isn’t a god that listening to any of that, the atheist eyes begin to understand, and it’s way more complicated than simply explaining it away with God.
What I see is a fascinating combination of history, culture, biology, and psychology. Trying to explain this complex blend of factors could fill a library. I’ll just take one aspect that intrigued me. Since I loved the organ, I build on that—there was an improvisational quality to the whole service. Yes, there was a bulletin with a plan for the service, but each part of the service was flexible and open-ended. The prayers seemed unscripted. The band played along without music. The congregation spoke or stood whenever they were moved to. It was as though the speakers and the singers and the band and the congregation (or audience, if I may) were all interacting parts, playing off one another in a grand improvisation. And this improvisation is part of black culture. Jazz grew out of it. Rap grew out of it. Certain kinds of dance grew out of it. And all of those cultural ingredients were in the religious stew that I tasted.
Several days later and I’m still not sure what to make of it all. Part of me wants to laugh and sneer and mock. Part of me wants to pity them for wasting such time and energy. Part of me wants to recognize that their lives are filled with joy and community so even if they’re “wrong” it doesn’t matter. And part of me wants to just join in and feel the love.
I can’t just feel the love, though, if my head says it’s an illusion. Still, I get the attraction of it all.