The most dreaded letter



I became so enamored of Episcopal bishop John Spong’s “non-theistic” Christianity that I started attending a midweek Bible class at a liberal Episcopal church. I knew my atheism represented a major difference between myself and most, if not all, of my classmates, so not wanting to misrepresent myself, I gave my blog address to everyone (I had just posted twice about atheism), and asked them to let me know if they had any questions. They didn’t. I was surprised, but I realized that, from their perspective, I might have shared too much too soon, or that my blog wasn’t their cup of tea, or that they hadn’t even looked at it. But, after decades of having Christians react to the A word as if I had dumped a bucket of cold water over their heads, my best guess was that their warm welcome to me had just been irrevocably withdrawn. I attended the next class, but I had no idea what anyone was thinking.

Last week was the week from hell that I wrote about in my last post, so I emailed the priest who leads the class to let her know I was too sick to attend. She expressed her concern, but I had thought that, perhaps, others would too given how sick I was, and when they didn’t, my doubts about whether I was welcome became that much greater. Now, I don’t know if I’ll go back. If I do, I’ll worry that I’m imposing myself on people who don’t want me around, but if I don’t, I’ll wonder if my expectation that they would reach out to me regarding my health and/or my beliefs were unrealistic. If thats the case, when and how should I have shared my atheism? Should I have waited a year and told only those whom I thought could handle it, as if it were some humiliating secret that only close friends should know? And why would I, an atheist who has no interest in conversion, have gone to a Bible study in the first place? I’ll tell you.

*Whatever else it is, the Bible is an interesting book, and I enjoy studying and discussing it.

*I value community with those who ask serious questions.

*Living with pain is hard, and I need support.

*Instead of isolating myself from people who think differently than I, I want to seek them out and find the good in them.

*I want to hear what religion means to people. The fact that I don’t believe in it doesn’t mean I’m uninterested.

*I want to learn whatever Christians of depth and maturity might have to teach me about matters of importance such as patience, forgiveness, fortitude, and compassion.

*I want to serve as a bridge between believers and non-believers, and with this in mind, I saw my attendance as a gift. I even fantasied myself hosting a meeting in which I answered questions about atheism--and why I became an atheist--that is if anyone cared, and it was hard for me to imagine that they wouldn’t, not that what I imagine necessarily has any bearing on anyone elses reality.

* I’m in accord with Progressive Christianity. I couldn’t be a Progressive Christian because I dont worship Jesus, but I could commune with them on the basis of their desire to interact fully and equally with people who see the world in different ways. 

*I enjoy elaborate rituals and beautiful sanctuaries, and no church ever pleased me more in these regards than the Episcopal (not that I imagined I would attend services much).

*I admire the Episcopal Church for its willingness to take unpopular stands regarding women’s rights and homosexuality. So far as I’m aware, no other church in the Anglican communion has half the guts, compassion, or devotion to justice of the American Episcopal. As it is treated by its fellow Anglicans, so are people like myself treated by nearly everyone, and this gives me a feeling of kinship through oppression.
  
If I’m right, and I’m no longer welcome at St. _____ because of my atheism, does this not suggest that the church serves as a fort behind which timid believers huddle in fear and loathing of the Great Beast of Secularism that threatens their tenuous faith? I am but one atheist, and I went to them on their turf and on their terms (meaning that I would show respect for their beliefs). Where is their love for people such as I? I really don’t know. Maybe it was there, and I didn’t see it (not after sharing the fact of my atheism anyway); or maybe they didn’t show it because they didn’t understand how awkward it was for me to reach out to them; or maybe my sensitivity caused me to imagine rejection where it didn’t exist; or, just maybe, they really would prefer that I not come back. Having never known a Christian (except on this blog) who wanted to be my friend once I said I was an atheist, I think I have my answer. Yet, having felt kicked around by Christians since I was a teenager, I’ve come to expect more of the same, and this makes it almost impossible for me to know how to approach them or how to interpret their behavior when I do. All I know is that when I have nothing to go by but my feelings, I can but go by my feelings, and my feelings are that something isn’t right.

Obviously, the people whom this is about might read it. I would never write about someone in order to influence them, but by the same token, I realize that I can never assume that any given person who ever had the address of this blog isnt reading it regularly even if I haven’t seen him or her in years. It is simply my resolve that this not influence me in the least. Otherwise, my reason for writing would be defeated.

It is now the next day, and I’ve been thinking about your comments. I realized as I went through them that I was, subconsciously, putting these people through a test. That made sense on one level because it offered the possibility of clarifying my situation in a hurry. But on another level, it was appallingly cynical, like saying, “I'm so convinced that you’re not worthwhile, that I'm willing to risk blowing you out of the water by giving you an exam five minutes after we meet." 

26 comments:

kylie said...

oh dear!
my best guess is that they just didnt know what to do with an atheist at a bible study! not that you werent welcome, just confusing.
then again, maybe i am too generous.

i will discuss religion with you till the cows come home, snow, if you ask questions i can answer but mostly you have me stumped.
just yesterday i was commenting a lot on a post of nick's which was talking about religion and then he said i go on quite a bit. i'm not sure what that means really but i can be erudite and verbose as well (if thats not an oxymoron)

go back to the group, they cant turn you away and you might just make some bridges :)

xx

Snowbrush said...

"maybe i am too generous."

Or maybe you're not. I talked about Spong for a few minutes one day (a quarter of the group's time is spent chatting), and he seemed to have won general interest and approval. So, because of that, I was operating partly on the assumption that these people were even more open to a diverse membership than I had hoped.

" they cant turn you away and you might just make some bridges :)"

The problem is that I'm not impervious to rejection, so if I feel rejected, my impulse is to cut ties back to whatever is a comfortable level for both the other party and myself. In this case, that would mean not participating, there being no middle ground.

A Plain Observer said...

As a catholic, I welcome any atheist to come to a service. I would never ask one, but if freely they choose to come, I would welcome. If you want to go back, go. If they really practice their religion they will accept you gladly.

Snowbrush said...

"If you want to go back, go. If they really practice their religion they will accept you gladly."

That is my thought too. You just led me to the realization that I went partly because I want to see more good in Christians. I understand that most Christians are going to be shallow and contradictory because that's how most people are, but I wanted to discover the wisdom of those who have gone beyond the superficiality of the "plan of salvation," the ones who read the heavy books and ponder them as scholars as well as adherents. They are the ones, if they exist, who interest me because scholarship demands openness. I should hope that such people aren't terribly hard to find, and that I would find them stimulating.

lotta joy said...

There's just "normal" people in the parking lot, but once INSIDE the church, these normal people have 3,000 years of beliefs to defend. I attend a Methodist church with Joe because it's THE friendliest church down here, and we tried two different Episcopalian churches.

When in Rome, etc.

If they wanted to know more about atheism, they'd attend an athiest meeting. I can't see THAT scenario going over very well either.

A white man in a Harlem riot will get shot. A black man at a KKK rally will get hung.

No one at Joe's church knows I'm an atheist. They just know I'm a damn funny woman with a nice personality whom they want to hang around.

I don't have the right to expect open arms if I'm a threat to their beliefs.

You went in with open advertising. While that's commendable, NONE of your fellow christians were there with open advertising regarding what they TRULY believe, deep in their hearts.

You seem to need a friend, but how many friends would most people have IF they all let their pants down and showed what they're really made of?

Since NO ONE has pushed their beliefs down my throat, I keep my knowledge to myself and enjoy the camaraderie which (even in church) is rarely experienced with ANY reference to religion.

Charles Gramlich said...

These folks don't sound all that timid. However, I think most groups, especially early in their formation, kind of like having folks who are at least playing on the same playing ground. And I think that's mostly true for all kinds of groups, not just religious ones.

ladyfi said...

I'm very surprised to hear this! Surely one of the points of bible study is to find out what the bible means and whether you believe it or not.

Here in Sweden, all faiths and non-believers are welcomed in the church because they realize that many people need help and support as they seek to know themselves and what they believe in...

Snowbrush said...

"If they wanted to know more about atheism, they'd attend an athiest meeting. I can't see THAT scenario going over very well either."

It would depend on the atheists. Few if any would welcome a conversion attempt, but I have heard some say that they would like it if a theist wanted to ask and answer questions. He or she would just need to remember that the words of authority mean little to atheists, so quoting Bible verses would be counterproductive. The problem with nonbelievers staying on one side of the track and believers on the other (pertaining to genuine dialogue) is that both inhabit the same world and need one another's help with the same problems. Although I believe this, I must confess that I wouldn't attempt to converse with literalistic Christians, and I wouldn't reach out to the people of a church that discriminated against homosexuals or women. This is because I would have no hope of there being enough shared values to even start a dialogue. I would like to think that Progressive Christians represent an opening for such a dialogue, but I wouldn't really know.

"You seem to need a friend, but how many friends would most people have IF they all let their pants down and showed what they're really made of?"

I know about ten people (speaking of face-to-face friends) with whom I'm very open. I talk to them at different depths pertaining to different subjects, but they all know my basic positions about whatever comes up. I will admit that it's important to meet people where they are, and the problem with what I did at the Episcopal Church might have been that I was too open, too soon, and with too many, but I just don't have the patience to beat around the bush. It's a failing of mine, and it does sometimes alienate people.

Strayer said...

My own family didn't care when I was beaten nearly to death by the Adventists on their psyche ward. Why would a bunch of strangers at a church care if an atheist, whom they probably thought joined to make trouble, care if you were sick? Just wondering. Nobody cares about anybody.

To be honest, I think you might be going nuts. You keep attending churches with some sort of expectations seems like, even though you are a very outspoken atheist. Seems like you would find some other group to hang with or meetings to attend. I don't get it. I'm an atheist. I rarely think about religion and would never go to church. I've been molested by a Christian and then beaten and dumped by Christians in their hospital. I can't figure out why you can't leave it alone. You're an atheist. At least that's what you claim, but I'm really doubting that with your church obsession. You don't have to prove anything to anybody. If you want to be a Christian, that's fine with everybody. It's your life though, but it's a curiosity to me.

Strayer said...

It's like a man attending a woman's group, you going to church. It's like a race car driver wanting to ride with the Amish. It's like....well I could go on. But my first question if you were coming to my Bible study, even though I'm an atheist, would be, "What the hell are you doing here?" (unless they had free donuts and coffee then it would be obvious. I have friends who would do that, go to anything for some free food.)

It's like a Portland radical bike dude, going to auto mechanic classes.......

Sign up for a chronic pain support class or something, or a cancer support group, if you want support. Sure, you don't have cancer, but it's a about the same thing, atheist going to a Bible study--someone without cancer attending a cancer survivor support group.

Snowbrush said...

" I think most groups....like having folks who are at least playing on the same playing ground. And I think that's mostly true for all kinds of groups, not just religious ones."

Did you see 60 Minutes last Sunday? It appears that even babies seek to divide people into good groups and bad groups based upon their personal affinities, but what is this but tribalism, and where has tribalism gotten us? Charles, you're probably aware of the "New Atheists" who commonly take the position that religious people fall into two primary categories. One category (the biggest by far) goes around doing evil things (everything from opposing stem cell research to becoming suicide bombers), while the other, which is tiny and can be represented by liberal Christians, might not do evil directly, but they tacitly support evil by their own acceptance of a supernaturalist worldview (i.e. irrational if not blazingly superstitious). This has the affect of lumping the 94% of people who believe in supernatural entities into one camp and we good people (the rational non-supernaturalists) into another. I can't see any good coming from such an approach--as tempting as it is to accept it. I interpret it as simply another criteria for dividing the world into warring tribes, and there's this little optimistic part of me that with decreasing regularity raises its head above the slime and proclaims that there really must a better way.

kylie said...

next time i'm in the US i have to overcome my shyness and meet you

The Bipolar Diva said...

if they don;t accept you, it seems to me that they aren't out to reach the community. Give it a while longer, maybe you're just having second thoughts. I bet in no time you'll fit right in. <3

rhymeswithplague said...

I enjoyed your post very much, but I think you're being way too introspective again. Try to remember it ain't about you, except at those times when, of course, it is. I apologize for the cold shoulder you got from the Episcopalians.

Some of the comments above are very insightful. I too wondered why you would go to a Bible study and announce you are an atheist, as it seems purposely confrontational even if you were just trying to be honest. Real Christians, though, should take it in stride and not suddenly circle the wagons.

I was also struck by your sentence about wanting to be a bridge between believers and non-believers. You just know I'm going to say there's only one such bridge and his name is Jesus and you can't be Him.

True believers (by which I mean me, I suppose) enjoy real dialogue, but nobody enjoys a frontal assault.

I hope this isn't coming across as too harsh or judgmental, because I really like you, Snow, and I don't want you to think harshly of me. We are what we are, you and I. Maybe over time all this long-distance interaction will change us both in ways we didn't expect.

Joe Todd said...

If you find the meetings interesting and helpful in some way go. I go to several group meetings a week and usually find them helpful. If I am able to help someone fine if not that is fine to.I value your online friendship and always wish you the best

ellen abbott said...

It sounds to me like you have created a scenario in your head and then projected it onto the other members of the class. You didn't say how long you had been attending this bible study...2 or 3 times, months? You assume that because you gave everyone your blog address that they have visited and continue to read. You assume that because no one emailed you or posted a comment about your recent illness that they have rejected you. It could be that no one was interested enough to visit your blog. Maybe they don't read blogs. Maybe they are unaware of your illness. Maybe they are aware but didn't feel the need to send you a note. I don't send a note to everyone who I hear of that has been ill. Depends on how close I am to them. You assume their silence means they have rejected you and you are unwelcome. Stop making assumptions about what they are thinking and feeling. Go to the next meeting with the same friendliness and interest you showed when you first started going. If they ice you out or ask you not to return, then you will know. But I don't think that will happen. I think that they will treat friendliness with friendliness.

I went to bible study at a synagogue for about a year back when. I was often at odds with some of the other members of the class which were mostly older men. I would challenge some of the interpretations, things they held as sacrosanct. One day in particular we were talking about some of the famous rabbis who wrote the mishna (scholarly discussions about questions) and I blurted out that it was only their opinions! I thought one old guy was going to have apoplexy right there on the spot but the rabbi backed me up because it was indeed their opinions albeit very learned opinions. The only time I ever experienced anyone being asked to leave was a 'jew for jesus' and the only reason he was asked to leave is because he was being disruptive and trying to preach.

Snowbrush said...

"To be honest, I think you might be going nuts."

I can see why you would say that, but you realize, of course, that people say the same about you. Does this mean that you think you're nuts? If you're like I am, you simply see yourself as being on the only path through life that makes sense for you, at least at the present moment. Am I nuts in the sense of being insane? I very much doubt it. As I nuts in the sense of living an incongruous life? That depends on how deeply one is able to look into my mind and heart. The truth, for me, is that Spong allowed me to think that, just maybe, I could find common ground with at least the most liberal Christians, so I more or less rushed out in a state of happy excitement to do just that, and now I feel like I might have been naive and, in the eyes of the people at that church, nuts.

"It's like a man attending a woman's group, you going to church. It's like a race car driver wanting to ride with the Amish."

Strayer, my friend, you are among my readers who carry a lot of well-deserved anger, hurt, outrage, feelings of betrayal, and other such painful feelings toward religious people. I carry my own weight, and what I was doing with this church came from my desire for healing, but more than that, for growth and outreach. It's not like you think, that maybe I'm not really such a convinced atheist after all. It's rather a case of wanting to think well of people, of wanting to avoid putting them all into the same "them bad, me good" boat. If nobody reaches out, where does that leave us, and how will any of us ever learn anything if the only people we spend time with can only tell us what we already know?

Snowbrush said...

"Here in Sweden, all faiths and non-believers are welcomed in the church because they realize that many people need help and support as they seek to know themselves and what they believe in..."

Hark and behold, that's wonderful, and I wish it were true here, but here's the thing about most American churches. If you go there, they tell you that you must "accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior," and until you have done that, they have absolutely nothing more to offer you. Just as teenagers claim to be free-spirits while really being the most conformist of people, so do churches claim to reach out with love and concern for the entire world when in reality, they limit their actual involvement to those who accept their dogma.

"next time i'm in the US i have to overcome my shyness and meet you"

What! You're coming back? If I were go to Australia, it would almost certainly be a one in a lifetime trip, so I guess I assumed the same about you. Anyway, you would be most welcome.

Snowbrush said...

"I bet in no time you'll fit right in. <3"

My, but aren't we the raving optimist today! When you see on the news that a mob of Episcopalians burned a local atheist at the stake, I hope you feel guilty for encouraging me to go.

"I too wondered why you would go to a Bible study and announce you are an atheist, as it seems purposely confrontational even if you were just trying to be honest. Real Christians, though, should take it in stride and not suddenly circle the wagons."

I gave my reasons, so I don't understand your question. Are you looking for something in addition? Okay. I didn't consciously announce my atheism in order to put those people to the test, but now that I think of it, it would seem reasonable to have done so. As you said, real Christians wouldn't see it as an occasion for circling the wagons, but, of course, scared people would, and, my friend, generally speaking, I see Christians as awfully scared.

"I was also struck by your sentence about wanting to be a bridge between believers and non-believers. You just know I'm going to say there's only one such bridge and his name is Jesus and you can't be Him."

If the only bridge is Jesus (to you, Allah to others, and Buddha to still others) then we will always be stuck in warring camps. This is why I wouldn't even attempt to reach out to a small town Methodist Church like the one you attend. They would simply tell me that I had to accept Jesus in order "to be saved"; I would tell them that not only do I not believe that Jesus is God, I have serious problems with the way Jesus is presented in the Bible because I see him as having said some really stupid things. That would be the end of our dialogue, and they would afterwards treat me with awkward politeness at best. If all you have to offer me is to say that I need to believe in Jesus, what on earth good do you think I am going to get from that? I might as well tell you that the only sensible thing for you to do is to become an atheist.

Snowbrush said...

"I value your online friendship and always wish you the best"

We go way back Joe, you being either my first or my second follower (I think All Consuming was first).

"It sounds to me like you have created a scenario in your head and then projected it onto the other members of the class."

That is a concern, but it could also be that the truth is somewhere between the extremes of being completely welcome and completely unwelcome.

"If they ice you out or ask you not to return, then you will know. But I don't think that will happen. I think that they will treat friendliness with friendliness."

So, maybe if I replace my overt hostility with kindness? Ha. Everything you say makes perfect sense (and I had thought of it all), but will it work for me to do that? I don't know. You know how some people are phobic of airplanes? I'm phobic of being where I'm not wanted. On one level, I'm a right out there and in your face, but on another, I'm very unsure of when and how to go forward versus going back, and, when I become confused, it feels safer to accept the most dismal assessment of what might be going on with other people.

Snowbrush said...

My god, I just realized that I actually got caught up with everyone's comment. When every comment could inspire its own post, I find it very hard to answer them all, yet I feel honored that so many people care enough to write as thoughtfully, candidly, and kindly, as they do.

Snowbrush said...

I just added a paragraph to this post.

Strayer said...

Yeah, well maybe the race car driver, so accustomed to speed, wanted to try the other side, experience "slow". Maybe the man wanted to see how women think.

Am I nuts? People who do not know my history, all that has happened in my life, will say so. I don't really care. I see society as quite nuts. I guess I said that to you for no good reason and didn't mean it literally. Someone nuts in my estimation goes out and kills people in fits of righteous justification and that's about it Your standardly judged crazy talking to herself on a street corner has probably just had a terribly hard and lonely life.

Snowbrush said...

"Am I nuts? People who do not know my history, all that has happened in my life, will say so. I don't really care."

I know, and I congratulate you. There is a level at which a person simply must say, "This is who I am; take it or leave," and the older we become, the easier it becomes to say this.

"nuts. I guess I said that to you for no good reason and didn't mean it literally."

Well, what do I know? I thought you did, but I didn't feel insulted, I just felt misunderstood, as in, "I'm not getting through here."

OneOldGoat said...

Hmmmm....I think if you came to my church and announced that you were an aethiest, you would be welcomed because that is the right thing to do. I don't, however, think you would be invited back. I've found over the past year or so that my church doesn't really care for "different' or doesn't care for questions. The moment I let it slip that my daughter is a lesbian, all of a sudden, we are flawed. So based on what I know, I think your perceptions may be correct and not paranoid.
Snowbrush, you make me think. You scare me a bit but you make me think and have actually made my faith a bit stronger even if what I believe is not inline with the church that I attend.

Kerry said...

Well, I hope you go back, for all of the reasons that you went in the first place. I would be interested in hearing about your discussions.