Why I go to church

There’s something special about worship services, even if you don’t believe

The magic of stained glass works, even if the magic of God doesn’t.

The magic of stained glass works, even if the magic of God doesn’t.

I like going to church. I don’t exactly understand why. I am, after all, an avowed, unrepentant atheist. Yet I feel perfectly at home participating in Sunday morning services.

During my recent visit to an Episcopal church, I stood, sang, read the scriptures—even took Communion. But when the pastor had everyone bow their heads in prayer, I looked around at the congregation; I think there’s something revealing about who closes their eyes during the prayer and who doesn’t. (OK, I was also checking out the cute women.)

Raised in the Mormon Church, I was the first of seven children to a pair of Brigham Young University students. I went through the motions of Mormonism’s life plan: I attended church every Sunday, paid a full tithing and attended early-morning seminary classes all four years of high school. At 19, I hopped on an airplane to serve a two-year mission in Peru.

My mission was the path towards atheism. One afternoon, I sat in the newspaper-walled home of a family living in a shantytown near the coastal city of Paita. The lesson was on how God answers prayers if we just have enough faith. Meanwhile, their two hungry, naked toddlers played outside in the dirt street.

When I came home from Peru, I listened to a peroxide blonde tell our Orange County congregation that God “totally exists” because he helped her find the lost keys to her BMW. I didn’t know who I wanted to slap more: her or God. A year after I got home from Peru, I resigned from the church.

But I’m still drawn to churches. It’s been almost nine years since I rejected the idea of a benevolent, all-knowing creator, but whenever I see an open church, I walk in, sit down and enjoy the silence. I’m awed by the dedication that goes into the stained-glass windows, the massive columns and the hand-carved woodwork of traditional churches. I miss certain aspects of my religious life: the community that forms around a strongly held common belief and having answers to life’s problems in prayer, faith and obedience.

But those beliefs had their downside: Inflexible thought blocked me from acknowledging that life is not just black and white, good and evil, God vs. Satan. I was also taught that my body was not my own; it was “on loan” from God, and therefore just thinking about sex was a sin. I also looked down on those who didn’t have “the Truth.” “Those poor, misguided Catholics,” I would think in Peru as yet another door closed in my face.

As a former believer, I strongly identify with the people in the pews; I especially know what it’s like to be a conservative Christian struggling to align who I was with who I believed God wanted me to be.

As an atheist and a journalist, I can ask pastors the tough questions rather than issue the free pass that journalists tend to give religious belief. Religion, and more precisely, religious leaders, affect how we eat, drink, have sex, care for our children, vote and treat this planet. That kind of power deserves more scrutiny than we give our political process.

But people are always at the core of a religion. Holy books and doctrines are limited by the amount of power that their adherents give them, which means I’m not so much learning about religions as learning about the people who believe in them.

And I occasionally pick up words of wisdom. Or at the very least, I come away with good quotes to scribble in my notebook. “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth, too small for anything but love,” one pastor said at the end of her service.

Amen, sister.