I’d like advice on how to either leave my church as gracefully as possible, or find a way to reconcile my lack of faith with my continued church membership.
Inspired by the thoughtful replies to two recent AskMe questions (here
), I also have a question about atheism, but I come at it from a different angle: how can I deal with my lack of faith when I’ve been a committed church member? The real kicker is that I’ve never believed in the first place.
Although I’m not posting this anonymously, I seldom have the opportunity to post to Ask Metafilter, and I’m a slow typist, too. I’ll therefore try to provide a lot of detail, with a truncated version of the situation at the end for those who’d prefer not to wade through an extremely long question.
The long story: I’m a member of a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, and I have been for 10 years. I also regularly attended a Presbyterian church as a child. Over the years gradually I’ve assumed a leadership role in my church and I now serve as an Elder (part of the elected board that leads the church) and also as the church’s treasurer.
My problem is straightforward: I am an atheist. Call me agnostic if you like – I’m certainly willing to accept that the existence or non-existence of God is a question I can’t satisfactorily answer. More accurately, I’m what I’ve seen referred to as an “apatheist
” or “practical atheist” – someone for whom religion simply isn’t important.
I’m just not a spiritual person – I don’t wonder about an afterlife I don’t believe exists, I don’t dwell on the (non-?)existence of a higher power, I don’t worry about which religion is “right” and which is “wrong,” and I never have worried about these “big picture” issues, even as a child. I don’t have any reason to believe there is a God, and I therefore don’t have that belief – and never have. I certainly don’t think that religious belief is a necessary component of living a virtuous or moral life.
You might reasonably ask why someone like me attends church in the first place. I like going to my church for several reasons. We’re one of the more liberal denominations in terms of our philosophies and outlook, which manifests itself (in our church, at least) as being very gay-friendly, environmentally aware, and committed to issues of social justice. Our mission dollars support programs that empower poor women and children in our community and around the world. We have lots of older members who have tremendously interesting life experiences and perspectives to share. I have the tradition of having attended worship services in this faith for most of my life, which is a source of comfort. My wife also grew up Presbyterian, and we were married by a Presbyterian minister. She is a believing Christian and we’re bringing up our two young children in the church, as well.
It’s been very easy to fall into the routines of membership, and as I’ve done so, I’ve found myself increasingly taking on a leadership role within the church. It’s a small church, and anyone with the slightest interest tends to get recruited to help in some way, shape or form. I’m grateful for the good people who’ve served as mentors to me, and who’ve afforded me opportunities to share my talents.
So, why would I leave, particularly now? An essential part of being a member of our congregation, I would argue, is either being a believer in God or, at least, making a good-faith effort to believe. I’ve never been a believer, nor a person interested in making that kind of good-faith effort, and as far as I can tell, that distinguishes me from everyone else. I’ve even lied about my belief when I’ve professed my faith publicly. What I’ve done is dishonest and unethical, and I’m tired of pretending to be a believer when I’m not one. I am increasingly close to concluding that my only responsible course of action is to leave the church. Whether that is an abrupt or gradual process, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t feel right to feign belief that I don’t have.
My ability to deal with this cognitive dissonance waxes and wanes over time, but the long-term trend has definitely tipped toward my feeling increasingly awkward as a church member. In the past year, in particular, I’ve become very uncomfortable. As my responsibilities increase, I feel like I’m living more and more of a lie.
One might wonder if I’m simply overwhelmed by the duties I’ve assumed. While I am very busy with work and other family and charitable obligations in addition to my work for the church, I truly don’t think this is a case of being overworked in my church volunteer duties. When I’ve been overwhelmed with church-related commitments in the past, I’ve found ways to cut back, and everyone at the church has been very supportive of my doing so. In fact, I recently became the church’s treasurer and I really enjoy the job – dealing with investments and budgeting is a nice fit with my interests and skills.
In all candor, I also think that part of what may be increasing my dissatisfaction at this time is the continued decline of our membership, and what that portends for the future. We lose perhaps 5% of our membership on a year-over-year basis and we add far too few new members to reverse that trend. I feel like we’re in the midst of a protracted death as a congregation and as a denomination – both literally and figuratively –and, while I’m ashamed of feeling that way, it surely has an effect.
When I see the numbers showing the declining membership figures for our denomination and our church – it’s not all
due to death – I know that I simply cannot be the only person who feels this way. Still, I don’t know of anyone who’s left our church recently – at least, no one in a leadership role. Our church embraces modernity and education, it’s about as liberal in its theology as they come, and it’s a nice place to congregate. It would be harder to leave, I’d think, than it would be to leave a fundamentalist church! Still, it isn’t a social club, and I’m not comfortable treating it as such. Maybe there are atheists or agnostics aplenty in the pews, but I’m certainly not aware of them.
1. I don’t know how this would play out with my wife and children. It’s not uncommon for our church members to attend services with their children but without their spouses; in those instances, though, the non-member spouse (who is usually the husband/father) has never attended. I can’t think of a single instance where someone in a couple has simply stopped attending worship services, let alone someone in a leadership role. My wife knows of my lack of faith and is understanding and supportive, but she’d prefer that I continue to attend worship services, special events and committee meetings. I think I benefited from attending Presbyterian services as a child, and I have no problem at all with my children continuing to do so. I worry, though, that this would be a source of considerable tension within our family.
2. There are a lot of people at my church who’ve reached out to me and made me feel welcome and special. I admire, respect and love them deeply. Leaving them and potentially losing their friendship would be wrenching.
3. Our church, and our denomination, almost seem to expect a certain level of faithlessness. Maybe it’s assumed to be transitory, not permanent, but questioning one’s faith is encouraged in our tradition. I feel like making a clean break would be a challenge with this mindset being prevalent.
4. I’ve made leadership commitments that I think I should honor, notwithstanding my personal lack of belief.
5. Our pastor is young and relatively new to our church. I’m very fond of him and I think it would be very difficult for him to accept my leaving, and I’ve specifically avoided speaking with him as a result.
6. I should note that I’m not interested in joining, say, a Unitarian church, at least at this point. I don’t want to join a new congregation, even if that congregation would welcome an atheist like me – I’m more concerned about extricating myself from, or learning to live among, my current congregation.
7. Maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on my lack of faith… I just feel like someone who believes in God at some point, then loses that faith, is in a different situation than me, who’s never believed and who’s lied about that for years. If you think I’m making too much of this distinction, let me know.
What I really
want, to be honest, is to remain a church member. I like many things about being a member of my church. I don’t mind going to the services with my wife and kids on Sundays. I like the fact that we’re liberal. I even kind of like the occasionally grueling committee work. I just don’t see how I can continue to be a member if I’m neither a believer in the existence of God nor interested in changing that stance. I understand that my position on staying or leaving might seem very stark and draconian, but I’ve been in the gray area long enough to be disillusioned with remaining there. Nevertheless, I’d be very interested in hearing any stories of anyone who’s been able to overcome such feelings.
If you’ve been in a similar situation and have separated from membership, how did you do so? Was it sudden or abrupt? Did you fulfill terms on committees and boards, or leave them when you left the church?
The short story: I’m neither ashamed nor proud of my atheism; frankly, I’m apathetic about matters of faith, spirituality and belief. I grew up Presbyterian and I find myself taking on a larger leadership role within my church. If there is a way to reconcile my lack of belief with continued church membership, I’m all for that, but I don’t see how that can be done. If I decide to leave, how can I do so gracefully and with dignity? Are there any books, resources, or personal stories that you can share that address this situation?
Thank you for reading this and for your thoughts.